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Machi Tawara, one of Japan's most popular tanka poet. Also well known as a critic, author and translator of Japanese classic literature into contemporary Japanese.
She was born in Osaka, and raised there and later in Fukui. In 1981, as she entered Waseda University, she began to write tanka under her mentor, the respected poet Yukitsuna Sasaki. After graduating Waseda with a BA in Japanese Literature in 1985, Ms.Tawara started teaching at Hashimoto Highschool in Kanagawa, where she taught Japanese until 1989. While she was teaching, she continued her activities as a poet and received the 32nd Kadokawa Tanka Award(1986). Her first volume of tanka, Salad Anniversary, was published in 1987 and became an immediate bestseller with nearly three million copies in print. With this outstanding debut publication, she recieved the Modern Japanese Poets Association Award(1988). Her third collection of tanka, Chocolate Revolution, was published in 1997. Ms. Tawara is also a well-known critic and translator of Japanese classic literature into contemporary Japanese, including the Man'yoshu(Collection of 10,000 leaves), Taketori Monogatari(The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter), and Midare Gami(Tangled Hair). In addition, she has published a number of popular travel and photography books and has written a series of essays for newspapers and magazines such as Asahi Shimbun Newspaper, Asahi Weekly and Bungei Shunju. Aside from her work as a poet and writer, Ms. Tawara has served as a member of various committees including the Commitee for Japanese Language and the Central Committee for Education.
- Below is quoted from the English version of "Salad Anniversary"(published bu Kodansha International, 1989)translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I deeply appreciate Juliette for letting me reproduce her comments on this page.
Machi Tawara, a shy, 26-year-old high school teacher living in Tokyo, took Japan by storm with the publication of her maiden work: a book of poetry called Sarada kinenbi, here translated as Salad Anniversary. In six months the book sailed through countless printings and has sold to date a mind-boggling 2,500,000 copies and more, making it one of the nation's all-time bestsellers. Such a record is remarkable enough for any book, in any genre; for a book of modern poetry it is unprecedented.
"Salad Phenomenon" is the phrase coined to describe the impact of this book on Japanese society. Tawara herself became an instant celebrity, besieged with requests for autographs, interviews, public lectures, guest columns in newspapers and magazines, and TV and radio appearances--all the while keeping up a busy eight-to-five teaching schedule, Mondays through Saturdays. She has had two weekly television shows. There have also been a couple of televised serial dramas and a musical revue based loosely on Salad Anniversary, not to mention a full-length movie.
Critical reaction has also been highly favorable, despite cavils from purists offended by Tawara's modern adaptation of a classical verse form. "August Morning," the book's opening 50-poem sequence, was awarded the coveted Kadokawa Tanka Prize--an unheard-of achievement for a young woman fresh out of college. The entire book was also named by the Association of Modern Poets as the outstanding poetry collection of 1987.
Besides producing a book of essays and a second slender collection of poems, Tawara came up with a sort of telephone version of the "Prairie Home Companion" : touched by the massive outpouring of fan mail she began to receive, and determined somehow to respond, she made short, semimonthly recordings to chat about her latest doings and announce to upcoming events. Meanwhile, the Salad Phenomenon has also brought us comics, choral works by a distinguished composer, and even a CD of "Salad Classics" --Chopin and Debussy-- to play while leafing through the book.
Perhaps the most amazing response to Tawara's work has come directly from reader themselves: inspired by Tawara's seemingly effortless sketches of modern life and love, done in an age-old form, many have decided to try their own hand at poetry. Letters have come pouring in by the tens of thousands--and with them, well over 200,000 tanka. Nearly 1,500 of these, selected by Tawara, have also been published in a book form. The oldest contributor is a 91-year-old man; the youngest, an 11-year-old girl. One struggles to think of a comparable level of response to any other single work of literature: an identification so complete that readers--people from all walks of life--do not stop at passive enjoyment, but begin a spontaneous creative outpouring of their own.
What is all the fuss about? Tanka(short poems of thirty-one syllables in a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern) have a venerable history of at least 1,300 years in Japan. In modern times, however, they have suffered from an image problem: dealing traditionally with set themes ( the beauties of nature, confessions of emotion), tanka tended to become stale and conventional; this difficulty was compounded by poets' continued use of outmoded "literary" language which made the poems hard to understand and kept them seemingly remote from daily experience. Poets who sought to revitalize tanka by avoiding classical formulas, on the other hand, often seemed to achieve modernity at the expense of rythm and grace. Part of Tawara's achievement lies in her ability to use fresh, contemporary language--skillfully incorporating bits of natural comversation, borrowed words from English like "photographer," and modern icons like McDonald's--without sacrificing the traditional tanka virtues of concision, evocativeness, and musicality.
But Tawara does not limit herself exclusively to the vernacular. She avails herself of a widerange of Japanese, including classical words("ones I particulary like"). Sevecral makura-kotoba, or "pillow words"--traditional poetic modifiers--appear, and there are allusions to indivisual older poems and to the eight-century Man'yoshu, Japan's oldest poetry anthology. The language employed is thus not mere "young people's Japanese" but a literate, sophisticated mixture of old and new--with emphasis, throughout, on new.
This combination of old and new is present in the opening poem (though impossible, alas, to suggest in translation):
kono kyoku to kimete kaigan zoi no michi
tobasu kimi nari
Always playing this song
you race along the seacoast road--
Here the word nari is a classical copula, contrasting with the modern, American flavor of the song title.
The same poem illustrates another feature of her work--the tendency for meaning to straddle, not coincide exactly with, the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic groupings. "Ki-me-te-ka-i-ga-n"(literally, "deciding seacoast") is a 7-syllable cluster in the poem above, but decidedly not a unit of meaning in itself. Tanka are often described as "five-line" poems, but this is misleading in several respects--not least being the fact that they are almost always written in a single line in Japanese. All of the poems in Salad Anniversary appear in the original as a single vertical line, three to a page; however, several are interrupted with a space to mark a major break in the poem--a break which may appear at any point. In her second tanka collection, Toritate no tanka desu ("Fresh-picked tanka"), Tawara has experimented with writing tanka in two and three lines of various lengths(although she claims that "in her heart" she still thinks of tanka as a single line). In my translations I have generally adhered to a three-line format, and have aimed at brevity without attempting to dupilicate syllable counts.
What has so endeared these poems to the Japanese public? One answer seems to be the cheerful, light tone--perfectly suited to the fresh, crisp, "salad" image. The emotions are genuine and deeply felt, but never bitter or overwhelming. The sadness of ending a relationshio is balanced by relief, the decision swift and clean
Like getting up to leave
a hamburger place--
that's how I'll leave
She seems to be standing at a slight remove from herself, never totally lost in an emotion, but always partly outside it, observing herself and those around her with a light and coolly objective eye.
Although love, or the lack of it, is the main focus of Tawara's poetry, she writes also of home and family; of life in a big city; of her experiences teaching; of music and cooking and baseball and the sea; of travels in China; of odd moments of sudden insight or whimsy, premonition, or surprise:
The day I left for Tokyo
Mother looked older by all the years
of separation ahead
As in the title poem, she values the ordinary things in life, the small events, finding beauty in them and in a life where every moment is intensely, fully lived:
"This tastes great," you said and so
the sixth of July--
our salad anniversary
Writing on the blackboard,
I pause to rest my hand--
in those seconds
think meltingly of you
Ultimately the appeal of her poem rests on their universality, on our recognizing as we read them "Yes that's just how it is!" or "I know that feeling, too". She says she seeks to express the "swaying of the heart"(kokoro no yure); that she succeeds is clear from the reverberations she sets up in our hearts. In her own afterword to her poems she sums up by saying that " to live is to creat poetry, to create poetry is to live."
It is ironic that(if we may believe her) Machi Tawara has no real lover; these real-sounding love poems spring largely from imagination, based(she says shyly) not on a particular longing for any one person so much as a general longing for human contact. That her poems have moved the hearts of so many, touching the lives of millions of people with whom she would never otherwise have had communication, seems to please her enormously.