99-Year-Old Poet Becomes Bestseller, Inspires Readers

PHOTO: Japanese Grandma AuthorPlayAsuka Shinsha
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Toyo Shibata waited 92 years to start writing poems. Now, just five months before her 100th birthday, Shibata has become Japan's best-selling poet.

Her collection of 42 poems titled "Kujikenaide," or "Don't Lose Heart," has already sold 1.5 million copies, in a country where 10,000 books sold is considered a success.The rookie writer has stood atop the country's Oricon chart for several weeks.

"I work hard to improve every day," Shibata said. "I write when I can't sleep, any time something comes to mind. I don't have anything else to do."

Shibata's poems cover a wide range of themes from family to old age. Each verse is short, many no longer than a 140 character tweet, her words thoughtful, her message uplifting.

In a poem titled "Savings" she writes about "saving up on kindness instead of a pension." In "For My Son" she explores the importance of remembering a "mother's warmth" when times get tough. In the poem "Don't Lose Heart" she writes, "I've struggled a lot, but I'm glad I lived."

Shibata's book has struck a chord with growing number of aging readers, and people 65 and older now make up a quarter of Japan's population. The author has said the poems were an expression of gratitude for caretakers who have looked after her in old age.

"She's just so positive and uplifting," said reader Hanae Kobayashi. "She's always looking forward."

Life wasn't always so good for Shibata. She grew up in a poor family and started working as a teenager to support her parents. She divorced just six months after her first marriage, and waited a decade until she tied the knot again.

Shibata raised her son Kenichi while juggling jobs at restaurants and as a seamstress, sewing kimonos. When her husband died 19 years ago, she took up classic Japanese dance, but back pains forced her to give that up years later. That's when she picked up her pen.

Shibata says it takes her about 10 days to write each poem. She sits by a large window, with pen and paper in hand, and makes note of thoughts that come to mind. The popularity of her book has prompted thousands of fans to write to her every day. She tears up, as she sifts through the postcards, overwhelmed by the response to her writing.

Poet Inspiring Readers at Age 99

"Don't Lose Heart" has already been translated into Korean, and publisher Asuka Shinsha says they are in talks to sell the book in other countries as well.

For now, Shibata is focusing on her next goal, publishing another book of poems, to mark her 100th birthday.