Senryu : old diary

sold books, ate rumors
people always love scandals
back then – here and now

What’s the difference between haiku and senryu?  They are similar as both use the 5-7-5 format.  Haiku is seen as more elegant and formal having to contain a “season/nature” reference and a few other guidelines.  However, senryu is the poetry of the “masses” and focuses on humans including daily life or even a ghost story. J.C. Brown in Senryu Poems of People said “… that is the appeal of senryu: They express everyday truths, happy or sad, in succinct verse.”

Senryu can be irreverent.  To understand the next one, you will need to know the onomatopoeia of certain sounds in Japan.  Onomatopoeia is the word that sounds like the sound.  We say “meow” in the USA for the cat sound but in Japan, it’s “nyao.”  As there are slight variations between countries for onomatopoeia, I will put the sounding meaning afterwards

娘シイ年増のはじゅウ 乳母のはザア 一五六
musume shii toshima no wa juu uba no wa zaa

daughters go shii (tinkling water sound)
middle-aged women juu (raining water sound)
nursing mothers zaa (pouring water sound)

Can you guess what that senryu was about?

Yep, peeing.

In old Japan, political senryu was usually anonymous–freedom of expression was not a right back then meaning writing politics or criticizing the government, the emperor or the shogun could get you decapitated. Often senryu inferred things that people understood as it was part off common knowledge.

“Fujiokaya diary” manuscript Transfer from microfilm of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Archives 大江戸おどろおどろ譚(ばなし)

This 1800s senryu is about a bookseller, Sudo (Fujiokaya) Yoshizo. Rie, my Japanese friend, told me his now-invaluable diary, Fujiokaya Nikki, spanned more than 65 years covering scandals, politics, natural disasters, publications, theater and performances and their critics, rumors, murders and other contemporary events of note. During his time, it was well known that samurai and others would ramble into his shop to purchase information and rumors.  Scandals were popular sellers just like now. Today historians, museums and others enjoy his diary for a birds-eye view of his times.

In this senryu about Yoshizo, Rie said she could “feel some sarcasm”. Often senryu will have a feeling of irony.  It’s not something that translates easily  though.

本由は人の噂で飯を食い honyoshi wa hito no uwasa de meshi o kui

Bookseller Yoshi
dines on rice
eating people’s rumors

Cynical, humorous, bawdy, political or ironic, senryu reveals human nature. Senryu is the anonymous protest poem, the risque ode to one’s love, a cynical caricaturization of a neighbor, the honest piercing of a sorrow. Senryu is the common person’s poetic form (of which I proudly am one).


Business in Edo (about half way down)
Edo – the Edopedia

Fujiokaya Yoshizo

fuuzoku business

Robin D. Gill quotes – From wee tinkle To woeful torrent
Edo – the Edopedia

Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan
by Stephen Vlastos, 1990

Senryu Poems of People
by J.C. Brown, 1991
published 1991

O-Kiku and the Yakitsugiya

Edo – the Edopedia

photo & senryu by M. LaFreniere, all rights reserved.
Also published on Instagram under @cactus_haiku
I published this essay within a long post in 2017 that wandered all over the place. It’s one of my favorite posts but looking at it now, I realize it’s really three or four posts so here I am splitting it. I have edited and added to it too.  Wandered off topic again by adding the pee poem but I couldn’t resist.

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