Poetry News

Angela Chen on the Japanese 'Death Poems' Tradition

By Harriet Staff


At Paris Review, journalist Angela Chen weighs end-of-life verse traditions in Eastern and Western culture. Born in China, Chen's parents didn't give her a name until they immigrated to the United States when she was five. Ever since, Chen writes, "I’ve long been fascinated by the traditions surrounding the words that bookend a life." More:

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.

Later, Chen looks at the earliest example a death poem, spoken by the hero of the Kojiki, an eighth-century collection of myths. Continue reading at Paris Review.

Originally Published: February 10th, 2017