Skip to main content

Senryū, or haiku about human foibles

We all know what haiku (俳句) are, but have you heard of senryū (川柳)?

It's structurally similar to haiku – it's a three-lined unrhymed poem with seventeen syllables – but it focuses on human foibles and is usually witty, ironical or satirical. There's an overlap, of course, especially when it comes to the delightful tongue-in-cheek poems of Bashō and Issa. However, even when Issa is at his most human, you always know which season it is:

小便の百度参りやさよ千鳥
shōben no hyaku do mairi ya sayo chidori
going out to piss for the hundredth time ... plovers in the night

Plover (千鳥 chidori) is a seasonal word (季語 kigo) for winter, in other words, an old man with a prostate problem is surrounded by nature in this poem.

Karai Senryū

Compare it to a senryū by the Edo poet who gave the form its name, Karai Senryū (柄井川柳):

泥棒を 
捕えてみれば
我が子なり 

dorobō o 
toraete mireba
wagako nari

the robber,
when I catch him,
is my own son

Can you see the difference? The American haiku poet Alan Pizzarelli describes the two forms as follows: "If it is man within the world, it is haiku. If it is the world within man, it is senryū."

Nishiyama Matsunosuke writes in Edo Culture, Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 16001868: "One finds no languorous descriptions of mountains, no nostalgic impressions of the sea or pastoral villages. Instead, senryū thrive on portrayals of human differences and contrasts, on sharp thrusts at political corruption, on flashes of insight."

Japan scholar Donald Keene has a longer explanation in his book World within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era, 16001867:
The difference between a comic haikai¹ and a senryū are hard to define, but we might say that in general, haikai poetry deals with nature and senryū with human beings. This choice of subject matter is reflected by the insistence on seasonal words (kigo) in haikai poetry, but not in senryū. Haikai, at its best, tries to capture in seventeen syllables both the eternal and the momentary, but senryū is content with a single sharp observation. The importance of the "cutting words" (kireji) in haikai stemmed largely from the division they established between the two elements they contained, but a senryū needed no cutting words, since only one element was present. The language of senryū is generally that of the common people, and is sometimes even vulgar, but haikai, despite its occasional daring uses of such words, was essentially restricted to the vocabulary of the man of taste. Parts of speech that were considered inconclusive in a haikai often ended a senryū, as if to signify it was flash of wit rather than a rounded-off poem. 
As I mentioned above, senryū is named after Karai Senryū (1718–1790), its creator and most famous practitioner. He was originally named Karai Hachiemon (柄井八右衛門), but used the name Senryū, which means "river willow", as a poet. Karai worked in Edo as a so-called nanushi (名主 ward representative). He attracted attention as a master of maekuzuke (前句付), a competition in which different individuals work together to link verses into a long poem. Eventually his verses were appreciated independently and he became a teacher and judge of comic poetry: disciples presented their work for assessment and correction, and he published an anthology of their best efforts.

Karai's memorial stone in Kuramae. Senryū means "river willow",
and today, still, a willow grows next to his memorial.

The senryū fad peaked during the 1770s and 1780s. Karai was the most famous, but some twenty other teachers worked in Edo at the time.

Karai, incidentally, didn't merely live in Edo; he lived just around the corner in Kuramae and is buried at a tiny temple called Ryūhō-ji (龍宝寺). Now do you understand why I'm writing about him? I was blissfully unaware of all of this until I went for an evening walk and spotted what looked like a memorial stone with somebody's picture on it. That led to a bit of Googling, and that, eventually, resulted in this post.

Karai's memorial stone

Today, the art of senryū continues in Dai-ichi Life's annual "salaryman senryū competition", in which contestants lament the absurdities of the daily struggle in modern Japan. The competition's website is here, this year's winners are here and you can read a few translations of current as well as older senryū  here and here.

I also recommend these sources:



Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu  by Makoto Ueda

Notes

1) Haiku evolved from haikai.

Karai's memorial stone in Kuramae. The exact location is indicated
on the first map below.

Karai's grave is at this temple, Ryūhō-ji. The temple's exact location is
indicated on the second map below.

Karai's grave


Posters explaining Karai's history in front of the temple


His grave is underneath a beautiful willow.
He named himself after a willow.




View Larger Map

Popular posts from this blog

Higanbana, a flower of loss and longing

I love this flower. I love all flowers, but this one, ah, this one comes packaged with the most wonderful stories. Its scientific name is Lycoris radiata; in English it's red spider lily; in Japanese it has several names including higanbana (ヒガンバナ), in other words, autumn equinox flower.


It's also referred to as manjusaka (曼珠沙華), based on an old Chinese legend about two elves: Manju guarded the flowers and Saka the leaves, but they could never meet, because the plant never bears flowers and leaves at the same time. They were curious about each other, so they defied the gods' instructions and arranged a meeting. I assume it was not via Twitter. The gods promptly punished them, as gods are wont to do, and separated them for all eternity.
To this day, the red lily is associated with loss, longing, abandonment and lost memories in hanakotoba(花言葉), the language of flowers. It's believed that if you meet a person you'll never see again, these flowers will grow along your…

Edo wind chimes: air con for your soul

Have you noticed that Japan has a thing about bells?
Watch people's phones: every second phone charm has a little bell that jingles with the slightest movement. There are bells on doors and bells at shrines and bells at temples. There are bells on traditional hair ornaments called bira-bira kanzashi, bamboo chimes tuned DFGA for your garden, bells are a symbol of peace (link) and their sound echoes the impermanence of all things (link).
From which one could correctly deduce that peace is ever transient.
Now, before I get sidetracked down a thousand rabbit holes, let’s focus on the real topic: bells, yes, but specifically wind chimes or fūrin(風鈴).

I would not to mine own self be true if I didn't include a little history lesson. Here we go:
The oldest wind chimes found at archeological sites in South East Asia are 5000 years old. These early versions were made from wood, bones and shells; and were probably used to keep birds out of cultivated fields and/or to ward off evil spirits.
C…

Call it remorse

Something out of memory walks toward us,
something that refutes
the dictionary, that won’t roost
in the field guide. Something that once flew
and now must trudge. Call it grief,
trailing its wings like a shabby overcoat,
like a burnt flag. Call it ghost.
Call it aftermath. Call it remorse
for its ability to bite and bite
again. — Don McKay, from “Angel of Extinction,” Angular Unconformity: Collected Poems 1970-2014 (Icehouse Poetry, 2014)

The princess who loved insects

Edit added 8 May 2013: This post receives so many keyword search hits for "The Princess Who Loved Insects" that I've published an updated post (with extra information) that focuses on the book. Click here to read it.)

Blogging has been an interesting experiment. I initially started two blogs, Rurousha for personal musings and Sanpokatagata for factual stories accompanied by photos. I've now decided I'll do all stories on this blog, regardless of the content, and turn Sanpo into a supplementary photo blog. I'm not sure it's a good idea, since I'm not a good photographer at all, but let's see how it goes.
It occurred to me that "nomad" is not the ideal name for my blog. I don't wander anymore; I want to live in Japan forever and ever amen till death do us part. Then I remembered that I've already stayed in six different apartments in Tokyo and although most of my income is derived from one company, I've been based in three diff…

This is what my language sounds like

A while ago I promised I would do a post about Afrikaans songs. Oh dear. It's more work than I thought it would be, and it's aggravated by the fact that I've lost touch with contemporary culture in South Africa. (Please don't ask me about Die Antwoord. I don't get it. I don't want to get it.) So for now, while I continue my research, I've selected two golden oldies that are very natsukashii (that's a Japanese word for "dear" or "missed") to me. You'll notice the central themes that unite these songs: an abiding love for Africa, as well as loss and longing.
Quick recap: Afrikaans, my mother tongue, is a South African language developed from 17th century Dutch. It has adopted words from Malay, Khoisan and Bantu languages, but 90% of its vocabulary is of Dutch origin. Yes, I understand Dutch (with a bit of effort) and Flemish (easily). Afrikaans has about 6 million native speakers.
Tomorrow we return our focus to Japan. Tonight, son…

Hiking along the old Tōkaidō in Hakone

How in heaven's name did Edo travellers walk long this road …


over this pass …

wearing straw sandals?!


Last week I walked along the old Tōkaidō (東海道East Sea Road) in Hakone while The Hero was trolling¹ for trout on Lake Ashi (芦ノ湖Ashinoko). I did it in sturdy hiking boots, and although my feet weren't disgruntled, they weren't entirely gruntled either, if I may paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse.




It was the first time I visited Hakone, and I enjoyed it so much that I'll just have to go again. Since The Hero agrees with me, I predict more Hakone posts, but this one will focus on my first trip's main goal: following the Tōkaidō, the road that connected Edo and Kyoto. The old road has been replaced by modern highways² and high-speed railways, but you can still walk along the original route between Moto-Hakone (800 meters above sea level) and Hakone-Yumoto (80 meters above sea level), a distance of about 10 km. The sea levels should warn you that it's a steep route.
I didn't…

The Princess Who Loved Insects (updated)

My blog gets so many search keyword hits about this particular topic that I've decided to update an old post about the Japenese story The Princess Who Loved Insects(虫めづる姫君Mushi Mezuru Himegimi).

It's contained in Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor (堤中納言物語Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari), a collection of short stories written in the late Heian period. It focuses on the adventures of a young girl who refuses to make herself beautiful and play the courtship game. She doesn't blacken her teeth and pluck her eyebrows (as refined ladies did in those days); instead, she spends her time outdoors, playing with bugs and caterpillars.


I refer to her as Ms Mushi (Ms Insect).  A girl this tough is definitely not a prim prissy Miss, she's a ballsy Ms. She's my favourite Japanese heroine. She's strong, she's rebellious, she refuses to pretend, she ignores society's stupid rules that fetter women. You go, girl! Long live caterpillar eyebrows!

Donald Keene mentions in hi…

Hiking along the Mitake Valley in Okutama

I'm lying. Exaggerating. It's not hiking; it's walking.

As a matter of fact, the Mitake Valley Riverside Trail has given me a new definition of walking vs hiking: if you encounter vending machines along the way, it's walking, not hiking.
I've done several hikes in Okutama, but I'm going to start with this walk because anybody can do it. It's exceptionally beautiful, truly pleasant and very easy. You don't need to be an experienced hiker, you don't need hiking boots, you don't need energy drinks – or Scotch – to keep going.

It starts at Ikusabata Station on the Ōme Line, follows the Tama River and ends about 5 km upstream. It took me about two hours of slow walking, many photos, frequent diversions and arbitrary stops to enjoy the autumn colours.
Let's do this section by section. Warning: this post is photo-heavy!
Ikusabata to Sawai

It takes 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. Take the Chūō Line to Ōme, transfer to the Ōme Line and get off at Ikusab…

The ultimate guide to Kanda Myojin

I'm floundering. I don't know how to start a post about Kanda Myōjin (神田明神), because how do you choose a highlight from this collection below?
The decapitated head of a rebellious samurai who's still haunting Ōtemachi is buried in the vicinity, and his deified spirit is enshrined here.It's been called the world's geekiest shrine thanks to its proximity to otaku heaven Akihabara. The shrine has a Facebook, Twitter and LINE account.You can see some extremely generously endowed young ladies on the shrine's ema.It has a horse. A real horse. A tiny living breathing pony.Birds protect it against fire.
See my problem? Where do I start the ultimate guide to the ultimate shrine?




Why Kanda Myōjin?
Let's be boring and kick off with my own connection with Kanda Myōjin, which is very simple: I've always lived within walking distance of the shrine. My first four years in Tokyo were spent in Kanda, blissfully close to the book district Jinbōchō, and I frequently passed …

Hōzuki Ichi (Chinese lantern plant market)

I've written about this market before; this time I'm shamelessly copying an old post. The photos are new, though. ;)


Every year on 9 and 10 July a Chinese lantern market is held at Sensō-ji. "Chinese lantern" is a plant: scientific name Physalis alkekengi, Japanese namehōzuki. They have translucent orange pods that might remind you of Chinese lanterns, and they were used as a medicine for fever, gout and just about any ailment you can think of.
The temple's precinct is packed with 200 hōzuki vendors selling plants for ¥2000 to ¥2500, and wind chimes (fūrin). This year my visit was brief, because Sensō-ji has become a rather unpleasant experience. Too many tourists. Sigh.