A Short Study of Jisei (Swan Songs): Death, Cosmos and Its Transmigration
Like many peoples in the world, the Japanese tend to think behind this world there will be another world. The latter world is called either the underworld or the other world, similar to the one ancient Greeks used to imagine.
In this article I intend to describe our unique literary tradition of, on leaving this world, composing jisei that concretely and vividly reflect our view of life and death. Jisei has been expressed mainly by the rigid form of waka (tanka). Jisei authors I am introducing here include Kino Tsurayuki, Fujiwara no Teishi, Ariwara no Narihara, Toba-in, Shogun Sanetomo, Asano Takuminokami, Hosokawa Gratia, Yamakawa Tomiko, Yosano Akiko and Kawano Yuko. From the genre of haiku, I chose Masaoka Shiki’s famous “final three haiku” (zeppitsu sanku) for elucidation. In addition to these, the author’s own works will be also cited.
In recent years fewer and fewer tanka poets try to write jisei, which makes our precious literary heritage quite obsolete. Then I’d like to analyze this deplorable phenomenon in confrontation with T.S. Eliot’s famous line, ‘Every poem an epitaph’(Little Gidding) and Matsuo Basho’s remark, ‘Every ku is jisei.’
In the postscript Dr. Tadashi Ogawa will give his own philosophical comment on jisei, arguing the recurrence of the spirit of language and the transmigration of human soul. In doing so he re-examines Motoori Norinaga’s proposition that it is easy to imitate meanings but difficult to copy shapes. According to Norinaga’s view, a superb poem should be one and only even if there may be poems with similar meanings. However, his view does not always apply to jisei because there should be a number of jisei with similar meanings whatever shape each may take, and each jisei should be respected regardless of its workmanship.
Then the argument of the spirit of language will be developed into that of the transmigration of human soul. As its conspicuous example, priest Honen who reportedly returned back to this world three times will be introduced.
Lastly Dr. Ogawa will compare Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s view of jisei with Matsuo Basho’s; he defines the former as being Hegelian and the latter as being existential. It is noteworthy that the Japanese literature with the tradition of jisei boasts of these two main streams.
KeywordsJisei Waka Life and death Transmigration (Tensho) Spirit of language (Koto-dama)
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