Japanese people´s notion about death – Death poems –

May 1, 2015 Juju Kurihara books, Culture, Lifestyle Tags: , , , 0 Comments


The other day, a Japanese friend was telling me about her recent experiences. There weren´t anything special but some daily things. But she was very happy about those moments and said, "Oh, I can die any moment." 
This sort of comment is not something you hear often especially in the Western world. But surprisingly it´s not so strange to hear in Japan. People often say, "Ahhh, mou shindemo ii (ああ、もう死んでもいい)." when they are really happy. Why you want to die at the best moment of your life? I´m sure you wonder why.
A scholar of religious study, Tetsuo Yamaori (山折哲雄) explains well.
He divides the Japanese Archipelago in three structures; forest-mountainous society, rice farming society and modern industrial society. This multilayered structure has become the foundation of Japanese people´s consciousness and feelings. This type of structure gives people flexible correspondence to the natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami attacked Japan in 2011. And also with the time, people have become more patient and tolerant towards natural disasters and the unfair death.       
One of the modern Japan´s greatest natural scientists, a physicist and an author, Torahiko Terada (寺田寅彦) said that 1. More civilized our society becomes, the disasters become more catastrophic. 2. Comparing to the Western countries, the scale of the menace from the earthquakes, tsunami or typhoons is much bigger. 3. Through these experiences, people have become more tolerant instead of fighting against the nature. They even live by respecting the nature as a teacher.   
Obedience to the nature and the adaptation to the climate have in common to Mujo-kan (無常観/ emptiness, nothingness) in the Buddhist philosophy. Because Terada believed that by living through so many earthquakes and natural disasters, the sense of Mujo has developed. (http://www.nippon.com/ja/in-depth/a02903/) 
One of the three greatest essays, Hojoki (方丈記) by Kamo no Chomei (鴨長明) is a memoir of the disasters, events and incidents and the people who tried to live. Chomei saw this through the view of mujo. 
"The flowing river never stops and yet the water never stays the same. Foam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long. So it is with man and all his dwelling places here on earth" 
(Translation: http://www.ibcpub.co.jp/taiyaku_library/9784794601773.html
When the quake and tsunami attacked Japan in 2011, the world was very surprised how calm Japanese people were even though they lost the families, the houses and everything. It is devastating to lose their life that way, especially losing the loved ones. But if you remember what people responded to the interview, many of them said something like, "What can I do? I have no other choice rather thank starting from the beginning." It´s not resignation or being optimistic but this thoughts come from mujo, nothing ever stays the same.
I think in many Japanese people´s mind exists the feeling of "we never know about tomorrow" even in this modern society. Perhaps this is why Japanese repeatedly say, "arigato (ありがとう/thank you)". The original meaning of arigato is 有り難い(arigatai), means rarely happens. If what we have daily is not normal to be there, everything becomes rare and precious and therefore, people appreciate every moment. Imagine if you think every meal you have with your family at the family table could be the last one. The value of that meal increases, doesn´t it?
death poems
Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death
Of course Japanese people have fear of dying and want to live long. But how to accept the death is different. In the old time, to leave jisei (辞世) was common. Jisei is a death poem. According to the book, Japanese Death Poems – Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death -" published by Tuttle explains, "Japanese culture is probably the only one in the world in which, in addition to leaving a will, a tradition of writing a "farewell poem to life" (jisei) took root and became widespread."
The famous Haiku poet, Basho´s jisei is well known.
"旅に病んで 夢は枯野を かけ廻る"
(Stricken on a journey, My dreams go wondering around, Withered fields.)
Basho knew he would die without being able to go back to his home. However he believed that his dreams wouldn´t stop travelling.
This is the Jisei of Moriya Sen-an (守屋仙庵) who must be an alcohol lover.
"我死なば 酒屋の瓶の 下にいけよ。せめて滴の 盛りやせんもし"
(Burry me when I die beneath a sake barrel in a tavern. With luck, the cask will leak.)
Farewell poems definitely show the personality and also how they were facing to their last moment of the life. It is very interesting to read. When I first saw the title of the book, I imagined heavy and dark poems. But not at all. Some are comical and some are even hopeful. Perhaps that´s because Japanese people view death as various forms of voyage.

Book: Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death

Have you seen a film called "Okuribito (Departures)"? The boss explains the protagonist about the job as "Tabi no otetsudai (helping their journey)" .
Or perhaps Japanese people´s consciousness is governed by a strong attraction toward death as a Japanese professor defines Japanese culture in the book. Otherwise paintings of human decomposition wouldn´t be so popular between 13th and 19th centuries. Some study say that Japanese people didn´t give much respect to the dead body but took care of the spirits of dead people. This you can see in Japan at many occasions. Obon is one of the good example.
I am very sorry about the earthquake happened in Nepal. Many people died and went missing. They need a lot of help. Maybe you are too far away from them to give a hand but maybe our small donation help. If you have some spare, let´s help Nepal. 
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