The Elves of Japan

They’re not Tolkien’s elves, tall and fair and melancholy. No, these are your grandmother’s elves, “no higher than your pinky finger.” Content in their prelapsarian hill home, the Korobokkuru, stars of Satoru Sato’s fantasy series Korobokkuru Monogatari (Tales of the Korobokkuru) have learned through painful experience to mistrust humans. But now their home is threatened by plans to drive a highway through it, and they need a human ally. The chosen one is Seitaka-san, first-person narrator of the opening volume of the series, Dare mo Shiranai Chiisa na Kuni (A Tiny, Unknown Country).

elves of japan
Dare mo Shiranai Chiisana Kuni by Satoru Sato. Illustrations by Ryo Ueno. 2010 Kodansha edition.

So far, so clichéd, yes? A mere rip-off of Western environmentalist tropes? It may be the other way round. The highway threatening the home of the Korobokkuru comes courtesy of Japan’s postwar economic miracle. Dare mo Shiranai Chiisa na Kuni was first published in 1959.

Regarded as one of Japan’s canonical postwar fantasy novels, Dare mo Shiranai Chiisa na Kuni is ostensibly a children’s book— although Seitaka-san spends most of the story as an adult electrical engineer, which has the effect of ratcheting the narrative into full-face contact with the real world. Elves are a draw for young and old alike, of course. Japanese fantasy readers of a certain generation can be relied on to get misty-eyed about the Korobokkuru, just as Western readers fondly recall their first visits to Narnia.

Japan, however, is a country with a unique and acute experience of loss—not merely loss, but wholesale historical liquidation, literal freaking vaporization. Satoru Sato lost his father at the battle of Midway. As often happens, the reverberations of the first half of the 20th century were least audible to those closest to them: critics originally interpreted Dare mo Shiranai Chiisa na Kuni in political, not environmental or historical terms. One called it “a detailed working-out of the ideal proposed by democracy,” while another saw it as a book-length defence of private property, according to the International Institute for Children’s Literature, Osaka. (The novel concludes with Seitaka-san saving the home of the Korobokkuru … by purchasing it.) Yet from the perspective of 2012, at least two other themes stand out. One, of course, is the crashingly obvious trope of ecotopia versus the jackhammers. (In a typically Japanese variation, the menacing highway project is not the brainchild of a greedy corporation, but of small-town bureaucrats.) Another is hinted at by the suggestion that the Korobokkuru are creatures of Ainu myth—the Ainu, of course, being a native people wiped out by the Japanese, who occupy a similar status to American Indians today. Modern history is not a nativist fable of a “tiny, unknown country” threatened by malignant jobsworths with Western technology. It is a tale of the serial liquidation of peoples, aggressors reduced to bitter-enders in their turn.

Of course, it’s also possible to read Dare mo Shiranai Chiisana Kuni as a sweet story about elves.

Let’s do that, shall we?

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