Japan's Competitive Poets Know How To Turn A Phrase

Each spring, Japan is consumed by a contest for style of poetry called Senryu. The poems are just three spare lines about the trials and tribulations of daily life.

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April is National Poetry Month here in the United States. But in Japan, poetry is also big this time of year when a popular poetry contest sweeps the country. It offers modest prizes and absolutely no fame whatsoever. Entries are by pen name only, but the event is as closely watched as a celebrity sighting or a speech by the prime minister. Competitors use a style of verse that is virtually unknown outside Japan. Lucy Craft looked for rhyme and reason behind the country's love affair with this special style of poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF POETRY READING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Japanese spoken).

LUCY CRAFT, BYLINE: To outsiders, this event near Tokyo is nothing short of bizarre, more like a Sunday bingo game in Queens than a poetry reading.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Japanese spoken).

CRAFT: Seventy men and women, middle-aged and older, sit rapt as a reader delivers one poem after another out of hundreds submitted.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Japanese spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

CRAFT: Every once in a while, a buzz of admiring murmurs and for a particularly finely executed turn of phrase, a quick round of applause.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Japanese spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

CRAFT: A monthly meeting of Tokyo's biggest senryu poetry club has come to order. Like it's better known cousin, haiku, senryu is just three spare lines and 17 syllables long, with the same five-seven-five syllable combination pleasing to Japanese ears. But if haiku is couture, senryu is casual Friday. While haiku is meant to extol nature, senryu is aimed squarely at every man in the foibles and emotions of daily life. The poems are often profound.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Reading) With passing of time, even the muddy water regains clarity.

CRAFT: Senryu can be poignant, like this poem setting the misery of the 2011 tsunami against the tableau of cherry blossoms.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Reading) Ever since then, the hue of springtime will never be as pink.

CRAFT: But many are simple slices of everyday life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Japanese spoken).

WOMAN #2: (Reading) Like a treble clef, speared on its score. Forkful of pasta.

CRAFT: This one was written by retired noodle shop owner and poetry club member Yoshio Maruyama (ph). He's been writing senryu for most of his adult life.

YOSHIO MARUYAMA: (Through translator) These poems just naturally erupt out of me like a hiccup. Back at the noodle shop, I used to jot down poems and keep them in the cash register. That till had more poems in it than cash.

CRAFT: The rewards are in the writing, says the poetry club's chairman Tetsuo Hibata (ph), who also teaches high school.

TETSO HIBATA: (Through translator) Our textbooks don't teach senryu. It's looked down on. But I think senryu is better than haiku at expressing kids' emotional life. So I've become a missionary for senryu.

CRAFT: One student, for instance, captured both the joy of passing her college entrance test and the anxiety of telling jealous classmates.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Reading) Acing my exams. Both ecstatic and fearful of what my friends might think.

CRAFT: Reader-composed senryu are now a staple of Japanese newspapers and radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Japanese spoken).

CRAFT: But senryu has really made a splash among the general public through poetry contests sponsored by Japanese corporations. I'm in a newer section of downtown Tokyo called Toyosu. I'm here to visit the corporate headquarters of one company that's probably done more than just about anyone else to stoke Japan's current fascination with senryu poetry.

SONAI IGOCHI: (Through translator) Senryu poetry has nothing to do with selling insurance.

CRAFT: Sonai Igochi (ph) is an assistant manager at the Dai-ichi Seimei insurance company, which launched the granddaddy of all senryu contests.

IGOCHI: (Through translator) In our business, there's no such thing as an instant sale. You need to build a relationship with the customer first. And senryu is a way of opening that door.

CRAFT: Since Dai-ichi Seimei began running its annual Salaryman's Senryu Contest 27 years ago, the event has gained legions of fans and spawned similar contests by a railroad and even a toilet manufacturer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: (Reading) I knocked on the door. The instant reply, come in. Hearing this, I flee.

CRAFT: Right now, Igochi and her staff are sifting through more than 30,000 poems about the life of working stiffs, known as salarymen, to select 100 semifinalists in this year's contest. The top 10 will be judged by popular vote.

IGOCHI: (Through translator) We are looking not necessarily for wit, but relatability. Poems should inspire a, 'yeah, that's how it is' moment. Senryu is terribly short, but it should vividly paint a scene that we can instantly get.

CRAFT: Winners from past years reflect the ups and downs of working life.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Reading) Cut costs, yells you, who costs a lot.

CRAFT: The tribulations of matrimony are a perennial theme of salaryman's senryu poetry.

WOMAN #2: (Reading) Oh, that day he proposed. Wish we could go back to then. Would have said, no.

CRAFT: Winners of the contest receive small gift certificates, but will never see their real names in print. Assistant manager Igochi says keeping identities secret is the best way to elicit great poems.

IGOCHI: (Through translator) We want poets to be uninhibited, even writing a bit sharply about the people in their lives. So we thought it better to have entries submitted under pseudonyms.

CRAFT: The 2014 Salarymen's Senryu Poetry winners will be announced next month. And next year, senryu poetry marks its 250th anniversary. For NPR News, I'm Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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