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?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions