Culture

Japan’s Obvious Poems Turn Silliness into Art

Learn how to say nothing in the most impressive way possible with atarimae poems.

By 4 min read

Japan has a rich history of poetry in various forms, like the haiku and tanka, and more recently, a type that even the less literary among us can enjoy—atarimae poemu, the obvious poem.

The joy of the obvious poem comes not so much from what it says, but from how it says it. Here’s an example from Twitter user @Tomu_Tan.

In English, it translates to:

“Why is it…

When I look at you without closing my eyes

Tears well up”

It says what it says, but there’s also much that goes unsaid. In this case, the true meaning of it could be interpreted as “please blink.”

Where did obvious poems come from?

Here’s lookin at you, kid.

Obvious poems started to pop up online in late 2016 when batches of them were posted to Twitter by a fellow named Yusuke Ujita, who worked as an advertising planner. At the start of that year, he had set himself the goal of attracting 10,000 Twitter followers because he felt that his lowly 3,000 followers at the time caused his clients to doubt his ad ideas would hit big.

He tried various approaches, but it wasn’t until November that year that true inspiration arrived when he read a discussion on Twitter that criticized a poem for “not saying anything.”

He figured it would be funny to write poems that really did say nothing, but said it in a poetic manner that made them sound meaningful.

The first obvious poem was this one:

君の前で (When I hold my breath)

息を止めると (In front of you)

呼吸ができなく (I become)

なってしまうよ (Unable to breathe)

It was promptly retweeted thousands of times and became part of the title of a book of obvious poems that Ujita released with publishing company Kodansha in 2017.

Just as Ujita’s original tweets of the poems did, the book pairs each one with gorgeous images of space, landscapes, and cityscapes that boost their sense of gravitas. This is an expansion of an idea that Ujita gained during his quest for 10,000 followers.

Later, Ujita added illustrations to some of his poems on Instagram in a series called #世界を変えない名言集 (sekai wo kaenai meigen-shuu) meaning “A collection of famous sayings that won’t change the world.”

When his manga artist friends retweeted his post, Ujita discovered that illustrators retweeting an illustration-based tweet brought him followers from that field.

Ambiguous, yet unmistakable

Other people have tried their hand at writing obvious poems, too. Some of the best poems in this genre suggest depth and feeling while delivering well, the obvious, like this one posted to Twitter by NAOKI-K.

 

君を見つめる僕の瞳には (In my eyes, when I look at you)

君が映っている (Is an image of you)

Twitter user エーミール (Emile) has given us this one:

君の事を想うと (When I think of you)

心臓が止まらないんだ (My heart doesn’t stop)

It all makes sense now.

Many obvious poems suggest the ambiguous and inexplicable emotion we call love. It particularly lends itself to this genre. Here is another such poem from Ujita:

わたし、わかったよ (Now I understand)

この胸の高鳴りが (This throbbing in my chest)

鼓動なんだね (It’s my heartbeat)

Moving? No. Silly? Yes. And if those 11 words caused you to smile, then it is bonafide poetry, because according to my Google search, “what makes a poem a poem is the ability to make the reader feel something.”

Speaking of feeling something, or perhaps nothing, here’s another by Ujita:

どうしてだろう (Why is it)

君の声を聴くと (When I hear your voice)

鼓膜が震えるんだ (My eardrum trembles)

Genius-level-marketing

Can I get some space?

Their relatability, wit, and potential for retweeting meant that obvious poems quickly made their way into advertising. Convenience store chain Seven-Eleven ran a competition seeking poems about a selection of its products, and Ujita worked with a variety of Japanese companies to create obvious poem ads, like this one for Shiseido:

眠りについてから (From the moment I fell asleep)

目を覚ますまでの時間は (Until the time I woke up)

夢のようだった (It was like a dream)

He created another such genius poem for the Slim Up Slim range of diet supplements.

痩せていた頃の (When I wear a shirt)

シャツを着ると  (From when I was thin) 

なんだか (Somehow)

胸が苦しいよ (My chest feels tight)

The marketing of obvious poems themselves has continued to evolve. A video of the poems being read by a popular voice actor was released to promote the book, and then a CD of the readings was put on sale.  In 2019, the musical unit and YouTube duo Sky Peace did us the service of putting obvious poems to music. Their song includes this poem about togetherness:

僕の隣に, 君がいるとき (When you are next to me)

必ず君の隣に, 僕がいた (Undoubtedly, I am next to you)

Ujita has also written poems to accompany photos of Souta Hanamura, an actor and singer with the group Da-iCE, for a book released in 2017 and then another published just last year. There’s even a 2020 calendar of him with obvious poems included.

It’s a crazy world right now, which can sometimes leave us at a loss for words. But now that you’ve been schooled in the art of saying nothing, you can go forth and majestically share with the world the wisdom of what it already knows. I’ll leave you with this masterpiece, written by me:

At the end of the day

We all understand

That a new dawn is approaching

Got an obvious poem of your own? Share it below!

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