“We must try to explain everything we think to children. . . . Words that are really rooted in the bones of the Japanese people: Those words are accessible.”
Poet Shuntaro Tanikawa said this to me back in Nov. 1981; and I asked him what kind of words they were.
“What I mean,” he explained, “is words that go down easily with the Japanese. For instance, we have native Japanese words to express love, such as itoshii (beloved), horeru (to lose one’s heart) and suki (to love) . . . these words really hit home, as opposed to Chinese compounds such as renai (love). In fact, it should be possible to write philosophy only using hiragana (the native Japanese syllabary).”
Tanikawa assimilates this notion fully in his poetry. This has made him the most accessible and most popular contemporary poet in Japan today. Every Japanese school child is familiar with his poems, particularly his wordplay poems, from their primary school textbooks.
His poetry may be full of lyrical sound associations and ingenious wordplay, but flowing below the rhythms are streams of deep philosophical thought and emotional longing.
William Elliott and Kazuo Kawamura have teamed up over the years to translate Tanikawa’s poems; and Shueisha recently published two volumes in paperback. These so-called taiyaku (bilingual) editions are a popular way to gain Japanese literature a wider audience. I couldn’t recommend a better way for a non-native to brush up their Japanese and experience the best of Japanese poetry at the same time. (And they’re cheap! . . . one volume at ¥476, the other at ¥600.)
Published last year, “Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude” is the poet’s first collection, dating back to 1952. The translators point out in the preface that this volume has been in print since the appearance of the first edition.
Tanikawa’s early poetry is brilliant and strikingly mature. It is as if the wisdom of the old, simply expressed, is residing in the young.
Here is “Growing”:
I had no past
my past stopped yesterday
my past stopped with a top-knot
my past stopped with dinosaurs
my past was nothing but schoolbooks
I timidly looked at the past’s
I don’t know what time is
From very early on in his poetry, Tanikawa is as intrigued by the cosmic as he is by the comic. His wit, as much as his message, is what has appealed so directly to his public. In the title poem of this book, he speaks of communicating with Martians. Then he goes on to write, “We all seek one another”:
Because the universe goes on
we are all uneasy.
With the chill of two billion light-years
I suddenly sneezed.
Tanikawa often reaches across time. When this meshes with his affection for people or animals, his poetry takes on a profoundly poignant quality. I love his poem about Nero, the dog next door who died, and the passing of the seasons.
Summer’s almost here again.
your napping —
It all comes back so clearly.
You knew only two summers.
I’ve known eighteen already.
The poem goes on to display a sense of wonder about the passing of time in the mind of the teenage poet.
The second Shueisha taiyaku volume, published in July this year, is “62 Sonnets+36.”
The translators write: “[Tanikawa’s] youthful certainties and uncertainties rest upon the basic assumption that life in all its variegation is good, and this assumption has held fast nearly 60 years.”
It may seem odd that a Japanese poet has chosen the 14-line sonnet form — alien, as it is, to the tradition here. But Tanikawa is a master of crosscultural assimilation as well as being a translator of English-language works as diverse as “Mother Goose” and “Snoopy.” (The playfulness in the former and the whimsy of the latter are right down Tanikawa’s alley.)
Tanikawa’s sonnets use language, to quote him, “rooted in the bones of the Japanese people.” His language is never abstruse, as is so often the case in Japanese poetry. He is, without a doubt, the Japanese poet who can be most easily understood and appreciated by non-Japanese readers.
He sees himself as a craftsman and his poetry as a reflection of the time given him for life. In sonnet 36, he tells us:
I am like that monument-maker who
polishes gravestones all day long.
He keeps on polishing a small
memento of one life.
He always sees himself reflected in
the gravestone that shines every
Tanikawa, now 78, has become the grand old master of Japanese poetry. These two books bring his early work to us in Japanese and English. Elliott and Kawamura have been translating his poetry for years; and if Tanikawa receives the Nobel Prize for Literature, then it will be in large part thanks to their efforts.
In recent years, Tanikawa has turned his attention to video art, lyric writing and musical collaboration. But he will always be best known in Japan as the poet read by people over and over throughout their lives. Perhaps it is because he captures something that we all aspire to — an understanding of why we are here at our given time.
There is a bizarre little twist at the end of sonnet 21, titled “Song,” as, indeed, there is in many English sonnets, too. It comes through in the very last word in the Japanese original — rashii. The use of rashii in describing oneself is bizarre. It is usually used to describe what one sees in other people or things. This odd use of rashii lifts the sonnet — and the reader — into a different space. The young Tanikawa is observing himself as he stands on terra firma looking up at the sky. Rashii here signifies that he can see himself observing — that he is both a part of the picture and apart from it at the same time.
There’s so much of everything on
and so little in heaven
I seem to feel like singing.