By Lynne E. Riggs, Komae, Tokyo
My robe is the earth
My overcoat, the universe
—Both without a spare
By Michio Mado
Translated by Empress Michiko
From bilingual anthology Eraser, p. 9
The celebration of National Poetry Month in the United States offers a good opportunity to call attention to the work of Mado Michio (1909–2014), Japan’s first winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing and the author of numerous poems popular in Japan among readers of all ages.
Mado’s poetry captures an intimacy and a scale of things that reminds us of nature’s scheme. Simple words, sparely used are his trademark—no fancy haiku-like allusions or rigid conventions can contain him. He brings humans to the level of smaller creatures, and smaller creatures to the level of humans: Birds become “little brothers of the clouds,” a caterpillar expresses shock at the idea of a “haircut”; the poet shows sympathy for a pumpkin’s “stiff shoulders.” This is a world children instinctively understand in those halcyon days before formal education dominates their attention.
Mado grew famous in Japan soon after World War II and published numerous poetry collections throughout his career. His poems “Elephant” (Zōsan), “Goats and Letters” (Yagi-san yūbin), “When I Enter First Grade” (Ichinensei ni nattara), and others became such popular children’s songs that the author’s name was often forgotten. International recognition for Mado began late, with publication of the first Japanese-English bilingual anthology of his poems in 1992.
He was 85 years old in 1994 when, following nomination by the Japanese Board on Books for Young People (JBBY) and its preparation of a dossier in English on him for the screening committee, he won the Andersen Award. Only a fraction of his tremendous output has been translated into English, most of it with great sensitivity by Empress Michiko. To the bilingual volumes The Animals and Magic Pocket, published in the 1990s, Eraser and Rainbow were recently added. Determined to “portray things as they have never been portrayed before,” Mado was also a prolific visual artist.
In Japanese, adults can access a fine volume, Jinsei shohō shishū (Mado Michio: Prescriptions for Life Anthology), which contains Mado’s selected poems, reproductions of pages from his diaries, examples of paintings and other artwork, essays about his work, and a biographical sketch by the volume’s editor, Noriko Ichikawa. Ms. Ichikawa tells me that compilation of the truly complete works of Mado, who died on February 28, is now underway.
Jinsei shohō shishū offers prescriptions of Mado’s poems for times when “the world makes no sense to you,” “you end up comparing yourself with others,” “you feel philosophical,” and so on. Under the heading “when you want to laugh,” it gives a taste of Mado’s mischievous sense of humor, which delights adults as well as children. Below is an excerpt from his piece “Foreign Loanword Dictionary” (Gairaigo jiten), which throws the gauntlet at any translator. The original Japanese is followed by a romanization (hark to the auditory qualities of the words) and a provisional English translation (try your own translation, too!).
ファッション == はっくしょん
ア ラ モード == あら どうも
ミニ スカート == 目にすかっと
パンタロン == ぱあだろう
ネグリジェ == ねぐるしいぜ
ダイヤモンド == だれのもんだ
マニキュア == まぬけや
Fasshon = hakushon
A ra mōdo = Ara dōmo
Mini sukatto = Me ni sukatto
Pantalon = Paa darō
Negurije = Negurushii ze
Daiyamondo = Dare no mon da
Manikyua = Manukeya
Fashion = (sneeze) Bless you, but . . .
Á la mode = Oh! my dear!
Mini skirt = Max to the eyes
Pantalons (trousers) = Balloonhead
Négligée = Not good for sleeping, I say
Diamond = Who does that belong to?
Manicure = You need a cure
Translation by Lynne E. Riggs
The words and Mado’s perspective remind us that he lived from a time when kimono was standard dress for both men and women and forms of dress were being adopted from other cultures.
Mado’s poetry enchants in Japanese, of course, but with care, it translates successfully. Translation is one way to truly engage with Mado’s muse, as I discovered when I helped with the materials supporting JBBY’s nomination of Mado for the Andersen Award. To encounter lines like “Enokorogusa . . . kaze o te ni onegai shinakereba” (Foxtail . . . I’ll ask the wind to touch you with its hand) in Rainbow takes me back to childhood days, playing in the woods and fields of a place now far away.
Lynne E. Riggs is a professional translator and editor based in Tokyo. She is a founding and active member of the Tokyo-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET).