Japanese Poetry and Jisei, death poems


A lot of traditional Japanese art draws from the concept of Ukiyo the “Floating World” where all life is a fleeting transient thing. The origin of this term was the hedonism of the early Edo period but it was also an allusion to the Buddhist “Sorrowful World” which is the earthly plane of death and rebirth.

The Japanese love of nature and the seasons also draws from this melancholy for the passing of things. From Hanami, the cherry blossom viewing festival to Tsukimi the autumn moon viewing festival Japanese cultural and spiritual life is filled with a kind of worship for the temporary beauty of nature. The goal then for a lot of Japanese art is to capture these fleeting moments of awe at the worlds beauty.

Given the nature of the Japanese language where all phonemes are consonant and vowel pairs and all words then end in one of six sounds, rhyming poetry would be neither challenging nor interesting. So Japanese poetry has evolved instead from syllabic rhythm.

The Haiku, now considered the standard poetic form has seventeen syllables divided into lines of 5-7-5 syllables. A haiku usually contains just one image drawn from nature.

The Tanka is a slightly longer poem with thirty-one syllables in two parts 5-7-5 syllables and 7-7 syllables with one image in each part.

The Choka is a long poem. It contains 5 and 7 syllable lines and is indefinite in length.

The Kyoka “mad poem” is a satirical Tanka not necessarily based on nature.

And the Senryu is also a satirical poem about human foibles in the Haiku form.

It is perhaps not surprising given the fascination with fleeting things that Japanese poetry might be used to capture someones last moments of reflection. It is perhaps the most awesome and terrifying moment of our lives aside from our birth which we are incapable of recording. The earliest death poems appeared in the sixth century. However the writing of death poems became a widespread practice in the Meiji period (1868-1912). Death poems were often included with a persons will written not only by poets and court nobility but at all levels of society. Samurai were known to ride into battle with their death poem tucked inside their armor so that if they died it could be carried back to their families.

Death poems could be seen as a memorial of a persons life or a message to people left behind.

Prince Otsu, was executed after being unjustly accused of conspiring to the throne.


Iware-no-ike ni

naku kamo o

kyo nomi mite ya


(This is the last day

I shall see the mallards

crying over Lake Iware.

Then shall I disappear

into the clouds.)

Yorimasa wounded and his army defeated turned to the west and chanted “I put my trust in the Amida Buddha” and then recited this poem before plunging his sword into his stomach.

Umoregi no

hana saku koto mo

nakarishi ni

mi no naru hate zo


(Like a rotten log

half-buried in the ground

my life, which

has not flowered, comes

to this sad end.)

Ota Dokan was stabbed while bathing. He is said to have recited this Tanka and then died.

Kakaru toki

sa koso inochi no


kanete nakimi to


(Had I not known

that I was dead


I would have mourned

my loss of life.)



sono akatsuki ni


kyo no yube wa

akikaze zo fuku

(One day you are born

you die the next


at twilight,

autumn breezes blow.)

Takemata Hideshige lost a battle to his rival Shibata Katsuie and before dying he  recited this poem.

Ashura o ni

ware o torameya

yagate mata

umarete toramu

Katsuie ga kubi

(Shall Ashura[a demon of war]

subdue a man like me?

I shall be born again

and then I’ll cut the head

off Katsuie…

Oroku was cruelly treated by her mother in law and finally committed suicide. This poem was included with her will.


kono yo no yami wa

yomo hareji

shide no yamaji no

iza tsuki o min

(And had my days been longer

still the darkness

would not leave this world

along deaths path, among the hills

I shall behold the moon.)

For some , especially the zen monks, the death poem was just a vanity. Toko wrote:

Jisei to wa

sunawachi mayoi

tada shinan

(Death poems

are mere delusion

death is death.)

And Kisei:

Umarete wa

shinuru hazu nari

sore naraba

(Since I was born

I have to die,

and so…)

Some took a lighter approach. Hanabusa Ikkei wrote:

Ni sambyaku

ikiyo to koso

omoishi ni

hachijugo nite

fuji no wakajini

(I thought to live

two centuries, or three

yet here comes death

to me, a child

just eighty-five years old.)

And Moriya Sen’an:

Ware shinaba

sakaya no kame no

shita ni ikeyo

moshi ya shizuku no


(Bury me when I die

beneath a wine barrel

in a tavern.

With luck

the cask will leak.)

And finally from an anonymous poet:

Inashu wa

jisei o homete


(The doctors

praise his death poem

and depart.)

How we live and our thoughts at the end of that time, whether an act of vanity or not, offer a unique record of a persons life and of the lives of a people.

The translations of the death poems I’ve used here come from “Japanese Death Poems” by Yoel Hoffman. A good book if you are interested in reading further.

2 responses to “Japanese Poetry and Jisei, death poems

  1. Thank you for the amazing poetry. This type of poetry is the reason I love to read poetry from other places and cultures.

  2. Pingback: When Cherry Blossoms Fall

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