Death comes in many written forms


Poet Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) wrote about himself on the verge of death in his poem “Speaking with the Eyes.” Unable to talk due to blood gushing from his lungs, he tried to tell his attending doctor with
his eyes that, despite the suffering, he knew that he was departing to a better place. (He didn’t actually breathe his last then.)

To Miyazawa, a devout Buddhist, dying was but a passage into another realm of existence. A word for “dying” that expresses this is 他界する (takai suru). The ta is “other”; the kai, “world.” One is simply passing from this world, この世 (konoyo), to that, あの世 (anoyo). The English phrase “passing on” conveys this perfectly.

We all want 幸福な死に方をする (kō fuku na shinikata wo suru; to “die happy”), though this is not the same as saying, “I would happily die.” I suppose that a natural death, or 自然死 (shizenshi), at a ripe old age is ideal.突然死 (totsuzenshi) is “sudden death,” and few would look forward to that.

Most people, perhaps, would rather slip away with a 大往生 (daijō; a peaceful death): However, those who suffer in prolonged pain may wish to ぽっくり死ぬ (pokkuri shinu), or drop dead. There are even temples around the country where you can go to pray to shuffle speedily off this mortal coil. When, in the 1960s, I was living beside Midorogaike, the “Deep Muddy Pond,” in the northern district of Kyoto, there was, nearby, just such a ぽっくり寺 (pokkuridera). I avoided the place like the plague. Furthermore, I can’t for the life of me come up with a good translation for this variety of temple where you pray to cash in your chips.

When using words that mean “to die” in Japanese, it is vital that you choose the one that is right for the status of the departed individual and your relationship with him or her. The most common and safe one to use is 亡くなる (nakunaru). If someone you wish to show respect for has gone on to greener pastures, use the honorific form お亡くなりになる (onakunarininaru). And if someone like an emperor or company president has gone the way of all flesh, up the honorific with お亡くなりになられる (onakunarininarareru) — that’s if you don’t choke to death on the syllables first.

Another formal way to express dying is 死亡する (shibō suru), similar in register to “to pass away” or “to be deceased.” As any student of Japanese knows, the homonyms in the language are killers; and, besides the “shibō” that indicates “demise,” there are three others that mean “ovary,” “desire” and “fat.” It goes without saying that the kanji are different and four shibō unrelated . . . linguistically, at least.

People around the world are often apt to employ euphemisms for “dying” to soften the shock of it. One simple euphemism that is the same in Japanese and English is いない (inai), as in あの人はもういない (ano hito wa mō inai). This is the exact equivalent of “to be gone” and “he/she is no longer with us.”

The usage of the simple word for “to die,” 死ぬ (shinu), can differ slightly from that in English. For instance, let’s say you wish to warn your friend: “If you climb that mountain in winter without the proper clothing, you might die!” In this case, you would use 死にますよ (shini masu yo). The grammatical form of the verb used in English in this example is called “the potential.” But in the above example, the Japanese potential form, 死ねる (shineru), or “can die,” would be incorrect. This would instead be used in a phrase such as 安心して死ねる (anshin shite shineru), to be able to die with one’s mind at peace, as in: “I can die in peace once my grandson is married.” In Japanese: 孫が結婚したら、安心して死ねる (mago ga kekkon shitara, anshin shite shineru).

There are any number of compound words that contain 死 (shi), the word for “death.” Among the most common are: 死に顔 (shinigao), or how the dead person looks; 死に際, (shinigiwa), the last moments; and 死人 (shinin), the deceased. This last one is perhaps best known from its use in the proverb 死人に口なし (shinin ni kuchi nashi), or “the dead can’t speak (for themselves).”

Benjamin Franklin, who died in 1790 at the heady age of 84, tells us that “three can keep a secret if two of them are dead.” With all the “secrets” and leaks we see today on the Internet, all I can say is, if Franklin were alive today he’d be turning over in his grave.

As for Kenji Miyazawa, he passed on to his 永眠の地 (eimin no chi ), or final resting place, on Sept. 21, 1933, though, to him, all creatures, save the holy, return in one form or another. In the poem he wrote titled “My Heart Now,” he asks himself, “Must I be made to sleep/Without so much as stirring /Until a reptile takes on the form of a bird?”