OtoSenshi Hybrid Samurai

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

@SethCGC X Harsimran Sain

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 (苦, ku),

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

The writing of a death poem was limited to the society's literate class, ruling class, noblemen, 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.

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 earliest records was recited by Prince Ōtsu, executed in 686. For examples of death poems, see the articles on the famous haiku poet Bashō, the Japanese Buddhist monk Ryōkan, Ōta Dōkan (builder of Edo Castle), the monk Gesshū Sōko, and the Japanese 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, Sen no Rikyū made both kanshi and kyōka.

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.
Yea, 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

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