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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea