Kamo no Chōmei Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


J. M. Dixon (lecture date 1892)

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...

(The entire section is 3438 words.)

Karel Jan Hora (essay date 1906)

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 entire section is 1213 words.)

Hilda Katō (essay date 1968)

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.]


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...

(The entire section is 13802 words.)

Marian Ury (essay date summer 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)

William R. LaFleur (essay date 1983)

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...

(The entire section is 4317 words.)

Ward Geddes (essay date summer 1987)

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...

(The entire section is 4551 words.)

Thomas Blenman Hare (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 24926 words.)

Sasha Hoare (essay date 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 3474 words.)

Rajyashree Pandey (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 10281 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 169 words.)