Toyo Shibata was a poet who came to writing late in life and found success in two best-selling collections of verse. The first of these, Kujikenaide (Don't Lose Heart), was published in her 98th year and has since sold more than 1.6 million copies in her native Japan.
Shibata was born in 1911 in Ibaraki, the only daughter of Yasu and Tomizo Morishima, a rice merchant. When his business failed she was sent out to work to help support the family. She was married by the age of 20 but left her abusive husband after six months. Moving back to her parents' home, she remained there until she met her second husband, a chef.
When he died she took up Japanese classical dancing. Much later, when back problems forced her to stop, her son suggested she try her hand at poetry. Already aged over 90, she made her poetic debut in a local newspaper and recalled of that first appearance in print "...I was very, very happy. I sent them another one and that also got published. So I kept on writing,"
Shibata self-published her first anthology, Kujikenaide [Don't Lose Heart] in 2009, her 98th year. Seeing the potential of her work, the publisher Asaka Shinsha brought out an illustrated edition, including 42 poems, the following year. Surprised and amazed by the positive reception to the book, which went on to top the best-seller list in January 2011, she said to her new-found audience: "A flower bloomed from a century-old tree, and it's all because of your support. Now I have a souvenir to bring to the after-world and boast about to my husband and my mother there."
Her second volume, Hyakusai [100 years old], was published in June 2011 for her centenary and has already sold several hundred thousand copies. Both works have been widely translated and English editions are planned. In Hyakusai she dedicated a poem to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake, including the lines "I beg of you / Please do not allow your soul / To also be swept away".
Last year she collaborated with Ursula Gräfe on a German edition of her work, Du bist nie zu alt, um glücklich zu sein [You are never too old to be happy]. Gräfe said "...Kujikenaide was very well received in Germany. My own father, who is over 90 years old and not much of a reader loves Mrs Shibata's poems. With their simple but atmospheric mood they touch him as related to his own feelings as an older person, he says. And even across cultural boundaries he felt great understanding and the joy of living which is expressed in the poems."
Shibata's son remarked that "She kept writing poems until she was about 100. She needed help when she walked in the past half-year, although she was full of vigour."
She considered the poems to be a way of thanking those who had looked after her during her long life: "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.'" Asked about the creative process, she said "I think about many things: my past, my family, my daily life. I immerse myself in my memories and write about them." The resulting verse is a mix of observations on life, domestic matters, people around her and growing old. Here is one of those poems:
In my ears the wind
In intoxicating tones
"Shall we go now
To the other side?"
"I'll stay here
Just a bit longer
There are still some things
With a pout on her face
Swiftly returned from whence she
Toyo Shibata, poet: born Ibaraki, Japan 26 June 1911; married twice (one son by second marriage); died Utsunomiya 20 January 2013.
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