Japanese, c. 1283–c. 1352.
Asked to identify the foremost essay in the Japanese tradition, most educated Japanese are likely to recite the opening line of Tsurezuregusa (wr. c. 1319 to as late as 1350; Essays in Idleness). This work by Kenkō, a recluse and poet, has been exploited by pedagogues since the late 16th century. The subject of diverse commentaries thereafter, it was, in the 17th century, first punctuated and divided into a preface and 243 sections, some as short as one sentence, the longest no more than a half dozen pages in modern editions. Essays in Idleness was evidently not circuiated during its author’s lifetime. This and the anomalous organization of the text were accounted for by the apocryphal story that the servant of a warrior-poet found the segments pasted to the walls of Kenkō’s hermitage after his death. The putative location at Yoshida also gave rise to the misnomer “Yoshida Kenkō.”
The work’s popularity has perhaps been enhanced less by the stern tone in passages exhorting us to practice the Buddhist Way and more by such figures as the volatile high priest, sketched in his rapid progress from being nicknamed after his nettle tree, then after the stump left when he cut down the tree in anger, and finally by the hole left when he dug up the stump. As literacy and printing spread in the 1600s, Kenkō became one of the best-known authors, portrayed as a sage by some, accepted in spite of his inconsistencies by the more practical, and converted into a wag in stage plays and satires, while his work spawned numerous imitations with similar titles.
Like Sei Shōnagon, whose Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book) he read and imitated in part, Kenkō was a low-ranking member of the aristocracy. His early readership, chiefly poetpriests like himself, appreciated most his fusion of the Buddhist understanding of impermanence with aesthetic appreciation. Kenkō responded to unstable times as no lyric writer before him had, not simply lamenting but acknowledging changes in the world. He shared the classical prejudice that the court at Kyoto was the sum of what was desirable in life, but was curious about the ways of the less cultured East, which he had visited. In Essays in Idleness, Kenkō deplores the insinuation of soldiers into a ritual at the imperial palace, yet approves of a ferocious warrior for declaring that people who do not have children cannot understand human pathos.
Kenkō’s essay style incorporates subtle reframings of multiple genres, including narrative (monogatari), memoir, journal, poetic criticism, aphorism, Buddhist homily, admonition, court manual, and oral anecdote (setsuwa). Examples of the last include the crowd which pursues a woman reputed to be a demon and collapses into fistfights when the search proves fruitless; a father who will not give his daughter in marriage because she eats only chestnuts; a priest who is so singleminded that he cannot distinguish the word “horse’s leg” from a Buddhist spell. Yet such anecdotes do not furnish platitudinous morals, for Kenkō’s interpretative comments are often oblique or nonexistent. Moving freely from topic to topic, Kenkō dares us to accept his words (he is skeptical of much worldly talk), and defies us to form stable conclusions.
The opening line or preface tells of sitting in front of an inkstone all day long, giving in to tedium (tsurezure, the source of much vernacular prose), and scribbling trifles that occur to him until he senses absurdity. Such an apology is typical of medieval writers, who deny their overt authority in order to pull readers into closer engagement with the text. A reader of Essays in Idleness must supply logical links and otherwise enter into active dialogue with a reticent yet highly rhetorical Kenkō, who both plays upon and disappoints ordinary reactions. Even his most dogmatic passages advising swift renunciation of the world anticipate the reader’s responses, while ignoring their incompatibility with his intermittent bursts of celebration of everyday life.
Kenkō is often compared to Castiglione or Montaigne. Kenkō’s “good person” is one who “glances sidelong” at things, avoiding directness, a courtly but also contemplative stance. Unlike Montaigne, self-exposure is not his aim (however much it is achieved); he prefers to serve as an ironic foil to tales of self-mastery. Repeatedly hailing the role of experts, and deriding the human tendency toward waste, he relates how he once impressed a crowd at a racetrack by pointing out their similarity to a priest precariously dozing in a tree above them. Surely everyone needs to awaken to the futility of such things as equestrian entertainment, he exclaims. The chastened crowd ushers Kenkō to the front row.
The unsettling effect of his juxtapositions and incompleteness is the purpose of the essays. It is in his capturing of the aesthetic virtues of impermanence, next to karma the most influential Buddhist concept for the Japanese, that Kenkō made his prime contribution. The moon is gorgeous, but most valuable when clouds intervene to remind us how short our time is, or when we are shut inside and can only imagine its perfection.
He leans heavily on the tradition of viewing the aesthetic object as he leads us through the gardens of beautiful young men and sensitive ladies, but never with full disclosure of anything except the fact that these paragons are now just memories.
Kenkō was a significant poet in his day, but historically he is remembered as a prose master. Each section is written in an appropriate style, whether an agglutinative, lyric Japanese in imitation of women’s classics, a terse rendition of Taoist mysteries, crisp notes redolent of Chinese Confucian attitudes, or a hybrid Sino-Japanese for Buddhist thoughts. A professional in court ceremony, he frequently includes matters of custom or untangles teachings on culturally momentous points. His strong desire to preserve
aristocratic culture in the face of a belief that change is inevitable is one of many contradictions animating the text.
Although many picture Kenkō as the worldly bonze (poetpriest) dispensing advice in a unified “guidebook of life,” Essays in Idleness is on another level a guide to the instability and insubstantiality of life, a plea not to form and impose the self on the world (or the text) but to contemplate the fact that all forms are nugatory phantoms. As he quotes a man the world laughed at, “If you love life, you should love death.” The essay lives by dying one word at a time.
Cognomen Yoshida; also known as Yoshida Kaneyoshi. Born Urabe Kaneyoshi, c. 1283 in Kyoto. Served in the Kyoto court as a youth. Entered the lay Buddhist priesthood as early as 1313, and thereafter attempted to live a life of refined detachment. Traveled widely, eventually settling in the Narabigaoka suburb of Kyoto. Died possibly in Iga province, c. 1352.
Essays and Related Prose
Tsurezuregusa, edited by Yasuraoka Koosaku, 2 vols., 1967–68, and Kubota Jun, in Hōjōki, Tsurezuregusa, 1989; as Meditations of a Recluse, translated by G.B.Sansom, 1911, and C.E.Eby (bilingual edition), 1934; as Idle Thoughts of a Recluse, translated by T.Wakameda, 1914; as The Miscellany of a Japanese Priest, translated by William N.Porter, 1914; as The Harvest of Leisure, translated by Ryukichi Kurata, 1931; as Essays in Idleness, translated by Donald Keene, 1967, and Steven D.Carter, in Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology, edited by Helen Craig McCullough, 1990
Other writings: poetry.
Carter, Steven D., Introduction to Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-Six Poets of Japan’s Late Medieval Age, edited by Carter, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989
Chance, Linda H., Formless in Form: Kenkō, Tsurezuregusa, and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary Prose, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1997
Chance, Linda H., “Constructing the Classic: Tsurezuregusa in Tokugawa Readings,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 117, no. 1 (1997)
Ishigami lagolnitzer, Mitchiko, “L’Homme devant la vie et la mort selon Kenkō et Montaigne: Essai de philosophie comparée,” Bulletin de la Société des Amis de Montaigne 21–22 (1985): 43–53
Keene, Donald, “Japanese Aesthetics,” Philosophy East and West 19, no. 3 (July 1969):293–306
Keene, Donald, “Kenkō: Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa),” in Approaches to the Asian Classics, edited by William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990:310–19
Marra, Michele, “Semi-Recluses (tonseisha) and Impermanence (mujō): Kamo no Chōmei and Urabe Kenkō,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 11, no. 4 (December 1984):313–50
Marra, Michele, “The Ideal Court: Kenkō’s Search for Meaning,” in his The Aesthetics of Discontent: Politics and Reclusion in Medieval Japanese Literature, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991:127–52
Thornton, Naoko Fuwa, The Birth of the Essay: A Comparative Study of Michel de Montaigne and Yoshida Kenkō (dissertation), Bloomington: Indiana University, 1973
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