The death poem is a genre of poetry that developed in the literary traditions of East Asian cultures—most prominently in Japan as well as certain periods of Chinese history and Joseon Korea. They tend to offer a reflection on death—both in general and concerning the imminent death of the author—that is often coupled with a meaningful observation on life. The practice of writing a death poem has its origins in Zen Buddhism. It is a concept or worldview derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三法印 sanbōin), specifically that the material world is transient and impermanent (無常 mujō), that attachment to it causes suffering (苦 ku), and ultimately all reality is an emptiness or absence of self-nature (空 kū). These poems became associated with the literate, spiritual, and ruling segments of society, as they were customarily composed by a poet, warrior, nobleman, or Buddhist monk.
The writing of a poem at the time of one's death and reflecting on the nature of death in an impermanent, transitory world is unique to East Asian culture. It has close ties with Buddhism, and particularly the mystical Zen Buddhism (of Japan), Chan Buddhism (of China) and Seon Buddhism (of Korea). From its inception, Buddhism has stressed the importance of death because awareness of death is what prompted the Buddha to perceive the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pleasures. A death poem exemplifies both the "eternal loneliness" that is found at the heart of Zen and the search for a new viewpoint, a new way of looking at life and things generally, or a version of enlightenment (satori in Japanese; wu in Chinese). According to comparative religion scholar Julia Ching, Japanese Buddhism "is so closely associated with the memory of the dead and the ancestral cult that the family shrines dedicated to the ancestors, and still occupying a place of honor in homes, are popularly called the Butsudan, literally 'the Buddhist altars'. It has been the custom in modern Japan to have Shinto weddings, but to turn to Buddhism in times of bereavement and for funeral services".
The writing of a death poem was limited to the society's literate class, ruling class, samurai, and monks. It was introduced to Western audiences during World War II when Japanese soldiers, emboldened by their culture's samurai legacy, would write poems before suicidal missions or battles.
Japanese death poems
Style and technique
The poem's structure can be in one of many forms, including the two traditional forms in Japanese literature: kanshi or waka.[a] Sometimes they are written in the three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku form, although the most common type of death poem (called a jisei 辞世) is in the waka form called the tanka (also called a jisei-ei 辞世詠) which consists of five lines totaling 31 syllables (5-7-5-7-7)—a form that constitutes over half of surviving death poems.(Ogiu, 317-318).
Poetry has long been a core part of Japanese tradition. Death poems are typically graceful, natural, and emotionally neutral, in accordance with the teachings of Buddhism and Shinto. Excepting the earliest works of this tradition, it has been considered inappropriate to mention death explicitly; rather, metaphorical references such as sunsets, autumn or falling cherry blossom suggest the transience of life.
It was an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to compose a jisei on their deathbed. One of earliest records was recited by Prince Ōtsu, executed in 686. For examples of death poems, see the articles on the famous haiku poet Bashō, the Japanese Buddhist monk Ryōkan, Ōta Dōkan (builder of Edo Castle), the monk Gesshū Sōko, and the Japanese woodblock master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. The custom has continued into modern Japan. Some people left their death poems in multiple forms. Prince Ōtsu made both waka and kanshi, Sen no Rikyū made both kanshi and kyōka.
On March 17, 1945, General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander-in chief during the Battle of Iwo Jima, sent a final letter to Imperial Headquarters. In the message, General Kuribayashi apologized for failing to successfully defend Iwo Jima against the overwhelming forces of the United States military. At the same time, however, he expressed great pride in the heroism of his men, who, starving and thirsty, had been reduced to fighting with rifle butts and fists. He closed the message with three traditional death poems in waka form.
国の為 重き努を 果し得で 矢弾尽き果て 散るぞ悲しき
仇討たで 野辺には朽ちじ 吾は又 七度生れて 矛を執らむぞ
醜草の 島に蔓る 其の時の 皇国の行手 一途に思ふ
Kuni no tame / omoki tsutome o / hatashi ede / yadama tsukihate / chiruzo kanashiki
Ada utade / nobe niwa kuchiji / warewa mata / shichido umarete / hoko o toranzo
Shikokusa no / shima ni habikoru / sono toki no / Mikuni no yukute / ichizu ni omou
Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be [the future of] the Imperial Land.
In 1970, writer Yukio Mishima and his disciple Masakatsu Morita composed death poems before their attempted coup at the Ichigaya garrison in Tokyo, where they committed the ritual suicide of Seppuku.
A small night storm blows
Saying 'falling is the essence of a flower'
Preceding those who hesitate— Yukio Mishima
Although he did not compose any formal death poem on his deathbed, the last poem written by the great poet Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694) recorded by his disciple Takarai Kikaku during his final illness is generally accepted as his poem of farewell:
Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno o
Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields— Matsuo Bashō
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, some Japanese poets have employed levity or irony in their final compositions. The Zen monk, Tokō (杜口; 1710–1795, aged 85), commented on the pretentiousness of some jisei in his own death poem:
Jisei to wa
are mere delusion —
death is death.:78
This poem by Moriya Sen'an (d. 1838) showed an expectation of an entertaining afterlife:
sakaya no kame no
shita ni ikeyo
moshi ya shizuku no
mori ya sen nan
Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
the cask will leak.:81
The final line, "hopefully the cask will leak" (mori ya sen nan), is a play on the poet's name, Moriya Sen'an.
Written over a large calligraphic character 死 shi, meaning Death, the Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku (白隠 慧鶴; 1685-1768) wrote as his jisei:
shinu ga iya nara
mō shinanu zo ya
Oh young folk —
if you fear death,
Having died once
you won't die again.:6
Korean death poems
Besides Korean Buddhist monks, Confucian scholars called seonbis sometimes wrote death poems (절명시). However, better-known examples are those written or recited by famous historical figures facing death when they were executed for loyalty to their former king or due to insidious plot. They are therefore impromptu verses, often declaring their loyalty or steadfastness. The following are some examples that are still learned by school children in Korea as models of loyalty. These examples are written in Korean sijo (three lines of 3-4-3-4 or its variation) or in Hanja five-syllable format (5-5-5-5 for a total of 20 syllables) of ancient Chinese poetry (五言詩).
Yi Gae (이개·1417–1456) was one of "six martyred ministers" who were executed for conspiring to assassinate King Sejo, who usurped the throne from his nephew Danjong. Sejo offered to pardon six ministers including Yi Gae and Seong Sam-mun if they would repent their crime and accept his legitimacy, but Yi Gae and all others refused. He recited the following poem in his cell before execution on June 8, 1456. In the following sijo, "Lord" (임) actually should read someone beloved or cherished, meaning King Danjong in this instance.
방안에 혔는 촛불 눌과 이별하엿관대
겉으로 눈물지고 속타는 줄 모르는다.
우리도 천리에 임 이별하고 속타는 듯하여라.
Oh, candlelight shining the room, with whom did you part?
You shed tears without and burn within, yet no one notices.
We part with our Lord on a long journey and burn like thee.
Like Yi Gae, Seong Sam-mun (성삼문·1418–1456) was one of "six martyred ministers," and was the leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Sejo. He refused the offer of pardon and denied Sejo's legitimacy. He recited the following sijo in prison and the second one (five-syllable poem) on his way to the place of execution, where his limbs were tied to oxen and torn apart.
이 몸이 죽어 가서 무어시 될고 하니,
봉래산(蓬萊山) 제일봉(第一峯)에 낙락장송(落落長松) 되야 이셔,
백설(白雪)이 만건곤(滿乾坤)할 제 독야청청(獨也靑靑) 하리라.
What shall I become when this body is dead and gone?
A tall, thick pine tree on the highest peak of Bongraesan,
Evergreen alone when white snow covers the whole world.
擊鼓催人命 (격고최인명) -둥둥 북소리는 내 생명을 재촉하고,
回頭日欲斜 (회두일욕사) -머리를 돌여 보니 해는 서산으로 넘어 가려고 하는구나
黃泉無客店 (황천무객점) -황천으로 가는 길에는 주막조차 없다는데,
今夜宿誰家 (금야숙수가) -오늘밤은 뉘 집에서 잠을 자고 갈거나
As the sound of drum calls for my life,
I turn my head where sun is about to set.
There is no inn on the way to underworld.
At whose house shall I sleep tonight?
Jo Gwang-jo (조광조·1482–1519) was a neo-Confucian reformer who was framed by the conservative faction opposing his reforms in the Third Literati Purge of 1519. His political enemies slandered Jo to be disloyal by writing "Jo will become the king" (주초위왕, 走肖爲王) with honey on leaves so that caterpillars left behind the same phrase as if in supernatural manifestation. King Jungjong ordered his death by sending poison and abandoned Jo's reform measures. Jo, who had believed to the end that Jungjong would see his errors, wrote the following before drinking poison on December 20, 1519. Repetition of similar looking words is used to emphasize strong conviction in this five-syllable poem.
愛君如愛父 (애군여애부) 임금 사랑하기를 아버지 사랑하듯 하였고
憂國如憂家 (우국여우가) 나라 걱정하기를 집안 근심처럼 하였다
白日臨下土 (백일임하토) 밝은 해 아래 세상을 굽어보사
昭昭照丹衷 (소소조단충) 내 단심과 충정 밝디 밝게 비춰주소서
Loved my sovereign as own father
Worried over country as own house
The bright sun looking down upon earth
Shines ever so brightly on my red heart.
Jeong Mong-ju (정몽주·1337–1392), considered "father" of Korean neo-Confucianism, was a high minister of the Goryeo dynasty when Yi Seong-gye overthrew it to establish the Joseon dynasty. When the future Taejong of Joseon demanded his support for the new dynasty, he answered with a poem of his own. Just as he suspected, he was assassinated the same night on April 4, 1392.
이몸이 죽고 죽어 일백 번 고쳐 죽어
백골이 진토되어 넋이라도 있고 없고
임 향한 일편 단심이야 가실 줄이 있으랴.
Should this body die and die again a hundred times over,
White bones turning to dust, with or without trace of soul,
My steadfast heart toward Lord, could it ever fade away?
- Last words
- Mi último adiós
- Suicide note
- Xie Lingyun
- Chinese Chán
- Japanese Zen
- Mono no aware
- "Kanshi" is a Chinese-style poem written in Chinese characters by a Japanese poet; while "waka", which literally means "Japanese poem", is written in lines alternating between 5 and 7 syllables
- Julia Ching, "Buddhism: A Foreign Religion in China. Chinese Perspectives", in Hans Küng and Julia Ching (editors), Christianity and Chinese Religions (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 219.
- Mayumi Ito, Japanese Tokko Soldiers and Their Jisei
- translations from Kakehashi, Kumiko (2007). So sad to fall in battle : an account of war (Presidio Press hardcover ed., 1st ed.). New York: Presidio Press/Ballantine Books. p. xxiii. ISBN 978-0-89141-903-7.. Though the book translates these lines as one poem, they in fact are three poems in waka form as shown in this article.
- Donald Keene, The Pleasures of Japanese Literature, p.62
- Jaitra. "The poetry of death". Retrieved 23 January 2016.
- Takarai, Kikaku (Autumn 2006). "Account of Our Master Basho's Last Days, translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in Springtime in Edo". Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry. 4 (3). Retrieved 6 November 2015.
- Hoffmann, Yoel (1986). Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 978-0804831796.
- Korean Sijo Literature Association
- Kim Cheon-tak, Cheong-gu-yeong-un, 1728
- Annals of Joseon Dynasty, December 16, 1519
- Blackman, Sushila (1997). Graceful Exits: How Great Beings Die: Death Stories of Tibetan, Hindu & Zen Masters. Weatherhill, Inc.: USA, New York, New York. ISBN 0-8348-0391-7
- Hoffmann, Yoel (1986). Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Charles E. Tuttle Company: USA, Rutland, Vermont. ISBN 0-8048-1505-4
- (in Japanese) Mishima's Death Poem