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Goin’ Japanesque!

Three Poems Demonstrating the Character of Japan’s Three Great Shogun

When talking about the history of Japan, there are three great military leaders that invariably come into play: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Creating waves whose influence even now is undeniable, these three generals each came out with a variety of different strategies and policies. What we’re going to focus on in this article is the contrasting natures of these men. Their strategies reflect their differing personalities deeply. There is a series of interesting senryū that employ the metaphor of “how to make a cuckoo sing” to illustrate the temperament and political style of each of these three shogun.

Senryū(川柳): a type of structured poem which, like haiku, has a 5-7-5 syllable formula and 17 syllables in total. It is one of the shortest types of structured poetry in the world. Unlike haiku, the poet does not need to use kigo (“seasonal words”).



The Relationship Between the Three Shogun

Nobunaga prepared a number of different foundations from which Hideyoshi created a unified base, one that Ieyasu then inherited when he created the Edo bakufu (i.e., the Tokugawa shogunate).


Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582)

Senryū: Nakanu nara / koroshite shimae / hototogisu (“If the cuckoo does not sing, kill it”)

Nobunaga is famous for his revolutionary approach, bringing in new tools of war such as firearms. It’s been said he had an eccentric, charismatic personality that was not shy of aggression. Consequently, his line in the poem is simply the command “kill it!”


Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598)

Senryū: Nakanu nara / nakasete miseyou / hototogisu (“If the cuckoo does not sing, try to make it sing”)

Despite his agricultural upbringing, Hideyoshi rose through the ranks at breakneck speed. When he first entered Nobunaga’s service, he held a low position, and there’s a story of that time in which he won Nobunaga’s favor, warming the general’s sandals by putting them in the front folds of his garment. Hideyoshi is said to have been a personable and intelligent man, full of confidence and ambition. As a result, his senryū has him “try to make it sing.”
Related: Discovery: Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s 33 Decrees Issued Prior to Unification


Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616)

Senryū: Nakanu nara / naku made matou / hototogisu (“If the cuckoo does not sing, I will wait until it does”)

Ieyasu was a solid sort who preferred to do things in a steady, incremental way over trying something new. He endured patiently and carefully until the time for him to take the reins of Japan came. Looking at this solid, sure-footed sense of stability, we can understand how it is that the government he formed, the Edo bakufu, continued for over two and a half centuries. From these trains, he “waits until it sings” in his senryū.

*There are a number of different explanations regarding the personalities of the three shogun.


The Cuckoo Senryū as a Model for Human Life

Some say that these three senryū can be applied to the progress of human life, as well.

  • Adolescence (Oda Nobunaga): a very active time in life, when a person gets riled up quickly, lashing out at others as part of their “rebellious” phase

  • Middle Age (Toyotomi Hideyoshi): a period where dreams (that is, aspirations) well up from the experiences gained in youth; the prime of life during which a person develops self-confidence

  • Later Life (Tokugawa Ieyasu): the first steps into a post-retirement “second” life; entering this phrase of human existence, a person has developed depth of character from their wealth of experience and has grown good-natured, avoiding needless conflicts


So there you have it, a fascinating little nugget of Japanese history! Which of the three “ways of making the cuckoo cry” introduced in the senryū would you try? Reflect on it and think about which would fit your own personality best. Also, if you happen on any other interesting senryū, be sure to tell us!

Related: Gifu, Town of Oda Nobunaga and Cormorant Fishing Part 1

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