clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:


She is young and famous, with her own weekly television show, a radio program and fans who fawn over her on the street, but Madoka Mayuzumi is neither a movie actress nor a rock star.

She is a poet.Mayuzumi is one of a number of Japanese poets who have achieved the kind of celebrity status that in most countries is reserved for superstar athletes or entertainers. This is possible because no country in the world takes poetry more seriously than Japan.

"People are affluent now, but after they've gained everything, they want to express themselves," said Mayuzumi, a 30-year-old former OL, or "office lady," at a Tokyo bank. "OLs wear fashionable clothes, play tennis and go skiing, but they're not satisfied with that. They want to show their feelings."

Poetry has a long tradition in Japan, but over the past two decades it has surged in popularity to a level that is simply unfathomable by Western standards. Millions of Japanese regularly write poetry - by various counts 5 million to more than 10 million, out of a population of 125 million - and untold millions more savor the poetry of others.

Aside from regular television and radio shows about poems, there are more than 2,000 poetry magazines and newsletters competing with thousands of poetry books - one of which became a mega-best-seller with 2.7 million copies sold. All the national newspapers carry several poetry columns, and one newspaper, The Asahi Shimbun, carries a poetry column on the front page every day.

"The number of people who write and read poems is at a record high," said Makoto Ooka, who writes that front-page column and whose books on poetry have sold a total of 1.2 million copies. "It's unprecedented, for over the last 20 years poetry has become totally popularized. It's a living thing in people's lives."

A few months ago, several television channels offered live coverage of the imperial poetry contest, the Japanese poetic equivalent of the Super Bowl. Emperor Akihito and his entire family attended and wrote poems on this year's topic, "seedlings," along with more than 19,000 members of the general public.

The broad appeal of poetry underscores the way in which "high culture" in Japan is integrated into "pop culture."

In Europe and America, "high culture" tends to be a bit aloof, and most ordinary people do not regularly go to the opera or listen to Bach or write poetry.

But in Japan, "high culture" is pop as well: classical music, theater, literature and poetry have an extraordinarily broad audience, so that the average Japanese is much more likely than the average American to be familiar with the Brandenburg Concertos or to have a translation of a European novel on the nightstand.

One measure of this is that Tokyo has nine symphony orchestras, more than any city in the world. Last month alone, there were 53 performances in Tokyo just of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Paradoxically, Japanese insist that the reason so many people appreciate poetry is not that they are deep but that they are shallow. They emphasize that Japanese verse is far shorter and more vivid than Western poems, and thus more accessible.

"The main reason that the poems are popular is that they are short," said Yoshimasa Ueda, who edits some of the haiku poems published by The Asahi Shimbun. "And they are so short that anybody can write them."

Japanese poems do not rhyme, and the focus is on the rhythm of syllables. Haiku have just three short lines, with an emphasis on a particular season and its imagery. A related form, senryu, are the same length but are satirical.

Tanka, a traditional high-brow kind of verse, are five lines long with a rhythm similar to haiku. Then there is also free verse, which is longer and much less popular.

Ueda picks 40 haiku for publication each week in the Asahi Shim-bun, out of an average of 5,000 submitted from readers. Thousands more tanka and senryu are submitted and used in separate columns in the newspaper, and they are then all collected into anthologies that are published regularly.

Haiku is composed of three lines, of five, seven and five syllables, as in the following by Mayuzumi:

Hating the idea

Of all that is common,

I shampooed my hair.

Senryu follow the same pattern of syllables but are less traditional and emphasize a witty or satirical view of a modern issue. This example, cited in Mangajin Magazine, pokes fun of the incessant Japanese practice of consensus-building:

Meeting to decide

The right time to schedule the

Meeting to decide.

Tanka are five lines long, in the pattern of 5-7-5-7-7 syllables. Here is an example that has been published in the Asahi Shimbun's front-page poetry column:

It is best to brood

By one's solitary self.

Nothing is sadder

Than morose contemplation

Together with one's friends.

Even Japan's weekly magazines, the kind best known for their pictorials of naked women, publish poetry columns on the assumption that verse lures readers as well as flesh does.

Japanese companies often use poems or poetry contests in selling products, and these competitions draw stunning numbers of entries. Japan Airlines says it receives about 70,000 haiku every other year when it holds regular poetry contests.

One of the biggest poetry promotions is held each year by Itoen, a company that sells canned tea. Itoen began its contest in 1989 and received a record of nearly 400,000 haiku entries last year, mostly from children. The winning haiku are then printed on the company's tea packages and cans of tea.

The stereotype of Japanese is one of a conformist, eminently pragmatic people, but paradoxically the appeal of poetry seems to lie in its individualism and impracticality. One theory is that in a country where people are reluctant to express emotions directly, poetry offers an outlet of its own.

"People like to have a different world distinct from their daily life," said Shizuo Mori, a bookstore manager who writes poetry on the side. "The sense of fulfillment is enormous, so once you begin to write haiku it's easy to become hooked."

Mori says that he becomes obsessed with searching for appropriate words for his haiku, and he leaves pads of paper in every room of the house in case he has a sudden inspiration. He gets together regularly with friends to drink sake and read poems on a set topic, and he says those meetings are transcendental experiences.

"When I'm writing a poem, say on the topic of pomegranates, then I'm all fretting and troubled," he said. "I figure that the haiku I come up with is really the only approach possible. And then I hear what my buddies have come up with, and I'm stunned by it all. That's the joy of haiku for me."

These poetry meetings are becoming popular for young people as well. Mayuzumi, the poet-turned-television-personality, has started a string of poetry clubs called the Hepburn Club - because she is a fan of Audrey Hepburn - and these groups now hold meetings and publish a poetry magazine.

"Young people find it fulfilling entertainment, more so than karaoke or bars," Mayuzumi said. "Karaoke or discos might relieve stress and feel liberating, but poetry meetings offer that and also add an intellectual dimension."