A History of Japanese Literature/Book 4/Chapter 1

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In the history of Japan, as in that of many other countries, there is observable an alternate tendency towards strong and weak central governments, which is all the more pronounced as the insular position of the country protects this natural oscillation against foreign interference. From time to time rulers of commanding abilities and resolute character made their appearance, who enlarged the sphere of authority of the State, and kept local ambitions in check. But sooner or later the central control became relaxed, and each province established a sort of Home Rule for itself, until another swing of the pendulum took place, and the reins of government were again grasped by the strong hand of a single authority.

The establishment by the Shōgun Yoritomo, after much hard fighting, of the sway of the military caste at Kamakura, near the end of the twelfth century, marked the beginning of one of these periods of vigorous centralisation. Though the Mikados were allowed to retain an outward semblance of authority, all real power, civil and military, had passed from their hands; while, on the other hand, the local nobles saw themselves supplanted by officers appointed by the Shōguns and entirely dependent on them.

Yoritomo was succeeded by his two sons, who with their father are known to history as the "Three Shōguns." After them the Hōjō dynasty of Shikken (directors), who were simply Shōguns under a different name, took their place as the rulers of Japan. They remained in power until A.D. 1335.

The rule of a class to whose very existence a practical knowledge of war and warlike accomplishments was vital, and who necessarily neglected, if they did not despise, intellectual culture, was not conducive to the production of important literary works. Nor was this the only unfavourable condition of the time. Intercourse with China and Corea had become much interrupted. The shores of these countries were infested by Japanese pirates, in punishment for whose descents it was that Kublai Khan despatched his famous but abortive expedition against Japan. Chinese learning consequently languished. Buddhism, on the other hand, flourished greatly, as the colossal figure of Buddha (A.D. 1252) at Kamakura testifies to this day. Most of the Mikados, after a few years of reign, became monks, as did also many of the highest personages of their court, though it must be said that the adage "Cucullus non facit monachum" was in their case abundantly exemplified.

The three thousand monasteries which at this time dotted the slopes of Hiyeisan (a mountain north-east of Kiōto) were a very material embodiment of Buddhist influence. Not content with mere spiritual weapons, the inmates of these establishments were always ready, on the smallest provocation, to don their armour over their monastic frocks and troop down to the streets of Kiōto to place their swords in whatever scale of the politics of the day seemed to them most expedient. They were the terror of the Mikados, one of whom is recorded to have said: "There are three things I cannot control—the water of the Kamogawa (a river which does frequent damage to Kiōto by its floods), the fall of the dice, and the monks of Buddha."

It was, however, the Buddhist monks who were the chief maintainers of learning during this period. Some of the men of letters were ecclesiastics, and even when this was not the case, their writings are deeply imbued with Buddhist teachings and sentiments. The vanity of wealth and power, and the uncertainty of human things, form the constant refrain of their moralisings.

In comparison with the Heian period, the contributions by women to the literature of this time are insignificant, and altogether a more virile, if less refined, spirit is discernible. There are hardly any of those debonair romances which in the preceding period amused the leisure of the nobles of Kiōto. The newer literature, with its tales of combats and battles, reflects the more warlike temper of the times of which it is the product. As a Japanese writer has observed, "The Heian literature is like the Kaidō (Pyrus spectabilis) drooping after rain; that of the Kamakura period resembles the plum-blossom which exhales its perfume in the snow and frost."

It is to be noted that the more important writings of this period belong to the earlier part of it.