Japanese Death Poetry
On a journey ill;
My dream goes wandering,
Over withered fields. --Basho
The first Japanese history, set down around 712 AD in the Kojiki, cite the first examples of lyric poetry in Japanese culture. Japanese poetry had its early beginnings in the style known as tanka, or "short form". This poetry (31 syllables, arranged 5-7-5-7-7) was an early form native to Japan. Up until the 16th century, nearly all poetry was composed in this form. The development from tanka to haiku, or "opening phrase", is bridged by another style, the renga, or "linked poem" (31 syllables, 5-7-5 three lines, 7-7 two lines). Two or more poets usually composed the renga. First a poet would compose the opening, followed by a second poet who would close the poem. Over time it became popular for poets to write only the first part. This eventually developed into haiku. Haiku poetry depicts a single image, is almost always naturous in theme, and usually contains 17 syllables (5-7-5).The only formal rule is the fixed number of syllables, and even this is sometimes violated.
Here are some Haiku poetry
Taira no Tadanori (1144-1184)
Sazanami ya Shiga no miyako wa arenishi o
mukashi nagara no yama-zakura kana
In Shiga capital; rippling waves have turned wild
but mountain cherries remain as of old.
Hosokawa Fujitaka (1600)
Inishie mo ima mo kawaranu yo no naka ni
kokoro no tane o nokosu koto no ha
The world now unchanged from ancient times
leaves that are words retain seeds in the heart
Kuribayashi Tadamichi (1945)
Ada utade nobe ni wa kuchiji
ware wa mata natabi umarete hoko wo toramuzo
Foe unvanquished, I won't perish in the field;
I'll be born again, to take up the halberd seven more times.
(General Tadamichi was in command of the Japanese forces defending Iwo Jima. On 17 March, 1945, Tadamichi telegraphed three poems, the one above included, just before he took 800 men and charged the enemy. "I'll be born again, to take up the halberd seven more times." This line is in reference to many poems written in the past, and was basically a national slogan proclaiming ones loyalty to the emperor. The poet was obviously expressing his desire to be a part of tradition.)
Jisei to wa
are mere delusion-
death is death.
Minamoto no Yoshiie / Abe Sadato (1057)
The following is a renga (linked poem) composed by the samurai above. Yoshiie composed the first part which was followed by Sadato. In the first part there is an interesting play on words which allowed Sadato to compose such a wonderful closer. This poem was supposedly composed amidst the chaos of a raging battle. They were the generals in command of the armies opposing each other. While their troops were locked in combat...they were said to have met in the middle of the battle field and had this duel with words.
Koromo no tate wa hokorobinikeri
Koromo Castle has been destroyed
or (the warps of your robe have come undone)
toshi o heshi ito no midare no kurushisa ni
over the years its threads became tangled, and this pains me
Kusunoki Masatsura (sent in by M. Drollinger)
The story behind this poem begins like this. The samurai Kusunoki Masatsura had been commissioned by the Emperor to go into battle, the Emperor telling Kusunoki that he was trusted as his own elbows and thighs. Kusunoki was greatly moved by this and went with his troops to worship at the tomb of Go-Daigo. Here Kusunoki wrote a farewell poem on the temple door with an arrowhead.
I could not return, I presume,
So I will keep my name
Among those who are dead with bows.
Shortly after writing this poem, Kusunoki was killed in battle in the fateful last stand of his clan. The door, still bearing the poem, is preserved to this day at the Nyoirin-Ji temple.
The next two poems were written during the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. The first one written near the beginning of the campaign, and the next on his way home with his troops. Nogi Maresuke was the commanding General.
Mountain and river, grass and tree, grow more barren;
for ten miles winds smell of blood in the fresh battlefield.
Conquering horses do not advance nor do men talk;
outside Jinzhou Castle, I stand in the setting sun.
Emperor's army, a million, conquered the powerful foe;
field battles and fort assaults made mountains of corpses.
Ashamed - how can I face there fathers, grandfathers?
We triumph today?
Autumn wind of eve,
blow away the clouds that mass
over the moon's pure light
and the mists that cloud our mind,
do thou sweep away as well.
Now we disappear,
well, what must we think of it?
From the sky we came.
Now we may go back again.
That's at least one point of view.
Like a rotten log
half buried in the ground -
my life, which
has not flowered, comes
to this sad end.
Had I not known
that I was dead
I would have mourned
my loss of life.
Both the victor
and the vanquished are
but drops of dew,
but bolts of lightning -
thus should we view the world.
Holding forth this sword
I cut vacuity in twain;
In the midst of the great fire,
a stream of refreshing breeze!
(After being defeated by Shibata Katsuie)
subdue a man like me?
I shall be born again
and then I'll cut the head
Whether one passes on or remains is all the same.
That you can take no one with you is the only difference.
Ah, how pleasant! Two awakenings and one sleep.
This dream of a fleeing world! The roseate hues of early dawn!
came like dew
disappears like dew.
All of Naniwa
is dream after dream.
Even a life-long prosperity is but one cup of sake;
A life of forty-nine years is passed in a dream;
I know not what life is, nor death.
Year in year out-all but a dream.
Both Heaven and Hell are left behind;
I stand in the moonlit dawn,
Free from clouds of attachment.