Ishikawa Jozan, The Quest To Be Himself
Walking this autumn in the secluded gardens of Taizo-in, in the temple grounds of Myoshin-ji, I recalled my favourite poem by Ishikawa Jozan, as translated by Jonathan Chaves:
Making fun of the “nightingale” of my district for not being the true nightingale
In spring you may perch on the tips of bamboo and sing quite beautifully,
but your body, your features―even your voice are different from the nightingale’s!
In appearance you seem a relative of the misozai wren:
how fortunate you are that people call you a “nightingale”.
Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) professed as a monk in Myoshin-ji, the great temple complex that contains the largest repository of Chinese culture in Japan, a rich library and remarkable works of art. There he devoted himself to the study of the Chinese classics and to reading poetry, Jozan’s true vocation. And there he met two influential Confucian scholars who would become his friends and mentors, Fujiwara no Seika (1561-1619) and Hayashi Razan (1583-1657). But there is before and after Myoshin-ji.
Ishikawa Jozan was born a samurai and led a martial life from early age. Both his father and his grandfather were killed in combat. He fought in the decisive battle of Sekigahara (1600) ―where his masters, the Tokugawa clan, won the day―and in the final campaign of Osaka (1615), a turning point in his life. During this battle Jozan committed an act of indiscipline, charging before the order to attack, while also showing his bravery: he rode back from the skirmish with an enemy warrior’s head. Probably Jozan calculated carefully the repercussions of his action, which led him per force or by choice into becoming a Buddhist monk.
At some point Jozan also left the contemplative and scholarly life of Myoshing-ji. He went to take care of his ailing mother for years, until she passed away, in the meanwhile serving as a retainer of the lord of Hiroshima, as a tutor for his family.
Only at age fifty-eight, in 1642, Jozan was finally free. Then he retired to the north-east suburbs of Kyoto where he built his famous retreat and garden known as Shisendo, until he died aged eighty-eight. Jozan lived as a recluse scholar, barely traveling within Kyoto environs, meeting only very close friends, renouncing every offer or reward by the Shogun or the Emperor, living a simple life devoted to studying, reading and writing. He never married.
Doing at last what he wanted was not forthcoming or easy, it took a long time. But in many instances of his life and deeds we recognize the personality of someone determined to be himself.
Jozan’s residence, Shisendo, meaning ‘Hall of the Poetry Immortals’, is so named after 36 Chinese poets that he chose as inspiration and to adorn his hermitage: their portraits painted by a master of the Kano school, each inscribed with a representative poem. These are some of the most egregious names in Chinese poetry: Tao Yuanming, Tang dynasty poets Li Bai, Du Fu or Wang Wei, or Song dynasty masters Su Dongpo and Ouyang Xiu. But Jozan’s selection is somewhat controversial. Some of his poets do not rank high in the canon. At the same time he left out the Song poet Wang Anshi, arguably among the first Chinese poets of all times. Jozan was about to discard Bai Juyi too, the most admired Chinese poet in Japan, were if not by his friend Razan’s insistence.
As sinologist and sinophile Jozan generally wrote in Kanji (Chinese calligraphy) and characteristically in the archaic clerical style. Even so, when adopting this hieratic and formal style, he made a point to indulge his brushstrokes in the flying-white effect (Fei Bai), the white mark left when the stroke runs fast or the brush is very dry, although such effect in this style could only be achieved with artifice, another trait of Jozan’s highly idiosyncratic mindset. The flying-white effect can be seen in the facsimiles of Jozan’s calligraphy I photographed in a rush at the Shisendo, the three scrolls headed with the well known Chinese characters Shou (longevity), Lu (prosperity) and Fu (good fortune), in a way―or in his way―a summation of Jozan’s achievements.
Ishikawa Jozan did not seek vainglory or to leave behind any legacy. To be sure, he was at the centre of a revival in Confucian thought and Chinese culture, underpinnings for the Tokugawa’ long rule, feudal and isolationist policies that pervaded in Japan until 1868―nothing to do with him. Fortunately Jozan is remembered as poet―he wrote Chinese verses or Kanshi― though the scholars’ and the public’s preference for other poets has obscured his merits. The Shisendo’s architecture and gardens are more celebrated than his founder but even this legacy, sadly, has been tampered; surely Jozan would not like to see the Shisendo as it has been preserved.
He was a Confucian of his own kind after all; perhaps the early Taoist Zhuangzi, with his flair for paradoxes, had a larger influence in Jozan’s temperament and creativity. Jozan’s greatness lies more in the ordinary than in the extraordinary. One recognizes Ishikawa Jozan in many people who do not want to be somebody else.
Shisendo, Hall of the Poetry Immortals, by Thomas Rimer, Jonathan Chaves, Stephen Addis, Hiroyuki Suzuki (translated by Thomas Rimer) and Shuichi Kato (translated by Hilda Kato, revised by Jeffrey Hunter). Weatherhill, 1991
This extraordinary book, where most of the biographical notes are taken from, is a fitting and moving homage to Ishikawa Jozan. It explores his life and poetry, contains translations of Jozan’s own poems and the translations of the 36 Chinese poets, as well as essays on the architecture and gardens of Shisendo. It also includes a remarkable photographic record. Treasured by lovers of Japanese culture, the book is long out of print. The publisher Weatherhill, which did contribute so much to the understanding of Asian cultures, has disappeared. The book is a rarity in many ways, not the least the superior English translations of the Japanese contributions―usually plagued by atrocious translations. The authors are eminent specialists in Japanese literature and architecture but their names do not appear in the book cover. Even in the title page the name of co-author Shuichi Kato, scientist, pacifist and an insightful literary mind, is missing, an unforgivable mistake; fortunately his name appears in the table of contents, heading his dramatized essay.