Jisei – the Poetry of Death

During the medieval period, samurai often wrote special poems, known as jisei, in the hours before their deaths. The tradition originated in Zen Buddhism, and fused three important principles from Zen tradition:

– The material world is transient and impermanent
– Understanding reality requires an absence of self-nature and acceptance (or pursuit) of emptiness
– Attachment to the world causes suffering

Monument to Master Poets (1)

The earliest recorded jisei was written by Prince Ōtsu, a younger son of Emperor Temmu, just before the prince’s execution in 686.

Customarily, composition of jisei was done only by members of Japan’s nobility, samurai, poets, or Buddhist priests. The poem was supposed to seek (and contain) a new viewpoint on life, as acquired by the poet’s view through the lens of his impending death.

Most jisei were composed in the form of tanka–a traditional style of Japanese poem containing 5 lines and 31 total syllables, arranged in the pattern 5-7-5-7-7. At times, however, jisei also took the form of haiku–17-syllable poems arranged in three lines with the syllable pattern 5-7-5.

Although they dealt with serious topics, some jisei also displayed the author’s sense of humor, like this one composed by Moriya Sen’an, just before his death in 1838:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
Hopefully, the cask will leak.

In Japanese, the final line reads moriyasennan, which is also a pun on the author’s name.

Samurai movies sometimes show a warrior composing a poem before committing seppuku, but rarely explain the history behind the custom. Now you know.

The concept also appears in my newest Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, where ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo, discuss the concept in the context of whether a samurai’s death was suicide…or murder.