Samurai jisei

death poems

  • samurai jisei death poem

    "While suicide was heavily condemned by Christian civilization, in Japan it was praised as one of the most beautiful and conclusive acts of human will. The samurai were the only ruling class in the world with a tradition of ritual suicide as a proof of the highest loyalty to the way, purity of heart, and dominance of spirit. The spirit and willpower of the samurai were as high and infinite as Heaven itself, where their thoughts, ideals, and entire life were directed.
    Excessive clinging to life transforms a person into a coward. But having an unreasonable, aloof attitude towards death is reckless. A warrior must be ready to die and live without the veil of fear in order to live with dignity and see the world clearly. Death is the central point of Bushi-do, the prism through which all thoughts and actions should be filtered." (A. R. Basov, Samurai II: Spirit of the Warrior, 2018)

    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. Not all death poems are written in the well-known haiku format/style. Jisei was also written in kanshi, waka, and haiku styles. [1]

    "The first recorded example was recited by Prince Ötsu before his execution in 686. The images used to represent fleeting existence have changed through time. Early poems used flowers; later jisei, particularly those of samurai, added other images from nature. They are graceful and natural and unemotional, like the Zen Buddhism and Shinto that inspired their creation. It was inappropriate to mention death explicitly. Instead, metaphors were used to suggest the transience of life- sunsets, autumn or impressions of the season in which the poet died, like falling cherry blossoms in the Spring, the full moon, the western sky, and the song of the cuckoo.
    Like other haiku, jisei seeks to transcend thought to create an 'ah, so' moment, striving to connect with a mind poised at the end, and removing the dualistic divisions between beauty and ugliness, future and present, and life and death. Some death poems are dark, while others are hopeful. They come from Zen's acceptance of life as it is, including the inevitability of extinction. They were considered a special gift to one's loved ones, students, and friends." (Lawrence Winkler, Samurai Road, 2016)

    I wish I could enjoy,
    the rest of Spring,
    as the cherry blossoms are yet in bloom,
    in spite of the spring breeze
    which is attempting to blow off all their petals.

    – Asano Naganori (1667–1701),
    the daimyō of the Akō Domain in Japan


    A show of spirit:
    a kite in the distant sky
    carried by the wind.

    – Hayano Wasuke Tsunenari (1667–1703),
    one of the forty-seven retainers of Asano Naganori


    Torii Art by Tatiana Basova
    Torii Art by Tatiana Basova

    Viewing flowers, drinking sake for a time
    amid cold clouds from the eastern sea
    and the obligations of the dusty world,
    I greet dawns of snow, frost and wind.
    How unexpected
    to find the way I traveled
    as a samurai
    should lead me along the path
    of the eternal law.

    – Kimura Okaemon Sadayuki (1658–1703),
    one of the forty-seven retainers of Asano Naganori


    Long as I lived
    one knows all the pleasant things
    long life can enjoy
    there is nothing to surpass
    the victory we won today.

    – Horibe Kanamaru (1627–1703),
    the oldest of the forty-seven retainers of Asano Naganori


    The great Sengai, when he died in 1837 at the age of eighty-eight, concluded his jisei by asking,

    To be saved from the chasm
    why cling to the cliff?
    Clouds floating low never know where the breezes will blow them.

    – Sengai Gibon (1750–1837),
    a Japanese monk of the Rinzai school


    Oh, I’m so happy!
    I realized my desire and it is time to die.
    There is no cloud on the moon of my life.

    – Ōishi Kuranosuke (1659–1703),
    the chamberlain of the Akō Domain in Harima Province,
    the leader of the forty-seven rōnin in their 1702 vendetta
    and thus the hero of the Chūshingura


    Samurai Art by Tatiana Basova
    Samurai Art by Tatiana Basova


    Flash of steel stills me;
    calmness mirrors the ocean;
    I await the waves.
    The death of blossoms;
    is not something to grieve on;
    but the way of things.

    – Asakura Sōteki (1477–1555),
    a Japanese samurai warrior of the latter Sengoku period


    "Unlike the testament, which is usually written long before the day of death is known, the poem's composition is traditionally timed to concide with one's death. These poignant circumstances demand the utmost self-control, and the stroke of the brush is intended to demonstrate just that. Even though the farewell poem is sometimes preceded by Buddha invocations or includes them (geju), thus embedding last words and actions in a conventional religious context, jisei most forcefully constitutes a deliberate individual expression of the will to die. The scholar Nakanishi Susumu defines jisei as a poem on the discovery of one's genuine self at the point of death. Before committing junshi, Nogi wrote two jisei. They highlight his lord as a kami, and himself as a revering subject." (Doris G. Bargen, Suicidal Honor, 2006)

    has he now ascended,
    our great lord,
    and his august traces, from afar,
    do we humbly revere.
    It is I who go
    following the path
    of the great lord
    who has departed
    this transient world!

    – Nogi Maresuke (1849–1912),
    a Japanese general in the Imperial Japanese Army, governor-general in Taiwan


    The glory and prosperity of my life was as good as a single cup of sake.
    My life of forty-nine years is passed like a dream.
    I know not what life is; nor death.
    Both Heaven and Hell are left behind.
    I stand in the moonlit dawn; free from clouds of attachment.

    – Uesugi Kenshin (1530–1578),
    one of the most powerful daimyōs of the Sengoku period


    Uesugi Kenshin Art by Tatiana Basova
    Uesugi Kenshin Art by Tatiana Basova


    Submitting to the will of another,
    I have nothing to say this day.
    I value honour above life.

    Ah, the long flashing sword
    to which I readily surrender,
    and repay my lord’s kindness with my life.

    – Isami Kondō (1834–1868),
    a Japanese swordsman and official of the late Edo period,
    commander of the Shinsengumi


    Though my body may decay on the island of Ezo,
    my spirit guards my lord in the East.

    – Hijikata Toshizō (1835–1869),
    a Japanese warrior, Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi


    国を思ひ死ぬに死なれぬ益良雄が 友々よびつ死してゆくらん

    This brave man, so filled with love for his country that he finds it difficult to die,
    is calling out to his friends and about to die.

    – Hiroshi Kuroki (1921–1944),
    a Japanese sailor who died in a Kaiten suicide torpedo accident
    on 7 September 1944


    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

    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.

    – General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (1891–1945),
    the Japanese commander-in-chief during the battle of Iwo Jima


    Flowers of the special attack are falling,
    When the spring is leaving.
    Gone with the spring,
    Are the young boys like cherry blossoms?
    Gone are the blossoms,
    Leaving cherry trees only with leaves.

    –  Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki (1890–1945),
    an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II


    Today in flower,
    Tomorrow scattered by the wind –
    such is our blossom life.
    How can we think its fragrance
    lasts forever?

    – Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi (1891–1945),
    an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II
    who came to be known as the father of the kamikaze


    The brilliant writer Yukio Mishima committed harakiri as a sign of devotion to Bushi-Do as late as 1970. Great and dismal is the burden of a free and fearless man and thorny is his Way…

    Yukio Mishima's jisei (death poem)

    A small night storm blows
    Saying ‘falling is the essence of a flower’
    Preceding those who hesitate

    – Yukio Mishima (1925–1970),
    a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, model, Shintoist, nationalist,
    and founder of the Tatenokai, an unarmed civilian militia.

    It is evident that harakiri for a samurai was solid proof of the priority of his spiritual values over everything else.
    His will was absolute and his mind was not like that of a slave who bows down before death to save his life. The Samurai Mind is the Mind of Master.
    Honor to you, valiant Samurai!
    If you collect
    All samurai death poems written with their blood
    When they opened their souls with a sword,
    You wouldn’t feel the smell of guts,
    But a gust of the sacred wind
    Of true Bushi-Do!
    — A. R. Basov, Samurai I: Ascension (2020)


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    Read more about jisei, junshi and bushido philosophy in the Samurai book series by A. R. Basov

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