TOKYO A 99-year-old woman writing about love, dreams and hanging on to hope has touched the hearts of Japanese worn out by years of a lagging economy, propelling her self-published poetry book onto bestseller lists.
Toyo Shibata's success with her first anthology, titled "Don't be Too Frustrated," is all the more surprising because she only picked up her pen at the age of 92.
"I'm alive to this age thanks to support from my families, friends, care-givers and doctors and am transforming my gratitude into poetry to tell them, 'Thank you. I'm really happy,'" said Shibata, who turns 100 in June, in written answers to questions.
Her collection of 42 poems, which include messages such as "Everyone is equally free to dream" and "Don't try too hard," has been the most popular book on the closely-watched Oricon charts for the last two weeks and was one of the top 10 sellers for 2010, according to Touhan, one of Japan's biggest publishers.
"Although 98, I still fall in love. I do have dreams; one like riding on a cloud," Shibata confesses in one poem with the title of "Secret."
Last week, helped by a late boost of publicity from a television documentary in December, the book hit 1.5 million copies in print, said publisher Asukashinsha. Printing 10,000 copies is often seen as a success for poetry books in Japan.
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 lives alone. 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," 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 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."
Shibata hopes her success presents a living example of a late bloomer, giving some hope to Japan's rapidly ageing society.
"A flower bloomed from a century-old tree, and it's all because of your support," said Shibata, who is writing poems for a new collection to be published ahead of her 100th birthday.
"Now I have a souvenir to bring to the after-world and boast about to my husband and my mother there," she added.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)