Tomino’s Hell: Exploring the Curse

The urban legend surrounding an originally Japanese poem called “Tomino’s Hell” by Saijo Yaso has been around for a few years now. It is said that if you read the poem out loud, you will die and your soul will follow poor little Tomino on his descend into eternal darkness.

The widely known English translation was made with Google Translate. Since this hurts the heart of every serious writer, gladly, David Bowles, who is a published author and teaches at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley, gave the internet this carefully translated version of the poem:

Tomino’s Hell

Elder sister vomits blood,
younger sister’s breathing fire
while sweet little Tomino
just spits up the jewels.2

All alone does Tomino
go falling into that hell,
a hell of utter darkness,
without even flowers.

Is Tomino’s big sister
the one who whips him?
The purpose of the scourging
hangs dark in his mind.3

Lashing and thrashing him, ah!
But never quite shattering.
One sure path to Avici,4
the eternal hell.

Into that blackest of hells
guide him now, I pray—
to the golden sheep,
to the nightingale.

How much did he put
in that leather pouch
to prepare for his trek to
the eternal hell?

Spring is coming
to the valley, to the wood,
to the spiraling chasms
of the blackest hell.

The nightingale in her cage,
the sheep aboard the wagon,
and tears well up in the eyes
of sweet little Tomino.5

Sing, o nightingale,
in the vast, misty forest—
he screams he only misses
his little sister.

His wailing desperation
echoes throughout hell—
a fox peony
opens its golden petals.

Down past the seven mountains
and seven rivers of hell—
the solitary journey
of sweet little Tomino.

If in this hell they be found,
may they then come to me, please,
those sharp spikes of punishment
from Needle Mountain.6

Not just on some empty whim
Is flesh pierced with blood-red pins:
they serve as hellish signposts
for sweet little Tomino.7

—translated by David Bowles
June 29, 2014


Survivor’s Guilt

I love this translation.

In his article on the subject, Bowles explains his theory of Tomino representing the poet who has lost either his sister or father at the time of writing this piece (it was published in 1919). Bowles argues that when looking at the sins you have to commit to descend to the very part of hell that is described in the Japanese original, which is “Jigoku” (translated as Avici), you find that one of them is to kill your parents. He concludes with the interpretation of Saijo describing survivor’s guilt in the poem.

Here, however, I see something different in the poem. It goes without saying that when a close one dies, you feel guilty for not being there for them, not having taken enough care of them, or simply not have been able to say goodbye.

But then, why is the younger sister breathing fire? Why is Tomino wondering if his older sister is whipping him?

Tomino’s guilt

I think we can agree that Tomino is suffering. He is punished for a sin unknown to us. I wonder, however, if Tomino himself knows.

Let us take this step by step. It helps to know that Saijo was part of the Symbolist movement. The Symbolists had the credo to describe not the thing itself, but its effect. This explains why we are not told what crime Tomino has committed. The symbols used also should not be interpreted in a classical way. For example, Westerners who grew up in a Christian culture, like me, tend to wonder about the meaning of the golden sheep, since it reminds us of the golden lamb from the bible. However, this is not how Symbolism works (at least according to Wikipedia).  Also, let us not forget that the poem seems to have more of a Buddhist background.

The symbols are chosen according to their effect on the reader, not their traditionally assigned meaning.

When reading the poem, people describe feeling uneasy, disturbed, unsettled. The poem shows the desired effect: it drags our emotions down to Hell together with Tomino. Now, it is not so peculiar that the poem is said to be cursed, is it? For a short period of time, we get a piece of Tomino’s guilt. Guilt is a more than unpleasant experience. And what makes it even better (the poem, I mean), is that, just like Tomino, we don’t know why we feel that guilt. After all, there is nothing wrong with reading a poem, right?

The deepest Hell

Tomino’s Hell, Jigoku or Avici, is not your regular go-to hell. Oh no! It is the deepest of all hells, translated into English as “waveless”.

Think about that for a moment. Speaking in terms of physics, we are always surrounded by waves, either sound waves or light waves (if you want to see light as a wave). “Waveless” means absolute stand-still. No movement.  Zero degrees Kelvin.

Then, however, Spring comes around! How is that possible? There is only one explanation: Hell is inside of Tomino. He himself is frozen inside whereas the world around him keeps turning. There is a medical term for this state. Depression.

Guilt is a crucial part of depression. Many depressed people experience unfounded guilt, e.g. a depressed man feels guilty for being at home on his regular day off while his co-workers are in the office. In severe cases, there can be a so-called delusion of sin, where a person is adamant to have committed a horrible deed and experiences tremendous guilt. This belief, however, is not grounded in reality.


Although the poem centers on Tomino, we’re also introduced to his sisters. Naturally, since all of them are suffering, you might wonder: what about the parents? The parents don’t seem to be addressed in the poem. However, I think they are at one point: the lashing and thrashing. Someone is whipping Tomino. He suspects his older sister, but he is not sure.

Let me tell you a bit about the consequences of child abuse: A beaten child will not be able to feel his righteous anger against a violent parent. Since he is dependent on them, he will identify with the view of the perpetrator and will accept the feeling of being a nuisance, of being bad, of being just wrong in every way. In this scenario, guilt is brought to the child in many ways. She can feel guilty for being a bad child, for hurting her parents’ feelings, or for merely existing.

Abusive parents often use the argument of ungratefulness: “I pay for your food and your clothes. I work all day to feed you. Is this behavior your way to thank me?”

To the emotionally intelligent person, this translates to: “I am denying my own emotional problems and cannot cope with a normal child’s behavior.”

Of course, this is not what the child understands.

Adult survivors of childhood abuse know the feeling of guilt well. When in therapy, one big hurdle to take is the guilt they experience when realizing that their parents wronged them. Often, they never spoke about their childhood trauma to anyone because they feel guilty for sharing the family secret. It is a big part of healing to send the guilt back to where it belongs.

Family secret

This is why I think that Tomino and his sisters could be beaten by their parents. The parents themselves are not spoken of directly, as is often the case in the abused child’s/abuse survivors’ mind. Tomino however, finds himself on the path into a deep depression full of guilt. He can see his sisters suffering but is unable to help them. He hopes that by paying for his sins through pain, he might be able to overcome his guilt: “May they then come to me please, those sharp spikes of punishment… not just on some empty whim, is flesh pierced with blood-red pins: they serve as hellish signposts for sweet little Tomino”.