Monday, January 25, 2016

Political Dying Wishes? Not in Japan or (Mostly) in America

A close friend of mine who read “The dead people of America really don’t want Hillary Clinton to be president” and asked if we “Japanese make such requests in obituaries?  I doubt Europeans do.  I guess one other example of American exceptionalism.” I responded:

Few Americans make such death wishes; these are examples of "exceptional" Americans, not American "exceptionalism." More generally, they are examples of the tradition of the dying wish—last meal of the condemned, "No grass shall grow on the grave of this innocent man..." "Bury me where this arrow falls" etc. etc.—that has a long Anglo-Saxon and I suspect European tradition.

We do not have that tradition in Japan. The increasingly rare newspaper obituaries are almost always prosaic, formulaic even, affairs. We did have the tradition of the poem as one leaves this world (辞世の句) in the 5-7-5/7-7 tanka form (with the 5-7-5 haiku form becoming acceptable far more recently). If people of any substance (or people close to them) were not skilled enough to compose one, they could pay for-hire poets to do it for them. In fact, some wealthy nobles would hire them full time, much like illiterate European nobles hired scribes to do their writing for them, at a time when composing such poetry for any and all occasions public or private was de rigeur.

Those last poems, though, were typically meant to be words of wisdom, an intangible epitaph that exemplified the life of the dying, usually not a wish. The most famous by far are the words of the near-mythical robber Ishikawa Goemon, who is reputed to have said as he was about to be boiled in oil (yes, we did that too around the rough and tumble warlord years), "Ishikawa and the sands of the shores may come to an end, but the seeds of robbers will not (my translation)."

(Edited for clarity.)

Footnote: Apparently, it was a Trump tweet that touched off all the commotion. Will the US media never tire of him?