Kenkô's Essays in Idleness

Yoshida Kenkô (1283-1350) wrote his Essays in Idleness in about 1330. His keen observations on life, nature, and art have made a lasting impact on Japanese aesthetics. Like Kamo no Chômei, who wrote a century before him, Kenkô** was disturbed by the warfare and instability of his time, and eventually became a Buddhist monk. Before taking the tonsure, Kenkô was a courtier, during an era in which the aristocratic culture of the Heian Court declined while various groups of warriors sought to extend their control over greater areas of Japan.

The Essays is a collection of Kenkô's thoughts about the world around him, much like Sei Shônagon's Pillow Book. The cheerfulness of the Pillow Book, however, is replaced by a feeling of melancholy and nostalgia, because the court was — culturally as well as politically — losing its importance in Japanese society.

Kenkô's time was characterized by almost constant warfare, as various groups of warriors outside the court sought to extend their control over greater areas of Japan. The social change that took place in Japan during this period was at times very dramatic, and Kenkô offers an important example of individual response to enormous social upheaval. The period of transition from court-dominated to warrior-dominated society saw a loss of one set of values as primary, and the gain of a new set. Kenkô is trying to salvage what he can from the old with an awareness that its time has passed; what he made from that still informs Japanese sensibility.

Kenkô's aesthetic was never lost, but it was overlaid by more confident, optimistic forms. The later periods of feudalism come to us in their cultural expressions as more robust and exuberant, as in the woodblock prints of the Tokugawa era.

** In Japan, it is often customary for famous people to be referred to by their individual name or "first name"— in this case Kenkô — not their family name or surname. Remember that the individual name follows the family name in Japanese word order. This writer's family name is Yoshida.

Excerpts from Essays in Idleness

Were we to live on forever — were the dews of Adashino never to vanish, the smoke on Toribeyama never to fade away — then indeed would men not feel the pity of things. ... Truly the beauty of life is its uncertainty. ...

Are we to look at flowers in full bloom, at the moon when it is clear? Nay, to look out on the rain and long for the moon, to draw the blinds and not be aware of the passing of spring — these arouse even deeper feelings. There is much to be seen in young boughs about to flower, in gardens strewn with withered blossoms.

There is a charm about a neat and proper dwelling house, although this world, 'tis true, is but a temporary abode. ... The man is to be envied who lives in a house, not of the modern, garish kind, but set among venerable trees, with a garden where plants grow wild and yet seem to have been disposed with care. ...

... A room with sliding doors is lighter than one with doors on hinges. ... As for construction, people agree in admiring a place with plenty of spare room, as being pleasing to the eye and at the same time useful for all sorts of purposes.

Excerpts from Donald Keene, Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), 231-232, 239.

Student Exercises

  1. What are Kenkô's views on houses, interior decoration, and gardens? Find a photograph in a book or magazine of a Japanese house and room. Do Kenkô's views still apply today?
  2. How is Kenkô's idea that beauty lies in the impermanence of objects related to Buddhism?
  3. How would you compare Chômei's An Account of My Hut to Kenkô's Essays in Idleness? How do the authors of the works approach life?
  4. Reread the second paragraph. Evidence of Kenkô's conception of beauty can still be seen in much of Japanese art and architecture today. For instance, a tree with but one live branch will be propped up and preserved for years; or an old, mossy stone lantern will be highly prized for the moss that indicates the passage of time. Find a work of art or architecture and show how it expresses a certain aesthetic — an idea about what is beautiful.