“Famous last words” and Japanese death poems offer two strikingly different approaches to mortality.
I was born in the middle of March in a small town in China. My parents didn’t give me a name; they simply never got around to choosing one. On April 7, I nearly died after choking—and they saddled me with that date as a moniker, a sort of inescapable memento mori. When I came to the United States, at age five, my mother told me I was to be named Angela, after a coworker of hers. Was this coworker particularly kind or smart or pretty? I asked. By all accounts, no. It seemed to be an entirely arbitrary decision.
Fittingly, I’ve long been fascinated by the traditions surrounding the words that bookend a life. There’s a split, I’ve found, between the East and the West: the latter favors spontaneous last words that serve as a final confirmation of your personal brand, whereas the East has a custom of premeditated death poems, jisei, that offer a rare chance to break with convention. These differing traditions offer a glimpse into the clash of individualism versus collectivism, spontaneity versus control—forces I’ve tried to balance in my own life, living between Asian and American culture.
Once, almost everyone in the West knew exactly what to say with their dying breath: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” the last words Jesus spoke on the cross. But this began to change as the Enlightenment flourished and religion became less constraining, as Karl Guthke writes in Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History. Soon, as though the business of dying were not stressful enough, a new convention formed around the deathbed, where those near their end were expected to dispense pithy advice as a kind of ultimate farewell.
This was no small matter. Western culture has long held that the truest self emerges closest to death, adds Guthke; accounts from Victorian times and earlier reveal a sharp disappointment among the living when there are no last words, or when the last words are not good enough. As early as the sixteenth century, Puritan “conduct books” made it clear that it was the duty of the one leaving this world to hand off some original wisdom. Some took this directive even further. Take, for instance, this story surrounding the Anglican divine William Marsh, who died in 1864:
In their eagerness to catch [his] last testament his family installed his eldest daughter in the sick room, unseen by him, to record his conversation, whereupon he recovered and the entire process had to be repeated over a year later.
In the realm of timing, at least, the Japanese had it a little easier. There would be no hidden daughters straining their ears to catch the last words, nobody worrying they might suddenly say the wrong thing. Instead, there was a ritual among the aging samurai and upper classes: the composition of a death poem, a task that demanded time and consideration, even input and criticism from others. Where last words are prized for their brevity, last poems are usually far more involved and thoughtful.
The structure provided by this ritual ensured that the poet could rest easy, confident that he’d dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s in his parting message. Of course, this created pressures of its own, especially among those who feared sudden death. In Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann tells the story of one Narushima Chuhachiro, who started drafting death poems at fifty lest he die unprepared. Chuhachiro sent this one to his poetry teacher: “For eighty years and more, by the grace of my sovereign / and my parents, I have lived / with a tranquil heart / between the flowers and the moon.” The teacher’s response: “When you reach age ninety, correct the first line.”
The differences in these traditions—in their timing, their structure, their function—help us understand what it’s like to live in these worlds. In the West, the pull away from religion, coupled with the emphasis placed on individualism, provided both the freedom to perform our “authentic” selves and the responsibility to make sure those authentic selves were interesting and never phony. Last words are a final chance to reinforce the unique personality the speaker has worked so hard to cultivate throughout his life. Hence the pleasure we take, even centuries after the fact, when last words so perfectly match our conception of their speaker. Goethe’s famous last call for “more light”—even in its more prosaic form, “Do open the shutter of the bedroom so that more light may enter”—delights because it’s so apropos for him, the quintessential figure of the Enlightenment. Last words reassure us that the performance was never a mere performance; that the clever among us were truly clever, the incorrigible truly incorrigible, and so on. It provides a sense of continuity from the past into the grave.
When the group takes precedence, as is the case in many East Asian cultures, its members spend much of their lives bending to the collective will and holding back their individual quirks and needs. Against this backdrop, death poems provide a break from conformity, a cherished opportunity to say what one really thinks. Hoffmann writes: “Death poems reveal that before death, the Japanese tend rather to break the restraints of politeness that hold them back during their lifetime.” After a lifetime of fitting in, there’s an opportunity to go against the grain in one’s last moments, after which one can hardly be punished for unorthodoxy. Yet there’s control even within this rare window of freedom. Last words are often inadvertent and, so the logic goes, more revealing of true nature. The death poem, however, gives decorum and control to the writer, who’s still able to choose exactly how he wants to be remembered.
The earliest example of a death poem is spoken by the hero of the Kojiki, an eighth-century collection of myths. The hero turns into a white bird. He falls to the ground and sings: “the sabre-sword / which I placed / at the maiden’s bedside / alas! / that sword!”
Death poetry began around this time, but it became widespread during the Meiji period (1868–1912). Its popularity is a curious reversal of the course followed by Western last words, which became more prominent with the culture’s shift away from religion; death poems, conversely, were spurred on by the influence of Zen Buddhism. Many Zen monks wrote death poems, and as Buddhism spread among the upper classes and samurai, the practice caught on. Such poems are often poignant; the Zen monk Sunao, who died in 1926, at age of thirty-nine, wrote, “spitting blood clears up reality / and dream alike.”
And, of course, where last words tumble out in unrestrained free verse, death poems took a nearly standardized form. They were typically tanka, poems of thirty-one syllables arranged in 5-7-5-7-7 pattern—over time, the opening 5-7-5 stanza became acceptable as a standalone poem, making tanka a predecessor to the more famous haiku.
Just as a key requirement of the classic haiku was that it capture a scene in nature, the death poem deployed natural metaphors. Common themes included those perennial favorites: loyalty to the nation, grief, and reproach, with the last one seen often in the death poems of lovers. Yet many were surprisingly funny, too—another difference from last words, which, if they are funny, are usually unintentionally so. (One thinks of Gustav Mahler saying, “Who will now look after Schönberg?”) Morikawa Kyoriku, a pupil of the famous poet Basho, used his death poem to lodge a complaint, with delicious pettiness, about how death is a democratic process: “Till now I thought / that death befell / the untalented alone. / If those with talent, too, / must die / surely they make/ a better manure?”
The death poem of Basho himself is well known: “On a journey, ill / my dream goes wandering / over withered fields.” Less recognized, but perhaps even greater in my estimation, is this death poem written by another poet clearly familiar with Basho’s work: “Locked in my room / my dream goes wandering / over brothels.”
Though they’re no longer common, death poems continued to be written into the twentieth century. Yukio Mishima wrote one before committing seppuku in the wake of his failed coup attempt; General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, who commanded the Japanese during the Battle of Iwo Jima, included three in his final letter to imperial headquarters after the defeat. For both, the death poem was an honorable way to save face to the very end.
Angela Chen (@chengela) is a journalist. Her work has appeared in the Verge, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, Catapult, and Hazlitt, among others.