Senryu (satirical haiku) (川柳)

Senryu (satirical haiku) is one kind of Japanese poem in lines of five, seven, and five syllables.


Senryu mainly use colloquial language, and do not have any kigo (season words) or restrictions on breaks. There are also some senryu with broken meter such as extra syllables and ku-matagari (segment straddling), as well as free-verse senryu. Like haiku in the same syllabic meter, it originated in haikai, in other words, haikai-renga. By omitting the tsukeku, lines of seven and seven syllables that used to be prepared in advance, the rest became an independent poem of five, seven, and five syllable lines. Senryu KARAI, a composer of these maeku (previous verses) in the Edo period, selected poems first, and then GORYOKEN Arubeshi chose poems among these and published them as "Haifu-Yanagidaru". When it became popular, this genre became called 'senryu'. During this period, senryu had 'ugachi' (probing or penetrating, pointing out facts tend to be overlooked), 'okashimi' (funny and humorous) and 'karumi' (lightness and simplicity) as its three major characteristics, and many poems were about the subtleties of human nature and the workings of the heart. "Haifu-Yanagidaru" was published every year until 1838, even after the death of Senryu KARAI, coming to 167 issues. During the Kansei Reforms at the end of eighteenth century, the authorities censored senryu; for example, some senryu poems including politics, gambling and erotica in the "Haifu-Yanagidaru" were expurgated because they were regarded as corrupting public morals.

History of Senryu

After the first Senryu passed away, the double screening system, where poems were screened at maekuzuke (a verse-writing game) contests and then when publishing the poetry collection 'Yanagidaru', was lost. The contest gradually and increasingly became more like a kukai (gathering for composing poems), and the referee was chosen freely from among veteran poets and even the 'Yanagidaru' fell so low as to function as a mere publication of the results of kukai. But in the period of the 'haifu-kyoku' (literally, kyoku (a kind of humorous haikai without haikai conventions) with a taste of haiku), which was named by Senryu IV, senryu became popular in the context of Edo townspeople's culture in the Bunka and Bunsei eras. Men of culture regarded as being of the first-rank such as Kiyoshi MATSURA, a daimyo (feudal lord) of a 63,000 koku fief in Hirado Domain in Kyushu (also known as 松山, 流水 and 柳水), Hokusai KATSUSHIKA (aka 卍), the founder of dodoitsu (Japanese popular love songs of the Edo period in the 7-7-7-5 syllable pattern) Senka DODOITSUBO and Tanehiko RYUTEI, the author of the 'Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji' (The False Murasaki and the Rustic Genji)' (aka 木卯) lined up to be Senryu IV's pupils. Although called kyoku (a kind of humorous haikai without haikai conventions), they contain quite amusing poems. Furthermore, it flourished even further during the period of Tenpo kyoku.

However, Senryu IV was forced to give up his pseudonym before or after the Tempo Reforms because he was told that it had been having a bad effect on his official position.

He gave the name of Senryu V to Namagusai-Tazukuri (Kinzo MIZUTANI), a fish wholesaler in Tsukuda-jima Island, and he called himself 'Ryuo' (literally, the venerable old willow). The clampdown on public morals during the Tempo Reforms, as a matter of course, also came to the world of kyoku, which had suebanku (erotic love poems), and regulations became strict. Senryu V sought out the survival of kyoku by changing its contents, and created examples in the world of kyoku such as 'ryufu-shikiho' (rules of composing senryu) and 'kuan jittai' (ten techniques to compose senryu). He also changed the contents into mainly educational things such as loyalty and filial piety, humanity and justice, and gratitude. Due to that, Senryu, which had made untrammeled expression its principle, was burdened with heavy moral guidelines. It caused the degradation of senryu into a shallow word game by the poets of the ryufu-kyoku circle (kyoku in the style of senryu) in later generations which treated these as infallible rules. This was not the fault of Senryu V, but an action he took to protect the senryu form which had been exposed to severe criticism at that time and it is likely that he had no other choice. The problem was insufficient leadership of the leaders of ryufu-kyoku during the Meiji period, who would not try to change with the trends of the times even after the civilization and enlightenment movement. Thus, senryu descended into word games and a superficial style belonging only to the Ryufu Society.

In the period from 1902 to 1903, Kuraki SAKAI appeared and under the influence of Shiki MASAOKA's revolution in tanka and haiku, the senryu reform movement gained a higher profile. The next year, a column named 'Shindai yanagidaru' (Yanagidaru on Modern Topics) in the newspaper 'Nippon' was given to Kenkabo INOUE, and it became a big hit. That resulted in a sudden rise in 'new senryu' which replaced the ryufu-kyoku. These two people in particular are called 'the restorers of senryu'.

Thereafter, senryu, which had had an objective point of view since the Edo period, gained from the senryu of the new trend a point of view that gazed into the poet's inner self. Moreover, in the field of this newly risen senryu, the range of its expression became wider and covered almost all human feelings by being linked with a proletarian point of view and by producing a pure poetic style.

The next generation of restorers called the six great masters appeared during and after World War II.

That caused a big wave of Shin Senryu (New Senryu) all over the country, and produced many senryu poets. The central figures were the following six societies: Santaro KAWAKAMI's 'Senryu kenkyu' (Study of Senryu), Shugyo MURATA's 'Senryu kiyari', Jakuro MAEDA's 'Senryu', Suifu KISHIMOTO's 'Bangasa' (coarse oilpaper umbrellas), Jiro ASO's 'Senryu zasshi' (Senryu Magazine) and Monta SUGIMOTO's 'Fuausuto', although the last one was a little smaller in scale. They contributed greatly toward the diversification of senryu, and passions became part of the expression in senryu as female poets increased in number.

Nowadays, as 'haiku' has accepted colloquial language and people who pursue poetic expression in senryu have been approaching literary language, it can be said that there are hardly any differences in expression between haiku and senryu on the surface. At the present, senryu circles have seemed to become like an amusement for elderly people with contests and gatherings as its center under Zen Nihon Senryu Kyokai (National Japanese Senryu Society). The essential senryu poems showing the poet's soul that Shin Senryu had achieved, have been pursued only in extremely few senryu magazines. It seems to have become similar to the kukai supremacy during the period of ryufu-kyoku in the Meiji period.

On the other hand, senryu contests inviting contributions from the public, which started with the 'Salaryman Senryu' and have gained in popularity, have a wide range of contributors from that younger generation to older people. Senryu poems which have been collected from the public and screened by first-rank senryu poets as anthologists have been exceeding the level of mere 'punning senryu' and creating a new field of expression. In such a case, the style can even be called one of anonymous poems, moving away from the personal names of the composers, and it has something in common with the anonymous senryu poems in the period of the first Senryu. This backdrop to this is that the 'empathy' of 'the masses' is the basis for the appraisal of a poem, which can be said to have returned to Kuraki SAKAI's definition during the restoration in the Meiji period that 'senryu is poetry that evokes empathy'.