Poetry boxing helps Japanese get ready to grumble

It all starts innocently enough, with a quiet spoken apology. "I had a car accident so I'm not as fast as I used to be," says the man known as Nama Chirigami. A hint of what's to come lurks in his appearance, a disorientating mix of salary-man, student and glam rocker: painted nails, combat trousers, waistcoat, and eyeliner topped off with an explosion of dyed red hair. Then the bell rings and verbal blast-off begins.

The target is online bullying. "What the blazes is wrong with the people who post these messages," he bellows. "Why do they say such horrible things?!"

The spectators flinch, then smile and gradually warm to him. Mid-monologue, the bell sounds again signalling time up and Chirigami falls sweating to the floor. As he walks back to his seat, exhausted, the judge yells "next!"

The scene is a packed community hall in Yokohama, outside Tokyo, which is hosting heats for Japan's annual poetry boxing tournament, a decade-old competition that pits opponents against each other in a ring armed with motor-mouths instead of fists.

The aim, says the organiser and president of the Japan Reading Boxing Association, Katsunori Kus-unoki, is to smash inhibitions and pummel shyness.

"Japanese people are self-conscious and don't like to speak out so we try to encourage them to express their opinions and feelings here," he says. An academic when not judging these competitions, Professor Kusunoki says he is worried by the growing lack of face-to-face communication.

"People sit alone on the internet, blogging or posting messages to bulletins. We need to create something more interactive."

Anything is fair game, as long as it stays within the three-minute time limit. Competitors come armed with haiku poems, manga, fairy-tales, mini-dramas, dance and hip-hop set to monologues about everything from politics to natto – Japan's famously smelly fermented bean paste.

The competition draws verbal gladiators from across the nation, and from every layer of Japanese society: students, housewives, the disabled, teachers, salary-men, pensioners. The youngest is 15, the oldest so far was 93, though he never got past a local heat. Some compete year after year.

"I love words and when I saw the competition on TV I really wanted to take part," recalls Yuko Hirata, 22, a regular contestant.

A diminutive, bookish woman who works as a video editor, she judders into life as the bell sounds with a high-energy spiel about being dragged around town by her mother. These heats have helped her get better at expressing herself in public, she believes. "I worried I wasn't good enough but the more I take part the more confidence I get."

Today's best 16 will go to a prefectural heat, where the real verbal combat starts. In a ring with a blue and red corner, pairs of poetry boxers face off in intense three-minute bouts of stand-up verse. Winners must negotiate a series of challenges, including a timed presentation and a Whose-Line-Is-It-Anyway-style improvised joust, prompted by shouted words from the panel of judges.

The heats climax with a November final, where the national champion is crowned, and handed a trophy designed by the cult Japanese artist Kenji Yanobe along with a cheque for 50,000 yen (£240).

Professor Kusunoki believes the annual event will grow in importance as Japan opens up to foreigners, who make up just two per cent of the population.

"Japanese people are used to communicating only among themselves, but we are going to need many more foreign workers as the population of this country falls. How are we going to speak to them?" This year his organisation ran its first English-language competition, attracting mainly literature students. Eventually, the president hopes to try other languages.

Today's poetry boxers, then, could be the vanguard of Japan's multicultural society, but not unfortunately Nama Chirigami, who fails to qualify.

"He'll be back," says Professor Kusunoki.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate