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Autumn 2007, vol 5 no 3
 

Tanka of Shuji Terayama (1936-1983)
by Kozue Uzawa


Do you know Shuji Terayama (or Terayama Shuji in the Japanese way)? He died more than 20 years ago at the age of 47. Many Japanese people remember him as an avant-garde playwright or as a songwriter of some hit songs in the 1960s. I heard him talk occasionally on the radio when I was young. I don't remember what he was talking about, but I do remember his heavily accented Japanese. He had an Aomori accent, and many people liked it. I didn't know at that time that he was a tanka poet when he was younger.

When I started writing tanka (in Japanese), I read Terayama's tanka for the first time and liked his modern, lyrical expressions. He is still one of my favorite Japanese tanka poets. I included some of Terayama's tanka in Ferris Wheel: 101 Modern and Contemporary Tanka (trans. with A. Fielden). By reading book reviews of Ferris Wheel, I noticed that many reviewers quoted Terayama's tanka. This encouraged me to translate some more tanka from Terayama's collections.

I read all the tanka he produced, but didn't know much about Terayama himself. It is well known that Terayama wrote many of his tanka as fiction, but I didn't know why and how he fictionalized his tanka. So, I read several books and articles about Terayama, including his mother's memoirs. What I found is that Terayama wrote many tanka as fiction in order to express his complex feelings of being "abandoned" by his mother using his extraordinary imagination.

He started writing haiku, tanka, and free verse when he was a junior high school student. He debuted to the tanka world winning a very prestigious tanka prize when he was only 18 years old. However, Terayama quit writing tanka at the age of 28 (in 1964) after publishing his third collection of tanka. By this time, he was already well known as an award-winning playwright, director, and essayist nationally and internationally.

For my translation project with Amelia Fielden, I selected about 200 tanka from his whole collection, and translated for publication. (Our manuscript has been accepted by the Hokuseido Press. The tentative title is "Kaleidoscope: Selected Tanka of Shuji Terayama".) As you will find in his tanka quoted below, he writes tanka as if it is a scene from a movie, stage play, or novel. He himself plays a role of a Korean boy, mixed blood boy, P.O.W., actress, factory worker, etc. His mother dies many times in his tanka.

His complex feelings of "being abandoned" by his mother, longing for his dead father and the siblings he did not have, and longing to be freed from reality are expressed in the form of fiction. Terayama's father, who was a policeman, died in the war when Terayama was nine. Terayama's mother started working in the US military base in Misawa, Aomori, in order to make a living, and when Terayama was in junior high, she left home and moved to Fukuoka, Kyushu, with her "boss" in order to work in the US base there. Terayama lived with his uncle until he moved to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. Many of his well-known tanka were written in his high school and university days.

For this article, I selected some of Terayama's fiction tanka from our manuscript and wrote some notes.


submerging them
in the water
of a night-dark stream,
I wash my military shoes
from those captive days

(If we read this tanka without any knowledge about Terayama, we would think the author went to the war. The reality is that Terayama's father was sent to the war and never came back.)


being of mixed blood
I feel lonely
even if I win—
I walk along chewing
a hot grass stalk

(Terayama's parents were Japanese, but after his father died in the war, his mother started to work in the US military base in their hometown. She then moved to Fukuoka with her American "boss" to work in the US military base there. Terayama was an "orphan" in his junior and senior high school days. Terayama wrote many tanka in which an orphan or motherless child appears.)


striking a match
momentarily
I see the foggy ocean—
is there a motherland
I can dedicate myself to?

(The first 3 lines are based on Kakio Tomizawa's haiku. Using Kakio's haiku as a background, he re-created a very dramatic scene. It's like a scene from an old cinema. This technique is called honka-dori (writing a tanka using a phrase or an image from a well-known haiku or tanka). However, when this tanka was published, some people accused him of plagiarism.)


farewell
summer lights, and
my homeland Korea—
even from the roof
the sea is invisible

(Here, again, I have to mention that Terayama's parents and grandparents were Japanese. I think Terayama used Korean people's hard life in Japan in the 1950s and 60s as the background of this tanka in order to express his feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.)



come to buy a suit
with my salesman dad,
a little hesitantly
I'm watching
some seagulls

(As I mentioned earlier, Terayama's father, policeman, died in the war when he was nine. This tanka, with words like "salesman" and "seagulls", reminds us of some stage plays.)


failing even
to become an actress
I listen to
the sound of seagulls
shot in the winter marsh

(Many people might think that the third line should be "she listens to", but this translation is correct. Terayama is a failed actress here. This tanka reminds us of Chekhov's stage play, Seagull.)



in the end
there's no such thing as
exciting despair—
outside the factory,
pure green wheat

(According to the biography of Terayama, he has never worked in a factory although in this tanka it sounds like he is working in a factory. He plays a role of a factory worker to express his longing to be freed from his harsh reality.)



in the countryside
I abandoned my mother—
such a thing
is not
a bleeding memory

(Terayama had a feeling of "being abandoned" by his mother for a long time. This tanka expresses his feeling very ironically.)



going out to buy
a new Buddhist altar
my brother
and his bird
went missing

(When I read this tanka for the first time, I thought Terayama had a brother. Again, this is a fiction, but his longing for siblings he never had is expressed dramatically here.)



in order to sew up
the horizon
my sister hid
a silk needle
in the sewing box

(Terayama did not have a sister, either. Terayama's imaginary siblings often appear in his tanka.)



coming alone
to the sold rice field
on a winter night
I'm burying
my mother's scarlet comb

(When I read this tanka, an image of an ornamental classical Japanese comb used by high-class prostitutes in the Edo period, came to my mind. However, it is doubtful that his mother had such a classical Japanese comb. The scarlet comb in this tanka conveys a strong impact to the readers. It expresses Terayama's resentment toward his mother, and at the same time his longing for her.)



I gently comb
the turtledove
with my dead mother's
scarlet comb—
its down keeps falling out

(Terayama's mother is dead in this tanka, but she was alive when it was written. She died in 1991, eight years after her son's death in 1983.)


I introduced some of Terayama's "fiction" tanka here. I hope English tanka poets could expand their horizon by reading Terayama's tanka. We don't need to use "nature" in each tanka we write. We don't need to write biographical tanka all the time. We may be able to express our true emotion/feeling when we write tanka as fiction.

(This article is based on my presentation at the Haiku Canada Conference held in Ottawa, May 18-20, 2007.)

 


Kozue Uzawa Kozue Uzawa is a tanka poet, editor, translator, educator, and researcher (in second language learning). Originally from Japan, she lives in Canada, and writes tanka in both Japanese and English. Her home page: http://people.uleth.ca/~uzawa/