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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:

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):


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


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.

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