The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “senryu” as “a three-line unrhymed Japanese poem structurally similar to haiku, but treating human nature usually in an ironic or satiric vein.”
I’m assuming that readers have at least a passing familiarity with haiku, a poetry form best known in the West through the works of 松尾芭蕉 (Matsuo Bashō, 1644-94), whose famous travelogue, titled 奥の細道 (Oku no Hosomichi, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”), was published posthumously in 1702.
If you happen to be passing through Kawasaki, which borders Tokyo, you can pause before a small stone marker bearing one of Basho’s haiku, supposedly on the very spot where he composed it. It’s located on the old Tokaido road within sight of Hatcho-nawate Station, one stop on the local train from Keikyu Kawasaki. The haiku reads: 麦の穂を、たよりにつかむ、別れかな (Mugi no ho o/ tayori ni tsukamu/ wakare kana, I clutch the barley ears/ To support myself/ As we have to part …)
Senryū, which means “river willow,” is taken from the given name of 柄井 川柳 (Karai Senryu, 1718-90), who in 1765 began publishing his humorous poems in a collection titled 誹風柳多留 (Haifūyanagidaru). Major periodicals regularly run haiku and senryu contributions from readers, and a quick search on Amazon Japan will bring up dozens of senryu anthologies.
Getting down to basics, senryu and haiku share the same economical format of three lines — typically written vertically in Japanese — composed of five, seven and five morae. Each unit of sound represents one mora, so:
When two vowels occur in succession, such as in kau or mae, they are treated as two morae.
A 促音 (sokuon, double consonants), as indicated in 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.
The ん (n) at the end of a word, such as in 缶 (kan, a can) is counted as one mora.
When translating a senryu I might take a few liberties, but it’s challenging and enjoyable to aim for the 5-7-5 format based on English syllables.
Now let’s see an example, as excerpted from the 第31回「サラリーマン川柳コンクール」 (Dai Sanjūikkai Sarariiman Senryū Konkūru, 31st Senryu for Salaried Workers Contest) — aka the サラ川 (Sara-sen) — which has been held by the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Co. Ltd. since 1987. These submissions typically deal humorously with relationships or situations workers encounter at the office or at home (or both). Among the listed entries, writers are identified only by their noms de plume.
This year’s grand prix winner underscores the seeming incongruity of something he does on his day off:
Supōtsu jimu/ kuruma de itte/ chari o kogu
Translated directly, we would get: Sports gym/ go by car/ pedal a bicycle
Even while retaining the 5-7-5 format, we can refine the English by adding pronouns and tinkering with the word order, thus: I drove to the gym/ to pedal a bicycle/ for my exercise
Quite a few of the most entertaining entries this year were related to their writers’ struggles to master computers or deal with other high-tech devices. The writer of the third place entry, below, appears to be male, but his effort reportedly received a high number of votes from women.
Nō meiku/ kaisha hairenu/ kao ninshō
Minus my makeup/ the facial recognition/ refused my entry
The ninth-place entry, meanwhile, touched on the frustration of remembering passwords.
Heru kioku/ soredemo fueru/ pasuwādo
Memory gets worse/ but I’m stuck with more passwords/ than ever before
No. 34, meanwhile, got into dieting:
Gen’en no/ menyū tanonde/ shio kakeru
Ordered an item/ from the low-sodium menu/ Then sprinkled on salt
Aware that acquiring a state of the art smartphone typically results in wallet depletion, entry No. 59 pointed out:
Ususa de wa/ sumaho ni makenu/ waga saifu
The latest smartphone/ or my depleted wallet/ which one is slimmer?
As far as I’m concerned, entry 84, submitted by “顔文字太郎” (Kao-moji Taro), is brilliant.
Ai ō ti/ nan no hyōjō/ kono māku
Eh? What’s IoT?/ What is this emoticon/
supposed to express?
The writer may seem to be playing dumb, but actually he’s cleverly inferring that the letters IoT (internet of things) represent some sort of smiley face, like :) or (T_T).
Entry No. 55, meanwhile touches on the very real threat many workers might feel of being made obsolete by new technology.
Ei-ai ga/ ore no intai/ hayamesō
Oh woe is me/ artificial intelligence/ will end my career
My own personal favorite, however, was entry No. 60.
Akikan-bi/ hoka no kan mite/ kakusa shiru
Recycling day/ seeing others’ empty cans/ makes me feel poorer
The term 格差知る (kakusa shiru; literally, to know, or realize, a disparity), implies the writer recognizes from the cans discarded by his neighbors that he belongs to a lower income bracket. This is probably a reference to his imbibing cheap 発泡酒 (happōshu, low-malt beer) while others can afford premium beverages.
Senryu for Salaried Workers Contest: event.dai-ichi-life.co.jp/company/senryu