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November 30, 2000

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From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Japan's Stellar Poet
A modern woman who saved an ancient art

Book Cover
Chocolate Revolution
By Tawara Machi

When the Yomiuri Shimbun invited a blue-ribbon committee to draw up a list of the most influential people of the 20th century a few months ago, one name stood out: Tawara Machi. Not only was she the only woman among the panel of five, which included former Japanese premier Nakasone Yasuhiro, she was by far the youngest. It is a measure of the 36-year-old's recognition as the person credited with reviving the 1,000-year-old form of poetry called tanka.

Empress Michiko still composes a set each year, which is read out as part of a New Year ritual. But, restricted to a set rhythm, tanka was considered almost obsolete when Tawara released her debut collection 12 years ago. Salad Anniversary sold 2.6 million copies - astonishing for a literary work and even more so for poetry. At the time, critics savaged the young poet as a destroyer of tradition. Her 1997 anthology of love poetry, Chocolate Revolution, enjoyed similar success and controversy (the adultery subtext seemed to feed a fad in Japanese society).

Tawara insists: "I don't write with the intention to shock." She's just trying to make an ancient style relevant for the younger generation, she says, mostly through observations on daily life. In Salad, for example, she writes of ripening tomatoes on store shelves that trigger a sudden sense of loneliness, and of her quiet satisfaction at watching a boyfriend eat an omelet that she made. Her "simple approach" clearly strikes a chord. In a field where polite admiration is the norm, Tawara gets adulation usually reserved for pop stars. She is regularly sought for talk shows and receives hundreds of letters from fans, many of them high-school students and women in their 20s or 30s. Often, they say she inspired them to compose their own poems.

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Theater: Change Of Pace
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Books: Japan's Stellar Poet
A modern woman who saved an ancient art

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Says publisher Akihori Kawana: "Tawara gave tanka, which was once synonymous with being old and crusty, the opposite meaning." Within the highly stylized format of the tanka form, she has been able to capture the feelings of young people by making sure the language is accessible - in a stream-of-consciousness way. Having been a high-school teacher probably helps. The poet still draws on contacts from her previous job to keep in touch with shifting moods in society. Besides meeting government officials to discuss improvements in Japanese public education, Tawara often takes up invitations to run tanka classes in schools. "I love meeting young people," she says. "It makes me feel young and is an opportunity to keep up with rapid changes." Purists may grumble, but Tawara makes no apologies for peppering her poetry with English expressions. That just mirrors the way young Japanese talk and their ease with Western customs. "It has become a natural thing for young people to pick up English words and weave them into their conversation," she says.

The concerns of single women like herself are a common theme in the poetry. But where Salad represents the romantic innocence of her youth, Chocolate Revolution explores the "complicated sentiment" of lovers in their 30s, more specifically the eroticism, passion and frustration of illicit love. It seems personal fulfillment is to be found in career, romantic liaisons, even hobbies, but seldom marriage.

Tawara grew up in an average household in Osaka, with a salaryman father and a devoted homemaker mother. That's definitely not for her, she says. The poet shares hopes and dreams with her boyfriend, but certainly not domesticity. "I would not be happy with that situation," she says. They talk on the phone every day and do things together, but each has an independent life, work and a separate set of friends. "Japan's rapid industrialization has created a generation gap," Tawara says. "Younger women can now choose what kind of life they want to lead because they are economically independent. We can either marry and look after our families, or be career women." And choice, she says, is wonderful.

At university, tanka attracted her because she was interested in Japan's literary past (she was a history major). Now she's making it her future. "I want to get more young people into taking up this kind of poetry. Japanese youth need to learn about their roots while being able to enjoy Western ideas." That, she says, is "the new Japan."

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