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Poetry Guide: Death Poem

A death poem (辞世の句: jisei no ku) is a poem written near the time of one's own death. It is a tradition for literate persons to write one in a number of different cultures, especially in Japan.

Poetry has long been a core part of Japanese tradition, in strong relation to religious practice. The poem should be graceful, natural, and about neutral emotions adhering to the teachings of Buddhism and Shinto (and possibly Christianity). Except the earliest works of this tradition, it has been considered to be rude to mention that the fact you are about to die directly but one can use negative notions like a sunset or falling sakura or cherry blossom to suggest an inevitable death (see kigo for more on the importance of sakura in Japanese poetry).

As a once-in-a-lifetime event, it was common to converse with respected poets before, and sometimes well in advance of, a death to help finish writing a poem. As the time passes, changes take place in a person's life and the poem could often be rewritten. This rewriting was almost always not mentioned to keep from tarnishing the deceased person's legacy.

Writing death poems is done by both Chinese and Japanese Zen monks (writing either Chinese style poetry kanshi, waka or haiku), and by many haiku poets, as well as those who wish to write one. It was also an ancient custom in Japan for literate persons to compose a jisei on their death-bed. One of earliest records of jisei was recited by Prince Otsu executed in 686. For examples of death poems, see the articles on the famous haiku poet Basho, the Japanese Buddhist monk Ryokan, Ota Dokan (builder of Edo Castle), and the Japanese woodblock master Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

Some people left their jisei in multiple forms. Prince Otsu made both waka and kanshi, Sen no Rikyu made both kanshi and kyoka.

A death poem sometimes took on an aspect of a will, reconciling differences between persons.

In a full ceremonial seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide) one of the elements of the ritual is the writing of a death poem. The poem is written in the waka style (five units long which are usually composed of five, seven, five, seven, and seven syllables). Asano Naganori, the daimyo whose suicide the forty-seven ronin avenged, wrote a death poem in which commentators see immaturity and lack of character that led to him being ordered to commit seppuku in the first place.


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