TOKYO – A 99-year-old woman writing about love, dreams and hanging on to hope has touched thousands of hearts, propelling her self-published poetry book onto bestseller lists. "Kujikenaide," which translates as "Don't Lose Heart" or "Don't Be Too Frustrated," has struck a chord with a Japanese public tired of two decades of recession and thirsting for the wisdom of experience.
Toyo Shibata's anthology has sold 1.5m copies since its publication, in late 2009. The self-published collection of 42 poems is proving literary balm to a country confronted with economic decline and questions over how to fund welfare and pensions for the growing population of over-65s.
Kujikenaide has been the most popular title on Japan's keenly watched Oricon chart for the past two weeks and was among the 10 most popular titles of last year. After recording impressive early sales, the book was taken on by the publisher Asuka Shinsha and reissued, with new artwork, last spring.
The nonagenarian describes her poems, with uplifting titles such as Everyone's Dreams Are Equal and Take It Easy, Don't Try Too Hard, as an expression of gratitude to the people who have cared for her during her twilight years. "I've lived to this age thanks to support from my family, friends, caregivers and doctors, and am transforming my gratitude into poetry to tell them, 'Thank you, I am really happy,'" Reuters quoted her as saying.
Aside from offering gentle encouragement, Ms Shibata occasionally adopts a confessional tone. In one poem, Secret, she writes: "Although 98, I've fallen in love. I also have dreams. I want to ride on a cloud." The verse is apparently a reference to a doctor who visited her at home.
Helped by a late boost of publicity from a television documentary in December, 2010, the book hit 1.5 million copies in print, said publisher Asukashinsha. Printing just 10,000 copies is often seen as a success for poetry books in Japan.
Ms Shibata began her literary journey at 92 when she could no longer continue with her decades-long hobby of classical Japanese dance due to back pain. Her son Kenichi, currently in his mid-60s, recommended she try poetry writing. "When my first poem was published in a newspaper, I was very, very happy. I sent them another one and that also got published. So I kept on writing," she said.
She jots down her poetic inspirations whenever they strike, whether she is in bed or sitting at her home in the Tokyo suburbs, where she has lived alone since her husband died 19 years ago. Much of her writing is done at night, after her home helper leaves. "I think of various things: memories of my past and my family, my current life. I immerse myself in those memories and write from them," Ms Shibata said.
Written in what reviewers have termed a down-to-earth style with "sprightly" words, her poems have proven encouraging to thousands of readers. "I received the courage and dreams to live on from you," a 70-year-old reader said in a letter to Ms Shibata's publisher. Another fan, a man who was being shunned by colleagues, said "I take your poems out to read when I'm frustrated."
Ms Shibata hopes her success presents a living example of a late bloomer, giving some hope to Japan's rapidly aging society. "A flower bloomed from a century-old tree, and it's all because of your support," said Ms Shibata, who is writing poems for a new collection to be published ahead of her 100th birthday this year. "Now I have a souvenir to bring to the after-world and boast about to my husband and my mother there," she added.
Few people can say they’ve lived as long as Toyo Shibata. At 99, she has seen two world wars, four emperors and 81 prime ministers. Over the span of such a long life, one would hope to acquire valuable wisdom about the world and how to be happy. Ms. Shibata has.
She writes: “Though there were hardships in my life, I’m glad I went on living. You should too, without getting frustrated.”
This notion of being open with yourself and finding more comfort in who you are could be just what Japan needs. Click the link below to see a video of Toyo Shibata reading her poetry:
FIND KUJIKENAIDE HERE (In Japanese only)