If you want to get something off your chest these days, there are many ways to do it. My parents post on Facebook, my friends upload videos to YouTube and almost everyone sounds off on Twitter. For Japan’s army of サラリーマン (sararīman, “salarymen” or office workers), however, there’s the サラリーマン川柳コンクール (Sararīman Senryū Konkūru, Senryu for Salaried Workers Contest).
川柳 (senryū) are short poems in three lines and with 17 morae (which are like syllables). They follow the same structure as 俳句 (haiku), but instead of describing nature they will usually focus on the triumphs and tribulations of everyday life.
The サラリーマン川柳コンクール is organized by Dai-ichi Life Insurance and has been held annually since 1987. For its 第34回 (dai sanjūyon-kai, 34th edition) this year, more than 60,000 entries were collected from office workers across the country between September and October. From those, the top 10 were announced last month.
Of the 10 poems — from nine サラリーマン and one サラリーウーマン (sararīūman, “salarywoman”) — six were related to life in the pandemic. Four entries came from people in their 30代 (sanjū-dai, 30s), one was in their 40代 (yonjū-dai), four were in their 50代 (gojū-dai) and one was in his 60代 (rokujū-dai).
The top 川柳 reflects the struggle that many サラリーマン encountered in the shift to テレワーク (terewāku, teleworking):
Kaisha e wa
kuruna to jōshi
ike to tsuma
Sit with that in Japanese for a moment…. Do you feel the beauty? In English, the 川柳 translates as: “To the office / the boss says don’t come / my wife says go.”
Similarly, the poem that took third place comments on テレワーク:
In English: “(Working) remotely, a convenient phrase, ‘I cannot hear you.’”
Other entries reflected the way we changed our behavior in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and the seventh- and ninth-place poems play with what has become an essential item, the マスク (masuku, face mask):
masuku mo kaiwa mo
iware masuku o
The first poem there translates as: “My father, the face mask and the conversation, often go off point.” While the second poem translates as: “You look young, it is said (so my) mask, I can’t remove.”
Speaking of face masks, the government of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe handed out both アベノマスク (Abenomasuku) face masks as well as a cash payment of ¥100,000. However, the author of the second-place poem woefully offers:
miru koto mo naku
tsuma no mono
In English: “¥100,000, I didn’t even see it, it belongs to my wife.”
Another entry is about the kanji of 2020, 密 (mitsu, secret/close), which was chosen in part due to Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike’s social distancing warning, “密です” (“mitsu desu”):
mago ga hitokoto
mitsu desu yo
In English: “Lifted up, my grandchild (whose) one comment, this is close.”
The remaining four 川柳 focused on other facets of Japanese life, including the world of pop culture. The poem in spot No. 4, for example, provided a subtle nod to the anime smash “鬼滅の刃” (“Kimetsu no Yaiba,” “Demon Slayer”):
Yome no kokyū
gokan de kanjiro!
In English: “The breath of my wife, feeling in all five senses, total concentration.” (The anime series featured this breathing technique.)
In addition to anime, some musicians became 川柳 muses, with the sole entry from a woman in the ranking focusing on South Korean music mogul J.Y. Park:
J.Y. Park no
In English: “My grandfather asked, where is the location of J.Y. Park?” The other entry mentions Japanese music act Yoasobi, whose name can translate as “nighttime amusements”:
daisuki to ii
In English: “As for Yoasobi, I said I loved (it), Dad is panicking.”
Finally, the 川柳 that captured sixth place in the competition went to an entry that focused on new 5G networks that allow for faster internet. The office poet in this case used the term as a pun on the Japanese word “爺” (jii) meaning old man:
Waga busho wa
In English: “As for my department, no one from the next generation, (we only have) five old guys.”
These are the top 10, but there are 90 more unique 川柳 available to read online. My favorites are the poems about the video game “Animal Crossing,” eco bags and cashless payments, but all of the entries provide glimpses into the thoughts of office workers across Japan.
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