Kamo no Chōmei
Kamo no Chōmei 1155-1216
(Also known as Nagaakira and Ren'in) Japanese memoirist, poet, short story writer, and travel writer.
Chōmei is best known as the author of the Mumyōshō (after 1211; also known as Mumei Shō; translated as Nameless Essay and Nameless Notes)—a collection of tales, anecdotes about poets, and essays about poetry—and the Hōjōki (1212; The Ten-Foot-Square Hut; also translated as the Hermit's Hut Diary), a memoir of his life and times written while he was living as a hermit. Scholars have studied Chōmei as a representative writer of a transitional period in Japanese literature when the formal aesthetic values of earlier times were being replaced by a more vernacular style of writing.
Chōmei was born in 1155, the second son of Kamo no Nagatsugu, a Shinto priest in charge of the important lower Kamo no Mioya Shrine on the Kamo River. Nothing is known of Chōmei's mother, who may have died soon after giving birth. Due to Nagatsugu's position, his son was granted a court degree of fifth rank, junior status, at age seven. Nagatsugu died when his son was about eighteen, but Chōmei was not given the vacant position of superintendent of the shrine. Deeply shaken by his father's death and the fact that he could not follow in his career path, the young man turned for guidance to Shomyo, a priest who also may have been Chōmei's grandfather. Shomyo encouraged Chōmei to compose poetry and the young man entered his first poetry contest in 1175. An early collection, the Kamo no Chōmei shu (1181; also known as Chōmeishu Nagaakira Kashu and Kamo no Nagaakira shu), brought together approximately one hundred of his poems written during this period. One of these poems was chosen for inclusion in the seventh imperial anthology, the Senzaishu. Chōmei was also encouraged by Kamo no Shigeyasu, the head Shinto priest in charge of a shrine farther up the river, and by the celebrated poet-priest Shun'e. Shun'e held monthly poetry meetings attended by a large and diverse group of officials, warriors, and priests; many of their sessions are recounted in the Mumyōshō. While in his thirties Chōmei built and lived in a simple hut, evidence, according to scholars, that he was already turning away from materialism and gradually embracing the tenets of Buddhism. Chōmei continued to enter poetry contests, remained active on the periphery of the court, and was occasionally honored with the acceptance of his poems for various anthologies. His rather inferior social position of fifth rank caused him to be looked down upon by persons of higher ranking, but he impressed the cloistered emperor Gotoba, who, beginning in the year 1200, included his works in prestigious anthologies and poetry contests, and appointed him to the Bureau of Poetry to work on the compilation of the Shinkokinshū. In 1204 Chōmei was devastated when passed over for a position at a shrine. Although Emperor Gotoba offered him a specially created, comparable position, Chomei would not be consoled and abandoned his court life, moving to the mountains of Ohara, a favored destination for Buddhists. There he adopted the Buddhist name of Ren'in. He spent five years in Ohara before moving to the village of Hino. In Hino, on the mountain of Toyoma, Chōmei built a ten-foot-square hut, as described in the Hōjōki, in which he lived the life of a recluse until his death in 1216.
Chōmei's Mumyōshō is notable on at least two levels: first, as a learned discussion of the history of Japanese poetry and of the Japanese poetic sense at the turn of the twelfth century, a time of great transition; and second, as a collection of gossipy anecdotes about the inner workings of the court, particularly with respect to the judging of poetry contests. The Hōjōki is generally considered Chōmei's masterwork, written after he had largely forsaken worldly ambitions. The Hosshinshū (circa 1215) is a collection of 102 tales illustrating Buddhist values. Chōmei's Iseki (circa 1186), a travel diary, is no longer extant.
Thomas Blenman Hare calls Chomei “one of the shapers of the intellectual world of medieval Japan.” Hare also notes some of the many different ways Chōmei is viewed by critics: as an “enlightened and well-rounded sort of Buddhist epicurean,” as a “tireless empiricist,” and as a “troubled and distracted” individual. Marian Ury provides some literary-historical background on Chōmei's major works and contends that the persona of the poet depicted in the Hōjōki is a cultivated one: “the Hōjōki, despite its apparent simplicity, is a self-conscious literary production in which the author's depiction of himself in his retirement could scarcely escape being shaped by the romantic image of the carefree and negligent Taoist recluse, so familiar to well-educated Japanese of the time through Chinese poetry.” Hilda Katō notes that Chōmei's circumstances influenced his perceptions: “Kamo no Chōmei, who belonged to the circle of poets of the Shinkokinshū, was neither an aristocrat nor a samurai. His position enabled him to observe with greater objectivity than the aristocrats the decline of the old regime and its aesthetic world; he was at the same time more acutely aware than any other literary figure of the misery of the people in the streets of the capital.” William R. LaFleur discusses the central paradox of the Hōjōki: that Chōmei found himself so attached to his reclusive life in his hut that he had traded one attachment, the world of the court, for another, the world of the hermit. J. M. Dixon draws parallels between Chōmei's poetry and William Wordsworth's poetic observations of nature, while Sasha Hoare explores how Basil Bunting, a disciple of Ezra Pound, benefited by translating Chōmei.
Kamo no Chōmei shu (poetry) 1181
Iseki (travel diary) c. 1186
Mumyōshō (prose) after 1211
Hōjōki (memoir) 1212
Hosshinshū (short stories) c. 1215
The Ten Foot Square Hut and Tales of the Heike (translated by A. L. Sadler) 1928
An Account of My Hut (translated by Donald Keene) 1955; published in Anthology of Japanese Literature
Mumyōshō (translated by Hilda Katō) 1968; published in journal Monumenta Nipponica
“Recluses and Eccentric Monks: Tales from the Hosshinshū” (translated by Marian Ury) 1972; published in journal Monumenta Nipponica
“Selections from the Hosshinshu” (translated by Royall Tyler) 1987; published in Japanese Tales
Record of the Ten-Foot-Square-Hut [Hōjōki] (translated by Burton Watson) 1994; published in Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life
Hōjōki: Visions of a Torn World (translated by David Jenkins and Yasuhiko Moriguchi) 1996
(The entire section is 128 words.)
SOURCE: Dixon, J. M. “Chômei and Wordsworth: A Literary Parallel.” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 20 (1893): 193-204.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1892, Dixon compares and contrasts Chōmei's poetry to that of William Wordsworth.]
There are few countries upon which nature has lavished so much beauty as Japan, and her inhabitants have not shown themselves heedless of their privileges. In the domain of art the beauties of nature have been reproduced by Japanese artists in a way that has delighted the world, and effected a revolution in Western ideas of what constitutes beauty in ornament. In the domain of literature the Japanese have shown less power and originality. If the inhabitants of Europe have been fettered by conventionality in expression, this has been still more the case in Japan. It may be said with truth that except in a small department of composition, having an affinity with our sonnet,1 they have furnished nothing new or fresh in the realm of literature. But still we should expect to find a certain amount of truthful utterance respecting the aspects of nature, such as we find in English poetry since the time of Cowper. Before Cowper's time classical and Hebraic influences had been too strong in Europe for the growth of what we might call in a restricted sense “natural religion.” A recluse in European countries, till Rousseau...
(The entire section is 3438 words.)
SOURCE: Hora, Karel Jan. “Notes on Kamo Chômei's Life and Work.” Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan 34a (1906): 45-8.
[In the following essay, Hora offers biographical information on Chōmei.]
In Vol. XX. Part II. of the Transactions (1893) there are two articles “Chōmei and Wordsworth—A literary parallel” and Description of my Hut both by Mr. J. M. Dixon, dealing with Kamo Chōmei and his Hōjōki—and these few lines are intended to add something to the information given by these articles.
Concerning the time of Chōmei's birth nothing is known with certainty, even the Dai Nihon Jinmei Jisho is silent upon this point. But weighing carefully the references made by Chōmei in his Hōjōki, especially that alluding to the time of his removal from Kioto, it may be inferred that his birth occured within the period Kiyūan (1145-1151). His father Kamo no Nagatsugu as well as his grandfather occupied the position of negi1 in the Kamojinsha in Kioto.—Chōmei whose name at that time was Kikudayū, had even in his childhood been a good player of the biwa and the flute and accompanied his father's songs with these instruments. In the first year of the period Ōhō (1161) he was appointed by the emperor Nijō Tennō, lower officer of the fifteenth rank.
(The entire section is 1213 words.)
SOURCE: Kato, Hilda. “The Mumyōshō of Kamo no Chōmei and Its Significance in Japanese Literature.” Monumenta Nipponica 23, nos. 3-4 (1968): 321-49.
[In the following essay, Katō examines Chōmei's ideas concerning poets and poetry. Some footnotes refer to appendices and tables not reprinted here.]
THE BACKGROUND OF EARLY JAPANESE AESTHETICS
Before Japan was exposed to the overwhelming influence of continental civilization, the Japanese had a language fundamentally different from the Chinese, an indigenous religion called Shinto, and a distinctive hierarchical social system. The Japanese ruling clan, aware of Chinese advanced techniques and highly developed organizations, fostered contact with the continent. Approximately from the sixth century onward, the process of adopting Chinese models of political, social and economic institutions accelerated. Together with all kinds of techniques, the arts and the writing system, there also infiltrated alien ideas—Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist—which became part of the fast-developing Japanese culture.
In the eighth century some of those institutions, ideas and techniques had already taken root and created unique circumstances which strongly influenced the course of Japanese history and culture. To mention but the most significant event in the political-economic field: in order to realize centralized...
(The entire section is 13802 words.)
SOURCE: Ury, Marian. “Recluses and Eccentric Monks: Tales from the Hosshinshu by Kamo no Chōmei.” Monumenta Nipponica 27, no. 2 (summer 1972): 149-73.
[In the following excerpt, Ury provides background for the Hosshinshū.]
In the last decades of the twelfth century Japan was ravaged by earthquake, famine, pestilence and civil war. The burden of these repeated disasters, both natural and man-made, fell doubtless most heavily on the common people, but among the sufferers were also members of the aristocracy, little able to withstand or comprehend fully the forces of social upheaval that threatened their wealth, authority and even physical safety. Men of all degrees turned to religion in increasing numbers. Not a few men of the upper classes sought refuge from the uncertainties of existence in the capital by escaping into Buddhist eremitism, for which Japanese religious and artistic tradition furnished ample precedent. Of these recluses perhaps the most famous are the poet Saigyō (1118-90), whose life, as well as tanka, the haiku poet Bashō was to take as model, and Kamo no Chōmei1 (1153-1216), poet, musician and unsuccessful office-seeker, who is best known today for his Hōjōki, a brief memoir (formally classified as a zuihitsu) which describes the tranquility of retirement in his hermit's hut and contrasts with it the terrors of secular life. In the final...
(The entire section is 1222 words.)
SOURCE: LaFleur, William R. “Chōmei as Hermit: Vimalakirti in the Hōjō-ki.” In The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan, pp. 107-15. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, LaFleur explores the role of the Hōjōki in the development of Mahayana Buddhism.]
Should storms, as may well happen, Drive you to anchor a week In some old harbour-city Of Ionia, then speak With her witty scholars, men Who have proved there cannot be Such a place as Atlantis: Learn their logic, but notice How its subtlety betrays Their enormous simple grief; Thus they shall teach you the ways To doubt that you may believe.
—W. H. Auden, Atlantis
There is much more than meets the eye in the concluding section of the great classic the Hōjō-ki when its author, Kamo no Chōmei, says of his hermitage that it may be no more than a “poor imitation of that of Jōmyō Koji,” a figure known throughout Buddhist Asia—as Vimalakīrti in India, as Wei-mo in China, and as Yuima in Japan. This chapter will attempt to explicate this reference in the Hōjō-ki, demonstrate why it is fundamental to an understanding of the work as a whole, and draw out its implications for a deepened understanding of the role of Buddhism in the literature of medieval...
(The entire section is 4317 words.)
SOURCE: Geddes, Ward. “The Courtly Model: Chōmei and Kiyomori in Jikkinsho.” Monumenta Nipponica 42, no. 2 (summer 1987): 157-66.
[In the following essay, Geddes examines how Chōmei is portrayed in the Jikkinsho collection.]
Compiled in 1252, Jikkinshō is a collection of short tales, or setsuwa, that generally touch on incidents in the lives of famous men in Chinese and Japanese history. Its unknown compiler states that his intention is to produce a sourcebook of moral and social conduct for young men. Apparently written for the youth of the newly rising military families and lesser provincial aristocrats, Jikkinshō sets out to instill in its readers a proper understanding of courtly sensibilities and values, the kind of attitudes and values essential to those who wished to enter the administrative offices of the Kamakura government.
To communicate the essence of courtly refinement and elegance to which Jikkinshō's compiler feels his readers should aspire, the work uses about 280 tales organized into ten books each titled by an exhortation to moral or artistic self-improvement.1 The books are titled, in order:
You Should Be of Consistent Temperament in Your Actions.
You Should Forsake Pride.
(The entire section is 4551 words.)
SOURCE: Hare, Thomas Blenman. “Reading Kamo no Chōmei.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 49, no. 1 (1989): 173-228.
[In the following essay, Hare discusses Chōmei's writings, noting that scholars disagree on how best to approach his work.]
The only extant scrap of Kamo no Chōmei's handwriting is a brief note in kanbun, now in a private collection. The some thirty characters on the page, in grass script in a pleasing but slightly busy hand, must have been written unselfconsciously and with little prior deliberation or aesthetic pretense; the note is simply a receipt for the now unknown borrower of seven bamboo sudare: “Of the seven screens, you had graciously returned five previously. [Now] you have indeed returned the remaining two. Most respectfully signed, this twenty-third day of the first month, Nagaakira.”1 It is probably simply an accident of history that this piece of calligraphy has survived, but there is a poetic justice to this accident. The receipt is an index to the figure one knows from Hōjōki, the would-be hermit who pared his material existence down to a few books, musical instruments, and religious articles only to find that he was enmired in the simple consolations they could afford. From the mention of sudare, or bamboo screens, read Chōmei's interest in furnishings and the house to hold them; for the Chōmei of the celebrated essay...
(The entire section is 24926 words.)
SOURCE: Hoare, Sasha. “‘A Tricky Turn’: Basil Bunting and Kamo no Chōmei.” PN Review 24, no. 1 (1997): 39-42.
[In the following essay, Hoare examines Basil Banting's translattion of Chōmei, commenting on how the experience enriched Banting's other translations.]
Basil Bunting's translation of Kamo no Chōmei's Hōjōki was written in 1932, during the five-year period in which he lived in Rapallo, in close proximity to Ezra Pound. As is widely acknowledged, Pound's influence on Bunting was profound, and the older writer's theory and practice of translation played a significant part in shaping the ideas and experiments of his younger ‘disciple’ or ‘Poundling’. Pound believed that not only was translation ‘good training’ for a poet, providing lessons in style and structure (‘A Retrospect’, Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, 1954), but that it was essential to the health of a nation's literature: ‘English literature lives by translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translation’ (‘How to Read’). In 1932, Bunting described Pound's book of translations, Cathay, as providing for ‘every subsequent translator a method and a model’.1 Bunting's choice of a medieval Japanese text for his first major work of translation could be seen as directly influenced by the example of Pound's work with another...
(The entire section is 3474 words.)
SOURCE: Pandey, Rajyashree. “Kamo no Chōmei: Court Poet and Buddhist Priest.” In Writing and Renunciation in Medieval Japan: The Works of the Poet-Priest Kamo no Chōmei, pp. 56-81. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 1998.
[In the following essay, Pandey provides an overview of Chōmei's life and development as a poet.]
While little is known about the lives of many well-known writers of the Heian and Kamakura periods, Chōmei is something of an exception. Genealogies provide valuable information about the Kamo family, and the diaries and literary works of his contemporaries on occasion speak directly of Chōmei's personality or of his activities.
A certain amount of information about Chōmei's life can also be gleaned from his own literary works. His collection of poetry, Kamo no Chōmei shū, is the only surviving work written by Chōmei during the period when he was a courtier. The rest of his writings were composed after the year 1208, when he moved to Hino to live as a recluse. Mumyōshō, his treatise on poetry, is the only work that draws directly upon his life at court as an aspiring poet. Hosshinshū, his collection of religious tales, does not refer to his own life. In Hōjōki, however, there is much information on his life and times; for instance, he describes at length the many disasters that afflicted the...
(The entire section is 10281 words.)
Bundy, Roselee. “Santai Waka: Six Poems in Three Modes.” Monumenta Nipponica 49, no. 2 (summer 1994): 197-227.
Provides an overview and analysis of the Santai Waka.
———. “Santai Waka: Six Poems in Three Modes: Part 2.” Monumenta Nipponica 49, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 261-86.
Provides further analysis of the Santai Waka.
Kato, Shuichi. “The Second Turning Point.” In A History of Japanese Literature: The First Thousand Years, pp. 207-66. London: The Macmillan Press, 1979.
Kato notes Chōmei's keen observational abilities and interest in verifying facts.
Kawashima, Terry. “Performing Sinners: The Asobi and the Buddhist Discourse of Tsumi.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 12, no. 1 (2001): 43-57.
Examines a story included in the Hosshinshū concerning an asobi, or professional female entertainer.
Pandey, Rajyashree. “Suki and Religious Awakening: Kamo no Chōmei's Hosshinshū.” Monumenta Nipponica 47, no. 3 (autumn 1992): 299-321.
Examines Chōmei's attempt to integrate his art with his vocation as a Buddhist priest.
Additional coverage of Chōmei's life and career is contained...
(The entire section is 169 words.)