Death poems are poems composed moments before an individual confronts death and hence are “farewell” poems “to life” (Hoffmann, 27). They are said to represent a divergence from the emphasis on “politeness” in Japanese culture and rather represent a shift towards one’s “spiritual legacy” (Hoffmann, 27-28). Death poems portray no concern for the division of property or for a proper and correct salutation; rather they vividly express the sentiments of an individual standing face-to-face with death. The poem itself is normally written in the tanka or haiku style and often mentions the season of the author’s death.
The tradition of writing a death poem became widespread in Japan during the Meiji period. However, the first death poem is seemingly found in the Kojiki when the figure Yamato Takeru-no-Mikoto recognizes he is fatally ill and sings a death song before dying (Hoffman, 44). The practice was often employed by warriors, poets and Zen monks--even the Japanese author Yukio Mishima wrote a death poem before committing ritualized seppuku.
A glance into the death poetry of Zen monks proves both interesting and at times humorous. There is a debate among monks whether the composition of a death poem is actually appropriate. Death poetry is sometimes considered a source for egotism, a way to impress and a “mere formalism” (Hoffmann, 76). This very tension finds its way into actual death poems.
Consider the monk Toko’s death poem which clearly states:
“Death poems / are mere delusion-- / death is death.” (Hoffmann, 78)
Yet, given the tradition, many monks continue to write death poems. Monks’ death poems are often pervaded by a “lack of regret” and tend to “underscore the meaninglessness of life and death” (Long, 39). A monk’s death poem should not express a lust for salvation as this would exemplify attachment. Instead, the poem should express indifference to death.
Consider the poem of Kogetsu Sogan:
“Katsu! / Katsu! / Katsu! / Katsu!” (Hoffmann,106)
The word “katsu” is loosely defined as the “sharp cry used by the Zen teacher and pupil at the moment of enlightenment” and its use here highlights Kogetsu Sogan’s wisdom and emphasis on a correct perception of reality in his final moments. (Hoffmann, 106) In fact, the word katsu appears commonly throughout the death poems of monks.
Nevertheless, it is important that death poems are free of the restraints and emerge without a desire to impress or inspire. This unrestrained expression may sometimes lack words. Consider the death poem written by Shisui who upon approaching death, “grasped his brush, painted a circle, cast the brush aside and died”. (Hoffmann, 295) This symbol is known as the enso which is prominent in Zen Buddhism and indicates the emptiness of all things.
In this way, death poems provide us insight into the Japanese perception of death and the afterlife.
Consider the death poem of the haiku poet Saimaro:
“I’ll cross the ridge / up to the yonder side: / journey into spring.” (Hoffmann, 275)
Indeed, in this poem there is reference to crossing over mountains or a “ridge” to reach the world of the dead. (Hoffmann, 275) This seems increasingly familiar in light of our study of the Ainu perception of death wherein the world of the dead is located on the other side of the mountains.
A death poem is a touchstone for understanding religion and death in a Japanese context. It can elucidate the insight of a monk, highlight one’s anticipation of the afterlife or some cases depict one’s nostalgia. Some poems express detachment while others express a desire to “linger in this world for a bit longer” and yet accept that “death must come as part of the natural course of things” (Long, 39). What remains important is that death poems provide us a key to understanding the many notions and religious conceptions surrounding death within the Japanese religious imagination.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite death poems written by the poet Moriya Sen’an:
“Bury me when I die / Beneath a wine barrel / in a tavern. / With luck / The cask will leak.” (Hoffmann, 81)
For more death poems check out:
For an interesting commentary on Japanese Death poetry check out:And if you are feeling particularly inspired check out this book by Yoel Hoffmann! Hoffmann, Yoel. Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death. Rutland: Tuttle Company Inc, 1986.