Sunday, June 04, 2006


Shuntaro Tanikawa

Shuntaro Tanikawa (1931 - ) is one of the most important post-war poets of Japan. The son of a philosopher and a concert pianist, he began publishing his work at the age of 19 and quickly became a leading figure in Japanese poetry; believing, as a number of Japanese poets did in the wake of World War II, that traditional Japanese poetry was too restrictive and outmoded and that traditional Japanese culture had been destroyed, he turned to Western poetry and society for subjects and forms and drew widely, seeking to find not a national poetry or identity but what he has called a more "universal consciousness." He has been enormously prolific, producing well over 60 collections of poetry as well as a wide variety of other work including songs, radio and television dramas, film scripts, libretti, plays for children, and translations of such work as Mother Goose nursey rhymes and the Peanuts comic strip. And his poetry itself has exhibited great variety in both form (from sonnets and other formal structures to free verse and prose poems) and subject.

One of his earliest published poems (and one of his best-known and best-loved pieces in Japan) shows Tanikawa already beginning to search outside his own culture for answers:

(to a loved little dog)

another summer is coming soon
your tongue
your eyes
your napping in the afternoon
now clearly live again before me.

You knew but about two summers
I already know eighteen summers
and now I can remember various summers
both of my own and not my own:
the summer of Maisons-Lafitte
the summer of Yodo
the summer of the Williamsburg Bridge
the summer of Oran
so I am wondering
about the number of summers
that humanity has already known.

another summer is coming soon
but it's not a summer when you were here
a different summer
a completely different summer.
A new summer is coming
I'll be learning various new things
beautiful things ugly things
things to cheer me things to sadden me
and so I ask --
what is it?
why is it?
what must be done?

you have died
without anyone being aware
you have gone far away alone
your voice
your touch
and even your feelings
now clearly live again before me.

But Nero
another summer is coming soon
a new infinitely vast summer is coming
and then
I'll probably be walking on
to meet the new summer
to meet autumn
to meet winter
to meet spring and
to expect a new summer again
in order to know all the new things
in order to answer
all my questions

(Translated by Harold Wright)

In another early poem, Tanikawa -- through the eyes of both Western science and science fiction -- explores the nature of human isolation:

"Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude"

Human beings on this small orb
sleep, waken and work, and sometimes
wish for friends on Mars.

I've no notion
what Martians do on their small orb
(neririing or kiruruing or hararaing)
But sometimes they like to have friends on Earth.
No doubt about that.

Universal gravitation is the power of solitudes
pulling each other.

Because the universe is distorted,
we all seek for one another.

Because the universe goes on expanding,
we are all uneasy.

With the chill of two billion light-years of solitude,
I suddenly sneezed.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

Tanikawa took the form of the sonnet to use as a vehicle for explorations of the concepts of love, isolation, and poetry itself, just as the form had been employed in the West:

from 62 Sonnets:


I won't let words rest.
At times they feel ashamed of themselves
and want to die, inside of me.
When that happens I'm in love.

In a world otherwise silent
people -- ony people -- chatter away.
what's more, sun and trees and clouds
are unconscious of their beauty.

A fast-flying plane flies int eh shape of a human passion.
Though the blue sky pretends to be a backdrop,
in fact there's nothing there.

When I canll out, in a small voice,
the world doesn't answer.
My words are no different from those of the birds.


I grew unwittingly apart
from the world in which I was born
and can no longer walk again
among the things of the earth.

We know that even love is a possession,
but we can't keep from praying
that life will go on.
And we accept the poverty of our prayers.

I can possess nothing,
though I love
trees, clouds, people.

I can only discard
my overflowing heart --
hesitant to call that an act of love.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

The difficulty of communication is a frequent theme in his work; despite the immense difficulties, however, we never stop making the attempt in one way or another:

from With Silence My Companion:

for Toru Takemitsu, Composer

Sound becoming sound
had begun to infest the blank white paper,
like mosquito larvae.

out of the void of his healed lungs and heart,
air is exhaled
to mingle with the air of spring.

No one is listening
but all ears are open; and now,
as wind purls a lace curtain,
come the savage cries of children at play.

Where sound had begun to wiggle
in one corner of that spacious sheet,
now a whole galaxy swirls . . . distantly.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

Tanikawa explores many subjects in his work; particularly effective is his erotic poetry:


Are those fingers, the ones playing Bach just now,
and these fingers really the same?
This thng of mine, getting long and getting short,
and not resembling a piano at all,
must be called a comical tool;
so how does this conventional thing
and the great Bach, by your soft fingers,
get joined together?
I, myself, have no idea!
Yet, that thing of yours and this of mine,
now the color of the naked heart,
feel so warm, so smooth
in endless surrender much like death,
and when in this transparent blood filled darkness
I unexpectedly seem to meet Bach face to face.

(Translated by Harold Wright)

He draws his ideas from many sources, such as this poem inspired by one of the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein:

" 'My Favorite Things' "

'Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles and warm woollem mittens,
Brown paper packages tied up with strings --
These are a few of my favoruite things.'
--Oscar Hammerstein

No matter how much
I like a thing
actually owning it
soemwhat bores me.

And nomatter how much
I like that thing
not owning it
makes me somewhat resentful of it.

'Raindrops on rose and whiskers on kittens,
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, . . .'

Poor Oscar,
your forced rhymes
sound just awful.
Sometimes even the soul is flatulent.

I want a drink of water;
I'm very thristy.
Half a cup isn't enough; a hundred would drown me.
I like water.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

Prose poetry is another form Tanikawa explored, as is the subject of identity:


This thing lying on the desk is now being seen by my eyes. I could
pick it up at this moment. I could cut out a human figure with it. I might
even cut off all my hair. Though it's understood that murder is out of
the question.

Yet this thing also keeps getting rustier, blunter, and older. It's still
useful but it'll be thrown away before long. Although I have no way
of knowing whether it's made of ore from Chile or whether Krupp's
fingers have touched it, it's not hard to imagine that it will finally return
to its indeterminate destiny, moving away from its human formality
back to its original state. this thing here on the desk is at this moment
talking about such a time, not to anyone in particular but coldly, silently,
as if it were not doing that. People manufactured this for practical
purposes and yet it has inevitably come to exist here in this way before
and apart from any practical purpose it might have. It's something which
could be variously named -- not just "scissors." It already has countless
other names. Habit alone keeps me from using the other names. Or is
it out of self-defence?

Because this thing, existing like this, has the power to extract words
from me so that I go on being unreeled in this string of words and am
always on the dangerous verge of being reduced to a far more thinner
and feebler existence than that of the scissors.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

Tanikawa also is drawn to the idea of nonsense poems that yet are meaningful:

"Ball of Yarn"

Plump and snug and feathery,
a ball of yarn
rolls gaily down the street
and turns the corner.
No map, no thermos bottle,
the knitting abandoned,
it's already crossed the bridge
and passed the police station,
and now
turns another corner.
Three years ago
it was all five fingers
of a lovely glove.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)


As of yesterday I am a squash
and no longer think at all.
I grow gradually fatter
even if I don't think.
And I aim to grow gradually tastier.
I feel just fine lying around
and rolling around in a field in a drizzle.
Last year I went over to Kiev
but now I can't budge an inch.
Two years ago a woman had my baby;
now women eat me.
Fate surprises you.
Just lying in a grocer's bin
is high adventure for a squash.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

Tanikaw was influencd by his translations of the Peanuts comic strip into inventing a new form, the "four-frame comic," a four-line poem each line of which represents the text from one panel of a comic strip:

from Four-Frame Comics:

Can't help having a body.

I lift the lid from a box;
replace it;
smash it.
Where in the world is meaning hiding?

A prehistoric elephant --
today's elephant --
a future elephant --
What is Time up to?

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

The family is another subject Tanikawa frequently deals with:

"Family Portrait"

Filled with water
There's a jar
Eating of gruel begins
Wooden spoons
Berry wine
All is supported
By a heavy table.

There's a man
Wearing coarse cloth
Strog arms
Fierce beard
Eyes fixed
In a gaze
At a field still dark.

There's a woman
Large breasts
Coiled-up hair
Hot hands
On the man's shoulders.

There's a child
His curved brow
Smeared with dirt
As if surprised
He turns around.

The old people
In a picture on the wall
Beside a calendar
Are gently waiting
A dog like a bear
Yawns by the door.

At a simple altar
A flame is glowing
The night is quietly
Beginning to dawn.

(Translated by Harold Wright)


Dad's eating, staring striaght ahead,
looking at no one.
My younder brother tells him
his glasses are all steamed up from the rice.
He says yes and wipes them on his sleeve.
Im not sure
what's on his mind
but I'm pretty sure it's not me,
or my brother or mother, either.
If I ask him what he's thinking
he'll just say, "Nothing special."
Once I say a photo of dad as a boy.
He was standing in the middle of a big field
squinting hard from the sun.
He still has that expression sometimes.
He holds on to a bite of yam with his chopsticks.
A gold tooth shows when he opens his mouth.
Dad, I hope you live a long time.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

Questions about his family may raise deeper and less easily answerable questions:


Bathed by tree filtered sun,
my little girl rides a "monkey train"
when she comes closer I feel happy
when she goes away I feel sad
every third time around I failed pressing the shutter.

There are lots of families just like us
I don't feel happier than them
I don't feel less happy than them
yet, my mood slowly darkens.

The elephant raises and lowers its trunk
the crocodile continues to quiestly exist
the deer leaps
what kind of animal can I be called?

(Translated by Harold Wright)

He also raises questions about the nature of time:


age three
there was no past for me

age five
my past went back to yesterday

age seven
my past went back to topknotted samurai

age eleven
my past went back to dinosaurs

age fourteen
my past agreed with the texts at school

age sixteen
I look at the infinity of my past with fear

age eighteen
I know not a thing about time

(Translated by Harold Wright)

Ultimately, asking questions of one's self and of the universe is what being human means:

"Listening to Mozart"

The person listening to Mozart curls up like a child,
his eyes following the curled wallpaper as if it were the blue sky,
just as though his invisible sweetheart were whispering in his ear.

The melody annoys him in the shape of a question
which he cannot answer,
because it easily answers itself,
leaving him behind.

the lover's words so vulnerably spoken to the whole world . . .
a caress too tender to survive this earth . . .
a prophecy too cruel to be realized . . .
the "Yes" which rejects every possible "No!"

the person listening to Mozart stands up.
He shakes off the caress of mother-music
and walks downstairs towrad the street, looked for an answerable question.

(Translated by William I. Elliott and Kazao Kawamura)

i really liked this one! Wish i could read japanese to read it in the original...
I've had much the same reaction. There's so little of his huge output available in English, too, which is really a shame. I rank him as one of the two or three favorites of mine among my recent discoveries. Glad you enjoyed him, too, and thanks.
I'm so glad I made it back to this post. It is terrific. Thanks very much for putting it together and up.

Glad you got somethng out of it. Cheers.
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