Kamo no Chomei, a medieval Japanese Minimalist

Minimalism and the tiny house movement are both popular topics on the internet nowadays. However modern these movements might seem, they have centuries-old antecedents. Kamo no Chomei was a poet and recluse who lived eight centuries ago. He was one of the most important writers of the early Kamakura Period (1185–1333). Among his achievements include Hojoki (his most famous work), as well as contributions to Japanese aesthetics. Chomei was also a member of the Bureau of Poetry of retired emperor Go-Toba.

Kamo no Chomei, in 1204, decided to take Buddhist holy vows. He was dissatisfied with his lack of a high position at the Shinto shrine with which his family was associated. He also had a negative attitude towards the social conventions and blamed them for the lack of innovation in artistic achievement of the time.[1] Chomei then went into the hills outside of Kyoto, at a place called Hino. It was here that he wrote his most famous work, Hojoki in 1212.

Hojoki is usually translated as Account of a Ten-Foot-Square Hut, or Account of My Hut. This work is part of a genre called Soan Bungaku (Recluse Literature). Kamo no Chomei left the world of the court and lived in seclusion for the rest of his life. This literary genre had strong Buddhist influences, interest in nature, and allowed for self-reflection. “The physical separation from the secular world freed the “recluses” from heavy obligations to their families or superiors and allowed for devotion to their own interests, which often included literary and cultural pursuits.”[2]
 Many of the major Recluse Literature writers were Buddhist monks. Aside from Chomei, another famous writer in this genre was Yoshida Kenko (c.1283-c.1352). Kenko lived a little bit later than Kamo no Chomei, but was part of the same writing tradition. Also like Chomei, Kenko made significant contributions to Japanese aesthetics. His most famous work is Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness). In Essays in Idleness, Kenko shows how much the aesthetic notions of impermanence and impending death have influenced his thinking.[3]

What is the subject matter of Hojoki? Hojoki was written in 1212 when Kamo no Chomei was living in as a recluse outside Kyoto and the contents of this work are largely shaped by Buddhism and trying to make sense of a violent world. Chomei’s reflections bring him to an interesting place. “In the end, however, Chomei finds himself in the paradoxical position of advocating detachment and rebirth in the Pure Land[4] while at the same time becomes attached to the beauties of nature and the four seasons and the aesthetic life of his ten foot square hut at Hino.”[5] The ten foot square hut was a simple dwelling that served as the home for Kamo no Chomei during the period of his life in which he lived as a recluse.

In Hojoki, Kamo no Chomei opens describing a river. “The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming never stays the same for long. So too, it is with the people and dwellings of the world.”[6] The Japanese aesthetic notion of impermanence, central to Buddhist teachings, features prominently throughout the work. This opening sets up the reader for the tone in which the disasters will be looked at in Hojoki. The opening, discussing the flowing river, is also reminiscent to the western reader of the philosophy of Heraclitus: no one steps in the same river twice.

Chomei observes, not only disasters, but also how people react. One thing that really stands out is how people valued horses and saddles over carriages. Luxuries did not do much good in times of disaster. “As their endurance wore down, they tried to dispose of their valuables as if throwing them away, but no one showed any interest. The few who did engage in barter despised gold and cherished millet.”[7] The events described here are referring to a famine that occurred in Japan in about 1181–1182.

Chomei’s descriptions of an earthquake mix exaggeration with depressing accounts of death and destruction. “A dreadful earthquake shook the land (1185). …Mountains crumbled and dammed the rivers; the sea tilted and inundated the land. The earth split open and water gushed forth…People who were inside their houses might be crushed in a moment.”[8] The late-Heian and early-Kamakura periods were very violent time periods and one can see why a writer like Chomei would have such a strong preoccupation with impermanence and disaster, even if much of what he is describing in Hojoki in 1212 occurred decades earlier.

Also present in Hojoki is Kamo no Chomei’s view of wealth and poverty in such a violent era. Poverty brings with it hardship, wealth brings fears (such as that of being robbed). Chomei also seems to advocate for self-sufficiency. “Look to another for help and you will belong to him….Bend to the ways of the world and you will suffer. Bend not and you will look demented.”[9]
 In addition to self-sufficiency, Chomei describes his hut: ten feet square and less than seven feet high. Over his adult life as he moved from residence to residence, his homes were getting smaller. Now he has chosen to live in such a small hut outside the city. For him, it led to greater freedom. He could move his house more easily if he grew tired of a particular location or if it was too close to a river. He explicitly mentions that it is a low cost and simply-made structure. He also tells that, although he originally planned to stay for only a short while, the hut felt more and more like home. “Gradually my temporary hut has come to feel like home as dead leaves lie deep on the eaves and moss grows on the foundation…..Nothing is lacking to shelter one person. The hermit crab prefers a small shell. This is because he knows himself.”[10]
 In addition to Hojoki, Kamo no Chomei made significant contributions to Japanese aesthetics. As a poet, he obviously focused on poetic styles quite a bit. In his study of the style of uta (Japanese poetry), Chomei looks at yugen. Yugen is “the aesthetic ideal of suggesting the graceful subtlety and mysterious depth, beyond human grasp, of words, emotions, or things.”[11] In his The Style of Uta (1212), Chomei gets his point across through a series of questions and answers. He criticizes some of the more modern poetry that he sees as “meaningless mimicry” of someone else’s distinctive style. Poetry, he says, is hard to understand. “The importance lies in the “left over”, which is not stated in words and an atmosphere that is not revealed through the form of the poem. When the content rests on a sound basis and the diction excels in lavish beauty, these other virtues will be supplied naturally.”[12]

Kamo no Chomei is one of the most interesting Japanese authors that I have come across. In his writings, he comes off as humble and very self-aware. Hojoki has both of these qualities. This text is also a product of the Kamakura period. This was when Buddhism was becoming more widespread among the lower classes. The violence, prominent in the latter half of the twelfth century, caused intellectuals like Kamo no Chomei to question the ways of society and, eventually, to leave city life and live in a small hut in the hills outside Kyoto.

[1] Heisig, James. Kasulis, Thomas. Maraldo, John. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook., p.1203.
[2] Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: Beginnings to 1600., p623.
[3] Ibid., 820.
[4] Pure Land (Jodo Buddhism). This became popular in the Kamakura period when Buddhism moved beyond the upper classes of Japanese society. Shinran and Honen were particularly influential Pure Land Buddhists living in the early Kamakura Period.
[5] Shirane, Haruo. Traditional Japanese Literature: Beginnings to 1600., p624.
[6] Ibid., 624.
[7] Ibid., 627.
[8] Ibid., 629.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 633.
[11] Heisig, James. Kasulis, Thomas. Maraldo, John. Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook., p.1268.
[12] Ibid., 1206–1207.