A true poet of the people …

by Stephanie Gartelman

Coming soon to a sidewalk near you is one of Japan’s most original street artists, Hiromitsu Noriyasu, along with his growing cult of fans. The spirited 34-year-old has covered more than 16,000 km over the past seven months on his bicycle tour of Japan, raising funds to finance a film by composing poems for passersby.

At each location — where, because of the media attention Noriyasu’s received, there’s almost always a crowd — several devoted assistants leap out of his calligraphy-covered support van and help arrange the tools of his trade (paper and ink) as well as copies of his nine books to sell. Soon Noriyasu steps up, introduces himself and settles cross-legged on the ground, ready to compose a poem for any and all who request one. He gets paid whatever the recipient deems fair — anywhere from 1 yen to 30,000 yen.

The poet works quickly, dashing off the first words that spring to mind. Perhaps because of this, his poems have a motto-like brevity — one, from the best-selling book “Kotae (Answer),” reads: “Mayottara mayowazu tanoshii michi e ike (When in doubt, simply take the most enjoyable path).”

Like this poem, all his works share a certain optimism, urging people to believe in their inner strength and simply enjoy life. “For too long, the Japanese have told each other to gambaru [try harder],” he tells his audiences. “Now it’s time for us to tanoshimu [enjoy].”

It is a message that often hits home, leaving the recipients of his poems sometimes speechless or in tears.

“For young Japanese, happiness no longer equates to studying hard and getting a respectable job,” he says. “It’s time we sought new paths to happiness. I hope my books inspire people to find their own way.”

Inspire he does. Throughout Japan, fans have been moved to “take in, befriend and guide” him, Noriyasu notes with deep gratitude. His books are read by salarymen and schoolchildren. His poems have filled exhibitions, and wowed pedestrians in Seoul and New York. And 20 converts, including a former airline stewardess and a high-school dropout, have started their own roadside poetry acts.

Hiromitsu is thrilled by this last development. “Street performances give people energy,” he says, adding, “I hope Tokyo’s Gov. [Shintaro] Ishihara will keep his promise to issue licenses for street performers, like they do overseas. It will foster more artistic talent in Japan.”

Hiromitsu offers to write me a poem. He fixes me with a quizzical gaze, raises his brush and displays the beautiful work two minutes later (see photo). Its message is to lighten up and approach the future with conviction.

“So many people don’t realize their full potential,” Hiromitsu explains.

… who really wants to direct

Hiromitsu Noriyasu began his career in the arts while still a schoolboy: He was class clown. He developed his comedic skills from 1987 to 1995 with Osaka-based entertainment agency Yoshimoto Kogyo, then left to start up his own film production company, Team B. After co-producing one film and writing the script for his next, he decided there must be a better way of raising the money needed to get it to the big screen.

“I thought, instead of seeking funding from sponsors, why not make a movie with the help of 100,000 or a million people?” Noriyasu says.

So, in 1997, he starting selling toys. But it was an ill-fated venture. His entire stock was found to be faulty, and Noriyasu — instead of earning the money to finance his film — was saddled with 8 million yen in debt.

On day, in utter despair, he began scribbling out sheet after sheet of furious one-liners. It was these that led to his current incarnation as street poet.

“A friend loved them and suggested I publish them to finance my film,” Noriyasu recalls. In 1998, he set out as a busker composing poems in exchange for payment.

So far, he’s written some 50,000 poems for various people nationwide and compiled nine books of his work with accompanying photos. One, “Kotae,” has sold over 25,000 copies since it hit the shelves in 1999. The resulting income covered his debts and then some, and Noriyasu is expecting to finish his film (a comedy) by 2003.