Yoshida Kenk¯o (Urabe Kaneyoshi) (ca. 1283–ca. 1352). Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature

Urabe Kanayoshi, known generally by his Buddhist
name of Yoshida Kenk¯o, was a poet and essayist
who lived during a turbulent era of Japanese history.
He seems to have served the imperial court
but withdrew at some point from public life to
write his Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), a text
that continues to be perused with pleasure by
Japanese readers even after 700 years.
Kenk¯o was born into an influential family that
for many years had been connected with the
Shinto shrine of Yoshida in Kyoto. His father was
an official at the imperial court. Yoshida himself
served the emperor Go-Nij¯o, who reigned from
1301 to 1308. Sometime after the emperor’s death,
probably about 1313, he became a priest, spending
about two years at the Buddhist temple on
Mount Hiei, but afterward returning to Kyoto. He
became known as a poet of what was called the
Nij¯o school, a conservative, unimaginative group
of poets following a pattern established a century
before.Yoshida’s reputation as a poet seems to have
been much greater in his own time than subsequently.
Still, he seems to have taken part in regular
poetic gatherings in the capital even during the
troubled times when emperors and shoguns were
competing for power and when civil war threatened.
In 1331, the figurehead emperor Go-Daigo
led a revolt against the real power in the country,
the warrior H¯oj¯o family, but was defeated and sent
into exile. In 1333 Go-Daigo returned and overthrew
the H¯oj¯os, establishing what became known
as the Kemmu Restoration, but in 1336 was driven
once more into exile. Yoshida, with no personal
ambitions himself, seems to have been able to survive
in the capital no matter who was in control.
There is even a story about his writing love letters
for the powerful K¯o no Moronao (d. 1351), one of
the shoguns in power after the Emperor Go-
Daigo’s final banishment. Some, however, believe
that Yoshida left the court sometime around the
Kemmu Restoration and became a wandering
monk; still others believe he was a recluse.
Certainly Yoshida was in a position to observe
the ambition and the corruption of the nobility of
his day, and he is able to put some of these observations
into his masterpiece, the Essays in Idleness.
This text is most often dated between 1330 and
1333, though that is not certain. It is a compilation
of 243 miscellaneous fragments on a wide variety
of topics, arranged in an apparently random manner,
although some scholars have argued that
Yoshida’s arrangement is based on some associative
plan, sometimes grouped around a similar moral
theme, sometimes around a particular figure. It was
a genre known in Japanese letters as zuihitsu, a term
that means literally “following the writing brush,”
implying that the writer casually set down a variety
of observations, anecdotes, reflections, maxims and
meditations with no logical plan. In Essays in Idleness,
these fragments are often contradictory. Sometimes
they are irreverent or controversial, as when
Yoshida declares that human behavior, not the stars,
determines our destiny. Yoshida reinforces the impression
of randomness by his brief prologue, in
which he claims to have jotted down every “trivial”
thing that occurred to him. These trivial matters included
pronouncements on taste and etiquette, as
well as observations about women, birds, flowers,
the moon, the afterlife, and both martial and culinary
arts. The closest parallel in extant Japanese literature
is probably the much earlier Pillow Book of
SEI SH¯ONAGON, the 11th-century lady in waiting of
the HEIAN court.
Yoshida’s text has been recognized over the
years as the first rather definitive statement of
Japanese aesthetics and taste. Yoshida extols the
aesthetic ideals of simplicity and of suggestion, two
of the most important aspects of Japanese poetry
from its beginning and clearly apparent in the
dominant TANKA verse form. He also mentions irregularity
or asymmetry as an aesthetic virtue preferred
by the Japanese over the more classical
virtues of symmetry or parallelism. For Yoshida,
and for Japanese taste in general, absolute uniformity
is less desirable or interesting than something
that is incomplete or imperfect. This is related to
the emphasis on suggestiveness, but is related, as
well, to the most important aspect of beauty for
Yoshida: transience.
Traditionally part of the Buddhist outlook, the
impermanence and mutability of the world and
human life was even more palpable to Yoshida
given the political circumstances of his world.
Reading the Essays in Idleness, one cannot avoid
the overriding impression of transience, of decay,
of the presence of death and the incomplete nature
of human life. But Yoshida does not bewail this
condition; rather he sees in it the ultimate source
of aesthetic beauty. Things are valuable and they
are beautiful because of their very impermanence.
Such is the nature of the human experience. To expect
anything else is to chase an illusion.
Yoshida became something of a legend through
the popularity of his Essays in Idleness, and as a result
a number of other works were attributed to
him, none with any real evidence. One legend
about him was that, after he had left the court and
resided in a rustic cottage, he got into the habit of
jotting down ideas as they occurred to him on
scraps of paper that he then stuck on the walls of
his house.According to this story, a later poet gathered
the scraps from Yoshida’s cottage walls and
randomly compiled them into a book. Such a story
is almost certainly apocryphal, but it does suggest
the random feeling created by the zuihitsu genre.
Still, the text of Yoshida’s great work is not so random
that it lacks an overriding theme: The most
precious and beautiful thing in human life,
Yoshida tells us, is uncertainty.
Chance, Linda H. Formless in Form: Kenko,
“Tsurezuregusa” and the Rhetoric of Japanese Fragmentary
Prose. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University
Press, 1997.
Keene, Donald. Seeds in the Heart: Japanese Literature
from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century.
Vol. 1 of A History of Japanese Literature. New
York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
———,trans. Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of
Kenk¯o. New York: Columbia University Press,
Miner, Earl, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E Morrell.
The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1985.