Dead Body (hotoke)

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Dead body, deceased person (hotoke)

***** Location: Japan
***** Season: Non-seasonal Topic
***** Category: Humanity


Death can happen at any time during the year.

Although winter strongly reminds us of death, the word DEATH (shi 死) itself is NOT a kigo for that season only but a haiku topic during all seasons.


This discussion started with a famous death haiku by Shiki.

hechima saite tan no tsumarishi hotoke kana

Masaoka Shiki


dead body, deceased person, hotoke 仏 
... (lit. Buddha)

..... shisha 死者
..... shitai 死体 corpse
..... kabane かばね(屍/尸), skeleton, dead body

..... mihotoke 御佛 "honorable Buddha" (used by Shiki)

. mihotoke ni shirimuke oreba tsuki suzushi .
Masaoka Shiki at temple Manpukuji 満福寺 in Fukushima.

To translate HOTOKE in these circumstances as "BUDDHA" would be too much of an exoticism.

death and death haiku


Quoted from:
Gabi Greve about the use of HOTOKE in Japanese

Any deceased person or dead body is referred to as HOTOKE 仏, but that does not carry the strong implication of BUDDHA, rather what it is, a deceased;
dead body, shitai 死体 is not used in colloquial language. Shisha 死者 is another word for a dead person in the news or legal proceedures.

Let me tell you a story.

Once I was called deep inside our woods to inspect a suicide, a farmer dead in his car. He had put a hose from the gas exhaust to the front room and choked ... (I am a specialist of legal medicine, so I know what I am doing in this case ..)

We wanted to make sure it was not murder, so here comes Gabi san and gives instructions to the Japanese local policeman (he had only seen two dead bodies (hotoke) in his whole career ..) and checks it all out, all the time talking about the HOTOKE SAN in his car.

We were just talking about the dead body, die Leiche, believe me, not about the BUDDHA.
It would never have occured to me to translate our conversation of this day as :

Look, the Buddha took his shoes off before entering his car. See how the Buddha was spitting slime in his last minutes? What shall we say to the wife of the Buddha when we have to tell her? (the poor local policeman had never have to do this duty before ...)
and so on, just to show you that the translation of HOTOKE has its problems when it comes to a dead body in a real life situation.

Shiki seems not to have lost his humor, even in the last minute. Talking about himself as already dead !
Just a few weeks ago, in the NHK Haiku program, the sensei talked about this haiku in connection with examples for HUMOUR in haiku !

June 2006


The use of "hotoke" in Japan
by Larry Bole

From a paper by David Reid, "Japanese Christians and the Ancestors"
(Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 1989):

"Japan is unique among countries that honor the Buddhist tradition in calling any dead person hotoke ('buddha or 'enlightened one')..."
[Reid attributes this observation to someone named Eliot]

From a paper by Nara Yasuaki, "The Soto Zen School in Modern Japan:"

"This is related to another interesting Japanese innovation, which is not confined to the Soto school but used broadly through Japanese Buddhism, which is the convention of calling the deceased a hotoke (literally, a Buddha). Obviously, there is no doctrinal basis for calling the dead a Buddha.
This folk convention had its roots in indigenous ideas about the dead turning into deities. Buddhism naturally and skillfully incorporated this and other folk ideas into its vocabulary within the dynamic process of its enculturation into Japan.

Sasaki Kokan has recently discussed the flexibility of the term "hotoke" which he suggests should neither be completely thought of as equivalent to the Buddhist "Buddha" nor to the indigenous notion of a deified soul (tama). However, the term includes a combinative dimension and enjoys a flexibility to approximate both the Buddhist "Buddha" and the indigenous "tama."(26)
Future discussions of the relationship between funerals and Buddhism will need to account for the emergence of terms like this."

From "Gleanings in Buddha-Fields" by Lafcadio Hearn, Ch.
VIII: "Buddhist Allusions in Japanese Folk-Song:"

"Hotoke" means a dead person as well as a Buddha. (See my Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan: "The Household Shrine")."

From an online Japanese glossary of terms:
"Hotoke is a word used by the police. It means a dead person."

An Issa haiku translated by David G. Lanoue:

asu wa soru hotoke ga kao ya yuuzumi

Buddha will be shaved...
evening cool

"'I originally believed that Issa was the 'Buddha' in the haiku, reflecting on shaving his own head. However, Shinji Ogawa warns that 'Buddha' can also mean a dead person. He writes, 'It is possible that Issa was to shave some dead person's face the next day. In the context, the evening cool is not a pleasant pastime but a soul- searching time.'"


I think, appreciating Shiki's often dry, ironic sense of humor, that he means us to think of hotoke as both him being (or becoming) a Buddha, and describing himself as simply a dead man.

Larry Bole.
Quoted from Translating Haiku

Worldwide use


opening day-
news of a dead boy
from form two

we file
to view his corpse-

the smell
of fresh earth-

open grave-
he checks its depth
with a stick

Andrew Otinga
January 2012

Lang'ata is a suburb of Nairobi in Kenya, lying south west of the city centre and east of Karen.
© More in the WIKIPEDIA !

Things found on the way

a pair of shoes
in a lone forest -
the Japanese soul

Why the Japanese take off their shoes before committing suicide ...
by Gabi Greve


Death Poems, Death Haiku
by Nicole Silverman, Millikin University, Spring 2005

In every culture there is deep ceremony surrounding death. Every religion is entrenched with its own set of beliefs regarding death and the after-life. The Japanese are no exception. As in many cultures, it has become customary in Japan to write a will outlining how things are to be settled after your death; however, a more unique custom has taken root as well. With a final will it has become popular to also write a jisei , or a "farewell poem to life" .

To some, this death poem is seen as a sort of final salutation, continuing the tradition of social propriety that is held so highly in Japan. However, as Yoel Hoffman asserts in his book Japanese Death Poems , it seems that these poignant glimpses into a person's last moments or days seem to break the restraints of everyday politeness, allowing a raw view into the private, spiritual environment of the poet.

Despite the highly personal nature of these haiku, the Japanese culture remains rich in these final poems. There are many recurring images, themes, and ideas that relate directly to Japanese religious beliefs regarding death and the after-life. Through these recurring images and themes the haiku are able provide insight into, not only the poets mind and spirituality, but also views into the feelings and philosophy surrounding death that are particular to the Japanese as a culture.

To read the full essay click HERE !

tabi ni yande yume wa kareno o kakemeguru

. Death Haiku of Matsuo Basho 1694 .


Death Rites, Politics, and Social Change in Imperial Japan

Traditional Japanese Funerals, by Andrew Bernstein


naki hito no kosode mo ima ya doyoo boshi

even the robe
of the deceased included -
dog-day airing  

. Matsuo Basho 松尾芭蕉.   


卯月八日 死んで生まるる子は仏
uzuki yooka shinde umaruru ko wa hotoke

eighth day of the fourth lunar month -
dead and then born
the child is a Buddha

. Yosa Buson 与謝蕪村 in Edo .

. 卯月八日 - Buddha's Birthday - Busshoo-e 仏生会 .


hechima saite tan no tsumarishi hotoke kana

Masaoka Shiki

sponge gourds in bloom -
choked with phlegm,
this dead body

(Tr. Gabi Greve)
Shiki's Death Poems, Hechima

The snake gourds are blooming:
here, choked with phlegm, lies a Buddha.

Tr. Hugh Bygott


shunsho ya tsuma no shinigao uruwashiki

early spring night
my wife's dying face
so elegant

Susumu Takiguchi
© Daily Yomiuri, August 9, 2007


watamushi ya soko ni kabane no ideyuku mon 

cotton flies -
the corpses are leaving
at this gate

. Ishida Hakyo 石田波郷
With another haiku about Temple Jindai-ji and the cottonflies at his family grave

. shi kaba ne ... sleeping hippopotamus and haiku


shi ni mirai areba koso shinu sarusuberi

because there is a future
in death, I will die -
crape myrtle

Uda Kiyoko 宇多喜代子, 2012

Related words

***** Shiki's Death Poems, Sponge Gourd, Hechima


Write each haiku as if it was your last one !
There is no tomorrow to reach,
there is only NOW to write.

My LAST haiku
Gabi Greve


................................... Postscript

a frog farting -
this too is the
voice of Buddha

a frog farting -
this too is the
voice of God

When I wrote the first haiku, people liked it for its exoticism. With the Buddha, anything goes, it seems.
The second one drew strong chriticims. God, oh no, we can't say that about the great old man in heaven !

Here you feel the cultural bias we have, regarding the meaning of words we know from childhood and use every day and others we learned a lot later in different circumstances and from different cultures.

Gabi Greve, June 2006


. Grave (haka 墓)
graveyard, bochi 墓地
funeral 葬式 sooshiki, 葬儀 soogi,
告別式 soobetsushiki;葬列 sooretsu

. death poems, farewell poems 辞世 jisei .

. Mortality (shi ni yuku mono) .

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Anonymous said...

When I wrote the first haiku, people liked it for its exoticism. With the Buddha, anything goes, it seems.
The second one drew strong chriticims. God, oh no, we can't say that about the great old man in heaven !

I can understand. In India you can abuse God(s) and it is called nindaa-sthuthi[abusive praise]
"The Lord Pervades All This" [ isaa vaasyamidam sarvam ~ Isaa-vaasyopanishad. ] ~ Thank you Gabi san for this special discussion.

Gabi Greve said...

Death Poems by Takako Hashimoto


Anonymous said...


I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious. Life rushes back into the void, richer, more vivid, fuller than before.

It is as if in parting one did actually lose an arm. And then, like the starfish, one grows it anew; one is whole again, complete and round-- more whole, even, than before, when other people had pieces of one.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Anonymous said...

after two days
at the orphanage
I died
then lived through
five more lives

in yellow summer grass
my two sons

Ella Wagemakers

Anonymous said...

Tracks in the Sand:
Death Haiku
A column by George Swede

Simply Haiku, Winter 2007, vol 5 no 4

Western Death Haiku

Like others growing old, I've had to cope with the death of friends, relatives, colleagues and various cultural icons. Thus, learning how to deal with the final passage--one's own as well as that of others has evolved into something of great interest.

One intriguing source of information was Yoel Hoffman's Japanese Death Poems in which he lucidly describes Japanese ideas about the afterlife as well as the long tradition of writing a farewell haiku or tanka. I began to wonder how many Western writers were exploring this aspect of Japanese short-form poetry. It turns out that a surprising number are involved, and favoring the haiku form over the tanka.

Of course, death occurs in a wide range of circumstances. To more easily discuss the diversity of associated poems, I organized them into five categories: battlefield, illness, suicide, old age, and memorial. At the end, I speculate that the epitaph might be a Western precursor to the haiku.


Gabi Greve said...


It is so cold today
That I request only a warm Yuba
To warm up myself now

is the skin of soy milk, a very nutritious food.

Meisetsu, Naito Meisetsu Memorial Day Japan


Anonymous said...

railway death ...
why today, when the sun shone
and the moon was full?

cancer victim ...
she picks the dress
for her cremation

Ella Wagemakers

Anonymous said...


kado yanagi butchoozura o sasuru nari

willow at the gate
strokes his sour

The expression, "butsu choozura" (Buddha-face) refers to a sullen or sour face. Shinji Ogawa points out that the phrase "is an idiom...without any religious connotation."

Kobayashi Issa
(Tr. David Lanoue)

anonymous said...


kantsubaki furuki hotoke ni tamukabaya

winter camellia
I wish I could offer it
to the sooty Buddha

Masaoka Shiki


Anonymous said...

mihotoke ni shiri muke oreba tsuki suzushi

I turn my back
on Buddha and face
the cool moon

Masaoka Shiki
tr. Beichmann


Gabi Greve - Buson said...

Yosa Buson

tsujido oni shiseru hito ari mugi no aki

At a wayside shrine
A dead man lies--
Barley harvest time
Tr. Nelson/Saito

at the roadside shrine
there have been people dying ...
autumn of the barley
Tr. ?

This poem is either by Buson or by Kikaku ? 其角と蕪村

MORE about buson visiting shrines

Gabi Greve - Issa said...

Kobayashi Issa

mi-botoke mo shakushi mo mushi ni nakare keri
/ mihotoke

even Buddhas,
even ladles have to listen
to these loud insect cries

. . . . .
The first two lines are Issa's variation on a proverb meaning "everyone; every Tom, Dick, and Harry." By changing "cats" to "Buddhas" Issa widens the range to everyone and everything. He may also be thinking of "...in this world as well as the other." The term mi-hotoke, Honored Buddhas, is used not only for the various Mahayana Buddhas and statues of them but also for people's ancestors -- such as Issa's own grandmother -- prayed to at special altars in people's homes.

Since people are preparing for the big Bon Festival of Returning Souls at this time of year, Issa may have in mind all the unseen Buddhas or ancestors' souls who are now returning to their former homes to be with their descendants. Even these returning souls can't help but hear the great waves of insect sounds that pulse through Issa's hometown as the insects assert their existence to the maximum just before they disappear.

Read the full
Comment by Chris Drake

Gabi Greve - Issa said...

Kobayashi Issa

kesa aki to shiranu enoko ga hotoke kana

puppy unaware
it's autumn this morning --
blissful Buddha!

Tr. Chris Drake

MORE dog haiku

Gabi Greve said...

Kobayashi Issa

takenoko wo mitsumete gozaru hotoke kana

staring at the shoots
of new bamboo...

Tr. David Lanoue

(the cut marker KANA is at the end of line 3.)
I imagine a stone statue at the side of a bamboo grove . . .

Gabi Greve said...

shiranu ga hotoke
Kobayashi Issa

naka-naka ni kikanu ga hotoke hototogisu

heard so rarely
makes it precious...

Shinji Ogawa explains that there is an idiom in Japanese, shiranu ga hotoke ("He is as happy, or as calm, as Buddha not knowing the fact, or the truth").
Issa uses this idiom in a slightly different way: in Shinji's paraphrase, "We don't have the opportunity to hear the cuckoo's song so often, so we are more appreciative of its song; in other words, if we heard it too often, it may become a nuisance." Issa is playing with an idiom similar to "Ignorance is bliss." More exactly, he is saying, "Not hearing (the cuckoo's song very often) is bliss."

Tr. and comment : David Lanoue

Gabi Greve said...

Kobayashi Issa

go-fu-un no hotoke no no ume saki ni keri

in the field
of the Buddha of Misfortune
plum blossoms!

The Buddha of Misfortune (go-fu-un no hotoke) seems, suddenly, fortunate.

David Lanoue