“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,” philosophizes the long-winded Polonius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That’s also a fitting description of senryū — a form of short poetry defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a three-line unrhymed Japanese poem structurally similar to haiku, but treating human nature usually in an ironic or satiric vein.”

Literally meaning “river willow,” senryū is derived from the pen name of one of its early devotees, poet Karai Hachiemon (1718-1790), who wrote as Karai Senryū (柄井川柳). His collection of 24 booklets, published from 1765 under the joint title Haifuyanagidaru, helped to popularize the genre.

Senryū and haiku share the same economical three-line format, composed of five, seven and five morae, a word sometimes rendered in English as “syllable,” although that’s not quite correct. As a general rule of thumb, every unit of sound represents one mora, so therefore two vowels occurring in succession, such as in kau or mae, are treated as two morae. Also, a 促音 (sokuon, double consonant), as indicated in both types of kana by the so-called 小さい「つ」 (chiisai tsu, small “tsu”) — such as in なっとう (nattō, fermented soybeans) or やっぱり (yappari, as I thought) — is counted as one mora. Finally, a sound ending in ん (n), such as 麺 (men, noodles) is counted as two morae.

Differences in Japanese and English syntax — plus the tendency toward economical word use, since Japanese doesn’t rely on pronouns — make it permissible to take a few liberties when translating. If you can still keep to the 5-7-5 format, so much the better.

Now let’s see an example, as excerpted from 第27回「サラリーマン川柳コンクール」 (Dai 27-kaiSarariman senryū konkūru,” The 27th senryū contest for salaried workers), held since 1987 by the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co.

No. 36: 何歳に, 見えるか競う, クラス会

Nansai ni
Mieru ka kisou

A literal translation:

How old
Competing [how someone] appears?
Class reunion

A free translation:

The class reunion
Where we compete to see
Which one looks youngest

The top 100 winners in Dai-ichi’s contest — out of more than 33,000 entries — were announced and posted on the company’s website earlier this year: event.dai-ichi-life.co.jp/company/senryu. Some entries that I particularly enjoyed are below. The authors were all identified by noms de plume.

No. 3: 妻不機嫌, お米と味噌汁,「お・か・ず・な・し」

Tsuma fukigen
Okome to miso shiru

Wife’s feeling cranky
Dinner’s just rice and miso soup
But no main dishes

O-ka-zu-na-shi (no main dishes) is a play on お・も・て・な・し (Omotenashi, selfless hospitality, with nakaguro dots added for emphasis), a term used to help pitch Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.

No. 15: 師走より, 義母(はは)が来る日は, 大掃除

Shiwasu yori
Haha ga kuru hi wa

Our massive cleanup
Not done in December, but
When his mother comes

Shiwasu (literally “teacher running”) is the old word for December — usually a hectic time. The writer added furigana beside 義母 (gibo, mother-in-law) to indicate she wanted it read (possibly cynically) as haha (mother).

No. 43: 除夜の鐘 税込み価格で, 108つ

Joya no kane
Zeikomi kakaku de
Hyaku hachi tsu

Bells on New Year’s Eve
Rung 108 times
Inclusive of tax

Just before midnight on Dec. 31 the 除夜の鐘 (joya no kane, bells at Buddhist temples) are sounded 108 times to drive away the 108 kleshas (also called bonnō, sometimes translated as “worldly desires”). This number is cleverly used to refer to the current 8 percent consumption tax, raising the cost of a ¥100 item to ¥108.

Searching online, I found two other company-sponsored senryū competitions. The オリックスマネー川柳 (Orix money senryū), a contest sponsored by Orix Corp., is now in its 11th year. It pays 26 cash prizes, including a whopping ¥300,000 for the top winner, and ¥700,000 in additional smaller prizes for the best senryū. Submissions are accepted until Nov. 25. For more information (in Japanese) visit:


Toto, famous for its so-called Washlet bidet-type commodes, is in its 10th year of sponsoring a トイレ川柳大賞 (Toire senryū taishō, Toilet Senryū Award). The company’s publishing arm produces an annual selection of the 20 best senryū on rolls of toilet paper. Priced at ¥350 each, the paper is put on sale every Nov. 10, that date being トイレの日 (toire no hi, toilet day) in Japan.

Why Nov. 10? When Kohei Yamamoto founded the Japan Toilet Association, an organization that campaigned for more attractive sanitary facilities, back in 1985, he selected Nov. 10 because the 語呂合わせ (goroawase, mnemonic numerical code) for that date can be read as いいトイレ (ii toire, nice toilet).

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