Reflecting on the Ancient Art of Japanese Death Poetry

Collin Derrig, Guest Columnist

Poetry is an element of Japanese culture that many are somewhat familiar with — haiku being by far the most prominent example of this. Plenty of grade schools incorporate the classic 5-7-5 syllable structure of haiku into poetry exercises and other lessons in basic literature classes. 

Haiku was one of the first ways I discovered poetry as a kid, and it was the first type of poetry I ever wrote. However, haiku is just one element of an incredibly rich tradition, full of other poetic forms and fantastic writers.

When I studied abroad in Japan, I discovered the art of death poetry, an endemic form of Japanese poetry. In death poetry, an individual composes a poem on one’s death bed or in anticipation of one’s death. 

A death poem may serve as a final testament or teaching, yet it may also simply be a final self-reflection in the face of the inevitable. 

Japanese death poetry is an age-old tradition that has been popular in Japan for the better part of a thousand years. Death poetry was especially popular among Zen Buddhist monks and the Samurai class. 

While there are no exact formal reasons for the composition of death poetry, some believed it would settle the soul or endure as a person’s final parable or teaching.

The tradition became so popular among warriors that many samurai would have a precomposed death poem hidden somewhere in their armor in preparation of dying in battle. 

This carried onto fictional warriors as well, as death poems were such an integral part of feudal Japanese culture that many major fictional characters in feudal tales of war compose death poems before ritual suicides or imminent defeats.

Japanese death poetry comes in three major forms: Tanka, haiku and Chinese-style poetry. Tanka poetry was the first form used for death poetry and is Japan’s oldest poetic style. It follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure, with the first three lines typically discussing nature and the second half reflecting the poet’s internal thoughts.

The Tanka style laid the foundation for the haiku, which follows a 5-7-5 syllabic structure. Haiku became more popular because it was open-ended, leaving room for personal interpretation.

Finally, Chinese-style poetry gained speed because the ancient Japanese respected Chinese culture and its emphasis on Confucianism and Daoism in addition to its elegance.

I love death poetry because it contains important cultural notes and ideas about death and loss, which is very clear in editor Yoel Hoffman’s collection “Japanese Death Poems Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death.” 

For example, the following poem by zen monk Dairin Soto connects to traditional Japanese ideas of impermanence and the inevitability of change:

My whole life long I’ve sharp

 ened my sword

And now, face to face with death,

 I unsheathe it, and lo-

The blade is broken-


In contrast, Basho, 16th century Japan’s most prominent and successful haiku poet, rejects the death poem through his composition: 

On a journey, ill:

My dream goes wandering

Over withered fields.

Tabi ni yande

Yume wa kareno o


Basho believed that any of his poems could serve as his death poem. While this haiku is not traditionally in the style of a death poem, it was the last poem Basho wrote before he died, serving as his own unorthodox gift to the art form.

Death poetry also emphasizes the theme of nature’s transience, which prevails in traditional Japanese literature. For example, the following poem by Bankokku contains many common illusions to death in Japan:

The longest winter night:

Plum petals fall and finally

The western moon.

Toji ume

Chiri yuku hate ga

Nishi no tsuki

Plum petals or cherry blossoms represent the fleeting impermanence and beauty of life. The moon is a common symbol of fall or winter, which represents death through the cold weather and dying of the earth. 

In the next poem, Hakujabo moves away from nature and references Pure Land Buddhism, which was common in feudal Japan. It was thought that on death the spirit or soul would travel west towards the Pure Land.

My heart serene,

I set out

For the western skies.   


Nishi no sora e

Kokoro suzushiki

Kadode kana

Within this Buddhist belief system, people believed that, after death, the spirit or soul would travel west towards the Pure Land, as reflected in the poem. 

This final poem is by Nogi Maresuke, a Japanese military officer during the reign of Emperor Meiji. It displays the significance of loyalty and piety to one’s master over fear of death.

The Master of the World

Has passed away-

And after him,

Eager to serve my lord,

Go I           


Utsushiyo o

Kami sarimashishi

Okimi no

Miato shitaite

Ware wa yuku nar

The Master of the World represents Emperor Meiji, who overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate, restored political power to the imperial throne and led the modernization of Japan during the second half of the 19th century. 

The poet Nogi spent his entire adult life in service to the emperor. When the emperor passed in 1912, Nogi and his wife commited suicide on the day of the emperor’s funeral. 

Nogi believed that it was his duty to continue serving his master by following him into the afterlife. For a Japanese warrior, death was supposed to be accepted, not feared.

Japanese culture has an interesting relationship with death, and death poems are just one small reflection of a rich culture. Death poems hold a particular interest for me, however, because it provides a different avenue for coping with and addressing death in a very personal way. 

The vivid natural imagery and spiritual concepts are completely enrapturing. It reflects one of my favorite things about Japanese religion: its deep connections to the natural world.