What is a Dodoitsu?

An examination of the history, form and use of Dodoitsu; a simple but pleasing style of Japanese poetry.

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As with much of Japanese poetry, the Dodoitsu does not rely on a fixed metre, instead developing from the number of syllables in given lines.

History

Dodoitsu emerged in Japan during the end of the Edo period, which culminated in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. Sometimes called the ‘Japanese limerick,’ its origins lie in a folk song of the Ikato district. These small verses were often improvised during the breaks between longer songs. Further evolution of the form is attributed to popular singer Dodoitsubo Senka.

While much of the Japanese poetic canon has courtly origins, the Dodoitsu was favoured by the Gombei, a peasant-class from the Nagasaki region. As a result, much of Dodoitsu was passed along as oral tradition, often accompanied by shamisen, a three-stringed instrument. Its name literally translates to ‘quickly, city to city,’ possibly referring to the ease of which it was communicated.

Form

Like the haiku, Dodoitsu are simple to explain and a joy to practice. There are no rhymes or metres impose with Dodoitsu, instead, they are made up of four lines. The first three feature seven syllables, while the final line instead uses five.

However, while we use the word syllable, this is not a true translation. In Japanese, characters represent on. To help consider this, let us take the sound jo (like Joe without the longer vowel). The sound of jo is a short, clipped syllable. This is how most Japanese characters sound. From this, we can add other letters that alter the sound but still keep to one syllable, such as joy, joist, or join. Each word is still one syllable, but there are additional sounds. These smaller sounds are called Mora.

Use

Dodoitsu were poems created by the working-class, sometime illiterate. As a result, they tend to be focused on work or love, with an often humorous bend. This can mean crude language, though as the form has been adopted in the West, this has declined. These poems were designed to amuse, in a similar way to a limerick, not to explore lofty themes.

As with most Japanese poetry, the emotion comes not from the language, but the image painted. These poems are perfect to recount brief, funny moments in daily life.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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