Death poetry Basho haiku Japan THINK

May 12, 2016

Poetry and the death poem existed in Japan long before Buddhism, but it brought with it a new and lasting significance, explains Professor Stuart D. B Picken in Part 9 of his “Death in the Japanese Tradition” monograph.

As a short digression before dealing with the creation and operation of a formal death system, I should like to examine briefly the way in which the death poem, stylized under the influence of Buddhism, nevertheless shows clear traces of the older tradition. Indeed, it may be looked upon as a model of how the basic Japanese views of life and death gave Buddhism a distinctly Japanese dimension by attributing to the Buddha, the same characteristics as the kami.

The Haiku

Buddhism brought with it many arts from China, although as we saw, writing poetry was something that the Japanese had engaged in long before. Indeed, the poetic vision is very clearly an aspect of the Japanese aesthetic perception of life that marks it off from those cultures where the predominant perceptions are logical and linguistic and where art is merely a decoration to life rather than a form in which life expresses itself. The Japanese haiku, a poetic form of some seventeen syllables (in a five-seven-five formation) is in essence a highly succinct genre in which an action or event is combined with a facet of nature to express an idea with deeper significance and meaning. In this way, the important place accorded to nature remains in Japanese thought despite the massive overlay of Buddhist culture and art.

“There is no verse in my life which is not a farewell poem.”

The impetus and skill to compose a jisei, a farewell or death poem has a long and distinguished history over the centuries. The genre grew from the compositions of the Heian period aristocracy through the evolution of Zen culture to the more stern images of the bushi, the warrior class and its modern counterpart in the militaristic period after the Mieji Restoration of 1868. The jisei of General Nogi and his wife (Chapter XIV) on the funeral day of Emperor Meiji in 1912 are 20th century testimonies to its continuing power to express deep human feelings. (For a comprehensive discussion of the death poem, see: Hoffman, Yoel Buddhist Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1988.)

The general attitude to death poems is well stated by the famous Buddhist monk and poet, Matsuo Basho (1643-1694), who is alleged to have said once:

“There is no verse in my life which is not a farewell poem. So if someone asks for my farewell poem, any verse I composed of recent years may be my farewell one:

The old pond
A frog jumping in
The sound of water

Furu ike ya
kawasu tobikomu
misu no oto

This is my farewell poem, as I have made my own style with this verse. Since then I have made a thousand verses, all with this attitude.”

The frog jumping into the old pond, a natural occurrence, can conjure up the image of death, also a natural occurrence. In this way, Basho was saying that he was ready for death at any time. (See Blyth, R.H. A History of Haiku Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, Tokyo 1964 II p.75).

The haiku is now a poetic form that is imitated worldwide with numerous competitions being held. People with the aspiration to write haiku in their own language submit their work for judgment by a panel of experts who make the awards on behalf of whatever group is sponsoring the contest. While the modern haiku covers a range of subjects, the death poem, it should not be forgotten was a principal source of ideas.

The haiku is now a poetic form that is imitated worldwide with numerous competitions being held. People with the aspiration to write haiku in their own language submit their work for judgment by a panel of experts who make the awards on behalf of whatever group is sponsoring the contest. While the modern haiku covers a range of subjects, the death poem, it should not be forgotten, was a principal source of ideas.


As was earlier pointed out, Buddhist philosophy gave Japan the concept of muj, or impermanence. What grew around the idea was not a further set of refining philosophical concepts, but rather an aesthetic ideal, known in later days as mono no aware, essentially an aesthetic perception of life which sees the sadness of its transitory and brief nature, sometimes also referred to as the “pity of things.” Herein lies the great contrast with India, the home of Buddhism, where transience is expressed through the sight of death and decay. Japanese poetry conveys transience through the images of the changing seasons and in this way, death may be described using natural images, further reinforcing the idea that death is natural and inevitable. Consider the lines written by Fusen, in 1777:

Today then in the day
The melting snowman
is a real man

Kyo to ju
kyo so makoto ni

The power of this imagery is centered on the word yukibotoke, which refers to the melting snowman and employs a play on words, using hotoke, the term applied to people to refer to them a Buddha after death. Even modern police refer to a corpse as hotoke-san: honorable Buddha).

The famous monk Gensen Mumon (1322-c.1390), son of the Emperor Go-DGaiji used the imagery of the autumn wind, a popular image that readily suggests the image of death. Flowers come to symbolize human life (as grass does in Hebrew writing), its evanescence – it grows, blooms, withers and finally is blown away.

Blow if you will
Autumn wind. The flowers
have all faded

Fukuba fuke
hana wa sunda so
aki no kase

The use of nature gives the poem a positive feel about it and in this way, again the idea that death is in any sense unnatural is completely eliminated. It is natural and people must deal with it as such.

The Influence of Zen

The Kamakura period (1185-1333) might be called the golden age of Zen Buddhism. Many of the death poems of samurai of that era reflect the influence of Zen ideas. The Taiheki opens with a powerful statement of these ideas, rather similar to John Donne’s reference to the church bell tolling ultimately for everyone:

“The bell of the Gion Temple tolls into every man’s heart to warn him that all is vanity and evanescence. The faded flowers of the sala trees by the Buddha’s deathbed bear witness to the truth that all who flourish are destined to decay. Yes, pride must have its fall, for it is as unsubstantial as a dream on a spring night. The brave and violent man… he too must die away at the last, like a whirl of dust in the end.”

The nihilistic side of Zen, that human life has no value and the Confucian ideal of self-sacrifice on behalf of one’s lord is softened, in part, by the Buddhist belief in the mercy of Amida, but further by the way that death is surrounded by images of nature. In the Heike Monogatari, a warrior by the name of Suketomo composed with great subtlety, a death poem that integrates Buddhist metaphysics and the spirit of nature:

“All five manners of my fleeting form
And the four elements of existence return to nothing
I put my neck below the unsheathed sword
Its blow is but a breath of wind”

In the later Edo period (1600-1868), when the civil wars had passed, humor even came into the poetry of death, as the following examples show:

Kita Takeiyo prepared a grave for himself beside two other poets and before his death, he composed this poem:

I come to my grave
In Nihon enoki
and here to my delight
I find beside me Kikaku and Itcho
friends I can talk to

Kite mireba
Nihonenoki mo
hanashi no tomowa
Kikaku and Itcho

The word omoshiroi in the middle line means ‘amusing’. Death is natural and can even be considered in a lighthearted way.

Moriya Sennan wrote a death poem in 1838 which includes a pun on his own name in the closing line:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern
With luck
The cask will leak

Ware shinaba
sakaya no kame ni
shita no ikeyo
moshi ya shisuku no

In the event of someone writing a death poem and then making a complete recovery, the following poem would apply:

The physicians
praise his death poem
and depart

Ishashu wa
jisei o homete

Similar attitudes to death can be found in that other great genre of popular culture that survives to the present, the stylized form known as Rakugo, recited humorous narratives that deal with many themes, a popular one of which is death. The principal point being made here, that the image of death as natural was not swallowed up by Buddhist ideas, seems to find justification, proving again the latent power within the patterns of continuity that run through Japanese culture and civilization.

Image | Hideyuki KAMON


This is Part 9 of Professor Stuart D. B. Picken’s serialised monograph, “Death in the Japanese Tradition: A Study in Cultural Evolution and Transformation”, to be published every Thursday.

The next instalment, “Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss ” will be published next Thursday on May 19, 2016.


Part 1: Death in the Japanese Tradition: An Introduction
Part 2: Buddhism & Burial: Attitudes to Death in Ancient Japan
Part 3: Death and the Dead in Japan’s Literary Classics
Part 4: Parallel Worlds: Folk Religion, Life & Death in Japan
Part 5: Kami and Ancestors
Part 6: Buddhism and Death in Society
Part 7: The Arrival and Acceptance of Buddhism in Japan
Part 8: Popular Buddhist Death Cults
Part 9: The Death Poem and Buddhism
Part 10: Cross-Cultural Comparisons on Mourning and Object Loss
Part 11: Japanese Buddhist and Christian Images of Death: Comparisons and Contrasts
Part 12: Bushido: The Way of Death
Part 13: Confucianism, Neo-Confucianism and the Neo-Samurai
Part 14: Militarism – Meiji to Showa
Part 15: Nogi Syndrome, Workaholism and Karoshi
Part 16: Suicide in Contemporary Japan
Part 17: Lingering Images in Popular Culture
Part 18: Terrorism, Violent and Tomorrow’s Citizens
Part 19: The Death and Burial of Emperor Showa
Part 20: The Modern Ritualized Death System

Stuart D. B. Picken

About Stuart D. B. Picken

The late Reverend Professor Stuart D. B. Picken began his distinguished career in academia as a Rotary Scholar on a research trip to Japan. A native of Scotland who had dedicated himself to religious studies, he immediately became fascinated by Japanese culture and the practice of Shinto. He was particularly drawn to the parallels and differences he saw in Western pedagogy compared to that of the East and began a lifelong mission to bridge the communication and knowledge gap between the two worlds. Picken was appointed Professor of Philosophy at the International Christian University (ICU) in 1972. Here he turned his Western theological and philosophical training to comparative religious and cultural studies of Japan, at a time when the country was emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. His groundbreaking and controversial work on suicide in Japan made his name within the country, but it was his subsequent work on Shinto that influenced the rehabilitation of the religion at a time when it was dismissed in the West as pagan and primitive, or unjustly caricatured for its wartime associations. Whether in his research or teaching, Picken devoted much of his life to increasing understanding between his adopted country of Japan and the West, and in 2007 he was recognised with the Order of the Sacred Treasure, an imperial decoration for his pioneering research and outstanding contribution to the promotion of friendship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United Kingdom. He also served as the International Adviser to the High Priest of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, one of Japan’s largest and oldest shrines. From 2009 he was the founding Chairman of The International Academic Forum (IAFOR), where he was highly active in helping nurture and mentor a new generation of academics, and facilitating better intercultural and international awareness and understanding.


Asia, Cultural & Area Studies, Death in the Japanese Tradition, Ethics, Religion & Philosophy, Featured, History, IAFOR Japan Research Institute, In Depth, Subject Area, The Arts & Literature, World


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