Sex, tea and theatre: Haiku’s rude sister, the Senryu

Kunisada, Scenes of Famous Places along the Tokaido Road: Mishima

Kunisada, Scenes of Famous Places along the Tokaido Road: Mishima

Japanese poetry is a hard thing to write about or to explain in the west – it seems to me sometimes a travesty to do so – nevertheless the Japanese poetic imagination informs all Japanese culture and at every level, so it deserves some attention from the Japanese print enthusiast.

My interest in writing this short piece is the hilarious and quite magnificent book by Robin D Gill, The Woman Without a Hole and Other Risky Themes from Old Japanese Poems.  The book is a compendium of a demotic and popular poetic form called the senryu, similar to the ever popular haiku… so loved by provincial western poets. Whereas the haiku is widely considered to be the product of enlightenment and awakening – a refined kind of super poetry for very clever people – the senryu remains pretty well unknown in the west and (as the title of the book suggests) its subject matter and witty forms have placed it outside the minds of most  academics.

Kunisada, Actor Prints with Poems - Kawarzaki Gonjuro I

Kunisada, Actor Prints with Poems – Kawarzaki Gonjuro I

The revelation of Mr Gill’s book though was the extraordinary insight into Edo life that the poems offer with a rare immediacy. Their brilliance lies in the extraordinary clarity and honesty with which they describe the everyday concerns and activities of the townspeople of Japan. Their lives and their enthusiasms are of course the subject of the greater part of Japanese woodblock prints, just as the kabuki theatre and the tatty, discarded shunga pamphlets are. The senryu offer some insight into the most mundane and petty aspects of day to day life. The townspeople of Edo are now as invisible in the popular imagination as the builders of the pyramids are to us today – they are remembered not for who they were but for the popular forms attributed to them. In the case of Edo, the brilliant, witty and determined Japanese townspeople become represented by corny Geisha dolls (who never had sex!), by tacky ikebana flower arrangements and lamentable Hollywood films about samurai and the Bushido. What really fascinates me about Edo is the triumph of popular culture against all odds – social, educational and financial. The fact that outstanding visual art, poetry, pornography, theatre and drama were made at all is inspirational and all of it deserves our respect.

For me, it is woodblock prints that tie the culture of Edo together. In the outstanding body of tens of thousands of designs are accumulated theatre, urban life, folk history, mythology, aspiration and poetry. Although often invisible to us now, huge numbers of Japanese prints contain poems; these are written in freehand script in the deluxe surimono, or presented formally in commercial oban prints where whole series of dozens of prints were dedicated to collections of verse. Everybody wrote poems in Edo Japan and more so in that other great centre of woodblock prints: Osaka. Poems that made it onto woodblock prints were principally written in the kyoka style, a craze that lasted throughout the late eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth.

Utamaro, Myriad Birds - A Playful Poetry Contest

Utamaro, Myriad Birds – A Playful Poetry Contest

Kyoka style (mad poems) were a comedic verse that satirised the classical poetic form (tanka).  This type of verse is closest to senryu and mimics its demotic language to some extent. Senryu is however much more ribald, irreverent and obscene. Kyoka was however the chosen form of the hoards of amateur poets that populated the emergent and prosperous tradesman class. These coterie poets formed clubs and commissioned woodblock artists to produce lavish prints that illustrated (complimented) their poems. These deluxe prints are called surimono. More common were the collections of prints produced in huge numbers that celebrated the great canon of Japanese poetry. Subtle, elliptical and endlessly inventive, the best series by far of these homages is A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets. In 1845 the publisher Ibaya Senzaburo commissioned the three leading artists of the day, Hiroshige, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, to contribute to an anthology of 100 poems by 100 poets. The poems are written at the top of the print and a scene from history or drama is illustrated below, each scene being an obscure allusion to the subject of the poem. The poem below is typical of these arch and fugitive verses:

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets Compared: Ben no Naisha

Kuniyoshi, 100 Poets Compared: Ben no Naisha

Fair Yoshino
the autumn wind in its mountains
deepens the night
and in former capital, cold
I hear the fulling of cloth

Compare the poem above by Sangi Fujiwara no Masatsune (1170-1221) to the one below, written by the kabuki actor and onnagata Segawa Ronosuke on a scroll by the great ukiyo-e artist Toyokuni I.

In the season of
Blossoming cherry
Why not proceed more slowly?

Ronosuke’s poem is brief and closest to haiku in form and tone. It refers to a kabuki play in which he plays Princess Shizuka, forced to flee to Mount Yoshino, famous for its cherry trees. With that information in mind, the poem loses some of its gravitas and becomes recognisable and arch. There is an implicit joke in the exhortation to slow down given to someone who must make haste. The piece would appeal to theatre audiences who would have related to the poem, the actor, the character and the attempt at mimicry of a ‘higher’ form.

Kuniaki, A Framed Set of Senryu dedicated to Mt. Takao

Kuniaki, A Framed Set of Senryu dedicated to Mt. Takao

Both these examples and any number of single sentence haiku one could think of are a mile away from the splendidly robust senryu. Epigrammatic and often obscene, Gill’s book collects hundreds of examples, some of which are given below, (I am grateful for his excellent and scholarly translations). The first three concern pubic hair, its presence, absence and the risk of abrasions…

the pretty whore
had one more mt fuji
below her navel

that cunt louse resting
on a bare pie

though she injures
her husband sometimes, her
hair is her hair

Hiroshige, Shunga print

Hiroshige, Shunga print

These frank poems talk about sex and lust in the unaffected manner of the shunga that they closely resemble. There is something enviable in the guilt-free, perhaps carefree way that Edo townspeople approached sex, especially compared to today’s complex and shameful anxiety. These poems also talk freely about aspects of sexuality that even today’s Japanese might find surprising. Homosexuality, particularly sexual acts with teenage boys was considered quite acceptable amongst people of both the samurai and the middle class. Although officially not tolerated by the authorities, many senryu are open about this aspect of life and revealing about young men called  kagema – young male prostitutes. In a sense, these men of the young crowd are seen in woodblock prints, with their immaculate hair cuts and rich clothes, but are perhaps confused with the other young crowd types – the aggressively heterosexual otokodate – toughs.


free of care?
gay boys do not dare
snack at night

The following senryu illuminates an aspect of kabuki that is unseen in the lavish and rather tacky modern theatre that is presented today. In Edo, the kabuki theatre was populated by young boy apprentices; the “shade” referred to here is the wings of the theatre if you like, and in his book, Gill correctly ascribes shade-boy as a synonym for rent boy:

a lie beyond
all belief: the love cry
of a shade boy

Other aspects of love are covered in the many poems about ‘tea-less’ tea shops. These were places of rendezvous for young people to have sex. As Gill points out, they are the equivalent of today’s love hotels.

the tea-for-two
where men come as trees,
women as water

with a hard-on
the date tea-shop

Robin D Gill’s book contains not only hundreds of these fascinating and revealing poems, but also a light and scholarly explanation of the subtle meanings, and the layered puns and allusions behind each one. I was very much put in mind of the tricks and word-play of the mitate, Japanese woodblock prints whose meaning is obscured and layered in puns and simile. The delight with which the Japanese used humour and metaphor in every aspect of their culture can only be guessed at by westerners from this distance in time. The text in Gill’s book is a more than adequate guide, but the form, the humour and the life alluded to, as in the woodblock prints remains tantalisingly out of reach.

Shunga print

Anon, Shunga print

The shame that the Japanese adopted by the imposition of western Christian values after 1864 has more or less obscured the richness and the diversity of their traditional culture. There is something truly ghastly about the faked up geisha industry, or British and American tourists lumpenly paying for a simulacrum of a tea ceremony. If traditional Edo culture exists anywhere, either literally or visually, it is probably in the underground and explicit manga comics that ordinary Japanese still consume with a surprising (to the westerner) lack of shame. The fact is none of the poetic forms of Edo translate at all into western culture. The efforts of the beat poets to absorb the haiku into the counter culture for example, may have contributed to a laudable anti-authoritarianism, but it added nothing and understood nothing of the form. Ezra Pound’s efforts at the same form a half century earlier were little more than fashionable Japonisme… paper lampshades for other intellectual tourists. The fact is, much as we admire aspects of this vibrant culture it is on the whole a closed book to our sanitised society. We can glimpse it (but not emulate it) through the richness of woodblock prints and the assiduous detective work by scholars such as Robin D Gill. His book The Woman Without a Hole & Other Risky Themes From Old Japanese Poems is simply outstanding as an introduction to the realities of Edo life. It is available from Amazon  for $28 or direct from Paraverse Press.


About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
This entry was posted in Japanese Poetry, Japanese prints, japanese woodblock prints, kabuki theatre, Kunisada, Shunga, ukiyo-e art, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Sex, tea and theatre: Haiku’s rude sister, the Senryu

  1. Pingback: Monthly Links | Zen Mischief

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