Ryokan—Friend of Peace and Freedom

Ryokan (1758-1831) is one of many Japanese poets inspired by the teachings of Zen Buddhism. He lived at a time when Japan had closed its doors to foreigners, cautiously guarding itself from the threat of conquest by the European seafaring powers, as well as the greater conquest of minds brought about by those set on converting the world to Christianity or Islam. The policy of isolation, enforced by the strong Tokugawa government, was accompanied by improved law and order, which permitted a degree of safe travel within Japan itself. This was important because it allowed poets, like Basho and Ryokan himself, to take to the road without being caught in the crossfire of clan rivalries, although bandits were still a danger.

Japan had long since distinguished itself as a land where poetry was appreciated, and poetic composition was practised at all levels of society. The first anthology, the Manyoshu, published before 800, formed a reference text and quality guide for poets thereafter. Another stimulus for poetic expression was the Chinese language, which extended creativity and formed part of the scholar’s curriculum. The accomplished poet was expected to compose in both languages.

With this background, it is not surprising that this interest in poetry penetrated most of the Japanese regions, including the north-western coastal ports, like Izumozaki, where Ryokan’s father held the hereditary title of headman; and we learn that the elder himself was a writer of haiku poems. This small town, with its sizable fishing fleet, looked out on the island of Sado, which was the birthplace of Ryokan’s mother, and which is mentioned in one of Basho’s most celebrated haikus, expressing vastness, grandeur and transcendence of individuality:

Rough sea
Extending toward Sado Isle
The Milky Way

From an early age, Ryokan (then named Eizo) was a lover of literature, preferring studies to sports, though disinclined to any future academic role. His poems hint that he was subject to the usual diversions of teenage life, yet, as the eldest son, he would normally have succeeded his father as headman as well as in his business activities. However, for reasons that have not been clearly determined, in 1775, aged 18, Ryokan cast aside all prospect of a life of worldly cares and responsibilities, and left home to study at a Zen temple in the neighbouring town of Amaze, evidently without seeking his father’s consent.

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This article is from the Spring 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.