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March 1999

Best Closing Lines for Mukai's Poem Awarded

A total of 144,781 verses were submitted in a contest to complete a tanka poem whose first half was written by Chiaki Mukai, Japan's first female astronaut, while she was aboard Discovery on her second space shuttle mission in November 1998.

Tanka are five-line poems of 31 syllables split into a pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. This form has been in use in Japan since at least the seventh century and is still an important and very popular style for serious and amateur poets today.

The youngest submitter was 5 years old, and the oldest was 101. Poems were sent from several foreign countries, and a large share were written by elementary school children. They were asked to come up with the final two lines for Mukai's three-line opener: Chu gaeri / nandomo dekiru / mujuryoku ("Repeating somersaults over and over in zero gravity").

The authors of the 13 best entries were recently honored by the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA). Among them were six elementary and middle school students.

Manami Tanno, a fourth grader living in Nagano Prefecture, won the Prime Minister Award and the Chiaki Mukai Award, the top prize for young contestants, by writing Mizu no mari tsuki / dekitara iina (How nice if I could bounce a ball of water).

All fourth graders at Manami's school submitted a poem after one of the students found out about the contest and suggested they all take part. Manami, who hopes to become a teacher of modern ballet, says that she developed an interest in space from her school teacher, who taught students about the mechanisms of the universe. She remembers being fascinated by a scene on TV that showed that water floats in the shape of balls in zero gravity.

Asked to comment on Manami's work, Mukai said, "The Earth floats in the darkness of the universe and looks just like 'a ball of water.' It's elegant like a lady, and I was proud to know that I was sharing such a wonderful place with my fellow humans."

Daisuke Anno, a sixth grader in Tochigi Prefecture, won the Education Minister Award with Tsugi ni ikuno wa / bokutachi no ban (Next will be our turn to be in space). And Yukiko Kondo, a third grader living in Aichi Prefecture, won the NASDA Award with Watashi no mirai / hirogaru sekai (The universe, where my future expands).

The ending lines that Mukai herself composed were Chakuchi dekinai / kono modokashisa (But how unsettling not to be able to land on my feet). "On Earth, we always fall to the ground," she explained. "But this wasn't the case in space, where it was so easy to do somersaults. Since very few people have actually experienced this, I might be the only one who would have finished the poem this way."

Photo: Mukai sits with some of the winners of the contest to complete her poem. (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun)