Written by Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明, a snubbed aristocrat, in the early 13th c., Hōjōki 方丈(often translated as Record of a Ten Foot Square Hut since a hōjō is roughly 10 sq. ft.) occupies a revered place on the NKBZ shelf, and rightly so, because it is fantastic, as I hope to demonstrate below. Let us examine the original and attempt a translation of the first (行く河) section. I have mostly followed the NKBZ.


行く河のながれは絶えずして、しかももとの水にあらず。よどみに浮ぶうたかたは、かつ消えかつ結びて、久しくとゞまりたるためしなし。世の中にある人と栖と、ま たかくのごとし。たましきの都のうちに棟を並べ、甍を争へる高き賤しき人のすまひは、世々を經て盡きせぬものなれど、これをまことかと尋ぬれ ば、昔ありし家は稀なり。或は去年焼けて、今年作れり。或いは大家ほろびて小家となる。住む人もこれに同じ。所も変らず、人も多かれど、 いにしへ見し人は、二三十人が中にわづかにひとりふたりなり。朝に死し、夕に 生るゝならひ、たゞ水の泡にぞ似たりける。知らず、生れ死ぬる人いづかたより來りて、いづかたへか去る。又知らず、仮の宿り、誰が爲にか心を惱まし、 何によりてか目を喜ばしむる。その主と栖と無常を争ふさま、いはゞ朝顏の露に異ならず。或は露落ちて、花残れり。残るといへど も、朝日に枯れぬ。或は花しぼみて、露なほ消えず。消えずといへども、夕を待つ事なし。

The flow of the (moving) river is unceasing[1], what’s more,[2] it is not the original water. The bubbles (floating) on the surface of stagnant ponds vanish here and reappear there, never remaining for long.[3] The same holds true for people and their dwellings in this world.[4]

In the resplendent[5] capital, the houses of both noble and base, having lined up the ridges of their roofs, competing with their roof tiles,[6] pass through generations [seemingly] without wearing out, however when I inquire if this is really so, [it appears] houses that stood here from long ago are a rarity.[7] Either[8] they burned down last year and were rebuilt this year. Or else, a large house[9] fell and became a small house. It is the same with the people that make abode in them. Places, too, don’t change, and although people are many, of the 20 or 30 people that I saw in the past, merely one or two now remain.[10] How this wont[11] to die in the morning and be born in the evening [truly] resembles bubbles on the water![12] I know not whence this born and dying man comes nor whither he goes. Nor again do I know for whose benefit these temporary dwellings cause the heart to ache, or by what the eyes to be made glad.[13] The way of those dwellings and their proprietors of vying for transience is no different, you could say, from the dew and[14] the morning glory. Either the dew falls and the blossoms remain[15]. But even what remains[16] withers away[17] with the morning sun. Or else, the flowers wilt and yet[18] the dew does not vanish. But even if the dew does not vanish, it never remains until evening.[19]

[1] The して in 絶えずしてcan be read as something that indicates a state of things.

[2] しかも can mean something like “furthermore,” or else indicate a contrast, e.g. “however.” In that sense it is similar to the archaic English term “withal,” which can signify an additional factor (“But sirs be sudden in the execution,/ Withal, obdurate: do not hear him plead” – King Richard III, act 1, sc 3), or else a contrast (“I grant I am a woman; but withal/ A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:/ I grant I am a woman; but withal/ A woman well-reputed,–Cato’s daughter./ Think you I am no stronger than my sex,” – Julius Caesar, act 2, sc 1). I elected to go with the former meaning of “furthermore” because it made more sense conceptually than “however.” In other words, “not only is the river’s flow unceasing, you also cannot at any one place discern the water that is this river’s source,” is what the sentence seems to say. The two clauses appear more complementary than contrastive.

[3] 久しくとゞまるためしなし Literally, “there is no example of them remaining for long.”

[4] Literally, “people and houses that are in the world are also like this.”

[5] たましき means something like “jewel-strewn,” and is a makura kotoba for Kyoto.

[6] There’s some controversy about what clauses are modified by the rentaikei. The question is do the clauses むねをならべいらかをあらそへる、たかきいやしき modify people or their houses. It makes sense conceptually that it would modify people, which would then modify houses. The argument goes that objects cannot line up, nor can they compete, and it is the people who line up their ridges and tiles in competition. Takaki iyashiki refers to a person’s status, so that phrase at least has to refer to people, unless we are meant to understand it metaphorically as referring to physical height of houses. However, it is not impossible to read this as a literary flourish with a Chinese flavor, in which the objects govern the above verbs, which is not at all awkward in English. Moreover the Modern Japanese gloss in the Nihon Koten Bungaku rephrases this passage to modify houses: 壮麗な京の町に競い建っている貴賤の住まいは. Perhaps it was meant to be vague in the original, since Kamo no Chōmei is keen on pointing out the essential similarity between people and their dwellings, bubbles and water, and dew and morning glories. I left the English vague.

[7] Literally, “houses that were (ari+rentaikei of past ki = arishi) long ago (mukashi) are (nari) rare.”

[8] 或は, is literally, “in one case.”

[9] We are to understand “house” in its literal and broader senses, much like “the house of Usher” in the English, or “the house of Nire” in English translation.

[10] This is just the copula nari in the original. “There are one or two.”

[11]ならひ means something like a “habit.”

[12] This is a complex formation including renyōkei of niru + renyōkei of progressive tari + the expression of wonder/discovery/confirmation keri in the rentaikei necessitated by the emphatic zo that precedes the main verb.

[13] Rentaikei of causative shimu necessitated by the question marker ka preceding me wo yorokoba (-mizenkei of yorokobu).

[14] In the original this is no, but that indicates a vague connection between the dew and the morning glory. If it were indisputably dew on some morning glories, this would probably be rendered, asagao ga tsuyu (maybe?).

[15] This is the izenkei + ri combination. Which serves a perfective function. I am not sure in this case if this is closer to a “present relevance of a past event” or a simpler past tense, in this case. But I suspect in either case the difference in effect is negligible.

[16] Literally, something like “even though I say it remains.”

[17] I tried to capture the nuance of nu, that conveys a completion akin to shimau.

[18] nao

[19] Literally, “no case of it waiting for the evening.” Perhaps a more poetic rendering can be “has yet to meet the night”?