The last homework assignment

Now I suppose this might be a fake, but I’m posting it under the assumption that it’s real. It’s the last homework assignment of a dying Japanese teacher, who apparently passed away soon after he wrote this on the board:

(from RocketNews24 via Twitter)


And the translation (Japanese-speaking readers please verify):

Final homework assignment
No due date

Please be happy.

By the time you are ready to turn in this assignment, I will probably be in heaven.
Don’t rush your report. Feel free to take your time.
But someday, please turn to me and say “I did it. I’ve become happy.”
I’ll be waiting.

This is also posted on a Japanese site, which claims that the teacher died of stomach cancer. That was the same disease that afflicted the lead character (a Japanese bureaucrat) of the greatest foreign non-U.S. film ever made, Ikiru.  He, too, found a way to be happy.

It’s a tear-jerker for sure.  But Professor Ceiling Cat concurs: please be happy. We’re on this planet but a short time, so enjoy the beautiful day (even if its raining), have some nice noms, read a good book, and pet your cat. (You don’t have a cat? Adopt one!) Oh, and watch Ikiru, which is free online here.


  1. Jiten
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Very moving except about the part about being in heaven. That spoils it.

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 3:41 am | Permalink

      Not for me. The message is the same.

      • Posted October 7, 2013 at 3:52 am | Permalink

        Not entirely, I think, if your happiness is predicated on your favourite teacher being in heaven, or that you’ll follow him.

        Back to the discussion of whether or not holding a belief because it makes you happy is laudable or “a fundamental dishonesty and a fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity” (Russell).


    • Notagod
      Posted October 7, 2013 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      Same for me. The message could have had it all but instead opted for delusion and an impossible to realize thought.

      I keep wanting to fix people that think they need supernatural suspicions to be happy. I think they have lost the awesomeness of what is real and true.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 7, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      It doesn’t spoil it for me. But then, since I’ve had children I have become extra mushy. It is easy to make me cry. Heck, just yesterday evening I teared up a couple of times as I was watching a childrens cooking competition on foodtv with the kids.

      I’d be interested to know more about the kanji that is being translated here as “heaven.” Maybe someone who knows more could explain this in greater detail?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Ha ha! I teared up watching World War Z but I also had the flu just earlier and had spent some of my time crying on the bathroom floor in utter agony so I was weakened. 🙂

        • darrelle
          Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

          Ahhh, Cheezus! That’s awful. Are you trying to make me cry?

          More seriously Diana, maybe it would be a good idea for you to take some quiet vacation time away from any stressors, and give yourself a chance to get better! It sounds like the last few months (year?) in particular have been hard on you health wise. Please get better!

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 10, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

            Awwww, thanks for your concern. I’m okay now – the flu was a quick one and I didn’t even get a fever.

            The bonus is when I was in that pain, I found some muscle relaxants which my doctor had prescribed ages ago and just half of one at night has fixed up my muscle pain really well!

            • Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

              If no fever and it didn’t last long, it definitely wasn’t influenza. That makes the most likely candidate some form of food poisoning

              Regardless, glad you’re back on your feet!

              I had some prescription naproxen left over from long ago that I used for my back. Not sure it did much…I think the stretching and the epsom salt hot bath did more, to be honest….


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 11, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

                Oh it was longer than that – I just thought it was a migraine but then it really got bad.

                I used cyclobenzaprine 100 mg. I only take half a pill and it’s awesome. I stopped taking it before because it made me tired but I just take it at 8pm so I am not tired in the morning.

      • sgo
        Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        The kanji for heaven is 天国, and that’s a direct translation from what’s on the blackboard, meaning, it’s not an interpretation for the sake of translation. The two parts are “heaven” in the meaning of sky (天; pronounced “ten”), and then “country” (国, pronounced here as “goku”).

        It’s indeed quite the message to leave on the blackboard. I love it.

        • darrelle
          Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          Thank you for the info.

          Does “sky country” have the same or very similar cultural meaning and significance as “heaven” does in christian cultures?

          Is the term a result of christianity being adopted in Japan? Or is the term derived from an indigenous religion?

          • sgo
            Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

            It has the same meaning now in Japanese. One can also use it as “heavenly” when doing something nice. I actually don’t know which usage is more prevalent.

            I also don’t know about the origins of the word; whether or not it was introduced by Christians. I would think not, since they didn’t have much influence in Japan, and the Tokugawa’s were anti-Christian (anti-everything from abroad). So it might very well come from some ancient Buddhist/Shintoist meaning, but I am not sure. I tried looking for the etymology on the net, but no luck (my Japanese also only goes so far).

            • darrelle
              Posted October 7, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

              Thank you!

            • Posted October 7, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

              Yeah, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of info on the etymology of 天国 out there, even in Japanese. The best I could get was from the Wiktionary entry. The description is a bit hard to understand, but it seems to suggest that 天国 was adopted in the Meiji era as a translation for “heaven.”

              In case anyone’s interested, there are other words for a “heaven” or “paradise” in Japanese, such as 楽園 (rakuen), which I think might not be associated with religion, and 極楽 (gokuraku) which has its origins in Buddhism.

              That said, 天国 as it is used today does not automatically refer to anything christian.

              • darrelle
                Posted October 7, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                Thank you also.

              • Posted October 8, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

                Isn’t the first graph the same as the (classical?) Chinese one for what is often misleadingly translated “heaven” as in, for example, “mandate of heaven” and is literally “sky”?

              • Posted October 8, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

                Well, I don’t know Chinese! I just asked my Chinese coworker though. According to him, 天堂 is the usual Chinese word for heaven, although sometimes people might use 天国. Both, he says, are just translations of the concept of “heaven” from other cultures. The word for sky, he said, is simply 天.

                That said, etymology doesn’t necessarily tell us much about current usage. While Japan obviously took most of their kanji characters from China, Japanese words have their own patterns of usage and connotation.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Extra mushy here, too. (I remember wondering, after my first was born, why the fact that they were both fathers didn’t cause Reagan and Gorbachev to put aside all nationalistic baggage and concentrate on a world that’s better for all children.)

        Along maybe similar lines to the subjects of this post and your comment, I’ve always loved Vonnegut’s proposed baptismal speech:

        “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

        • darrelle
          Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

          Huh. I thought I knew Vonnegut fairly well, but I have never seen that before. I like it, thanks.

          Regarding your first paragraph, I have wondered exactly that many times about many people. Tribalism, sociopathy, tiny little circles of inclusion, tiny little emotional IQs?

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 7, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

            Any and all of those I’d say, darrelle. Scary, isn’t it?

  2. Lianne Byram
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    Excellent advice Professor Ceiling Cat.

  3. BillyJoe
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    To have a totally miserable few decades on this planet compared to a presumed eternity of bliss in heaven is like having a dead leaf on a single tree in an otherwise lush infinite botanical garden.

    Not worth worrying about.

  4. lanceleuven
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    “enjoy the beautiful day (even if its raining)”

    An excellent sentiment.

  5. Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:23 am | Permalink

    Very moving

  6. bric
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Ahem ‘the greatest foreign film ever made’: foreign = not U S

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Yes, as soon as I wrote that I knew the accusations of chauvinism would arrive. I’ve changed it above, thanks.

      • jeremyp
        Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

        So what’s the greatest film ever made? I suppose, given the quantity made in the USA, it is statistically quite likely to be made there.

        • Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

          I once posted a list of my top 13 (here). I would rank Ikiru as the greatest non-US film ever made, and The Last Picture Show as the greatest US film. But I couldn’t say either of these two was better than the other.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    That’s sad. The message written out like that in chalk seems so lonely.

  8. Posted October 7, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    This is very beautiful.
    He must have loved teaching and his students. Even though we might not agree on the hereafter, he left his faithfulness and caring to his students, and inadvertently to us.

  9. CJ
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    The translation is substantially correct. It cannot convey all nuances of the original. There is a very interesting mix of formal and informal language that would be hard to convey(for example).

    Also, the way the kanji “happiness” (幸せ) is written really hard to read. Strange…


  10. Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    You don’t have a cat? Adopt one!

    Physician, heal thyself!


    • Paul S
      Posted October 7, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Hmmmm, adopt a cat, I’m not sure that’s how it works. Since the two I’m living with are quite magnanimous, I would consider them adopters instead of adoptees.
      I am constantly graced with their affection, especially when typing or on a conference call.

  11. DV
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Commendable for the intention but fails on two counts:

    1. It peddles delusion. There is no evidence of course that that there is a heaven or that we survive our deaths to be capable or being anywhere after.
    2. It’s recommendation is lacking in wisdom. As any keen observer of human behavior can see, the deliberate striving to be happy is at best not the way to be happy and at worst causes unhappiness. So to give an assignment to be happy is to doom people to unhappiness, unless they don’t actually take the assignment seriously.

    • DV
      Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      It’s should be its. Aargh!

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted October 7, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Of course the assignment isn’t serious, there’s no due date!

      On the other hand, I can easily imagine a student in that class, months or years later later, feeling rather good about something in their own life and then remembering the message, leading to an intense combination of emotions, recollections and re-evaluations. Very Zen, and not in a bad way.

      Whether ‘Heaven’ or any of the other words is intended or understood literally, or as a euphemism or joke, seems quite irrelevant when considering the likely or potential effects of the message. What lends it significance is the actual life and acts of the teacher (who I hope was not a creep on every other day of their life, as that would spoil the effect).

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t see it this way at all. What’s wrong with encouraging people to seek their bliss in life.

      It also seems to me that the teacher’s ‘paradise’ or ‘heaven’ might have everything to do with being remembered by his students and knowing that he touched their lives in a meaningful and profound way. The way we live on after we die is really in the memories that people have of us. That’s our legacy.

  12. Nwalsh
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Excellent advice – Off to the dog park are we – 🙂

  13. Addie Pray
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I choke up every time I think of that movie. Only a few movies have that impact- city lights, the bicycle thief, but none is so life affirming or profound or contains a performance as powerful, or an image like the swing set in the snow. And the song, the song…

    Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens, Before the crimson bloom fades from your lips, Before the tides of passion cool within you, For those of you who know no tomorrow.

  14. Addie Pray
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Ps: be sure to check out “after life”, another profoundly moving Japanese film (from 1999 or so) about finding meaning in life in the face of death

  15. Posted October 7, 2013 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The translation is accurate, as CJ also said above.

    I really think there is a lot of “protesting too much” on the whole heaven thing here. I’m generally a stickler for these types of things myself, but Japanese society is *really* secular, you guys. I read this message as having very little to do with metaphysics. Maybe the teacher really thinks he’s going to heaven and maybe the kids really do too, but without any context I think the charge of “peddling delusion” is a bit much.

  16. Raphael
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    It’s important to realize that this is Japan, this isn’t Tennessee. I can understand that the mention of heaven might make some atheists roll their eyes. But in my case, I see nothing but a poignant, caring message left by someone at the end of their life to try and give one last positive message to their students.

    For the person who mentioned that it’s bad to tell someone to just be happy… I would agree, just telling an unhappy person “be happy” is an awful thing to do. But that’s not what the message is really saying. I interpret it as a message to seek happiness in life. Which is a lifelong endeavor. And a worthy goal, in my opinion. We only get one life to live on this tiny rock orbiting an average sized star in a minuscule speck of the universe. Seeking personal happiness and fulfillment, regardless of what it is that makes you happy (so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else and hopefully not you as well) should be everyone’s objective. Bertrand Russell himself would agree. Perhaps we should send some Japanese language copies of his Conquest of Happiness… (Tongue in cheek)

    I think many who do get offended or annoyed at the heaven reference are reflecting too much on the role of their own (usually Christian) religion in their own (usually Western) society. As others have mentioned, Japan is one of the most secular countries in the world. It’s always had a complex belief system, and the monotheistic religions never took hold there. I know a fair amount about Japan, not enough to declare myself some expert on the society, but I can tell you I have never met a Japanese person who would qualify as religious in any sense of the word.

    It was a little blurb about passing on written by a dying person who wanted to impart a nice final message. While I don’t advocate delusions whatsoever, do note there wasn’t anything of the sort of proselytizing that makes it usually objectionable in a western context. No message of praise the Lord, live your life to please God, blah blah.

    I think what is important to remember too is that, I’d dare say the vast majority of any human beings who adhere to any belief in an afterlife do so for comfort. Most focus on the positive aspects rather than ideas of hellfire and punishment (and again, this person is Japanese, that doesn’t apply here) I have no problem in the idea of death being final, but I had to think long and hard to get here and the average human doesn’t go through such a process. They’re nominally religious usually at best, living their lives with a momentary thought toward their spirituality now and then. At least this is how it is in most modern nations outside of the backwaters of the United States.

    Perhaps I simply don’t get worked up at all over that because I know it’s Japan and it’s a shining example of a society that has prospered without worshipping the Abrahamic God, which is always nice to point out to those idiots like these American politicians that maintain, in their jingoistic ignorance, that only those countries that have the “one true God” as their “Lord” are successful.

    Basically, I view it as a touching example of human goodness in the final moments and it’s one of those things that strengthens my hope in humanity.

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      I agree 100% with this comment. I think people overlooked the message of caring, of regret, and of a desire to see his students BE happy because of the reference to heaven and an afterlife, which I didn’t take seriously at all. It’s a wonderful assignment and one that brings tears to my eyes.

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 8, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink


  17. Derek
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Two comments on the translation:
    “Please be happy” is in quotation marks in the original – and the wording in Japanese has more of the sense of a mild command like “Be happy”, or more closely “Become happy”, than “Please be happy”; and
    the second last sentence is more like ‘But someday, please turn to me and let me hear (you say) “I’ve become happy.”‘ The “I did it” does not appear at all in the Japanese.
    The original seems to me to be written in dialect (CJ says a mix of formal and informal, and I agree, but I also think dialect), though I can’t tell you from where in Japan.
    “天国” also translates as “paradise”, so it has a broader meaning than the Christian “Heaven”. For example, you can have a “pedestrian paradise” – a car-free area, and I don’t think you would refer to a “pedestrian heaven”. It’s not the Buddhist Nirvana, though – that is expressed with different characters. But Japanese, like English, tends to use euphemisms around death.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 7, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the insights. Having a tiny bit of experience with Japanese language and culture I was certain that the translation was not likely to be very precise.

      Very difficult to be (precise that is) without long supplemental dissertations to try and explain nuances, cultural contexts, etc.

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

      It’s a Kansai dialect.

      • Derek
        Posted October 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        I think you’re right, Tim. I learned my Japanese in Osaka, but couldn’t place it despite that.

    • Posted October 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink


  18. J. H.
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Don’t care about dialect, I think I know what was meant: “Don’t worry/ Be happy”.

  19. Latverian Diplomat
    Posted October 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I guess I’m the only one who found “tomorrow I’ll be dead” a disturbing thing for students to read off a chalkboard? Maybe a little more context would help — how old are the students and how much did they know about the teacher’s health before they got this message?

    Some adolescents get really freaked out by unexpected tragedy, things like this needed to be treated with a sensitivity that I don’t see here.

  20. Dominic
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    Sky gods – interesting that interpretations of some ancient rerligious practices suggest the earth was seen more as a reflection, underneath, of another world – hence sacred pools & burying things upside down such as the famous ‘tree henge’ in north Norfolk.

  21. Dominic
    Posted October 8, 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Dead, you will lie under a yard of earth,
    Far from daylight and all delighting.
    So drain the cup; take your pleasures whole;
    Embrace that beautiful girl, your wife;
    And pin no hopes on “immortal philosophy”:
    Cleanthes and Zeno lie as deep as any.

    Marcus Argentarius

  22. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 9, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    To be honest, when I see this sort of thing I think of the tradition in geology texts that the vital exposure is always two days walk beyond the death of the last camel, that the Burgess Shale fossils were discovered by Walcott when his wife’s horse stumbled on a mountain path, as the snow was falling to mark the end of the field season, and that Scott and companions died huddled over their samples of coal from the Trans-Antarctic Mountains ; good stories, with a passing association with the truth.
    Curmudgeonly, but that’s life.

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