If you have been studying Japanese for some time, you might have heard of Japanese poetry genres such as the haiku or tanka. Frankly speaking, some of these genres can be a bit difficult to grasp even for advanced Japanese speakers as they may use difficult kanji characters along with formal and/or traditional language. However, do you know that there is actually a type of modern Japanese poetry which is comparatively easier to understand and write? And since it uses many real-life situations as its theme, it is often very easy to relate to and funny once you understand the meaning. Read on to discover more about the fascinating world of senryu!
Senryu (川柳) which literally means river willow, is a form of three-line short poetry which consists of 17 syllables arranged in the order of 5-7-5 also known as go-shichi-go in Japanese. What this means is that in each line of the poem, the number of syllables has to be no more than 5 in the first line, 7 in the second and 5 in the last line. Senryu is usually written in the present tense.
It is common for people to be confused between senryu and haiku (俳句) which follows a similar format. However, there are some key differences between the two poetry forms. First of all, haiku will always have a kigo (季語) which is a word with reference to the seasons while it is not compulsory for senryu to have the same. In fact, haiku’s content tends to be more about nature and rather impersonal while senryu focuses more on people and the things happening around them with a tinge of sarcasm and humour. In the haiku, the kireji (切れ字) or punctuation words, such as ya (や), kana (かな) and keri (けり) are a must while they can be omitted in senryu. Last but not least, haiku tends to be expressed in written form while senryu is more often expressed in oral form.
Despite their differences, the senryu and haiku both originate from another poetry form, the haikai (俳諧). Haiku is a genre which developed from the haikai’s first line called hokku (発句) and retains the key characteristics of the kigo and kireji from haikai. On the other hand, senryu branched out from the haikai’s hiraku (平句) meaning the line following the first three lines of a renga (連歌) which is another form of poetry and has lesser restrictions comparatively in terms of structure and content.
The poetry genre of senryu got its name from a haikai poet Karai Senryu (柄井川柳) who lived during the Edo era. Karai was a government official in the Asakusa area of then-Edo (today’s Tokyo) and was also the head of a village. In addition, he was a poet who wrote under the pen name of Senryu and also took on judging duties for the maekuzuke (前句付） competitions where contestants had to create a short 17-syllabled poem according to the 14-syllabled verse theme set by the judge. Gradually, this new form of 17-syllabled poem became popular and was referred to as enryu in Karai’s honour.
A key driver in senryu’s popularity in the last 30 years or so should be The Salaryman Senryu Content organised by The Daiichi Life Insurance Company annually since 1987. This is a contest open to everyone in Japan regardless of their occupation, age, and gender so it’s not restricted to salarymen as the title of the contest suggests. To date, the contest has entered its 29th year and the latest edition received a total of 39,551 entries, thus bringing the overall total to 1.04 million entries.
The senryu written for this contest are very good indicators of the economic conditions, trends and social phenomenon in Japan over the past year thus it has attracted a lot of attention and interest. Every year, the entries will go through a preliminary selection of which 100 outstanding works will then go through public voting. The results are subsequently announced in February of the following year when the top 10 will be published on Daiichi’s website and mentioned on TV news and in newspapers. Outstanding works are also compiled and published in a book with illustrations by NHK Publishing.
Among the top 10 selected in the 29th Salaryman Senryu Contest announced this February, I would like to feature five of them which I thought are very interesting, funny and which I could identify with. Hopefully, once you understand the meaning behind these senryu poems, you will be able to appreciate better why this genre is so popular with the masses:
No.1 Taishokukin moratta shunkan Tsuma Drone (退職金 もらった瞬間 妻ドローン)
The winning entry incorporates the popular themes of jukunen rikon (熟年離婚) where wives divorce their husbands who hit retirement age and drones where it likens the salaryman’s wife as a drone who hovers over him menacingly once he gets his retirement payout which can then be taken as alimony when they divorce. This Senryuu was immensely popular with the male voters where some of them commented that this scenario was what they imagined would happen by the time they reach retirement age.
No.2 Jiichan ga tatetemo mago wa baachanchi (じいちゃんが 建てても孫は ばあちゃんち)
This is a form of ironic humour as the writer laments that even though it is the grandfather who paid for the house which he lives in with his wife, the grandchild would always refer to their home as Grandma’s house rather than Grandpa’s house. This senryu was especially popular with female voters who commented that this is exactly how their husbands feel whenever their grandchildren say something like this and there were people who said that they were never conscious of how they referred to their grandparents’ houses until they came across this senryu.
No.3 Kimi dake wa Ore no mono dayo My Number (キミだけは オレのものだよ マイナンバー)
My Number is an identification number system implemented in Japan recently whereby every citizen is assigned a unique number which can be used to access information about them by government departments and specific organisations. As spoken from the perspective of a salaryman, there is nothing that actually belongs to them e.g. their salary goes to their wives or families so they are lamenting that My Number is the only thing which they can claim to be theirs to own.
No.5 Fukuzawa wo kuzushita totan saru Noguchi (福沢を 崩した途端 去る野口)
In order to understand this senryu, you need to understand who Fukuzawa and Noguchi are. In this instance, the writer is referring to Fukuzawa Yukichi (福沢諭吉) who appears on the 10,000 yen note and Noguchi Hideo (野口英世) who appears on the 1,000 yen note. What this senryu means is that once you break a big note, the small notes will just flow away in no time. In other words, the small change is spent without you noticing it. Instead of mentioning the 10,000 yen and 1,000 yen notes directly, the writer refers to them by the surnames of the individuals who appear on the notes. As such, if you aren’t aware of this fact, the humour and meaning of this senryuu might not be so apparent.
No.7 Kimeru no wa itsumo genba ni inai hito (決めるのは いつも現場に いない人)
For anyone who has worked before, this is probably something which you can identify with. What this Senryuu means is that decisions made in the workplace are usually done by people who don’t know the ground at all. This is a common phenomenon where management is said to be so detached from the happenings at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder that they make decisions without considering the challenges, pains and struggles of their subordinates. I think this is the senryu which hit closest to home for me especially since this is a common frustration which many employees face.
After reading so much about the senryu, how about trying to write one on your own or reading works of other people? For a start, the Daiichi Life Insurance Company has an archive of the outstanding works from previous editions of the Salaryman Senryu contest and advice on how to get started with writing your own senryu on their website. Although this site is entirely in Japanese, it will be a good starting point for Japanese learners to learn how to write simple senryu poems and have fun in the process. Hope that you’ll have fun discovering more about the fascinating world of senryu!