Death poem

The jisei, or death poem, of Kuroki Hiroshi, a Japanese sailor who died in a Kaiten suicide torpedo accident on 7 September 1944. It reads: "This brave man, so filled with love for his country that he finds it difficult to die, is calling out to his friends and about to die".

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 (, ku), and ultimately all reality is an emptiness or absence of self-nature (, ). 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.

Chinese death poems

Yuan Chonghuan

Yuan Chonghuan (袁崇煥, 1584–1630) was a politician and military general who served under the Ming dynasty. He is best known for defending Liaodong from Jurchen invaders during the Later Jin invasion of the Ming. Yuan met his end when he was arrested and executed by lingchi ("slow slicing") on the order of the Chongzhen Emperor under false charges of treason, which were believed to have been planted against him by the Jurchens. Before his execution, he produced the following poem.

一生事業總成空
半世功名在夢中
死後不愁無勇將
忠魂依舊守遼東


A life's work totals to nothing
Half of my career seems to be in dreams
I do not worry about lacking brave warriors after my death
For my loyal spirit will continue to guard Liaodong

Xia Wanchun

Xia Wanchun (夏完淳, 1631–1647) was a Ming dynasty poet and soldier. He is famous for resisting the Manchu invaders and died aged 17. He wrote the poem before his death.

三年羈旅客
今日又南冠
無限山河淚
誰言天地寬
已知泉路近
欲別故鄉難
毅魄歸來日
靈旗空際看


I have been on the path of the war for three years
And now I became the prison of the war
Tears are everywhere in the mount and river
Who will say the heaven is wide
I know my death is close
And hard to farewell my homeland
On the day of my soul coming back
I hope I can see the Manchu troops is defeated

Zheng Ting

Zheng Ting (郑颋; died 621) was a politician in the end of the Sui dynasty. He was executed by Wang Shichong after trying to resign from his official position under Wang and become a Buddhist monk. He faced the execution without fear and wrote this death poem, which reflected his strong Buddhist belief.

幻生還幻滅
大幻莫過身
安心自有處
求人無有人


Illusion appears, illusion ceases
The biggest illusion among all is our body
Once a pacified heart finds its place
There's no such body to look for

Wen Tianxiang

Wen Tianxiang (文天祥; June 6, 1236 – January 9, 1283) was a Chinese poet and politician in the last years of the Southern Song dynasty. He was executed by Kublai Khan for the uprisings against Yuan dynasty.

孔曰成仁
孟曰取義
惟其義盡
所以仁至
讀聖賢書
所學何事
而今而後
庻幾無愧


Confucius speaks of perfecting nobility
Mencius speaks of choosing duty
It is only by fulfilling duty to the upmost
That one obtains nobility
What does one learn
Studying the classics of the Sages
From this point on
I can perhaps be free from shame

Tan Sitong

Tan Sitong (譚嗣同; March 10, 1865 – September 28, 1898) was a well-known Chinese politician, thinker, and reformist in the late Qing dynasty (1644–1911). He was executed at the age of 33 when the Hundred Days' Reform failed in 1898. Tan Sitong was one of the six gentlemen of the Hundred Days' Reform, and occupies an important place in modern Chinese history.

望門投止思張儉
忍死須臾待杜根
我自橫刀向天笑
去留肝膽兩崑崙


Should I run and hide in my friend's home? On Zhang Jian muse I.
Till death I long for myr'ad Du Gen's to rise and loudly cry.
Let the sword fall on my neck, I am laughing at the sky –
I leave my Loyalty and Justice, twin-Kunluns, behind!

Japanese death poems

Style and technique

Print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi depicting General Akashi Gidayu preparing for seppuku after losing a battle for his master in 1582. His death poem is visible in the upper right corner.

The poem's structure can be in one of many forms, including the two traditional forms in Japanese literature: kanshi or waka. 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 the earliest was recited by Prince Ōtsu, executed in 686. More examples of jisei are those of the famous haiku poet Bashō, the Japanese Buddhist monk Ryōkan, Edo Castle builder Ōta Dōkan, the monk Gesshū Sōko, and the 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, and Sen no Rikyū made both kanshi and kyōka.

来時は空手、去時は赤脚。一去一来、単重交折

Raiji wa karate kyoji wa sekkyaku ikkyoichirai tanjuu sekkou

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

— Zen monk Kozan Ichikyo (1283–1360)

Fujiwara no Teishi, the first empress of Emperor Ichijo, was also known as a poet. Before her death in childbirth in 1001, she wrote three waka to express her sorrow and love to her servant, Sei Shōnagon, and the emperor. Teishi said that she would be entombed, rather than be cremated, so that she wrote that she will not become dust or cloud. The first one was selected into the poem collection Ogura Hyakunin Isshu.

Cherry blossoms at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

夜もすがら 契りし事を 忘れずは こひむ涙の 色ぞゆかしき
知る人も なき别れ路に 今はとて 心ぼそくも 急ぎたつかな
烟とも 雲ともならぬ 身なれども 草葉の露を それとながめよ


yo mosu gara / chigirishi koto o / wasurezu wa/ kohimu namida no/ irozo yukashiki
shiru hito mo/naki wakare chi ni / ima wa tote / kokoro bosoku mo / isogi tasu kana
kemuri tomo / kumo tomo naranu / mi nare domo / kusaba no tsuyu wo / sore to nagame yo


If you remember the promises between us,
When you think of me after my death.
What is the color of your tears? I really want to know.
I will have a lonely trip by myself, and farewell to you.
We will be parted with reluctance and sorrow.
And I will be on the path in a hurry.
Because I will become neither dust nor cloud
My body is just there.
But look at the dew on the leaves and grass,
Just think that is my incarnation.

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.
Yet, 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 seppuku. Mishima wrote:

散るをいとふ
世にも人にも
さきがけて
散るこそ花と
吹く小夜嵐


Chiru o itofu
Yo ni mo hito ni mo
Sakigakete
Chiru koso hana to
Fuku sayoarashi


A small night storm blows
Saying 'falling is the essence of a flower'
Preceding those who hesitate

Although he did not compose any formal death poem on his deathbed, the last poem written by Bashō (1644–1694), recorded by his disciple Takarai Kikaku during his final illness, is generally accepted as his poem of farewell:

旅に病んで
夢は枯れ野を
かけめぐる


Tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno o
kakemeguru


Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields

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) commented on the pretentiousness of some jisei in his own death poem:

辞世とは
即ちまよひ
たゞ死なん


Jisei to wa
sunawachi mayoi
tada shinan


Death poems
are mere delusion –
death is death.: 78 

This poem by Moriya Sen'an (d. 1838) showed an expectation of an entertaining afterlife:

我死なば
酒屋の瓶の
下にいけよ
もしや雫の
もりやせんなん


Ware shinaba
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.
With luck
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:

若い衆や死ぬがいやなら今死にやれ
一たび死ねばもう死なぬぞや


Wakaishu ya
shinu ga iya nara
ima shiniyare
hito-tabi shineba
mō shinanu zo ya


Oh young folk –
if you fear death,
die now!
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 jeol myeong si). 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

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" ( im) actually should read someone beloved or cherished, meaning King Danjong in this instance.

방(房) 안에 혓는 촉(燭) 불 눌과 이별(離別)하엿관대
것츠로 눈믈 디고 속 타는 쥴 모르는고.
뎌 촉(燭) 불 날과 갓트여 속 타는 쥴 모로도다.


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.

Seong Sam-mun

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

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, ju cho wi wang) 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

Jeong Mong-ju (정몽주; 1337–1392) was an influential high minister of the Goryeo dynasty when Yi Seong-gye overthrew it to establish the Joseon dynasty. When Prince Jeongan asked Jeong to support the new dynasty through a poem, Jeong answered with a poem of his own reaffirming his loyalty to the falling Goryeo dynasty. Just as he suspected, he was assassinated the same night on April 4, 1392. The Goryeo dynasty symbolically ended with Jeong's death and his death poem is the most famous in Korean history.

此身死了死了一百番更死了 (차신사료사료일백번갱사료) -이몸이 죽고 죽어 일백 번 고쳐 죽어
白骨爲塵土魂魄有也無 (백골위진토혼백유무야) -백골이 진토되어 넋이라도 있고 없고
向主一片丹心寧有改理也歟 (향주일편단심유개리여) -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?

See also


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