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three pairs of lovers with space

BY KENKŌ, 1330-2

徒然草 or Essays in Idleness, one of the most studied works of mediaeval Japanese literature, is a classic compendium of two hundred and forty-three  anecdotes and opinions on a wide range of subjects written in 1330-32 by Kenkō 兼好 (1284-1350), a Buddhist monk and former officer of guards at the imperial palace.

Presented here are the only two overtly pederastic anecdotes which, typically for the era concern Buddhist monks and chigos (boy acolytes usually aged between ten and seventeen). Besides them, numbers 43 and 44 hint gently at possible Greek love liaisons through expressing wonder about the presence of attractive youths in the houses of the distinguished.

The translation and notes are by Meredith McKinney in the Penguin Classics edition (London, 2013).


There was a beautiful young acolyte in Omuro,[1] and a number of monks set about plotting a way to entice him out to have a good time with them. They enlisted the help of some performing monks[2] and painstakingly made an elegant wooden lidded box, which they carefully placed in a container buried in a handy spot on Narabigaoka Hill.[3] Having scattered fallen leaves over the place so no one would realize anything was there, they went off to the temple and lured the lad out with them.

Delighted, they led him about here and there, then finally they all settled down on a blanket of moss near the buried box.

“My, that was exhausting!”

“Ah, if only someone would ‘kindle the autumn leaves to warm our wine’ “[4]

“Come on, everyone. See if you can prove those magical powers of yours by producing some miracle[5] with your prayers!”  someone urged, and they turned towards the tree where the box was buried and set about rubbing their rosaries and performing exaggerated mudras in an extravagant show of incantation. They then swept aside the leaves - but there was not a thing there.

It must be the wrong place, they decided, and they set about searching the whole mountain, digging everywhere, but they found nothing. Someone had noticed them burying the box, and had stolen it while they went back to the temple. What could they say? They fell into shrill argument, and went home furious.

If you try too hard to be entertaining, it is bound to fall flat.


The Dainagon Abbot employed a young acolyte by the name of Otozurumaru, who came to be on intimate terms with one Yasura-dono[6] and was constantly coming and going to visit him.

Kenkō by Utagawa Hiroshige, ca. 1845

One day, seeing the lad return, the abbot asked where he had been. “I’ve been to see Yasura-dono,” he replied.

“Is this Yasura-dono a layman, or a monk?”  enquired the abbot.

Bringing his sleeves together in a polite bow, the acolyte replied, “I really don’t know, sir. I’ve never seen his head.”[7]

I wonder why not - after all, he would have seen the rest of him.

[1] There was a beautiful young acolyte in Omuro: The young boys who served in temples as acolytes were frequently the focus of adoring attention by older monks and priests. The name “Omuro” strictly referred to the residence of the tonsured prince who was the abbot of Ninnaji, but more generally was synonymous with the temple itself. [Translator’s note 113]

[2] performing monks: Monks who specialized in the arts of singing, dancing, etc. [Translator’s note 114]

[3] Narabigaoka Hill: A wooded hill to the immediate south of Ninnaji. {Translator’s note 115]

[4] “kindle the autumn leaves to warm our wine”: A well-known quotation from a poem by Bai Juyi: “In the woods I kindle autumn leaves to warm my wine, / I brush the mossy stone to read a poem.” The monk playfully suggests that this would be the height of elegance. [Translator’s note 116]

[5] prove those magical powers … some miracle: These monks belong to the esoteric Shingon sect, whose practice involves the chanting of mantras (phrases believed to carry magical powers) and performance of mudras (elaborate hand gestures with magical powers). Esoteric Buddhist priests were frequently called on to perform healing and other miracles. {Translator’s note 117]

[6] The Dainagon Abbot … Otozuru-maru … Yasura-dono: None of these is identifiable. It was common practice for young acolytes to receive the sexual attentions of older men. [Translator’s note 166]

[7] I’ve never seen his head: If he were a full monk, his head would be shaved. [Translator’s note 167]




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P. Hill, 21 December 2021

Seven hundred years later and we still haven’t found the damn box!

(The second anecdote needs some work.)