Japanese Death Poems

Today we have a talented guest host over at dVerse Poets Pub, Gayle, who is talking about Jisei or Japanese death poems. These messages to loved ones written in preparation of one’s death are particularly appropriate at the time of the autumn equinox (which was celebrated yesterday, Wednesday 23rd September in Japan), a traditional holiday for visiting the graves of your ancestors.

Shy sapling peering –
no stunted growth, shrivelled roots:
too late to catch
the warming rays of summer.
Will there be time to rise forth?

Oak-sapling-Quercus-robur-001A bit of background for the above: Minamoto Yorimasa in 12th century (Heian period) Japan was a sensitive, poetic soul who tried to stay out of politics, but finally found himself reluctantly leading the Minamoto clan into battle against the Taira clan in a messy period of Japanese history. He committed ritual suicide and his death poem below shows his bitterness at what he perceives to have been a wasted life:

Like a rotten log
half buried in the ground –
my life, which
has not flowered, comes
to this sad end.

My greatest fear is that when my life comes to an end, I will still not have got around to doing the things that are really important to me, nor lived as I wanted to.

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36 thoughts on “Japanese Death Poems”

  1. The two tanka are such a contrast – yours wistful and wondering, the other bitter and sad. I also referenced Shubun no hi in the preface to my jisei. This time of year does naturally lend itself to these thoughts, to mono no aware. I think you will have no regrets – loving wife and mother, intelligent, curious. I really like the verbal image of the sapling. In my walks in the woods, I come upon so many of these baby trees making their way from the acorn to the sun above. They may not make it to full growth, but they are growing and that is the important part.

    1. I was quite surprised by just how openly bitter Yorimasa’s jisei was – those must have been harsh times indeed. I love saplings too – who know how many of them will make it, but they darn well try…

      1. Yes, they do try. I am an unapologetic tree climber. I have a certain oak that is my favorite. when I am perched up there thinking, reading, playing my violin, I often look down and see those saplings scattered up, coming up through the dead leaves, coming from acorns dropped by my oak. I think Yorimasa was a very honorable man and how the actions upset his standards of bushido. I can well imagine how bitter he would be and how very sad.

  2. It’s particularly sad when the death poems written by some are filled with angst and regret. Many of those samurai I feel weren’t too happy with the way that their lives were played out. I enjoyed your tanka about the sapling musing on whether he would get a chance to reach his highest potential. And I appreciated the background info that you provided, Marina. Thank you for joining in today.

    1. Those must have been very difficult times. I was rereading Genji recently and was wondering how much of it was escapism (with those ornate poetry and kite-flying and musical competitions) to soldiers who constantly had to face the prospect of death or courtiers who faced the very real possibility of banishment or being put to death. Great prompt, Gayle, really enjoyed it!

      1. So very glad you enjoyed the prompt, Marina. Thanks for sharing that with me. I would agree that much of those soldier’s activities were escapism. It’s just too much to be alone for long with the thoughts of being killed without some distraction.

  3. I believe you have captured what most of us fear about dying in the second tanka- that all has been a waste, not having flowered, but half buried in the ground ~

    As to the first one, its a very positive way of looking at life ~ Even with autumn, there are some plants still blooming, hoping to rise before winter comes ~

    Enjoyed both Marina ~

  4. Thanks for sharing the background for your poem. I enjoyed the poem itself, but the background spoke to me. I lived much of my life with the same fear, and even now as I learned to live fearlessly and step out in faith to live the life God has called me to live, I wonder if it’s too late at my age. But I suppose it’s better tor realize one has this fear before reaching death’s door so changes can be made and fearlessness embraced. Peace, Linda

  5. It would be sad indeed to feel that at the end of life that one’s life had not flowered. I hope to die without regret. I wonder if this is ever 100% possible.

    1. It certainly doesn’t feel ‘natural’ to me, but I’m trying to work on it. That’s what Buddhism is all about to my mind: not being too attached to outcomes and success.

  6. Some of us have been fortunate, lucky now to be retired, playing with grandchildren, still insanely in love with our spouse, reflecting on a career of service to the blind, & yet our mechanism, part meat, part spirit is still responsive to the seasons, & is still capable of a bloom in Spring.

    1. May you bloom for many more springs, Glenn. Hope springs eternal too, doesn’t it, and luckily I have a short memory at times and keep on hoping for better times ahead. Some call it optimism, some call it foolhardiness!

    1. That would make a great quote: Death doesn’t care about our bucket lists.
      Actually, I’ve never understood (nor liked) the term of bucket lists. I have just 2-3 things I really want to accomplish in life and perhaps another 2-3 ways in which I can live quite happily. That’s it. All the rest is icing on a cake.

  7. It would be nice to be able to write a wonderful piece about a life well lived and with no regrets, but the honesty of your poem and of Yorimasa’s is a startling, yet refreshing contrast…and the beauty of yours is that your life continues, and so you still have the chance, for that final poem, to honestly write what you hope to write!

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