A History of Japanese Literature/Book 4/Chapter 3

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Kamo Chōmei, the author of the Hōjōki, was a guardian of the Shinto shrine of Kamo in Kiōto. Having acquired some reputation as a musician and poet, he was appointed by the retired Mikado Go Toba to a post in the Department of Japanese Poetry. He subsequently petitioned to be allowed to succeed his father as superior guardian of Kamo, but his prayer was not granted. This he resented deeply, and shaving his head, retired to a hermitage on Ōharayama, a few miles from Kiōto.

The Hōjōki, written in 1212, is a record of the author's personal experiences. It is valued highly for its excellent style, which is not too close an imitation of the older classical manner, nor yet, on the other hand, overloaded with Chinese expressions. After giving an account of the great fire of Kiōto in 1177, the famine of 1181, and the earthquake of 1185, the writer of these memoirs proceeds to tell us of the mountain hermitage to which he fled in order to escape from a world so rife with direful calamities. His hut and mode of life are minutely described, with many touches which not only give indications of his own tastes and character, but reveal something of the inner spirit of the Buddhist religion. It is a tiny book on which to rest so high a reputation, containing some thirty pages only, and it is therefore possible to transcribe all the more interesting passages. Hōjō, it may be premised, means "ten feet square," the supposed dimensions of a hermit's cell, and actually those of Chōmei's hut. Ki means "notes" or "record."

"The current of a running stream flows on unceasingly, but the water is not the same: the foam floating on the pool where it lingers, now vanishes and now forms again, but is never lasting. Such are mankind and their habitations. In a splendid capital where the dwellings of the exalted and of the lowly join their roof-trees and with their tiles jostle one another, they may appear to go on without an interval from generation to generation. But we shall find, if we make inquiry, that there are in reality but few which are ancient. Some were destroyed last year to be rebuilt this year; others, which were great houses, have been ruined, and replaced by smaller ones. The same is true of their inmates. If we have lived long in a place where we have numbers of acquaintances, we find that but one or two are left of twenty or thirty whom we knew formerly. In the morning some die, in the evening some are born. Such is life. It may be compared to foam upon the water. Whether they are born or whether they die, we know not whence they come nor whither they go. Nor in this temporary sojourning-place do we know who will benefit by the trouble we put ourselves to, or wherewithal to give pleasure to the eyes. Of a house and its master I know not which is the more subject to change. Both are like the dew on the convolvulus. The dew may fall, leaving the flower behind; but even so, the flower fades with the morning sun. Again, the flower may wither, while the dew remains; but even so, it cannot last until evening.

"During the forty springs and summers which have passed since I first knew the heart of things, many extraordinary events have happened. In the third year of Angen (1177), on the twenty-eighth day of the fourth month, the night being unquiet by reason of a violent wind, a fire broke out in the south-eastern part of the capital, about eight o'clock, and spread in a north-westerly direction, gaining the southern gate of the Palace, the Hall of Audience, the University buildings, and the Home Office. That same night all were reduced to ashes. It was said to have had its origin in a temporary building used as a hospital. Urged by the blasts of the devious wind, it spread this way and that until it widened out like an extended fan. The distant houses were immersed in smoke, while the nearer ground was completely covered with the sparks blown on to it. The ashes, driven aloft into the sky, and illumined by the flames, formed a ruddy background against which the sparks might be seen, continually detached by the gusts, and as it were flying over a space of several hundred yards to some new quarter. Imagine the distracted state of the inhabitants! Some there were who fell down, stifled by the smoke; others, involved in flames, met with a sudden death; others, again, barely escaped with their lives, and were unable to save their property. Their seven rare things and their ten thousand treasures became mere ashes. How great were the losses! Sixteen houses of nobles were consumed, and others without number. One-third of all Kiōto was destroyed. Several thousands of men and women lost their lives, and an immense number of cattle. All the ways of man are full of vanity, but it may be deemed specially unprofitable to build ourselves dwellings in so dangerous a place as the capital, wasting our wealth, and giving ourselves much anxiety of mind.

"Again, on the 29th day of the fourth month of the fourth year of Jishō (1180), there was a great whirlwind which arose in the Kiōgoku quarter, and blew with much violence as far as Rokujō. Three or four of the city wards received its full force. In these there was not a single house, great or small, which was not destroyed by its whirling blasts. Some were simply laid flat on the ground; in others nothing was left but the posts and cross-beams. The roofs of gates were blown off and deposited at a distance of several streets. Fences were swept away, removing all distinction between a neighbour's ground and one's own. It need hardly be said that all the contents of the houses without exception rose to the sky, while the bark and shingles of the roofs were scattered abroad like autumnal leaves before the wind. The dust was blown up like smoke, so that nothing could be seen, and the din was so tremendous that one could not hear his neighbour speak. The blasts of the Buddhist Inferno of which we have been told must be something of this kind. Not only were houses destroyed, but countless numbers of people were injured, and became cripples [by exposure] while their homes were being repaired. This wind passed off in a south-westerly direction, having caused lamentation to many. Now a whirlwind is an ordinary phenomenon, but this was no mere natural occurrence; I strongly suspect that it was sent as a warning."

[Here follows an account of the miseries attendant upon the removal of the capital to Settsu in the same year (1180).]

"It is so long ago that I do not exactly remember, but I believe it was in the period Yōwa (1181–2) that there was for two years a very wretched state of things caused by famine. Misfortunes succeeded one another. Either there was drought in spring and summer, or there were storms and floods in autumn and winter, so that no grain came to maturity. The spring ploughing was in vain, and the labour of summer planting [of the young rice] came to naught. There was no bustle of reaping in autumn, or of ingathering in winter. In all the provinces people left their lands and sought other parts, or, forgetting their homes, went to live among the hills. All kinds of prayers were begun, and even religious practices which were unusual in ordinary times revived, but to no purpose whatever. The capital, dependent as it is on the country for everything, could not remain unconcerned when nothing was produced. The inhabitants in their distress offered to sacrifice their valuables of all kinds one after another, but nobody cared to look at them. Even if buyers came forward, they made little account of gold, and much of grain. Beggars swarmed by the roadsides, and our ears were filled with the sound of their lamentations. Amid such misery we with difficulty reached the close of the first year. With the new year, men's hopes revived. But that nothing might be left to complete our misfortunes, a pestilence broke out and continued without ceasing. Everybody was dying of hunger, and as time went on, our condition became as desperate as that of the fish in the small pool of the story. At last even respectable-looking people wearing hats, and with their feet covered, might be seen begging importunately from door to door. Sometimes while you wondered how such utterly wretched creatures could walk at all, they fell down before your eyes. By garden walls or on the roadsides countless persons died of famine, and as their bodies were not removed, the world was filled with evil odours. As they changed, there were many sights which the eyes could not endure to see. It was worse on the river banks where there was not even room for horses and vehicles to pass back and forwards. Porters and woodcutters too became so feeble that firewood got scarcer and scarcer, and people who had no means pulled down their houses and sold the materials in the market. It was said that a load for one man was not enough to provide him with sustenance for a single day. It was strange to see among this firewood pieces adorned in places with vermilion, or silver or gold leaf. On inquiry, it appeared that people in their extremity went to old temples, stole the images of Buddha, and broke up the objects used in worship, of which these were the fragments. Such mournful spectacles it was my lot to witness, born into a polluted and wicked world.

"Another very pitiable thing was that when there were a man and woman who were strongly attached to each other, the one whose love was the greatest and whose devotion was the most profound always died first. The reason was that they put themselves last, and, whether man or woman, gave up to the dearly loved one anything which they might chance to have begged. As a matter of course, parents died before their children. Again infants might be seen clinging to the breast of their mother, not knowing that she was already dead. A priest of the Temple of Jisonin, grieved in his secret heart at the numberless persons who were thus perishing, consulted with a great many holy men, who by his advice, when they saw any one dead, wrote on his forehead the first of the Chinese characters for Amida [Buddha] and by this bond united him [to the Church]. The numbers of those who died in central Kiōto during the fourth and fifth months alone were 42,300. To this must be added many who died before and after; while if we also reckon those who perished in the various outlying quarters, the number has no limit. And then the provinces! I have heard that in recent times there was a similar famine in the reign of Sutoku, in the period Chōjō (1132–1135), but of this I do not know the circumstances. What I have described is the most lamentable state of things that I have myself witnessed."

Chōmei next describes the great earthquake at Kiōto of the year 1185, in which, when at its worst, there were twenty or thirty shocks a day, such as would be called severe in ordinary times. After ten or twenty days the shocks in one day were two to five, then one every two or three days. It was not until the third month that the earth had quite recovered its quiet.

The story of these disasters is introductory to an account of his own life, and is brought in to explain his resolve to abandon the city and to live the life of a recluse. He spent thirty years in a small cabin remote from Kiōto, but finding even this seclusion not sufficiently restful—

"Five springs and autumns," he says, "came and went to me making my bed among the clouds of Mount Ōhara. And now at sixty, when the dew does not easily evaporate,[1] I again built myself a last leaf of a dwelling, something like the shelter which a traveller might erect for one night's lodging, or the cocoon spun for itself by an aged silkworm. It is not a hundredth part so commodious as the habitation of my middle-time. As my age declined with every year, at each remove my dwelling became smaller. This last one is no ordinary house. It is barely ten feet square, and only seven feet high. As it was not meant for a fixed abode, the ground about it was trodden hard and left uncultivated. The walls are of mud, and it is thatched with rushes. The joints are fastened with rings and staples, for the greater convenience of removal elsewhere if any subject of dissatisfaction should arise. How little trouble it would take to rebuild it in another place! It would barely make two cart-loads, and there would be no expense whatever beyond the cartage.

"Since I concealed my traces in the recesses of Mount Hino, I have put up a projecting roof of some three feet or more in width on the eastern side, as a place for breaking and burning brushwood. On the south I have set out a temporary shade and laid down a bamboo grating [by way of a mat]. On the west there is the domestic shrine. Within, against the north, and on the other side of a paper screen, I have installed a picture of Amida, and beside it have hung one of Fugen. Before them I have placed a copy of the Hokkekio.[2] Close to the eastern wall I have spread a quantity of fern, which serves me as a bed. On the south-west there is provided a hanging shelf of bamboo, on which are three or four black leather cases containing Japanese poetry, music, a Buddhist pious book, and such-like manuscripts. Besides there are a harp and a lute of the kinds known as Origoto and Tsugibiwa.

"Such is my temporary dwelling. Now to describe its surroundings. On the south there is a water-pipe which leads to a reservoir, constructed by piling large stones one on another. A wood close by affords plenty of sticks for firewood. The Masaki creeper hides all that is beyond. The valley is thickly wooded, but is clear towards the west, which is not unfavourable to meditation.[3]

"Here in spring there may be seen the rippling blossoms of the wistaria, shedding a fragrance towards the west. In summer the Hototogisu[4] is heard, who by his reiterated cry invites to a tryst with him on that rugged path which leads to Hades. In autumn the song of the cicada fills the ears, sounding like a wail over the vanities of this earthly existence. In winter the snow excites in me a sympathetic emotion. As it grows deeper and deeper, and then by degrees melts away again, it is an apt symbol of the obstruction of sin.

"When I am too sad for prayer, or cannot fix my mind on the pages of holy writ, there is no one to prevent me from resting and being as indolent as I please, nor is there any friend in whose presence I might feel ashamed. Though I have not specially adopted silence as my rule, living alone as I do, the faculty of speech has naturally been suspended. With no definite resolve to observe the commandments, my circumstances are such that there is no temptation to break them. When at morn I approach the white waves of the lake, I feel as if I had stolen the sentiments of the novice Mansei when he gazed on the boats passing to and from Okanoya [and compared human life to the ripples left in their wake]; when at evening the cassia wind rustles the leaves, I think of the estuary of Junyō and imitate the style of Gen Tōtoku. When more cheerful than usual I extol the music of the autumn wind to the accompaniment of its song among the firs, or to the sound of water join my praises of the music of the running stream. I do not pretend to anything great in music, and I sing or play all by myself, only for the comfort of my own heart, and not for the entertainment of others.

"At the foot of the mountain there is another cabin, built of brushwood, where a forester lives. He has a son who sometimes comes to see me. When I am dull I take him for a walk, and although there is a great difference in our ages, he being sixteen and I sixty, we both enjoy the same pleasures. We pluck the great rush flowers or gather cranberries. We fill our baskets with wild potatoes or collect parsley. Sometimes we go down to the rice-fields in the belt of ground at the bottom of the mountain and glean the fallen ears. In serene weather we climb to the summit and view from afar the sky over my native place. Hence we can see Kowatayama, Fushimi, Toba, and Hatsukase. Fine scenery is not private property, and there is nothing to prevent me from enjoying it. With no toilsome journey on foot, my mind flies afar along the range of mountain peaks. I cross Mount Sumi, I pass beyond Karadori, I make a pilgrimage to Iwama, I worship at Ishiyama, or else I thread my way over the plain of Awadzu, and pay my respects to the remains of the old Semimaru [a famous musician]; I cross the river Tagami, and visit the tomb of Sarumaru Dayu [a poet].

"On our way home we break off the cherry branches, or gather the red autumn foliage; we pluck the young shoots of the bracken, or pick up nuts according to the season. Some of these are offered to Buddha, and some are taken as presents [to my companion's family].

"When on a calm night the moon shines in at my window, I think with yearning of the men of old, and at the cry of the monkeys my sleeve is wetted with tears. The fire-flies in the clumps of herbage represent to me the fishermen's cressets on the isle of Magi no Shima; the rain at daybreak sounds to me like the leaves when fluttered by a stormy gust of wind. When I hear the copper pheasant with his cry of 'horo, horo,' I wonder whether it is my father or my mother.[5] When the stag from the mountain top approaches without shyness, I realise how far I am separated from the world.


"When I first took up my abode in this place, I thought it was only for a little while. But five years have passed and my temporary hut has become old. Under the eaves there is a deep bed of withered leaves, and moss has gathered on the earthen floor. When by chance I receive news of the capital, I hear of the deaths of many men of high rank, while of those of men of low degree it is impossible to reckon the number. I hear too of many houses being destroyed by frequent conflagrations. But this temporary cabin of mine has remained secure and undisturbed. It is small, but at night I have a bed to lie upon, in the daytime a mat on which I sit. It has all that is needed for the lodging of one person.


"Buddha has taught mankind not to allow their hearts to become enslaved by outward things. Even my love for this thatched cabin is to be reckoned a transgression; even my lying down to quiet rest must be a hindrance to piety. How can any one waste precious time in a continuous indulgence in useless pleasure? One calm morning I thought long over the reasons of this, and asked of my own heart the question—'The object of leaving the world and making companions of the hills and woods is to give peace to the mind, and to enable us to carry out the practices of religion. But though your outward appearance is that of a holy man, your heart is steeped in impurity. Your dwelling is an unworthy imitation of that of Jōmyō, but in observance you fall behind even Shuri and Bandoku Is this a natural affliction, inseparable from a mean condition, or is it due to the disorderly passions of an impure heart?' To this my heart made no answer. A few unbidden invocations of the name of Buddha rose to my lips, and then—silence.

"Written in my hut at Toyama, the second year of Kenriaku (A.D. 1212), the last day of the third month, by me the monk Renin." [6]

Some editions add the following pious Tanka:—

"The moon is gone—
A cruel mountain-spur
Where late she shone:
Oh! that my soul had sight
Of the unfailing light."

Chōmei is also the author of a collection of short essays entitled Mumiōshō ("Anonymous Selection"), mostly relating to poetical subjects, and of the Shiki ("Four Seasons") Monogatari, descriptive of court functions throughout the year.

Several diaries and journals of travel have come down to us from the Kamakura period. The Izayoi no Ki is the best known of these. It was written by a lady called Abutsu, a name which indicates that she had taken Buddhist vows. She was a descendant of one of the Mikados, and the widow of a son of the Fujiwara no Sadaiye who edited the Hiakunin-is-shiu. The diary was composed on a journey which she took to Kamakura in 1277 to obtain justice for her son Tamesuke against an elder brother by a different mother, who had usurped one of the family estates.

The Izayoi no Ki is a highly sentimental journey interspersed plentifully with Tanka. The following short passage may suffice as a specimen:—

"26th day. We crossed a river, which I believe is called the Warashina, and proceeded to the shore of Okitsu. I remembered the poem which says, 'the moonshine behind me as I took my way with tears.' At the place where we made our mid-day halt there was a queer little pillow of boxwood. I lay down quite exhausted, and finding an ink-stone there, wrote, as I lay, the following on the paper slides close to my pillow:—

'Twas an experience
Scarce worth remembering.
Tell it not to the world,
O thou chance pillow!
Nor say that I have bound myself."

Musubi-okitsu, which means "to bind oneself down," also contains the name of the place where the author was stopping. The verse is obviously composed simply for the sake of this pun, and contains no record of any actual personal experience.

"As it became dusk we passed Kiyomigaseki. The waves breaking over the rocks looked as if they were clothing them in white robes—a very pretty sight!

Ye ancient rocks
On the shore of Kiyomi!
A question let me ask of you—
How many suits have you put on
Of wet wave-garments?"

["Wet garments" is a metaphorical expression for unmerited blame or punishment].

"Presently it became dark, and we put up for the night in a village in that neighbourhood which stood close by the sea. From somewhere near, there came a smoke of burning, the smell of which was very noisome. It was no doubt caused by something the fishermen were doing. It brought to my mind the words, 'the rank odours of my nightly lodging.'

"The wind was very boisterous all night long, and the waves seemed breaking in tumult over my pillow."

The next passage relates to Fujisan. It appears from it that in the author's day the smoke from this mountain was intermittent. It has long ago quite ceased to rise.

The style of the Izayoi no Ki is very different from that of the Gempei Seisuiki or Heike Monogatari. It is comparatively free from Chinese elements, and reads more like a work of the Heian period. The author has evidently taken the Tosa Nikki for her model.

Abutsu also published a volume of critical essays on poetry, called Yo no Tsuru ("The Crane in the Night"), and other less important writings.

The Ben no Naiji Nikki, also by a woman, is a diary of incidents which occurred between 1246 and 1252.


The manufacture of Tanka at the court of Kiōto continued during this period. Several collections of verses prepared under official auspices were the result; but, as they contain little which is characteristic, it is needless to dwell upon them. The poetry of this time deserves mention chiefly as an indication that culture was not wholly neglected during what was in the main a benighted age.

It was now that the practice began of making anthologies of Tanka consisting of one specimen each of one hundred different authors. These are called Hiaku-nin-is-shiu. The original collection of this kind, which contains Tanka from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries, is at this day in the hands of every Japanese schoolgirl. It was compiled about 1235 by a court noble named Sadaiye, one of the great Fujiwara clan, which at this time had almost a monopoly of Japanese poetry. It has been translated into English by Mr. F. V. Dickins.

A new metre appeared during this period, which took the place of the older Naga-uta. It is called Ima-yō or "present fashion," and consists of alternate phrases of seven and five syllables. This arrangement is more or less closely approximated to in the poetical passages which now begin to occur in prose works.

Books in Chinese

The works written in Chinese during the Kamakura period bear witness to the general decay of learning. They are composed in a species of bad Chinese which may aptly be compared to the barbarous Latin of the Middle Ages in Europe.

The most important is the Adzuma-Kagami or "Mirror of the East," a history of Japan from 1180 till 1266. Invaluable as a mine of historical information, its literary worth is but small. It is one of those dry chronicles in which events are jotted down month by month and day by day without any attempt to show their connection.

  1. In other words, "sad thoughts are not easily shaken off."
  2. Buddhist Scriptures.
  3. In the west is India, the native place of Buddhism.
  4. A kind of cuckoo.
  5. Referring to a poem in which the doctrine of transmigration is alluded to.
  6. Chōmei's name as a Buddhist monk.