“Writing poetry has become a lot of fun these days,” he said recently at his elegant home in the suburbs of Tokyo.
Shelves were full of books. His collection of ancient bronze animal figurines is neatly arranged in rows in a glass box next to stacks of his favorite classical music CDs.
“There used to be something about being a job, getting an assignment. Now I can write however I want,” he said.
Tanikawa is one of Japan’s most famous modern poets and a master of free verse in the everyday.
He has published more than a hundred poetry books. With titles such as “To Live”, “Listen” and “Grass”, his poems are stark, rhythmic yet conversational, defying elaborate traditional literary styles.
William Elliott, who has been translating Tanikawa for years, likens his place in Japanese poetic history to how TS Eliot marked the beginning of a new era in English poetry.
Tanikawa is also a renowned translator, translating Charles Schulz’s cartoon ‘Peanuts’ into Japanese since the 1970s. He demonstrated his ear for the poetic in colloquial speech with finesse, choosing ‘yare yare’ for ‘good grief’, transcending the lifestyle differences between East and West in the universal world of children and animals.
“He was more of a poet or a philosopher,” he said of Schulz.
Tanikawa has translated the work of many others, including Mother Goose, as well as Maurice Sendak and Leo Lionni. His works, in turn, 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 place in the universe, years before Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote the magic-realistic classic One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Tanikawa was always in demand, the darling of poetry readings around the world, a rare example of a poet who effortlessly transitioned into commerce without compromising his art.
But poetry used to be a job – his profession, his day job.
Tanikawa is the lyricist of 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 about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
He is a popular author of children’s picture books and often appears in textbooks.
He swears that because of his age he has run out of “projects”, which has made walking and going out more difficult. But in the same breath, he says he’s teaming up with his musician son Kensaku Tanikawa, who lives next door, on what they call “Piano Twitter.”
He has already written dozens of poems for the score. They are all short, more abstract than his earlier work, and evoke surrealistic images such as stairs descending to nowhere, or an uncontrolled caterpillar dancing.
He isn’t sure how the work will be presented, but speculated that it could become a barcoded book so that readers can listen online to the poems read aloud with music.
Among his sizable production, he is most proud of his 1970s ‘Kotoba Asobi Uta’ series, which used alliterations of song and onomatopoeia, as the title ‘Word Play Songs’ implies.
One repeats the expression “kappa”, a mythical monster, as in: “kappa kapparatta”, which translates to “the kappa left with something” – a “rappa”, a “trumpet”, as it turns out later. The poetry is, both visually and aurally, a pure celebration of the Japanese language.
That was unique, Tanikawa said, and he still loves what he came up with.
“For me, the Japanese language is the foundation. Like a plant, I set my roots, drink the nutrients of the Japanese language, grow leaves, flowers and bear fruit,” he said.
Married and divorced three times — to a poet, an actress, and an illustrator — Tanikawa emphasized that he changed with age, noting that 90 felt much older than 80, and he became forgetful.
Still, on a recent sunny afternoon, he appeared completely comfortable with social media and everyday technology, though he used a magnifying glass to make out fine print. He was curious about new movies, including what might be on Netflix. He likes to eat cookies, he said, and he looks more like a naughty kid than the great-grandfather he is.
He usually works at his huge desk in a spacious study, which has a window that lets in the breeze and a hazy beam of light. It overlooks a garden with flowers. On the wall hangs a sepia-colored portrait of his mother with his father, Tetsuzo Tanikawa, a philosopher.
Growing up, Tanikawa feared his mother’s death more than any other death. He also recalls seeing corpses after the American air raids on Tokyo during World War II.
“Death has become more real. It used to be more conceptual when I was young. But now my body is approaching death,” he said.
He hopes to die at the age of 94 as his father did, in his sleep after a night of partying.
“I’m more curious about where I’m going when I die. It’s a different world, right? Of course I don’t want any pain. I don’t want to die after a major surgery or something. I just want to die, all of a sudden,” he said.
When asked to read his works aloud, he does not hesitate for a moment.
He reads excerpts from his last collaboration with his son. Then he reads his debut work, which, translated into English, ends with these lines:
“The universe is twisted, / That’s why we try to connect. / The universe keeps expanding, / That’s why we’re all afraid. / In two billion light years of solitude / I suddenly sneeze.”
“It feels like a poem written by someone else,” Tanikawa said.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama