Ryoan-Ji zen garden in Arashiyama, Kyoto. Content Catnip 2018 www.contentcatnip.com

Jisei: Haunting Japanese death poems from history

Japan has a long history of jisei, or death poems. Jisei is the “farewell poem to life.” These poems were written by literate people, often monks, royalty or courtiers just before their death. 

A Jisei from Prince Otsu in 686 BC is one of the earliest recorded death poems.

Not all death poems are written in the well-known haiku format/style. Jisei was also written in kanshi, waka, and haiku styles. Here are some that really speak to me and sound gorgeous.

My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo-
The blade is broken-
Alas! – Dairin Soto, who died in 1568 aged 89.

Samurai with sword Wikipedia

Frost on a summer day:
all I leave behind is water
that has washed my brush.

Adventures on the Isle of Skye
Plays of light and mist in the gloaming on the Isle of Skye Copyright Content Catnip 2010

Bitter winds of winter
but later, river willow,
open up your buds. –Senryu (1790)

Ancient word of the day: Augury

Not even for a moment
do things stand still-witness
color in the trees. –Seiju

Although some jisei poems seem to be dark and foreboding, others are hopeful and have a sense of peace to them. Acceptance is a key tenet of Zen Buddhism. The acceptance of life as it is and the inevitability of death.

I pass as all things do
dew on the grass. –Banzan

Jisei is a way for us, the reader to connect with the poet’s mind as he or she approaches the very end. All life, beauty/ugliness, past/present and life/death reaches a point of non-duality, a oneness.

Ginkaku-Ji temple zen garden, Kyoto © Content Catnip 2018 www.contentcatnip.com
Ginkaku-Ji temple zen garden, Kyoto © Content Catnip 2018 http://www.contentcatnip.com

Holding back the night
with it’s increasing brilliance
the summer moon. –Yoshitoshi.

Ancient word of the day: Nekyia

On a journey, ill;
my dream goes wandering
over withered fields. -Basho.

In Japanese culture, specific types of death are used to reference a person. Death is associated with the kind of life a person lived.

shinju: lover’s suicide

junshi: warrior’s death

senshi: death in war

roshi: death from old age

Samurai of the Satsuma Domain during the Boshin War. Wikipedia

What would be your final poem to the world before you die?

17 thoughts on “Jisei: Haunting Japanese death poems from history

    1. Yeah it’s remarkable isn’t it, so much meaning packed into a small poem.

  1. Love this. Death should be a central aspect of culture. There is nothing like this in the west which makes death so much tougher to deal with. It should be in the conversation early and often. We should all spend time composing our final poems. My own is a work in progress

    1. Yeah I know…so lovely isn’t it, to think about death in this sort of way, to celebrate it and be melancholy about it, but to accept it fully, yet it’s so difficult in the west to do this, why?

      1. Just never got bedded into the culture I guess. No doubt religion got in the way. It’s hard to sensible and realistic about the end when you think you’ll be riding unicorns in a popcorn factory after you die

      2. Don’t knock my beliefs Jeremy what are you saying..that riding unicorns in a popcorn factory won’t happen? 😢😢

      1. Oh no not really. I just meant that the poem (i.e my life) is still a work in progress. I like the idea of doing one

      2. Did you come across a collection of these poems in print at all? That would be something I’d like to get.

      3. Thanks — this looks like something I should buy. I going to Tokyo in a few weeks, so I’ll have a look when I’m there as well.

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