Life in Japan was especially hard during the last half of the twelfth century to the first half of the thirteenth. The historical transition from the aristocratic Heian Period to the militaristic Kamakura Period was a time of tremendous political upheaval, nationwide warfare between the Heike and Genji samurai clans, and finally good ol’ fashioned plagues, famines and natural disasters. In time, Japan did rebuild, and life moved on, but within a couple generations a great deal in Japan had changed.
It was under this backdrop that a man named Kamo no Chōmei (鴨長明, 1155-1216), a former poet of the Imperial court turned Buddhist renunciant, composed a small work in 1212 around the age of 60 detailing the dramatic and painful changes in society, and his subsequent self-imposed hermitage in a tiny hut titled the Hōjōki (方丈記). The term hōjō (方丈) is a unit of measure meaning 10 square shaku which is very close to 10 square feet.
Kamo no Chōmei spends much time in the Hojoki explaining the numerous disasters and tragic tales that befell the capital, Heian-Kyo (now modern Kyoto), and the social upheaval of the time:
In all the provinces, peasants were abandoning the land and leaving the region. Some went to live in the mountains. In the Imperial Court special Buddhist prayers were scrupulously conducted, but to no effect. The prosperity of Heian-kyo depended on these crops, and under these conditions a normal economy could not be sustained. Given these pressures, people living on bamboo shoots tried to sell their valuables at sacrificial prices, but nobody wanted to buy anything. They engaged in barter as monetary values were depressed, and the value of grains skyrocketed. It became common for beggars to be heard in the main street of the capital, complaining about their conditions.Translation by Robert N. Lawson, https://www.washburn.edu/reference/bridge24/Hojoki.html
Then, the Hojoki shifts gears, and Kamo no Chōmei discusses his own failed career in the Court bureaucracy, and eventual hermitage.
He describes his hut in detail, discussing the garden, water system, farming he does to make ends meet, and his relations with a father and son living nearby. He talks about his small Buddhist altar, and his devotion to Amitabha Buddha, with whom he hopes to be reborn in the Pure Land after death.
Finally, he reminisces about the capitol and how much things have changed:
Naturally, on occasion, I have heard of happenings in Heian-kyo since I have retreated to the mountain, of how many of the people in high social position have died. I couldn’t count the number of people of lower position who have, or how many houses have been consumed by fire.
and contrasts it with his own life:
Since entering the priesthood, fear and resentment of other people has disappeared. Because life is under heaven’s control, it doesn’t matter if I live long or not. I am not concerned about early death, am like a floating cloud, and do not complain. The happiness of my life can be expressed in one peaceful nap, and in the hope of seeing the beautiful scenery of the four seasons.
Throughout the Hojoki, there is a strong sense of Buddhist impermanence, things coming and going, the pointlessness of attaining ephemeral benefits in this world, and a sense of bittersweet nostalgia for the good old days in the Capitol before the war. Anyone who’s read
Catcher in the Rye The Great Gatsby might appreciate a common thread between the two books, even if separated by almost 1,000 years and totally different cultures.
I highly recommend anyone reading the Hojoki if they have an hour or two to spend. I have been enjoying this translation in particular. The Hojoki is not very long, but a fascinating look at the last days of the historical “Heian Period” of Japan, the passing of a golden age in Japan, and life since then. Plus, it is a reminder that the powerful do not last very long anyway. It’s pretty grim at times, somewhat bittersweet in others, but I think there’s something for everyone.
Edit: I put the wrong book title. I was thinking of The Great Gatsby and its bittersweet look at high society in the 1920’s. Haven’t read either book since high school however. 😅