Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2005

Nicole Silverman

Recurring Themes in Japanese Death Haiku

Nicole Silverman

Nicole's Haiku



In every culture there is deep ceremony surrounding death. Every religion is entrenched with its own set of beliefs regarding death and the after-life. The Japanese are no exception. As in many cultures, it has become customary in Japan to write a will outlining how things are to be settled after your death; however, a more unique custom has taken root as well. With a final will it has become popular to also write a jisei , or a "farewell poem to life" (27). To some, this death poem is seen as a sort of final salutation, continuing the tradition of social propriety that is held so highly in Japan. However, as Yoel Hoffman asserts in his book Japanese Death Poems , it seems that these poignant glimpses into a person's last moments or days seem to break the restraints of everyday politeness, allowing a raw view into the private, spiritual environment of the poet (28). Despite the highly personal nature of these haiku, the Japanese culture remains rich in these final poems. There are many recurring images, themes, and ideas that relate directly to Japanese religious beliefs regarding death and the after-life. Through these recurring images and themes the haiku are able provide insight into, not only the poets mind and spirituality, but also views into the feelings and philosophy surrounding death that are particular to the Japanese as a culture.

Nature is an integral element in most Japanese haiku and it is nature that most of the recurring themes and images are centered around. Usually the poet is able to draw some parallel between the natural element and the nature of death and life. One of those nature elements that were found in at least several of the death haiku was that of the cicada. Hoffman describes the strange life of the cicada:

The larva of the cicada ( semi ) stays underground a number of years. In summer it emerges from the ground, sheds its armored skin, and unfolds its wings. The hard cicada shells cling to tree trunks or lie on the ground. The shell is not actually the cicada's corpse, but the cicada that emerges from it, flutters here and there, and utters shrill cries is destined to die within a few days (164).

This rich description of the life of cicadas is ripe with symbolism for life and death. The cicada spends the majority of its "life" underground, completely unaware of the outside world. It could easily be said that life is like this life underground and we remain unaware of the greatest beauties that can be only found after life has ended and, like the cicada we have left our hard shells behind us. The cicada's shell seems like a beautiful parallel for the human body, despite the fact that it is not the cicada's "corpse." It is only after the shell is left behind that the cicada can fly free. Perhaps, with humans, it is only after the earthly form has been relinquished that we are truly free. Fukaku's death haiku, written in 1753 when he died at the age of 92, illustrates this idea of shedding our bodies like the cicada shell perfectly (63):

Empty cicada shell:
as we come
we go back naked.

This haiku seems to represent death as being a sort of stripping of the outer exterior, as if life and our bodies are nothing more than shells. The last line is very poignant and further illustrates the profundity of the cicada as a metaphor: "...we go back naked." as if the poet's body and earthly life had simply been hindering him. This idea of death paralleling the cicada's shedding of its shell seems like a vibrant view of death. This is an image that makes death seem more like a sort of birth and release. This view is quite indicative Eastern philosophy and religion. Yet another death haiku that illustrates the power of the cicada was written by Shuho in 1767 (304):

Cicada shell:
little did I know
it was my life.

Shuho compares his life to the cicada shell. Again, there is the sense that life is simply this period of gestation that is no more than a preparation for death. When death comes life is shed, like the cicada shell, and the spirit is finally free to seek enlightenment. In his last moments of life, Shuho has this realization and expresses it in his death haiku. The image of the cicada has many layers and creates an interesting insight when paralleled with the nature life and death.

A major theme in Japanese culture, as well as death haiku, is the brevity of life. This is beautifully reflected in the repeated imagery of the morning glory. The morning is found again and again in the Japanese death haiku, representing not only a beautiful image, but an interesting parallel with human lives. The beautiful morning glory only opens its blossom from dawn to mid-morning. This seems to reflect the idea that life is temporal, seemingly just a moment in the scheme of the world. In Ryosa's death haiku, written in 1807 when he died at the age of 84, explicitly compares man to the morning glory flower (268):

Is a man a
morning glory that he passes
in a day?

The idea that life is only a "dream" or passes in a moment is a popular idea in Japanese death haiku and Ryosa illustrates it by posing the question in his haiku that compares man to the morning glory, passing in a day. Ryosa lived to be 84 years old, an age that, even today, would constitute a full, long life. Nonetheless, on his deathbed, he compares his life to a day. Another death haiku written by Shukyo in 1826 provides a description of yet another aspect of the morning glory, its vivacious growth pattern (305):

Above the fence
a morning glory stretches
still unsatisfied.

Shukyo, 1826, p. 305

In his description of this haiku Hoffman asserts:

It seems like the morning glory, like a man, is never satisfied with its lot, and when it reaches the top of the fence along which it climbs, it keeps shooting upward where there is nothing to support it (305).

It seems that, even in death, Shukyo wants more out of his life. Like the morning glory, he is still trying to climb higher despite the fact that his body can no longer support his will. This death haiku seems to be full of a sort of frustration and longing. Rather than achieving peace in his death haiku, it seems that Shukyo is still trying to hang onto life and writes out of his realization that that wish is futile. A third death haiku involving morning glories was written by Teishi at the age of 50 in 1700 (324):

A morning glory—
yet how long it stayed alive!
full fifty years.

Even though this haiku was written nearly a century after Ryosa's haiku (the first example in this section) it seems to echo the same sentiments, using the morning glory in a strikingly similar metaphorical manner. However, this haiku seems somewhat more vibrant. Ryosa's haiku seem to dwell in temporal nature of life as compared to the temporal bloom of the morning glory. Teishi's haiku recognizes the short time available for a human life and rejoices in the fact that he has lived as long as he has. He takes pride in his fifty years, noting the tenacity of the morning glory that is has managed to stay alive this long. Unlike the two previous haiku, this death haiku seems to be very celebratory and accepting of death as opposed to dwelling on the short time that was available to live. The tone Teishi chooses to use in his poem is incredibly refreshing, using the morning glory in an innovative way.

Similar to the temporal nature of the morning glory is the recurring theme of morning dew. Like the morning glory, the dew comes for only a short time and then dissipates with the sunlight. This, like the morning glory, seems symbolic of short time on earth each human life is allotted. The morning dew also coats everything it touches, just as people leave marks on the world; however, like all things, it eventually fades as if it were never there. Hoffman describes the significance of dew in Japanese poetry:
Dew ( tsuyu ), covering the grass and trees of autumn, evaporates as the sun rises. Dew is one of the images signifying transience in Japanese poetry, and Buddhist literature often refers to the world as "a world of dew" (143).

The following death haiku by Fujo, written in 1764 at the age of 52, is an excellent example of this type of imagery so prevalent in Japanese poetry (163):

Rise, let us go—
along the path lies
the clear dew.

Fujo's poem is a farewell to life. He is ready to pass on and walk to the path to enlightenment that comes with death. The dew seems to be representative of the short period he was on earth. The dew seems to be cleansing the path as well, as if it had been prepared for him ahead of time. This seems to be a haiku that signifies preparation and resignation. Fujo is ready for whatever lies ahead of him on the path. The next haiku presents an interesting play on the theme of dew. The death haiku was written by Tembo at the age of 83 in 1823 (325):

I wish this body
might be dew in a field
of flowers.

In this poem the author wishes to compare his body to dew. This seems to represent the transient nature of his life. He wishes to have touched many things, but to pass with the sunrise. Perhaps, his body even added some beauty to the already existing beauty of the flowers. The poet seems content with the fact that he is passing and will eventually be forgotten like the morning dew. The final death haiku was written by Banzan in 1730 at the age of 69 (143):

I pass as all things do
dew on the grass.

This haiku is quite explicit in its comparison of the human body and life with the passing morning dew. The poet accepts that his death is a natural part of the cycle of life and that he is about to experience something that all things must one day experience. The idea is further stretched by the ending line, "dew on the grass," which adds an additional poignancy to the transience the poet is trying to accept.

The recurring images of morning dew, cicadas, and morning glories are but a few of the images that are used in Japanese death haiku. There are often found traditional elements of regular Japanese poetry with the mention of the moon, cherry blossoms, and fireflies. Other recurring images include the cuckoo and the lotus. These images provide insight into the Japanese as a culture as well as the Japanese perception of death. The death haiku are part of an invaluable tradition that sheds light on an aspect of humanity that is seldom put into words.

Works Cited

Hoffman, Yoel. Japanese Death Poems. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1986.

©2005 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors
last updated: May 16, 2005