- Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts by Haruo Shirane
Haruo Shirane’s new book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts provides a comprehensive examination and insightful analysis of the role of seasonal imagery that has developed over the course of eleven hundred years (eighth through nineteenth centuries) of Japanese literary history, especially with regard to iconic animals and flowers used in various ways as external symbols of change reflecting interior emotions. Shirane mainly looks at examples of poetry, beginning with the early Manyōshū collection and including many examples of the [End Page 1100] thirty-one-syllable waka initiated in the classical period as well as the haikai that gained popularity in the Edo period. He also considers various kinds of visual and practical arts, such as gardens and printmaking, that became prominent in the medieval and early modern periods, along with other kinds of societal practices, such as annual observances, seasonal festivals, and household behavior based on harmonizing with nature.
This eminently readable and handsomely produced volume, on which the author notes he had been laboring for many years prior to publication, contains over thirty annotated black-and-white illustrations of Japanese paintings and designs, with eleven of these reproduced as attractive color plates. The book also includes a particularly useful set of indexes that are divided into “Index of Seasonal and Trans-Seasonal Words and Topics” and “Index of Authors, Titles, and Key Terms,” in addition to a very helpful bibliography of vernacular and English sources on the topic of Japanese views of the environment seen in relation to artistic expressions. Since there are multiple references to different kinds of blossoms and other key seasonal symbols with variant nuances depending on the historical period in which they are used, the scholarly apparatus makes it a pleasure to navigate through the book’s rich resources.
Shirane’s main focus is on examining the notion of “secondary nature,” that is, not a direct apprehension or participation in the natural world but a culturally constructed view of the non-human realm as representative of inner feelings experienced through profound associations made with outer phenomena connected with the rotation of the seasons and cycles of the year that are meaningful for their symbolic and aesthetically oriented value. As he remarks, nature was often thought of in traditional Japan as an untamed and potentially destructive force that had to be kept at bay through rituals and myths about supernatural forces that can control the landscape. In modern times, due to rapid industrialization and urbanization accelerating a process of deforestation that began much earlier with the formation of extensive rice fields in the countryside, natural scenery has been severely reduced in size, scope, and importance to society.
Both of these traditional and modern behavioral modes indicate that there has not necessarily been a greater affinity with or higher regard for nature in Japan than elsewhere in terms of some primary examples of living patterns, but at the same time the importance of the garden as a central site in the parlor-style (shoin-zukuri) residence that became common after the Heian period indicates how a precious view of idealized nature was a dominant social factor long held in Japan. As Shirane comments, on the interaction of philosophical and popular elements in regard to showing an appreciation for nature as well as a wariness of its possible ill effects, “in both Buddhist rituals and the worship of god, icons of nature, particularly flowers, served not only as a reminder of the ephemerality of the world, but as a medium for the manifestation of the buddhas and gods, who could ward off disease and impermanence” (p. 152).
A key aspect of the Japanese construction of nature as a realm held in awe but from a watchful distance is the value given to simply observing its diverse manifestations, in acts such as moon-viewing (tsukimi...