Relentlessly topical, senryu have a lifespan of about two weeks, or sometimes even less. There are no schools or traditions to follow. Authors, invariably non-professionals with a gift for word play and a brazen willingness to tell bad jokes in public, take the basic 17 syllable verse unit – with some leeway as to how one defines 17 syllables — and run with it. Punning, rhyming, assonance and slipping parentheses are applauded, as are references to popular culture and most importantly, politics.
You can probably guess which poetry form I prefer.
Here is a selection of senryu from the Tokyo Shimbun of Saturday, March 3.
hassaku yori mo
The Japanese ship of state
Rather than the "Eight Proposals from the Ship"
Has to hurry up with "the scramble for cash"
Here the apposition is between the policy program of Hashimoto Toru's Ishin no kai which the proto-party has pompously called the “Eight Proposals from the Ship” (hassaku) in reference to Sakamoto Ryoma’s reform proposals of the same name — and the grubby search for revenues, including seizing dormant bank accounts, currently gripping the government (kinsaku). Both hassaku and kinsaku have the same second Chinese character. "Nihonmaru" is here used both as a common metaphor for Japan and specifically as a ship reference, as Sakamoto composed his eight proposals while onboard a vessel.
kuizu ni yowai
Our idiot role-player Minister of Defense
Who is weak at quizzes
Our Minister of Defense who is weak
At even quiz shows for idiots
Minister of Defense Tanaka Naoki has been an absolute disaster in parliamentary committee meetings. He has been constantly providing laughable interpretations of law, misunderstanding questions, pathetically stalling for time and coming back from gaffe after gaffe with apologies for either providing false information or no information. In this he is like an obakakyara, an archaismic version of the obakatarento, the “idiot celebrity,” the likes of whom have been infesting the airwaves en masse since five years ago. These are individuals, usually pretty young women, who have absolutely nothing in between their ears. Their abject stupidity is their charm. They are popular guests on certain quiz shows, or at least get booked on them, precisely because the answers they concoct are so idiotic.
Kioku shibore yo
Let's extract some memory, shall we?
The word play is in the phrase "extracting memory" (kioku shibore) since Elpida, which filed for bankruptcy last week, is a memory chip maker. The writer is hoping that Japan's powers that be learn something from the experience of trying to cobble together and prop up a national champion manufacturer in an industry where Japan has no clear national competitive edge.
Iu dake no
The gang leader who just talks tough (iu dake no bancho)
Has at last had to take a fall
On the 23rd of last month, Maehara Seiji, the Democratic Party of Japan's policy research chairman, took the extraordinary step of banning from his press conferences the right-wing national Sankei Shimbun. The Sankei had it coming, as it is, to be polite, a "fact-challenged" newspaper. The Sankei raged, the other newspapers tut-tutted, but Maehara stood firm. Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko, when asked what he thought of the brouhaha, did not say that he supported the action. He did say, however, that he would leave the matter up to Maehara. After five days, Maehara let the Sankei back in. When the Sankei reporter asked his first question — "Why did you ban us?" – Maehara shot back, "You wrote things not based on facts. As the questions and answers you had in your text never took place, I refused you entry." (J)
What is interesting here is the author takes the Sankei's view of the incident – which is all the more interesting as the Tokyo Shimbun is a card-carrying lefty paper. He (and it is a he, as the names of the authors along with the towns they live in are listed alongside the verses) says that Maehara had to bend at the hips and fall (koshi kudake) which, given the broadside Maehara shot off at the Sankei reporter (which all the other papers dutifully and merrily reproduced) is a very idiosyncratic interpretation of the outcome. He also uses a slightly modified version of the Sankei's personal epithet for Maehara, the "gang-leader who just talks" (iudake bancho) which is itself a near homophone of a famous manga series Yuyake bancho (You Tube video). The first four syllables of the poem (iu dake) also rhyme with the last three syllables (kudake).
Here is one for the Japan-U.S. alliance fans, one which is also blessedly straightforward:
Futenma and Henoko
The endless series of non-moves
Sen'nichite, according to my dictionary, is a term from shogi describing "a potentially endless repetition of moves leading to a draw." Which, 15 years into the process, is a damn accurate description of the Futenma mess.
If you have persevered this far, time for some serious play.
itsu ka wa shizumu
toki ga aru
Will also have its time when
It will sink
Hashism will also have its time
Those skeptical of or antagonistic toward Osaka City mayor Hashimoto Toru’s blend of enforced patriotism, browbeating opponents and lacerating bureaucrats deride his political program as hashizumu (“Hashism”) a play on fascism (fuashizumu).
The joke in this poem is in the way shizumu, “to sink” is written in katakana, rather than in kanji and/or hiragana,. It follows the topic marker wa, written as it should be with ha of hiragana. Together, the wa and the shizumu together become hashizumu, repeating the first word.
Then there are the senryu that, try as I might, I am at a loss to understand.
Iya to Munku
Ok, we have the reference to Edward Munch's "The Scream." We have folks screaming that they hate nuclear power plants. How it all fits together, seeing as how there are only six syllables in the middle line, defeats my meager powers of interpretation.
Anyone willing to have a go at it?