Shuntaro Tanikawa has been a phenomenon in Japan since the publication of his first collection, Alone in Two Billion Light Years, in 1952. In the book’s prefatory poem, Tanikawa’s mentor, Tatsuji Miyoshi, introduced him as a young man who “has come from a distant land, unexpected [ . . . ] bearing the weight of being alone”. Indeed, he seemed to be totally unencumbered by Japan’s post-World War Two psyche. Over the past 50 years, many different editions of this first collection have appeared; Alone in Two Billion Light Years has remained a favourite among readers. In 2008, a Japanese/English pocket edition was published in Tokyo, attracting a new wave of young readers.
Born in 1931, Tanikawa was a middle-school student at the end of the war. He was just young enough to have been spared the pain and despair experienced by those poets who faced death, loss and devastation during the war. And yet his thoughts were never too far away from death, which was colourlessly woven into his worldview, lending his work philosophical depth.
Following the end of World War Two, a group of young Japanese poets who had survived the battlefield and military oppression were determined to create a new poetry of their own, one which totally negated the poetic conventions and traditions of the pre-war era. Their poetry was characterised by angst, pain and fear, and was overshadowed by death. Out of this poetic movement came a series of anthologies, based on the group’s new poetics. The Waste Land in 1951 was the first of these annual anthologies, which continued to 1958.
In 1952, the San Francisco Peace Treaty took effect, marking the end of the Occupation by Allied Forces begun in 1945. Japan was well on the path to recovery from the war’s devastation under its new democratic constitution. Socio-political changes were generating hope and creative energy within society.
It was against this background that Tanikawa launched his career as a fresh voice, set apart from those of the post-World War Two poets, resonating with the spirit of new times. On the occasion of the publication of Tanikawa’s first Collected Poems in 1968, poet and critic Shiro Murano wrote, “Right from the first volume, Alone in Two Billion Light Years, no book of poetry in post-World War Two [Japan] has been as spectacular as Tanikawa’s. It is astounding to see that his poetry is so widely beloved, yet shows absolutely no sign of compromise.” In the decades since, Tanikawa has maintained the position of being the foremost poet in Japan, in terms of both his widely acknowledged artistry and his unprecedented popularity, having garnered a huge following among the general public.
Tanikawa has published over 60 books of poetry, encompassing lyrical poems, analytical prose poems, narrative poems, epic poems, satirical poems and highly experimental poems. In virtually every book of poetry he consciously and artfully adopts a different mode and style and has been at the cutting edge of contemporary Japanese poetry throughout his career. His words are clear, his lines are easy to understand, yet his poetry is highly sophisticated. He says he writes like Beethoven – who was said to have written music through great pain and with considerable effort – and yet makes his lines look as effortless as the work of Mozart, known for the ease with which he could compose. As singer-songwriter Akiko Yano writes: “A very complex wiring is employed, but it’s as if his methods and techniques are all hidden beneath the surface, which is itself fully covered by a pretty stainless material . . . and I think to myself ‘Ah, wouldn’t it be great if I could write a poem like that?’”
Over the years, Tanikawa has been actively involved in poetry readings and has participated in poetry festivals both in Japan and around the world. He has visited all continents except for Antarctica and has collaborated with various international writers, creating linked poems and dialogue poems. His poetry has been widely translated into Mongolian, Korean, Chinese and most Eastern and Western European languages. He has received many awards, recognitions and prizes for his poetry. His work (in Tian Yuan’s translation) was widely praised across China, where it received two awards, of which one was the prestigious Zhongkun International Poetry Award of Beijing University in 2011.
Tanikawa has also been very active in promoting and supporting the translation of other contemporary Japanese poets, helping to make their work available to readers around the world.
PIW Japan will feature Tanikawa’s poetry in three instalments. Although these instalments can never hope to cover the full spectrum of his work, they will serve as a tribute to this great poet. Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, the editor of PIW Japan, will select poems for each issue from Tanikawa Shuntaro: The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952–2009 (Cornell East Asia Series, 2011). Yasuhiro Yotsumoto is himself an award-winning poet, and is also the author of Shuntarology (Shichosha, Tokyo 2011), a 300-page critical essay on Tanikawa’s poetics.
In the first PIW issue presenting Tanikawa, Yotsumoto has drawn 15 poems from Journey (1968) and Watashi (I, Myself) (2007). Tanikawa said of the selection, “They are both about myself; I mean, they are somehow based on my personal life. I suspect that’s why Yotsumoto selected these two collections as a pair.”
We hope you enjoy samples of the poet’s voice from these two collections, written forty years apart.
Foreign language editions
With Silence My Companion (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1975
At Midnight in the Kitchen I Just Wanted to Talk to You (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1980
The Selected Poems of Shuntaro Tanikawa (trans. by H. Wright), North Point Press, 1983
Coca-Cola Lessons (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1986
Vier Scharniere mit Zunge (trans. by Hiroomi Fukuzawa & Eduard Klopfenstein), Verlag Klaus G. Renner, 1988 [Renga (linked poems) with H. C. Artmann, Makoto Ooka, Oskar Pastior in Germany]
Floating in the River in Melancholy (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Prescott Street Press, 1988
Šuntaro Tanikawa: Poludnie duše (trans. by Katarína Mikulová, Mila Haugová & Fumiko Kuwahara) Kruh Milovníkov Poézie 1988 [Slovakian Selected Poems]
Picknick auf der Erdkugel (trans. by E. Klopfenstein), Insel Verlag, 1990 [German Selected Poems]
Songs of Nonsense (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Seidosha, 1991 [English/Japanese version of Yoshinashiuta]
62 Sonnets & Definitions (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Katydid Books, 1992
Naked (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Stone Bridge Press/Saru Press International, 1996 [English/Japanese version of Hadaka]
Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Hokuseido-shoten, 1996 [English/Japanese version of Nijyouku Kounen no Kodaku]
Map of Days (trans. by H. Wright), Katydid Books, 1996
Shuntaro Tanikawa: Selected Poems (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura) Carcanet Press 1998/ Persea Books 2001
To a Woman (trans. by Akiko Takahashi & Amir Or) Modan Publishing House / Tel-Aviv 1999 [Hebrew version of Onna-ni]
Looking Down (trans. by Y. Yaguchi & G. Tyeryar), Kyoubunsha, 2000 [English/Japanese version of Utsumuku Seinen with a reading CD]
Besat af æbler og andre digte (trans. by Susanne Jorn), Borgens Forlag, 2000 [Danish Selected Poems]
Tanikawa Shuntaro: Selected Poems (trans. by Tian Yuan), 作家出版社, 2002 [Chinese Selected Poems]
Mongolian Selected Poems (trans. by Sendoo Hadaa), 2003
On Love (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Minato no Hito, 2003 [English/Japanese version of Ai ni Tsuite]
Les Anges de Klee (trans. by Dominique Palme), Absteme Bobance, 2004 [French/Japanese version of Klee no Tenshi]
The Naif (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Katydid Books, 2004
Listening (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Kyoubunsha, 2004 [English/Japanese version of Mimi wo Sumasu]
Giving People Poems (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Saru / Katydid Books, 2005
Selected Poems (trans. by Leith Morton), Vagabond Press, Sydney, 2006
Watashi (trans. by W. I. Elliott & K. Kawamura), Vagabond Press, Syndey, 2010
The Art of Being Alone: Poems 1952-2009 (trans. by Takako U. Lento), Cornell East Asia Series, 2011
Poemail, Nanaroku Publication, Tokyo
Poemicro, Poetree, and other Obla()t series Obla()t, Obla()t, Tokyo
iPhone application Tankawa, Nanaroku Publication, Tokyo
Shuntaro Tanikawa reads poems from Watashi
Shuntaro Tanikawa performs with Diva, a music band lead by his son, Kensaku Tanikawa
Excerpt from Video Letter between Shuntaro Tanikawa and Shuji Terayama, 1983, with Italian subtitles
Nescafe TV commercial featuring Shuntaro Tanikawa’s poem ‘Asa no Rirei’ (Morning Relay) with English subtitles
Peter Boyle reviews Shuntaro Tanikawa and Yasuhiro Yotsumoto