Yoshida Kaneyoshi

was born sometime around the year 1283 into a family of hereditary

Shinto diviners. His considerable facility with poetry led to

an early position in the Kamakura court, where he served as a

steward to Horikawa Tomomori. Later, around 1313 and for reasons

unknown, he opted for the life of a Buddhist monk and changed

his name to the more religious-sounding Kenkou. An active poet,

he belonged to the traditional and conservative Nijou school

of poetry, and was later praised as one of the “four

deva kings” of the Nijou

school. It is not, however, his poetry for which he is best well

known, but rather a collection of essays known as the Tsurezuregusa,

or Essays in Idleness.


is a collection of zuihitsu, or “random

jottings,” and is considered

along with Sei Shonagon’s

Pillow Book to be one of the earliest examples of this

uniquely Japanese literary genre. The essays themselves, numbering

243 in all, vary considerably in length from a single sentence

in some cases to a handful of pages in others. They cover a broad

range of topics, and include anecdotes, observations, and reflections

on nature, humankind, and the path to enlightenment. His comments

on etiquette and style have especially endured, and he is credited

today with defining or elucidating much of what is considered


Most importantly, the work not only provides the reader with

a glimpse of life in medieval Japan, but also into the mind of

the author himself.

The work reveals a sensitive and

refined man who, though bound on the one hand by his status as

a Buddhist monk to lead the solitary life of a recluse, finds

it difficult to truly separate himself from the court and his

contemporaries, for which his interest is keen. Instead of leaving

the capital and all of its worldly trappings behind to live high

in some mountain retreat, he chose instead to reside on the fringes

of Heian-kyou, where much of society and his previous existence

was readily accessible to him. Kenkou delights in relating amusing

stories about court figures and their antics. In many cases,

though, perhaps to imply that there was in fact some distance

between himself and the actual participants or events he details,

he qualifies the anecdotes with a trailing “I

am told” or “…it

is said”. It is clear,

however, that he was in fact very active in some court circles,

especially those related to poetry, and that much of the information

he imparts could have been obtained first hand.

Similarly, he demonstrates an interest

in the endurance of court protocol and custom, and numerous essays

are offered almost as reminders of how something or other had

been traditionally done, and therefore should be done.

These pieces are sometimes accompanied by laments that the people

of his day no longer remembered the proper method or precedent

when dealing with particular situations. He wrote:

Nobody is left who knows the proper

manner of hanging a quiver before the house of a man in disgrace

with His Majesty. Formerly, it was the custom to hang a quiver

at the Tenjin Shrine on Gojou when the emperor was ill or when

a general epidemic was rampant.

Kenkou existed in a world of great

political flux, and the nostalgia that he feels for earlier, perhaps

more stable times often through. He seems particularly vexed

by the evolution of conventional speech away from forms he considered

traditionally appropriate. This was especially true in cases

where ritual speech had been corrupted into truncated, less formal

forms. An active poet since his youth and a member of the conservative

Nijou school, it should come as no surprise that innovation

and novelty held little appeal for him.

His knowledge of court customs was

thorough, and numerous essays are simply informative commentaries

on specific court practices of the time. Examples of this type

include detailed descriptions of the orientation of bed and pillow

in the emperor’s bedchamber,

the manner in which cords should be attached to loops on boxes,

and the means by which a person should be restrained prior to

being flogged. One has to wonder what purpose these were intended

to serve, if other than only to illustrate these practices for

the benefit of subsequent generations. If nothing else, they

represent Kenkou’s fascination

with such matters and perhaps reflect his belief that the world

was in a state of decay (mappou). As this degeneration

seemed to him to be characterized by the neglect of ritual and

tradition, it is possible to conclude that his transcription of

the customs of his time and those of previous generations had

an archival objective.


preoccupation with the court and worldly pursuits is quite at

odds with his status as a monk and recluse, and he seems unwilling

to fully embrace the ascetic lifestyle as, for example, Kamo

no Choumei did decades earlier when he became a priest. One

wonders why he took the tonsure in the first place if the hermitage

was not a way of life he personally favored. Even in his essays

about other monks he speaks of them more as an outsider than a

kinsman, and only a handful of his essays can be described as

expressing singularly Buddhist principles. The answer may be

found in some of the pieces, though, where he indicates that the

transition from public life to one of solitary contemplation of

The Way is incumbent upon men in their twilight years, and that

it is unseemly for the aged to mingle with the young, or priests

with society. Kenkou’s daily

rounds, conversely, brought him often into contact with other

people and the noteworthy events of their lives. This kind of

contradiction is not at all uncommon in the work, and some scholars

contend that the format itself, short essays written over an indeterminate

period of time, lends itself to such inconsistency. I am inclined

to agree with that assumption simply because doing otherwise requires

one to ignore the fact that our opinions evolve with time and

are wholly relative to the situation at hand. Still, reading

in the same hour two passages that begin “Nobody

begrudges wasting a little time”

and “A man who wastes

his time doing useless things is either a fool or a knave”

may give one pause for thought about the capriciousness of his


In addition to his observations

of the court and customs, much of Kenkou’s

work could be said to serve as a guide to gentlemanly behavior.

The collection is punctuated with essays that describe in varying

degrees of detail how a man was expected to act under certain

circumstances or in general, and many attempt to define in no

uncertain terms the kinds of ambitions that were meritorious.

He seems especially critical of those who pursued monetary gain:

What a foolish thing it is to be

governed by a desire for fame and profit and to fret away one’s

whole life without a moment of peace. Great wealth is no guarantee

of security. Wealth, in fact, tends to attract calamities and

disaster…It is an exceedingly stupid man who will torment himself

for the sake of worldly gain.

Equally denigrated are the uneducated

and boorish, whose antics provide Kenkou with ample examples of

what the “well-bred”

man should never do. He paints a picture of the ideal man as

being quiet, self-effacing, generally sober, and, most of all,

a person of refined tastes. Though less harsh in his treatment

of common people than was Sei Shonagon in her Pillow

Book, Kenkou does not afford them much in the way of leniency.

They seem as caricatures, propped up idiotically in front of

the reader to serve as an antithesis to Kenkou’s

idealized, elevated man:

The man of breeding never appears

to abandon himself completely to his pleasures; even his manner

of enjoyment is detached. It is the rustic boors who take all

their pleasures grossly. They squirm their way through the crowd

to get under the trees; they stare at the blossoms with eyes for

nothing else. they drink sake and compose linked verse; and finally

they heartlessly break off great branches and cart them away.

When they see a spring they dip their hands and feet to cool

them; if it is the snow, they jump down to leave their footprints.

No matter what the sight, they are never content merely with

looking at it.

I think these entries may ultimately

add to the popularity of the work because they serve as a kind

of handbook for proper behavior and etiquette, which it may be

argued are given a great deal of importance in Japanese society

relative to others. The Japanese reader is presented with very

clearly articulated ideas about what it is to be properly Japanese.

In some cases Kenkou eschews metaphor or example completely and

simple describes what is appropriate when, for example, calling

on someone at their home: “It

is most agreeable when a visitor comes without business, talks

pleasantly for a while, then leaves.”

In the same direct fashion he cautions the gentleman in numerous

essays not to indulge in ostentatious displays of knowledge or


A man should avoid displaying deep

familiarity with any subject. Can one imagine a well-bred man

talking with the air of a know-it-all, even about a matter with

which he is in fact familiar? The boor who pops up on the scene

from somewhere in the hinterland answers questions with an air

of utter authority in every field. As a result, though the man

may also possess qualities that compel our admiration, the manner

in which he displays his high opinion of himself is contemptible.

It is impressive when a man is always slow to speak, even on

subjects he knows thoroughly, and does not speak at all unless


There are numerous entries of this

sort, and they stand out from the rest, I think, because they

are so utterly timeless. The passage above is just as true today

as it was in his time, and it is this quality that makes the work

endure. As such, even the contemporary reader can find in the

Tsurezuregusa much that can be applied to his or her life

today. In this area Kenkou’s

brilliance is clearly displayed, and his place in Japanese history

as a gifted philosopher justified.

More than simply an authority on

matters of etiquette and grace, though, Kenkou is also regarded

as having had much to do with the development of the Japanese

for nature and artistic style. The importance he attaches to

an awareness of the impermanent, the incomplete, and the irregular

have shaped the Japanese collective consciousness more than we

may ever know. The Tsurezuregusa shows us that for him

the suggested was superior to the conspicuous, and beginnings

and endings to the central experience. The natural world was

his favorite canvas for ruminations of this kind, and the examples

he uses are vividly drawn in images familiar to any Japanese.

It is interesting to note that it is here that Kenkou’s

Buddhist ideology is best represented. So much of beauty lay

in its ephemerality, he reminds us, and this perception has as

its roots the Buddhist concept of mujou, or impermanence.

Cherry blossoms are loved for their brevity, for example, and

for how they suggest the finite nature of our own existence and

that of all things. Surely this way of looking at the natural

world existed in Japan long before Kenkou put his brush to ink,

but his words offer a unique expression of its fundamental ideas.

It is therefore regrettable how few of the pieces in the Tsurezuregusa

are devoted to observations of the natural world, but from those

available we do find that he had cultivated the recluse’s

eye for nature even though he had not put any great distance between

himself and the urban hub of Heian-kyou.

Yoshida Kenkou became a monk and

set his feet upon The Way, but his path was one that never carried

him too far from the society and company of others he loved so

much. Somehow he was able to fuse the courtier and the recluse

into a single entity that found in that union a keener insight

into the world than either might have achieved alone. That he

was generous enough to record his thoughts we can be grateful,

and in the pages of his legacy we find a window into his heart,

his mind, and his world.

The Tsurezuregusa is a classic of Japanese literature. It is a collection of zuihitsu (lit. random jottings), a genre unique to Japan, and was written in the early part of the 14th century. This paper discusses it and the author, Yoshida Kenkou.