There’s a pervasive Japanese archetype that spans centuries: the minimalist, searching for meaning by forsaking material attachments.
From Matsuo Basho (1644-94), the most famous wandering poet, to distinctly modern offshoots such as Marie Kondo, and her particular brand of minimalism (keep only what sparks joy to make space for more), this tradition taps into the universal appeal and accompanying cognitive dissonance of a fundamental question of Buddhism: Can humans ever eliminate desire and attachment?
Translated by Matthew Stavros
The precarious state of our world at the moment aligns with one of the most famous examples of recluse literature, “Hojoki” (commonly translated as “The Ten Foot Square Hut”) by Kamo no Chomei, (1155–1216). The short book in zuihitsu style (a collection of personal essays and musings) is a lyrical telling of successive natural and man-made disasters in 13th century Kyoto, a period marked by social upheaval. This catalog of catastrophes precedes Chomei’s description of life within his simple abode, ultimately offering a contradiction to his beliefs as he admits a profound attachment to his hut. We revisit the work in a new translation, “Hojoki: A Hermit’s Hut as Metaphor,” translated and annotated by Matthew Stavros, the director of the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies. But first, let’s take a look at the wider literary canon.
One widely-recognized writer in recluse literature was Saigyo Hoshi (1118-90). The son of a noble Kyoto family, Saigyo was an elite soldier serving the emperor at a time when the imperial institution was fading. For unknown reasons, Saigyo ended his military career and became a Buddhist monk at the age of 22. “Poems of a Mountain Home” (translated by Burton Watson) is the only stand-alone volume of his poetry, although his work is contained in other anthologies. With a focus on the ephemeral beauty of transient life, Saigyo captured the paradox inherent in all recluse literature; by celebrating nature, an attachment is revealed: “Why should my heart still harbor this passion for cherry flowers, I who thought I had put all that behind me?”
Another classic work is “Essays in Idleness,” by Yoshida Kenko (1284-1350). More wry and comical than Saigyo or Chomei, Kenko’s work retains quirky humor and an appreciation of worldly pleasures. He explores topics such as sex, manners and interior design alongside impermanence, mortality and imperfection. Like the others, Kenko’s youth was spent in relative wealth, but during the turbulent changes of the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), he renounced court life and retreated to a remote cottage. It’s important to note that all three writers were not strict hermits; they retained some connections to society, and viewed the world from the exalted perspective of someone who has willingly chosen an ascetic life, not forced into poverty by birth.
Meredith McKinney, who translated “Essays in Idleness” and “Hojoki” for Penguin Classics in 2013, admits “Hojoki” echoes modern times, as does Stravros, who says that “today with the pandemic, the canals of Venice run clean, the Himalayas are clearly visible, fewer flights have improved global air quality. We’ve seen a leap in biodiversity, and we’re realizing that we don’t really have to go to work every day. We’re starting to see there are other ways of doing things, of structuring an economy that is fairer and more equitable.”
“This could be a transcendental moment,” continues Stavros. “But, at the same time, we all just want to go back to ‘normal.’ That cognitive dissonance really maps onto what we see in ‘Hojoki.’ Chomei presents transcendental ideas, but in his heart, there remains the doubt and uncertainty within us all.”
Compelled by current events, Stavros swiftly added his own translation to those already available. Perhaps because Stavros has been teaching “Hojoki” for over a decade, it only took him three weeks to complete the translation. Besides McKinney’s, the Moriguchi and Jenkins’ translation stands out, and for Japanophiles, the first translation into English was by famed novelist and English scholar, Natsume Soseki (1867-1916).
For Stavros, it was also important for the text to be accessible to newcomers to Japan’s literary traditions.
“I was inspired by the students who have studied the work with me over the years, and I wanted to be true to their vision,” explained Stavros. “They approach the work with very little knowledge beforehand, coming to it with fresh eyes and a minimal understanding of the era or its poetic traditions.”
Chomei’s original text follows Stavros’ translation to create a fully bilingual edition, and the book includes maps of the ancient capital so that the full scope of the tragedies Chomei records — pestilence, fire, earthquakes, raging winds — can be appreciated by readers, especially those who will draw parallels to their own experiences living amid a global pandemic.
“Somehow the theme of houses, places we’re all a bit obsessed with at the moment because of all the time we’ve been spending in them, rings particularly true as a way of driving home Chomei’s message,” says McKinney.
Stavros adds, “Chomei writes of physical houses, but he’s really talking about man and society, wealth, power and attachment. It’s a universal idea of how we use our physical house to compete for status. But it’s all transient. Metaphorically, it’s not just the brick and mortar that will crumble, but us, too. Humanity’s power will dissipate with time.”