The Genpei War in Senryū

The Genpei War 源平合戦 (1180-1185) was Japan’s “civil war” (that fact that “civil war” is an oxymoron I’ll leave for another time!) Prior to the war the aristocratic class controlled Japan’s hegemony, but they were ousted by the warrior class, who would go on to rule the country for centuries.

The Tale of the Heike (Heike monogatari 平家物語) is the epic narrative-tale encapsulating the glories and horrors of the Genpei War. In it readers find tales of heroism, cowardice, cunning, idiocy, skillful warriors, hapless victims, and all the other elements befit the age of legendary warriors.

There were different versions of The Tale of the Heike that appeared as both oral and written versions. Despite these variant literary/performative mediums, “it” became one of the most influential works of literature, as is evident in the countless new literary genres it inspired and the numerous allusions authors make to it in later literary and performance arts.

I am currently teaching a class on Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi. Although Bashō is known most commonly to western readers for his haiku, he is perhaps more well known to scholars for his travel writing, in which many of his most famous haiku appear (consequently, when you read his travel writing you read his haiku within the context that they were meant to be read and not necessary as stand-alone entities).

About 500 years after the Genpei War, Bashō travels through many of the famous places in which the Genpei War was fought–this is the journey that is recorded in Oku no hosomichi. He is keenly aware of these places’ historical significance and often writes about his own reflections and experiences while passing through them.

When Bashō travels through what is now Fukushima he writes,

I went into the temple to ask for some tea, only to discover that Yoshitsune’s sword and Benkei’s portable altar were kept here as temple treasures.

Sword and altar both

Display on Boy’s Day in May

When paper banners fly1

(oi mo tachi mo satsuki ni kazare kaminobori / 笈も太刀も五月にかざれ紙幟)

In Hiraizumi he writes the poem,

The summer grasses–

Of brave soldiers’ dreams

The aftermath2

(natsukusa ya tsuwamono domo ga yume no ato / 夏草や兵どもが夢の跡)

Not knowing what to expect to find while reading the collection of senryū in Makoto Ueda’s Light Verse from the Floating World: an Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu I came across this senryū:

“Do as you see fit”–

saying those words was Yoritomo’s

one great achievement3

(yoki ni hakarae de Yoritomo yaku wa sumi)

This poem alludes to Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝, leader of the Minamoto family/clan that won the Genpei War by defeating the opposing Taira family/clan.

As I noted in an earlier post, as poetic forms go senryū resemble haiku in that they consist of 17 syllables, however their mood and subject matter are often quite different.

Unfortunately this was the only senryū Ueda included that alluded to the Genpei War. But, when comparing Bashō’s haiku to these senryū readers can really understand a difference between the two poetic forms. Bashō’s haiku both show nostalgia for the Genpei War, its warriors, and its [tragic] heroes. I didn’t include it here, but when setting up the 2nd haiku, Bashō writes that he is sitting in this field that was once a battlefield, weeping at the thought of the tragedy that occurred their.

However, the senryū alluding to the Genpei War is not nostalgic or sad, but rather sarcastic of the Minamoto general, Yoritomo. Minamoto no Yoshitsune 源義経, Yoritomo’s younger brother (and who is referenced to in the first haiku here) is the one who is accredited with winning the battles that are considered to be the decisive factors in the Genpei War. But, upon the defeat of the Taira, Yoritomo had Yoshitsune (and those loyal to him) executed. Thus, this senryū alludes to the idea that Yoritomo took a back seat in winning the war, but took all the glory in the end.

This shows that in senryū, nothing is sacred! A characteristic certainly not shared with haiku.

1 See Donald Keene’s The Narrow Road to Oku, 58.

2 See Donald Keene’s The Narrow Road to Oku, 86.

3 From Haifū Yanagidaru 誹風柳多留 in Makoto Ueda, 241)



In Japan the school year ends in late February/March and begins in April, so up until a few weeks ago I was on ‘break.’ Although all that means is that I didn’t have classes (teachers are still required to come in 8 hours a day/ 5 days a week).

Since I didn’t have the usual burden of classes, I had some time to read–for fun! I have a book called Light Verse from the Floating World: an Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu compiled & translated by Makoto Ueda. Senryū 川柳 is a type of poetry that resembles haiku, in that it consists of 17 syllables. However, senryū have a totally different feel than haiku. Think “rap” versus “hip-hop”–a rapper’s image and sound may resemble a hippity-hopper’s, but the feel of the verses, the mood, attitude, etc. are totally different. Same with senryū haiku.

That fact that senryū & haiku are both products of Japan’s Edo era (1600-1868) further blurs the distinction between the two. I have not studied senryū formally and do not really intend to dive into it too much. But, this spring I’m teaching an intensive class dedicated to Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi, which of course is one of his famous travel diaries that includes a lot of his most famous haiku. So, keeping in mind I’ll be teaching haiku, I thought it would be a good idea to learn more about senryū.

From Ueda’s introduction I understand that:



  • NO seasonal word (kigo 季語) required
  • draws on human nature
  • attempts to be humorous
  • presents one unique situation
  • evolved from maeku-zuke
  • seasonal word required
  • draws on nature
  • tries to be insightful
  • juxtaposes disparate objects,  situations, etc.

This book is really reader friendly. The poems are spaced out 2-per page with their Japanese romaji readings at the bottom of the page (for example, “thank you” in a poem appears in romaji as arigatou, not ありがとう). When necessary, there are clear and concise footnotes explaining certain nuances or historical/ social contexts, too. The one negative is that the Japanese kanjikana versions are not included (for example, I want to know if “thank you” appears in the poem as ありがとう or 有難う). Keep in mind that Ueda draws these senryū from about 6 different anthologies, so tracking down the originals to read side-by-side is a pain in the neck, especially if you just want to enjoy reading them at a coffee shop somewhere.

It’s really been fun to read this book! When I read haiku, they make me think kind of deeply about the particular poem’s topic. These senryū really made me laugh though! The thing is that you do not have to know anything about Japanese, Japanese culture, or Japanese history to enjoy them. I think the respective writers of these senryū have really (unwittingly) captured some universal aspects of human nature. These senryū have really showed me that 18th/ 19th century Japan life and what people were thinking at the time really is similar to what Americans/Europeans were doing and thinking at the time. Not to mention a lot of these scenarios and observations are timeless.

Here are a few that I felt I could relate too:

for his poor handwriting

cicadas and dragonflies

take the blame

akuhitsu no kōkai semi ya tonbo nari
(Ueda 162, from Yanagidaru)

This just reminds me of how much I loved playing outdoors as a kid and how much I loathed school work. Sentiments also found in Tom Sawyer, perhaps.

little by little

the mother is helping her son

to become a bum

chitto zutsu haha tetsudatte dora ni suru

(Ueda 169, from Yanagidaru)

I’m not saying I’m a bum! I just thought it was funny that mothers seem to be so often viewed as spoiling their sons.

on plum blossoms,

bush warblers; under cherry

blossoms, drunkards

ume ni uguisu sakura ni namaei nari

(Ueda 206, from Yanagidaru)

When I was reading this, everyone in Akita was getting anxious for the cherry blossom season. People usually go to parks with their friends and co-workers after work or school to sit under the cherry blossoms when they are in bloom. There’s usually a lot of drinking going on, but it’s not usually a rowdy or intimidating scene–just good fun.

asleep on the ground

holding a spray of blossoms

an elegant drunkard

hana no eda motte fūga na taoremono

(Ueda 207, from Yanagidaru)

I have never passed out at a cherry blossom party, but have seen plenty of people who did! Anyway, reading these was really getting me excited for cherry blossom season in Akita, which I ended up missing because I was in Cambridge for a workshop. Now I’ll have to wait ’til next year!