The beauty of Japanese Death Poems

Written by Nathaniel Postell

We are obsessed with death – the great beyond, the next journey.
We all contemplate death – shook by a fear of the unknown.
Craving the knowledge of what is to come yet reluctant to pay the price of admission.
Death is inevitable.

Painted in that inescapable light, Japanese death poems should be a grim affair. However, this is not the case. Poetry has long held cultural significance in the east. Its historic impact can be charted through the course of time… used to exaggerate and draw the eye to certain elements while concealing others, much like the modern use of photoshop to remove undesirable details, entwined with historical events while capturing the essence of the writer or writer’s viewpoint. Japanese death poems take that personal connection with the writer a step further – thrusting the reader into the brain of the writer for one final reflection on the event they are rapidly approaching.

Death.
Death.

A broken dream –
where do they go
the butterflies?
(Ichimu, 1854)

Many readers at this point may shudder with the concept of reading the final creative thoughts of another. In essence, capturing the final moments of the soul while it still resides firmly in its mortal coil. Delightful!.. However, our focus is on finding beauty and there is no purer form than figure. Aesthetic plays a significant part in the enjoyment of all things. Poems are no different.

A journey of no return:
the wanderer’s sack is
bottomless.
(Kyoshu, 1769)

You may ask yourself what sexy delivery vessel can a death thought inhabit to possibly be considered beautiful? The universally recognizable haiku certain to brings back middle school memories for most. Three lines with seventeen on, similar to English syllables. That’s hot! Or perhaps the most common death poem format tickles your fancy. Jisei in waka form or tanka, composed of five lines with thirty-one on. Joking aside, the concise nature of these structures lends an impactful commentary on life’s fleeting nature.

At the crossroad
of my life and death
a cuckoo cries.

Ice in a hot world:
my life
melts.
(Nakamichi, 1893)

A concept inspired by Zen Buddhism (which originated in Japan) often exhibiting core concepts derived from the teachings of Buddha, who famously cast aside worldly concerns and pleasures, due to his belief in their futility. He taught of living in a transient world where connections to material items would incur only suffering.

Death was viewed as a time for tranquility…

A time of introspection, contemplating contributions, and declaring accountability for our actions. Death poems offer a unique outlet, allowing the writer to share their truth without pretense. There is beauty in immortalizing such a powerful moment!

In this delusive world
I viewed the moon
two years too long.
(Saikaku, 1693)

General Tadamichi Kuribayashi included three death poems in his final letter to Imperial Headquarters (staring down certain defeat during the Battle of Iwo Jima, faced with imminent death). He took the time to apologize for his inability to triumph over invading forces. As the United States military marches toward him, he took the time to express the immense amount of pride he felt for those that stood next to him: fighting beyond exhaustion, unable to admit defeat. This powerful message will live for eternity! A statement of his fighting spirit! A lasting memory of a man dedicated to those around him!
Victors may write our history but General Tadamichi Kuribayashi’s final truths will live on untouched. That is beautiful…

Cherry blossoms fall
on a half-eaten
dumpling.
(Saruo, 1923)

Most Japanese death poems are accompanied by a moment of clarity – a final discovery that could only be revealed by the harsh light of an individual’s final moments. The poems operate as the vessel transporting these final epiphanies for all to partake.

Life is an ever-rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to snow.
(Mumon Gensen, 1390)

Japanese death poems provide an interesting opportunity to present personal truth: tinted by the lens of the writer, infused by their beliefs and personality. My personal favorite example is composed by Zen Monk Toko:

Death Poems
are mere delusion.
Death is Death.

There is beauty in our connections to others – our shared experiences, battles won and lost. A beautiful tapestry of varying viewpoints. Japanese death poems capture the purest essence of character, belief, and Self. Our ability to empathize with the writer’s moment and thought without having to agree with the circumstance is beautiful. Achieving what so many have strived for in life, true equality. After all, the inevitability of death is a universal commonality.

People, when you see the smoke,
do not think
it is fields they are burning.
(Baika, 1843)

Ps. All haiku – from the book “Japanese Death Poems”.


Next post –  “The Pearl Territory”, ch. 23 – Bruck #personaljournal 

Share

You may also like...

27 Responses

  1. masercot says:

    Mine will be as follows:

    A boy stood on the burning deck,
    I’d finish this but I broke my neck…

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Haha 😂 not-so-Japanese 🤔😉But best of the day!

      • masercot says:

        I actually own a book on Japanese death poems. Being a Nipponophile, I’ve always been interested in the Zen-Samurai frame of mind…

      • Victoria Ray NB says:

        “Zen Potatoes Poetry” …ah, id like to see that book lol
        Just kidding! If seriously—awesome! It’s such amazing theme to explore…💕💕

  2. Nice Haikus. I think everyone has a curiosity and little obsession with death.
    Have a wonderful week VR

  3. I find death a lasting inspiration.

  4. Well done, VR. These Haikus and your thoughts are excellent. I have been studing Haikus for almost twenty years. I hope I learn enough before my day.

    The day has arrived,
    The one expected for years . . .
    Gentle is the rain.

  5. Death be not thee proud
    thou embraces everyone
    why the attitude?

  6. Jeanne says:

    I must have been resurrected from the dead! Death has lost its sting and means little to me now. Laugh, I say! Laugh! 😹 I laugh at death who dares try to play roulette with me. And off I saunter to find my favorite napping place. 😸

  7. kinkyacres says:

    Broken down, death seems to be more about living!

  8. librepaley says:

    The crystalline elegance of haiku is such a perfect match for the stark tundra of death.

    • Victoria Ray NB says:

      Beautifully said! 👽✍️
      Sex haikus are also a good place for a deeper research 😉✌️😅

  9. Sorryless says:

    “And every day is the right one,” I like that.

    Death would seem to be a dubious centerpiece, but it’s essence is what poetry is asking for: bare naked truths.

    Great topic, RNB.

  10. Simon says:

    I guess if you think about it the thoughts of a person nearing their own mortality are perhaps the most pure and clear. Giving the people left behind their glimpse of what life is about.

%d bloggers like this: