Chocolate Revolutionary: Tawara Machi’s Rule-Breaking Tanka Verses

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Japanese Language and Literature

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Following the enormous success of her debut poem collection, the 1987 Salad Anniversary (Sarada kinenbi), which generated the “Salad Boom” (“Sarada būmu”) in Japan, Tawara Machi became a public spokesperson for her genre, riding a large secondary wave of both popular and critical interest in the tanka. Also known as uta (song) and waka (Japanese poem/song), the tanka is Japan’s millennium-old thirty-one-syllable form of short poetry, which can be found in the country’s oldest poetic anthology, The Collection of 10,000 Leaves (Man’yōshū), dating to 785, but certainly with roots going back even further in time. After Salad Anniversary, Tawara, freshly anointed “Salad” doyen of the tanka, actively promoted composition of the short poems. Since that time, she has published numerous essays and books on tanka composition, including Reading/Composing Tanka (Tanka o yomu, 1993) and Please Teach Us How to Create Tanka (Tanka no tsukurikata, oshiete kudasai, 2014; with Hitoto Yō). On the surface, her message over the years has not drastically changed. In fact, the one rule that she consistently re-affirms is that when composing a tanka, one must strive to maintain the thirtyone-syllable form, which she began to lovingly call her “magic wand” (mahō no tsue) in 1987. 1 That phrase became the title for her follow-up book of interviews and talks (taidanshū) with other literary figures and critics in 1989.2 By 2014, Tawara acknowledged that mahō no tsue had become her “trademark phrase” (na-zerifu), perhaps indicating her own somewhat weary awareness of how the demands of the form––tradition itself—has required her to repeat what needed to be repeated. 3 In practice, it seems that Tawara does not violate the rule and break her “magic wand” when she composes poetry. She has responded to charges that she has in fact honored the art form she serves.


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