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March 2004

Fifth Graders Sharpen Their Wits to Become Masters of Senryu

Hanging the poetry on the wall (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun)

Fifth graders at Shimoseya Elementary School (site is Japanese only) in the city of Yokohama are sharpening their minds and sense of humor to become masters of senryu, a witty form of Japanese poetry. Students jot down their poems on a strip of paper and drop them into a senryu box. Their masterpieces are published regularly in class newsletters.

Fewer words say more/ It takes practice, style, and wit/ Try it for yourself! The Japanese have always loved this rhythm in their poetry. In traditional poetry like senryu and haiku, this rhythm is created by dividing 17 syllables into three parts of 5, 7, and 5. Would-be masters must choose just the right words that fit into this magical 5-7-5 rhythm.

Senryu are poems with a clever twist. It can be humorous, making people smile and say, "Hey, that's a funny way of putting it!" Here's an example by Nakajima Masaya, one of the fifth graders: "I'm sleepy in the morning/ At night I'm always wide awake/ I'm sleepy in the morning." Senryu can also be ironic and point out the truth behind social appearances, so people might nod and say, "Yup, that's reality!"

The kids show off their compositions (Asahi Shogakusei Shimbun)

Meanwhile, in a haiku, feelings are expressed with natural images from each season, like sprouting plants and autumn leaves. "Flowers on an ume (Japanese apricot) tree/ So white and very beautiful/ Their scent is also sweet," is an example of an early spring haiku by Senda Shota. "It's sometimes tough getting the words to fit 5-7-5. It makes you think," he says.

When words don't fit, pause and think about something else. That advice comes from Iguchi Kaori, who made the following hilarious senryu: "Went over to my Mom/ And showed her my exam score/ Her face turned to stone."

"Once you start thinking, ideas bubble up one after another," says Kobayashi Nami. Her latest: "That vegetable called cabbage/ Makes lots of noise when eaten/ What a noisy plant." It was a great hit with her classmates, who loved Nami's unique sense of humor. "Different people have different ways of expressing themselves. And that's what makes it so interesting," says classmate Kato Reina.

For Takaya Wataru, the 5-7-5 rhythm comes naturally. "I'd say something, and it comes out 5-7-5 totally unconsciously," said Wataru, who is trying to teach the art of senryu to his mother. To his dismay, she's not getting the hang of it. "Somehow her poems don't have the right rhythm, and I keep telling her, 'Mom, that's no senryu!'"

NOTICE: Since October 9, 2003, Japanese names in Kids Web Japan have been written in their original order: surname first.

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