The best in children’s literature earns devout adult fans too, and perhaps no other Japanese writer embodies such cross-generational popularity than Shuntaro Tanikawa.
Frequently touted for the Nobel Prize in literature, Tanikawa was born in 1931 to a philosopher father and began writing poetry and children’s stories while still a student. With over 300 picture books to his name, he was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Author’s Award in 2008 and his renown has led to collaborations with many famous illustrators, such as Sadamasa Motonaga and Shigeru Miwa. Tanikawa has also collaborated with other great writers in children’s literature, including Mitsumasa Anno and Makoto Ooka with their work, “Nihongo” (“Japanese Language”), still popular today as an introductory language text for first graders.
But he’s most acclaimed as a poet and, in addition to his picture books and prose collections, has written over 80 volumes of poetry for both adults and children, debuting with his first published collection when he was just 21 years old.
Tanikawa’s whimsical worldview and profound simplicity are showcased in children’s bestsellers such as “Kotoba Asobi Uta” (“Word Games: Nonsense Pictures and Rhymes”) and “Warabe Uta” (“Nursery Songs”). Written in hiragana only, his poetry often acts as beginner texts for young readers, also making him accessible to Japanese language learners of any age.
One of his most popular poetry collections, “Naked: Poems by Shuntaro Tanikawa,” translated into English, shares the perspective and inner world of children. The collection is illustrated by Yoko Sano, Tanikawa’s third wife, famous in her own right for “The Cat That Lived a Million Times,” a classic of Japanese children’s literature.
Over his long career, Tanikawa has consistently experimented with style while keeping a clear focus on his trademark simplicity. Working as a lyricist, he has also written widely for film, television and radio, including the theme song for Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004). He’s also credited with introducing Japan to the most popular of Western children’s literature with his translations of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” and “Snoopy,” an award-winning translation of “Songs of Mother Goose” in 1975, as well as other works by international greats like America’s Margaret Wise Brown, Britain’s Quentin Blake and the Netherlands’ Leo Lionni.
At the age of 88, Tanikawa’s energy and output continue today, with both translations and original works published within the past two years. In 2019, he was awarded the Japan Foundation Award. As his friend and longtime translator of his poetry into English, William Elliott, recently told The Japan Times, “Tanikawa writes for the child in adults and for the adult in a child, and in that way answers to the insistence that true literature should both instruct and amuse.”
This is the 10th installment of the series “Children’s Literature in Japan,” which explores notable authors and illustrators of children’s and young adolescent literature. Read more at jtimes.jp/childrenslit.