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Hojoki , by Kamo no Chomei

Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World - Kamo no Chōmei, Michael Hofmann


- Calligraphy by Hon'ami Kōetsu (1558–1637), Underpainting attributed to Tawaraya Sōtatsu (died ca. 1640), Poem by Kamo no Chomei (ca. 1154 – 1216)



If we follow the ways of the world, things are hard for us; if we refuse to follow them, we appear to have gone mad.




As I understand it, Hojoki is read by every Japanese student in school and had a great influence on much that was subsequently written in Japanese. It is one of the key texts of the Japanese culture. Written by Kamo no Chomei in 1212 during the collapse of the Heian dynasty, it is a poetically dense text, whether it is rendered in free verse, as is done in this book, or into prose, as is done by Donald Keene in his pioneering Anthology of Japanese Literature .


An earlier reviewer wrote "However, it seems inadequate - lacking in richness of human experience..." I beg to differ. In a highly distilled poetic language Chomei describes the destruction of one third of Kyoto by a ravaging fire in 1177 with the concomitant horrible deaths; then a monstrous tornado tore a swath 2 kilometers long through the city in 1180. Shortly thereafter the Emperor decided to move the capital, creating huge problems for the populace, totally uprooting their lives; six months later the Emperor moved the capital back to Kyoto! A two year long famine followed in 1181-1182, and Chomei evokes the terrible consequences and the altruistic acts of some of the inhabitants. As if that weren't enough, a great earthquake leveled the city in 1185... These are indicated in brief, sharp strokes of the brush, not dwelt upon in gory detail as would be done now.


Chomei, who converted to Buddhism, supplements these clearly drawn illustrations of the precariousness of life and property with further examples of the problems of attachment (to property, ambition, social status, loved ones, life). After many disappointments and losses, Chomei "withdraws from the world," builds and lives in a series of wooden huts in the countryside; he lovingly describes his simple life there. Some lines from this section:


Then in winter -


It settles

          just like human sin

and melts,

         in atonement.


He plays music, writes, watches Nature, shares long walks with a 10 year old boy who occasionally visits, remembers friends and family, gathers from Nature the necessities to satisfy his very modest food and clothing needs. But he is aware that he is now attached to his very simple life and reproaches himself for not being as mindful as some figures of Buddhist legend. He is stuck in the quandary inherent in every absolute ideal:


To these questions of mind,

there is no answer.

          So now

I use my impure tongue

to offer a few prayers

to Amida and then



(Amida is the Buddha of comprehensive love.)


OK, Hojoki is not War and Peace or A Tale of Two Cities ; it is 15 pages long in Keene's prose version. But I rather doubt that any 15 pages in those books are as dense in human experience as Hojoki is! Be that as it may, I find this to be a rich and moving text to which I often return. My gratitude is due to the translators of this free verse version for providing another view of the text for those of us with no Japanese. I have the feeling that I will re-read this more often than Keene's fine prose version.