Kamo no Chōmei Critical Essays

Introduction

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.