Poetry by Early JAs: Senryū川柳

Senryū is a style of poetry developed in Japan during the Edo period. It is an outgrowth of haiku, and concerns itself with the thoughts and tastes of the common people. While haiku focused on identifying human truth through the seasons, senryū is more concerned with identifying human truth and sentiments through everyday human activity. According to my old man, a JA Senryū poet, it is like taking a snapshot of life. He is a kibei-nisei –帰米二世, American-born, educated in Japan and returned to the US–and composed poems, including the following which reveals his nostalgia for Japan.

kyōshū no

kioku e ukabu

Appearing in memories

longing for home

a riceball.

The poem, composed in 1973, suggests two elements that bind us to fond memories of the past. First is food. Things we eat can easily bring back memories of a better time. Indeed, I remember when I went to Japan to study. Although I was a Mombusho student, I was living a hand-to-mouth existence. The stipend I received barely paid for the essentials, and when I finally found a part-time job that allowed me to indulge myself just a little, I went to McDonalds! Can you EVEN imagine that the taste of a Big Mac can trigger not only memories of home, but a sense of nostalgia?!? Oh gawd, how can I even be admitting here that the first bite of the two-all-beef-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-seseme seed-bun in Ogikubo almost brought tears to my eyes? Well, being poor sucks, but its amazing how a meager life can make you appreciate even the simplest of experiences.

Which brings me to the second point: nostalgia is often connected to simple things, not complex ones, for it seems that the simple things are the most familiar, and the most reminiscent of a simpler life. For my old man, rice balls–nigirimeshi, or onigiri–brought back memories of home, Fukushima, and his life as a kid in the 1920s. Back then, onigiri was not bought at the 7 Eleven (duh!), but made by his mother, another strong image that elicits nostalgia. When I think of it, in 1973, my dad was already 60 years old, his mother had died in Japan 17 years earlier, and he had been to Japan only once to see his parents (they didn’t return to the US with him) since 1931 or so. A poem such as the one above may seem simple enough to me, the reader, but must have been saturated with significance for him.

If I were a poet, I wonder what kind of poem I would compose when I think back to my mom and my life as a kid?


kyōshū no

kioku e ukabu

miito rōfu

Appearing in memories

longing for home

meat loaf.

Like I said, IF I were a poet.

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