Essays In Idleness: A Japanese Text

As I wrote about recently, the end of the Heian Period in Japan (8th century to 12th century) represented a seismic shift in Japanese culture from a cultured aristocracy to a military society led by the samurai class. This finally stabilized Japan from decades of strife, but there was also a palpable sense of loss reflected in such works as the Hojoki (Ten Foot Hut) and other works of the time.

One of my favorite, and the best known from this era is a work called the Tsure-zure-gusa (徒然草) which is hard to translate in English.1 The most accepted translation of the title is “Essays in Idleness”, but this not the only one. It’s a classic that every kid in Japan studies in school, just as American kids might read Ivanhoe or something.2

A depiction of Kenkō, drawn centuries later by Kikuchi Yōsai. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Tsure-zure-gusa was written by a Buddhist monk of the Jodo-shu sect named Yoshida Kenkō (吉田兼好, 1283?–1350?). The text was composed between 1330 and 1332, and is a form of free-form writing. Kenko would just write down what he was thinking. Sometimes it was old anecdotes, or stories he had heard. At other times, he wrote deeper thoughts about life. Sometimes, he would just point out social faux-pas committed by others. There is no overarching messages in the text, but it covers many aspects of life, so it’s a fascinating look at Japan during the Kamakura Period (12th-14th century) as well as food for thought.

For example, here’s a commentary on fish:

119) The fish called katsuo is unequaled among those caught in the sea off Kamakura, and of late has been much in demand. An old gentleman of Kamakura told me, “When we were young, this fish was never served to persons of quality. Even the servants refused to eat the head. They cut it off and threw it away. It is typical of these degenerate times that such fish have become accepted.

Translation by Donald Keene

Interestingly, katsuo (known in English as bonito) is pretty universal in Japanese cuisine now as it is the most common ingredient of dashi (fish broth), as well as numerous dishes.

Another amusing example:

57) It is exasperating when discussions of poetry are devoted to bad poems. How, one wonders, could anyone with the smallest knowledge of the art have supposed such verses were worthy of discussion?

Even to an outsider, it is both embarrassing and painful to listen to someone discuss a subject — whatever it may be — that he doesn’t really know.

Translation by Donald Keene

One can imagine a bad TED Talk the same way too.

The text is at times surprisingly relevant to people living in the 21st century, though:

29) When I sit down in quiet meditation, the one emotion hardest to fight against is a longing in all things for the past. After the others have gone to bed, I pass the time on a long autumn’s night by putting in order whatever belongings are at hand. As I tear up old correspondence I should prefer not to leave behind, I sometimes find among them samples of calligraphy of a friend who has died, or pictures he drew for his own amusement, and I feel exactly as I did at the time. Even with letters written by friends who are still alive I try, when it has been long since we met, to remember the circumstances, the year. What a moving experience that is! It is sad to think that a man’s familiar possessions, indifferent to his death, should remain unaltered long after he is gone.

Translation by Donald Keene

It’s a pretty moving book to read, with all its random quips, reflections on an age now gone, plus deeper thoughts. The Donald Keene copy is hard to find now, but I have seen other good translations too, so don’t hesitate to pick one up if you can find it.

1 The phrase つれづれ (徒然 tsure-zure), pronounced as “tsoo-ray zoo-ray”, often appears in modern blogs or diaries as well in Japanese as a kind of introduction.

2 My wife recalls learning it, but just as reading Shakespeare without some guidance is hard for English speakers, reading the Tsure-zure-gusa to a native Japanese speaker is difficult since so many centuries have passed and the language has changed.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: