All about the Japanese symbols for life and death

Japanese symbols for life and death

There aren’t many more significant characters or symbols in Japanese than those for “life” and “death”. Not in any language, really.

 These characters are used in various words that may have religious or cultural significance in Japan. 

The first thing to know is that there a couple of close equivalents you could choose for the character for “life”, namely 生 and 命.

Death is a Japanese character that can be seen in various forms throughout Japanese culture. There are many stories and customs surrounding death, and the meaning behind the character has evolved over time. In general, death represents change and transformation, and it is often seen as a natural part of life.

How are the words “Life” and “Death” in Japanese pronounced?

The Japanese symbol for life is the kanji 生 (Sei), while death in Japanese symbol is 死(shi).

These are the most common symbols that are used in Japanese to contrast the concepts of “life” and “death”.

You will sometimes see paired tattoos of the “life” kanji on the upper arms of a man and woman (indicating unwavering love). 

There is also the symbol or 命 (inochi) which also translates as life. We’ll take a look at the difference between these below.

The difference between 生 and 命?

Used in isolation, the character 命 (inochi) is probably closer to the Japanese word “life” in isolation than 生 (sei).

The character 生 in isolation is most likely to be read by a Japanese person as “nama” which variously translates as raw, unadulterated, untampered with etc.

That being said, if you want to express the ideas of “life and death” as a juxtaposed pair in Japanese, then the characters to use are 生 (sei) and 死 (shi).

生 (sei) is more associated with verbs like “to live” 生きる (ikiru) or to be born 生まれる (umareru), or in phrases like 生を受ける (sei wo ukeru) “to come into being”.

In relation to this 命 is used in words like life, spirit or soul.

The different ways “Life” and “Death” can be expressed in Japanese characters and symbols

  1. 生活(seikatsu)

Generally translated as lifestyle but can also be translated as “life”.

Example sentences:


nihon de donna seikatsu wo shite imashita ka.

What kind of lifestyle do you live in japan.


juunyuu ni oujita sekatsu wo suru youni.

You should try to live within your means.

  1. 人生(jinsei)

Means one’s life, or a human life.

Example sentences:


koufuku ni naritai nara jinsei ni okeru kyougai ni manzoku suru koto wo manabinasai.

If you wish to be happy, learn to be content with your condition in life.


jinsei wa nagai magariku netta michi da.

Life is a long and winding road.

  1. 生きる(ikiru)

As a verb, “ikiru” means to live or to exist. Using the symbol 生 alone also means life, genuine and birth but most of the time it is used and read as Nama meaning raw.

Example sentences:


Watashi wa ikita mama no ebi wo tabetakunai.

I don’t want to eat a live lobster.


Watashitachi wa genshiryoku jidai ni ikite iru.

We are living in the age of nuclear power.


Kare wa nama sakana wo tabenai.

He doesn’t eat raw fish.

  1. 命(inochi)

Inochi” means life, or lifespan, the usual word used in japan for life itself.

Example sentences:


jibun no inochi wo daiji ni shite kudasai.

Please take good care of your own life.


sono isha wa watashi inochi no onjin da.

The doctor saved my life.

  1. 終わり(owari)

Generally means to end, ending, close, or conclusion, but can also be used to express death in Japanese language.


watashi no inochi wa kokode owari nan da.

my life ends here.

  1. 逝去(seikyo)

Means death; passing. 

Seikyo is a word from Japanese language that comes under the category of honorific or respectful language, called sonkeigo(尊敬語)

Example sentences:


gosonpu no goseikyo ni taishi, tsutsshinde aitou no i wo arawashimasu.

Please accept my condolences on the death of your father.

  1. 死(shi)

Means death or, in it’s verb form 死ぬ (shinu), to die.

The reading of “shi” is identical to one of the pronunciations of the number 4 四 in Japanese. As a result, there is a superstition around avoiding the number 4, where possible, in Japan.

Example sentences:


hito wa umareru yainaya, shi ni mukau.

As soon as man is born, he begins to die.


totsuzen no chichi no shi no denwa wo kiite, watashi wa oro oro shite shimatta.

When I got the phone call telling me of my father’s death, I was completely flustered.

What words are in the Japanese symbol for “Life” and “Death” Used In?

  1. 死亡(shibou)

Means death, mortality, to die, to pass away. The second character 亡(bou or nai) means deceased, the late, dying and perish. 

Examples sentences:


Hikouki jiko de ooku no hito ga shibou shita.

Many people were killed in the aeroplane accident.


Kare no shiboukokuchi ga shibun ni deta.

An announcement of his death appeared in the newspapers.

  1. 戦死(senshi)

Senshi means death in battle. The first character 戦(ikusa, tatakau) means war, battle or match.

Example sentences:


Kanojo no musuko no senshi no shirase ni kanojo wa ki ga kurutta.

News of her son’s death in battle drove her mad.


Ooku no seishitachi ga eiyuudeki na senshi wo shita.

Many soldiers died a hero’s death.

  1. 生命(seimei)

Seimei means life and existence.

Example sentences:


Kare wa seimei no kiken wo okashite sono yama ni chousen shimashita.

He challenged the mountain at the risk of his own life.


Taiyou wa seimei ni fukaketsu de aru.

The sun is essential to life.

  1. 一生懸命(isshoukenmei)

Means to do one’s very hard, with utmost effort, with all one’s might, for dear life.

Example sentences:


Isshoukenmei haashitta ga nori soko natta.

I ran as I could but missed the train.


Isshoukenmei ganbarimasu node chansu wo kudasai.

I’ll do my very best so give me a chance please.

How is “Life” and “Death” expressed in Chinese?

The chinese symbol for life is 生活 which is read as Shēnghuó and death is 死亡 read as Sǐwáng. Both life and death Chinese symbols are the same with Japanese symbols but they don’t have the same way of reading it.

Stroke order for writing the characters in Japanese “Life” and “Death” and associated symbols.

  1. 生活(seikatsu)
  1. 人生
  1. 生きる
  1. 終わり


  1. 逝去


  1. 死亡
  1. 戦死


  1. 生命
  1. 一生懸命


Historical forms of the chinese character for “Life” and “Death”

So should you get “Life” and/or “Death” done as a tattoo in Japanese lettering?

In conclusion, getting a tattoo for Japanese kanji for life and death is a personal choice that should be made carefully. 

One big consideration is that when the character 生 (sei) for “life” is seen isolation, it is more likely to be read as “nama”, meaning “raw”. So you would need to be prepared for that.

The other stand-alone option is 命 (inochi), which by itself is probably closer to our concept of “life” with all its multiple nuances. That being said, this is not  the character that gets used as contrast pair of “life and death”. For that you would use 生 and 死. 

Consider all of the implications and make sure that you are comfortable with the design before going through with the tattoo.

A fair amount of people get tattoos of Japanese characters for death just because of the influence of anime, so you may also want to consider the somewhat “otaku” “nerd” kind of qualities that come along with getting “Life and Death” as a tattoo in Japanese.


Article by Dhanie James Perez

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