Nanao Sakaki

Nanao Sakaki : Earthday in Yoyagi Park 2004. Photo:John Suiter

photo: Allen Ginsberg

Nanao Sakaki, internationally renowned as a contemporary Taoist sage/poet, departed to become another part of the wide Universe on the Winter Solstice December 23, 2008.

His work will gain in both fame and usefulness as it ages. It has the combination of innocence and lightning-like insight of other masters in his tradition.

Here are two pieces that exhibit the power of Sakaki’s language and presence.


Nanao paid tribute to the bioregional uniqueness and destiny of Hokkaido Island in his poem Manifesto.

Hokkaido’s climate, seasons, and other natural characteristics stand out in glaring contrast to the rest of the Japanese Islands and mark it as a distinct bioregion. It is northernmost of the main Japanese Islands and was populated by the highly cultured indigenous Ainu people who lived in respectful harmony with the island and its surrounding waters for thousands of years.  Pioneer Japanese “soldier farmers” who were mainly from northwestern Honshu Island colonized Hokkaido at the end of the nineteenth century and established large-scale farms and fisheries that remain principal industries. It was a massive colonial transition, but the original native mindfulness of the earth nevertheless persists here.


Hokkaido island will be an independent country.  
Because the sea of Okhutsk, the mother ocean 
dyes your heart pure indigo.
Because the primeval forest of Shretoko peninsula 
dyes your heart pure green.
Because the snow-covered Sarobetsu wasteland 
dyes your heart pure white.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country.
Because yeddo spruces soar in clouds.
Because giant angelica flowers flame up in summer.
Because there are countless edible plants and mushrooms.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country.
Because you could see irreplaceable wild beings –
             grizzly bears, Blakiston’s fish owls,
                           black woodpeckers and Parnassus butterflies.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country
Because you can meet wonderful human animals –
             fishermen, farmers, mountain men, hobos,
                            musicians, artists, poets.

Hokkaido island will be an independent country
Because you can love delightful birds –
kids, women and men.

                             This island is made as a garland
                             No nuclear power plants
                             No agri-chemicals
                             No big corporations
                             No authorities
                             No arms.

We call this island Moshiri, the Peaceful Land –
                                                        after the Ainu’s name
Now together with
Alaska, Tierra del Fuego, New Guinea, Yunnan and Siberia
let’s start a Pacific Basin union.

And together with
Andromeda nebula, Orion constellation and
                                                    Magellanic clouds
let’s start a Federation
                             for the Universe.

                                                                            September 1986/91

 (Reprinted with permission of Gulf of Maine Books also see:  

Thanks to Gary Lawless for the use of the photos of Nanao .


Dispatch from Japan 2004

by Peter Berg

Kimiharu To of Japan Environmental Education Forum (JEEF) felt that official recognition can only be partially effective in transforming social and cultural consciousness. There has to be a vast change in public attitudes that will create a demand for more thorough-going eco-centered policies that are needed, so he sought out non-government community groups and popular audiences. Kim convinced JEEF to throw its sponsorship behind an afternoon public discussion in downtown Tokyo featuring Taoist nature poet Nanao Sakaki and myself with social/cultural author Tsugi (Keibo Oiwa) as moderator. The title roughly translated as “New/Old Never Run Dry” and admission was free. One hard-core environmental activist who helped publicize the event told her friends, “This will be a chance to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Nanao is a non-pareil literary phenomenon. A sailor in World War Two he lived through the devastation and subsequent reconstruction that lasted through the Sixties by following a personal path of natural and spiritual exploration. Myths followed his hippy-clad footsteps. Did he actually climb all of the highest mountains, and live off the land while hiking through valleys and along coastlines everywhere in Japan? Was he an activist planting trees in remote rural corners of the country? Did he establish a commune on one barely populated volcanic island and spread veneration for thousand year-old trees on another, originate a struggle to preserve coral reefs, and lead protest tours up dam-stifled dry riverbeds? Was he broke most of time, reading poems for nothing in coffee houses and bars, and making so many friends he can no longer remember most of their names? Almost all of that is true. And part of the price for living such an unaverage life is the nationally disgraceful irony that his principal following exists outside his own country. Even though he is a de facto “living treasure” for creating contemporary spiritual-philosophical verse in the great tradition of previous poet-seers, Nanao is barely known in Japan. He has spent much of the last thirty years living, visiting and inspiring audiences in other countries where his work has been translated into seventeen languages. He arrived for the discussion jet-lagged from readings in Prague, unapologetically sake-stoked to overcome sleeplessness.

Sakaki led off with a short reading that included the visionary poem “Let’s Plant Stars”. Tsugi, whose book “Slow is Beautiful” is extremely popular, served as an insightful moderator and commentator asking the two of us questions for the next two hours.  As the only non-Japanese speaker requiring interpretation for questions and answers that made every statement at least twice as long, I needed to talk simply and directly. “We are wild at heart. An animal species that is related to all of the other species. This has always been true, is true now, and will continue to be true.  Our brains are capable of entertaining different realities and illusions. One of these can sometimes be the mistaken belief that we are detached from nature. It’s easy to think this is true sitting in this sterile auditorium. But all of us and everything in downtown Tokyo came from nature.  We are nature and have a long species heritage of harmonious interdependence with other life.” These may seem obvious truths but in the surrounding atmosphere of overcrowded subways, sidewalks, pedestrian signals, sheer stone and metal walls, escalators, sterile hallways, and countless other solely human artifacts they needed to be firmly reiterated. Tsugi mentioned a two hundred years old ginko tree on the same block as the auditorium that we had visited just before the event. It had been preserved with its own shrine but although over a hundred feet tall it was pathetically squeezed and starved for light between two new skyscrapers. He told how I had imagined peeling back what this tree had seen. New office buildings rising and blocking the sun, American bombers overhead, Japanese soldiers marching off to fight in Manchuria, the advent of Emperor Meiji … even as far back as before “Tokyo” when the city name was still Edo. This sadly treated tree was not only the sole significant presence of another species remaining in the area but also the single living witness to all of that history…

The three of us became a kind of expository team alternating experiences and visions with problematic realities and examples of creative solutions. Nanao described planting trees alone in the Kyushu countryside and being joined by farmers in a cooperative way without using environmentalist rhetoric.

Tsugi wondered aloud why Nanao continues to attract young people and he replied, “I don’t like people my age. They only talk about bad health and insurance plans. I don’t think of myself as old. I’m still alive!” People in their twenties volunteer for Planet Drum’s projects in Ecuador because we offer an opportunity to fulfill their ideals, I said. “We haven’t made life decisions that force us to comply with the demands of an ecologically destructive society. Our volunteers don’t want to make decisions like that either, and see us as people who haven’t compromised.”

Nanao stated that he hadn’t gone beyond grade school and believed that this is what kept him interested and involved in new information. Tsugi is a college professor but has had Sakaki as a guest lecturer for classes regardless of his lack of credentials.

While listening to them a whole cluster of thoughts from different incidents during this visit lined up and they began to come together when I was asked to speak. There are nearly a quarter million high school students in Japan who don’t show up for classes. This is a startling new development in such an academically competitive society. Reasons range from brutal bullying among pupils to difficulty of courses that require whole evenings of homework. Teenagers also have a clear view of some new realities that aren’t adequately accounted for in classes. Computers and robots are displacing people from traditional work and conventional jobs that require schooling are disappearing extremely fast. Globalization is seriously threatening the roots of cultural identity. Earth itself is different now because of the scale of environmental changes. Society isn’t controlling the outcomes from these sweeping forces and doesn’t know where they will lead.

Probably because of Nanao’s liberating influence on a normally formal Japanese audience, I decided to take a chance and ask them to stand up. “Flap your arms like the wings of a bird,” I asked with the tone of an athletics instructor. They all did and some even began chirping. “Wiggle like a fish.” They shinnied smiling at each other. “Now howl like a wolf.” My own howl was amplified by the sound system, and they howled loudly in reply. “Growl like the bear that was worshiped by Japanese in the old Jomon days.” They growled and some imitated a squat position with their arms extended. The whole event was almost too good to stop. I saw Nanao sitting on the edge of his seat with eyes wide open and growling with an enormous grin. “Now sit down and be good little human beings.” They did so in unison but I had the feeling they could have gone on assuming the identity of other animals for the rest of the afternoon.


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