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?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager - Events, Digital, Offline

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: B2B Marketing Manager (Events, Digit...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Day In a Page

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable