Books and literature
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Japanese poet and translator Shuntaro Tanikawa reads a poem during an interview in Tokyo on May 25, 2022. Photo: AP

He translated Peanuts, wrote lyrics to Astro Boy and is compared to T.S. Eliot – Japanese poetry legend Shuntaro Tanikawa

  • Now 90, Shuntaro Tanikawa became famous for his poems on everyday life and has written over 100 books, but has also branched out into other areas
  • Married and divorced three times, he swears he doesn’t have ‘projects’ any more, but he is currently working on a collaboration with his musician son

Shuntaro Tanikawa used to think poems descended like an inspiration from the heavens. As he grew older – he is now 90 – Tanikawa sees poems as welling up from the ground.

The poems still come to him, a word or fragments of lines, as he wakes up in the morning. What inspires the words comes from outside. The poetry comes from deep within.

“Writing poetry has become really fun these days,” he says in his elegant home in the Tokyo suburbs.

Shelves are overflowing with books. His collection of ancient bronze animal figurines stands in neat rows in a glass box next to stacks of his favourite classical music CDs.

“In the past, there was something about its being a job, being commissioned. Now, I can write as I want,” he says.

Tanikawa’s works have been widely translated, including into Chinese and European languages. Photo: AP

Tanikawa is among Japan’s most famous modern poets, and a master of free verse on the everyday.

He has more than a hundred poetry books published. With titles like To Live, Listen and Grass, his poems are stark, rhythmical but conversational, defying elaborate traditional literary styles.

William Elliott, who has translated Tanikawa for years, compares his place in Japanese poetic history to how T.S. Eliot marked the beginning of a new era in English poetry.

Artist Louise Bonnet on her absurdist human figures on show in Hong Kong

Tanikawa is also a reputed translator, having translated Charles Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip into Japanese since the 1970s. He demonstrated his ear for the poetic in the colloquial with finesse, choosing “yare yare” for “good grief”, transcending the lifestyle differences of East and West in the universal world of children and animals.

“He was more a poet or a philosopher,” he says of Schulz.

Tanikawa has translated many others’ works, including Mother Goose, as well as Maurice Sendak and Leo Lionni. In turn, his works have been widely translated, including into Chinese and European languages.

Tanikawa’s poem Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude catapulted him to stardom in the early 1950s. Tanikawa had his eyes on the cosmos and Earth’s spot in the universe, years before Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote the magical realism classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Tanikawa started translating Peanuts into Japanese in the 1970s. Photo: Schulz Museum

Tanikawa was always in demand, the darling of poetry readings around the world, a rare example of a poet who effortlessly crossed over to commercialism without compromising his art.

But poetry used to be a job – his profession, his daily work.

Tanikawa is the lyricist for the Japanese theme song for Osamu Tezuka’s TV animated series Astro Boy. He also wrote the script for the narration of Kon Ichikawa’s documentary of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

A popular author of children’s picture books, he is often featured in textbooks.

Tanikawa wrote the lyrics for Astro Boy’s theme song.

He swears he doesn’t have “projects” any more because of his age, which has made walking and going out more difficult. But in the same breath he says he is collaborating with his musician son Kensaku Tanikawa, who lives next door, on what they call “Piano Twitter”.

He has already written dozens of poems to go with the score.

Married and divorced three times – to a poet, an actress and an illustrator – Tanikawa stresses he was changing with age, noting 90 felt much older than 80, and he was getting forgetful.

Yet he appeared on a recent sunny afternoon totally comfortable with social media and everyday technology, although he used a magnifying glass to make out fine print. He was curious about new movies, including what might be on Netflix. He likes eating cookies, he says, looking more like a mischievous child than the great-grandfather that he is.

Tanikawa reads a poem aloud during an interview. Photo: AP

He hopes to die as his father did, in his sleep after a night of partying, at 94.

“I am more curious about where I go when I die,” he says. “It’s a different world, right? Of course, I don’t want pain. I don’t want to die after major surgery or anything. I just want to die, all of a sudden.”