In the same way that few British people have read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets but many can quote at least a few lines of the lyric tradition, any adult who has gone through the Japanese school system is familiar with the Ogura “Hyakunin Isshu.”

This collection of 100 waka — a classic poetic form written in lines of 5, 7, 5, 7 and 7 syllables — has been translated into English before. The first who dared was a British naval officer stationed in Yokohama in the Meiji Period who studied Japanese purely “out of personal desire.”

But as Donald Keene, shincho professor of Japanese literature and university professor emeritus at Columbia University says of Peter McMillan’s “One Hundred Poems, One Poem Each,” published in April: This is by far the best translation to date.

Apart from being widely reviewed in the Japanese and foreign press (from Sankei Shimbun to Time magazine), his translation was recently awarded the prestigious Japan-U.S. friendship commission prize for the best translation of a work of Japanese literature from the American government.

Further recognition comes in the form of a publication grant awarded by the Suntory Foundation and Kyorin University. There is also a Japanese edition — an interesting concept in itself — which is to be published in spring 2009 by Shuisha Shinsho.

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” McMillan admitted last month. He’s on his way to have dinner with friends in Shinjuku, having traveled in from Kichijoji in the west of Tokyo where he has made himself at home in a stunningly refurbished traditional Japanese house.

Any ambivilence is in part because not long before the award was announced, his father died in London, so there is a bittersweet taste to such acclaim.

“Sixteen years ago, my father left Ireland, where I was born, and set up house in London. But my mother always hated the city, so after the funeral she returned to County Kildare.” Matthew McMillan was an art dealer, specializing in Old Masters of the 19th century and specifically paintings of horses. (He’d been a racehorse trainer in his 20s.) His wife Ann was a writer of children’s books, with a regular column in the local newspaper.

“My father was ill for nearly six years, and I saw him on a regular basis. Though the loss is great there is the sense that he’s guiding me.”

Peter McMillan came to Japan in 1987, to teach for the University of Maryland overseas campus for a year. Wanting to make the most of his time, he studied calligraphy, kendo, and tea ceremony, and in doing so found reasons to stay.

Twenty-two years later he is now a professor in the Department of Foreign Studies and the Graduate School of International Cooperation at Kyorin University in Hachioji. It’s a small campus, he explains, specializing in humanities and social science, with a university hospital in Mitaka.

The university is very good to him, he says. “They gave me a two-year sabbatical from 1996-98, to study classical Japanese and Japanese art at Oxford, Columbia and Princeton.”

He chose to translate the “Hyakunin Isshu,” “because traditional Japanese culture is now so much part of my sensibility that I wanted to see if I could tap the essence of poetry written to a golden standard in the Heian Period. What was it that resonated with people as strongly today as 700 years ago?”

We have to thank Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241) for the compilation. Though said to be an ugly man, he was a distinguished poet and a superlative editor.

Selecting one definitive waka by one hundred of the most renowned poets of the period, Fujiwara created an anthology that has penetrated Japanese culture so deeply that on New Year’s a card game (karuta) based upon Fujiwara’s selection is still played.

In the past, many translations failed because they tried too hard to stay true to the classical form. McMillan succeeds because — very bravely — he abandoned the waka’s stipulated meter.

“Take No. 9, Ono no Komachi, which I translate as A life in vain/my talents faded/like these cherry blossoms/paling in the endless rains/that I gaze out upon, alone.

“When I read the poem in Japanese, each kanji has three or four meanings piled up on one another. Take the first line, Hana no iro wa. Hana means flower, also poetic or artistic talent, even the time of a woman’s beauty. Similarly, iro can mean color (fading), sex and sensuality.”

That particular waka took him two years to get right, or as true to the writer’s intention as he could manage. “It worked as a poem, but I found it nearly impossible to capture its brevity without losing the depth of meaning. That took much longer.”

There was a point over the four years the translation took to complete the anthology, he says, that he just had to accept his limitations. Japanese poets of that period were an aristocratic elitist group of people. At the same time, he believes they portrayed “the best and truest aspects of cultural identity.”

“I can’t help feel that if young Japanese had a way to express their innermost emotions, we might have fewer incidents such as in Akihabara recently, when that desperately unhappy and angry young man ran amok. Maybe it would help if they were taught how to express themselves as honestly as their ancestors did.”

With this in mind, McMillan teaches rhetoric-based poetry writing classes at Kyorin University, and facilitates art therapy courses. In addition, he runs an art gallery and is planning to set up an NPO to promote Japanese art overseas.

“I like to support the work of young Japanese artists. For example, I was very keen that Yasushi Yokoiyama’s painting Fujitsu ni Honen (In a little while things will get better) was featured on the cover of my book. Anyone over 60 tends to think it sacrilegious, being manga-like in style. But I wanted to use an image which is attractive to young people.”

Since winning the U.S. award, there are new demands on his time, with authors asking him to translate their books. But he remains unphased. “It’s very nice because now I can pick and choose. I’m enjoying it.”

He is looking at two collections of waka. And has just completed a book with the owner of Toyoko Inn (a chain of economy hotels) about Naikan, the Buddhist form of self-reflection and therapy.

McMillan has written a chapter on his own experience at a Naikan retreat — 16 hours a day examining relationships: What did someone do for him? What did he do for them? What trouble did he create for them? “I can honestly say it provided a whole new perspective on my life.”

McMillan, who admits to be a seven-day-a-week workaholic, writes his own poetry and also creates silkscreen printed portraits in what he describes as an Andy Warhol style, but even more radical and playful. “I like to reinvent things, question the way in which we see the world, see things in new ways.”

He’s soon off to Ireland to spend time with his mother and do some writing.

“Despite the sadness of losing her husband, the announcement of the prize was made on her birthday. She was thrilled.”

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