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Yoroku: Ants show the 'usefulness of the useless'

The Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Co. has announced 100 winning poems in this year's "Salaryman Senryu" poetry contest -- from which the 10 best poems will be finalized in late May. Browsing through the past winning poems in the popular annual contest on the company's website, one can find many Senryu poems -- a Japanese form of short poetry often featuring cynical and humorous aspects of human life in 17 syllables -- portraying Japanese corporate employees relaxing at workplaces.

    "OK, let me get started / a cup of coffee as my booster / the seventh serving," reads one of the past winning poems. Another poem laments life as a salaried worker, reading, "At our company / cost-cutting efforts underway / colleagues staring at me."

    "A meeting is over / all we decided was / the date for the next meeting," reads yet another poem from a workplace, which may find many readers nodding. "Silence prevails / some sensing the atmosphere / some drowsing," reads another piece. In reality, some workers may be able to cut corners thanks to the presence of their diligent co-workers.

    An American joke goes, "How many people work here?" "Oh, about half." In every colony of worker ants, inactive ants are said to make up 20 to 30 percent. Past research has shown that even when an ant colony is formed solely of active workers, a certain percentage of them will become inactive. A group of researchers from Hokkaido University and other institutions observed Myrmica kotokui, a species of ant found in Japan, and confirmed that inactive ants replaced their active counterparts when the latter gets tired.

    If an ant colony is made up of active workers alone, it will eventually die out as all ants will get worn out simultaneously and be no longer able to work. Inactive ants, which are seemingly ineffective, are thus indispensable for ant colonies to be sustainable. The scientists also found that a colony with ants that work at a different pace will be more viable than a colony comprised of hard workers alone.

    Ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once stated, "Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but no one is aware of the usefulness of the useless" -- suggesting that what is believed to be useless also plays an essential role. Reminiscing a Chinese classics class in high school days, some workers might be sipping their eighth cup of coffee. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)

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