Kokon chomonju

"Esoragoto" and the merits of pictoral exaggeration

By William Wetherall

First posted 20 January 2008
Last updated 23 March 2010

Kokon chomonju   Full translation of "esoragoto" story about imagination and exaggeration in drawings

See Kanshiro hirome tebikae for a Meiji-retro "Esoragoto" story in Takahashi Katsuhiko's Kanshiro series.

Kokon chomonju account of esoragoto

The title of the "Esoragoto" (絵空事) story means that a "picture" (絵 e) is "something" (事 koto) in the air (空 sora)" -- a figment of the imagination, smaller or larger than life.

Kojien definition of esoragoto

Kojien (5th edition) defines the term as follows.

絵は画家の作意が加わって実物そのものではないということ。転じて、物事に虚偽・誇張の多いこと。架空の作り事。古今著聞集11「ありのままの寸法に書きて候はば見所なきものに候ゆゑに ― とは申すことにて候」

e-soragoto【絵空事】we- [we-soragoto]
The matter of a picture being something to which a drawer's creative intents have been added and not the real thing [object] itself. Turned around [by extension], the abundance of falsehoods / exaggerations in [all] things. A fabrication of [something] suspended in the air [a creation of the imagination]. Kokon chomonjū 11: "If one draws [brushes] [something] in the dimensions of its state of existence [as it actual appears], [the picture] will be something which does not have anything to see [will not be worth seeing], hence [it] is a matter [fact] that [people] say a -- [ 絵空事 a picture (worth seeing) is something in the air (imagination) ]."

Kokon chomonjū (古今著聞集) is a "collection of writtings and hearings old and now" completed around 1254 by Tachibana no Narisue (橘成季), whose dates of birth and death are unknown. Narisue was governor of Iga province, which became part of present-day Mie prefecture.

The work is an anthology of "persuasive stories" (説話 setsuwa), which are didactic narratives based on myths, legends, anecdotes, and folktales. The stories are divided into 30 volumes (編 hen), representing 30 topics, and the volumes are published in 20 books (巻 kan).

Fuller context of esoragoto definition

Kojien has discretely chosen not to cite the full context of the line it quotes from Kokon chomonjū about esoragoto -- famous among art historians in Japan as evidence of why exaggeration and deformation became esthetic standards in erotic pictures and caricature.

The line appears in story No. 396 (as numbered in NKBT 84, pages 316-317), called "Matter about Toba Sojo criticizing a picture by an attendant monk and accepting the monk's view" (鳥羽僧正侍法師の繪を難じ法師の所説に承伏の事 (Toba Sōjō jihōshi no e o nanji hōshi no shosetsu ni shōfuku no koto). The story is one of the 24 (Nos. 383-406) that make up Volume 16, on graphic images (画図 gato), which constitutes most of Book 11.

Full translation of esoragoto story

The esoragoto story is worth translating in full. The following translation is based on the text and notes in the NKBT edition of Kokon chomonjū (pages 316-317). I have shown phonetic furigana in (small parentheses).

永積安明・島田勇雄 (校注)
Nagazumi Yasuaki and Shimada Isao (proofing and annotation)
Kokon chomonjū
[Old new (things) written heard collection]
[Collection of stories written and heard past and present]
日本古典文学大系 84
Nihon koten bungaku taikei 84 [NKBT]
[Survey of classical literature of Japan]
東京:岩波書店 Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1966
631 pages, hardcover, boxed

The translation is structural, which means that it closely follows the phrasing and wording of the Japanese text. The translation, notes and commentary, and bold emphasis are mine (William Wetherall).

Full translation of esoragoto story in Kokon chomonjū (circa 1254)

三九六    鳥羽僧正侍法師の繪を難じ法師の所説に承伏の事


396    Matter of Toba Sojo criticizing a picture by an attendant monk and accepting the monk's view

Under the same Sojo there was an attendant monk who draws pictures. Being that he so much likes [drawing], when he finished [his work he drew], and in time [as a result] he was not inferior to even Sojo's brush. Sojo was envious of this [attendant's] brush, and thinking he would somehow find some fault, one time the said bonze, [he] drew some people quarreling, and stabbing each other with waist swords, and [he] himself loved [took pride in] [the picture], and when Sojo looks [at it], a sword on [the picture], was coming out of a back with a fist [together with the fist that was still gripping it]. Thinking [this] a good fault, [Sozo] said -- "My bonze should stop drawing for a long time [forever]. What kind of thing [is it / is this], [where] there could be something [a situation] in which [ == (where) it is possible that ] [one] stabs a person and [the sword] comes out of the back with a fist. Stabbing up to the hilt and the like indeed, to say [this] is something magnificent, this is something the possibility of which does not exist [ == this is something which is not possible == this is impossible]. With a state of heart of such extent [with such a set of heart], [one] should not draw pictures." -- whereupon, this bonze with dignity [said] -- "[It] is [in fact] that. This is an old practice." -- but Sojo, not letting him speak to the end, said -- "[Someone like] my monk [expounding on the] old practices of pictures, it's painful to be beside you [ == don't make me laugh == don't be silly == what do you know about such things]." -- but [the monk] not in the least making something [of this] [making nothing at all of this == remaining calm ], said -- modesty [humility, courtesy] undaunted [not flinching] -- "That is not so. Look at the pictures of images of laying and resting which were drawn by the old masters. As for the dimensions of those things, that [the masters] drew them to a size that was excessive in proportion, why should it in fact [of course, rightly] be so [like that]? If one draws [brushes] [something] in the dimensions of its state of existence [as it actual appears], [the picture] will be something which does not have anything to see [will not be worth seeing], hence [it] is a matter [fact] that [people, masters] say a picture is something in the air. Among the things [pictures] you have rendered [done] as well, as for such things ["soragoto" pictures], [I] suppose there are many indeed" -- hence Sojo, bending to reason, had nothing to say.

Notes and commentary

Toba Sōjō (鳥羽僧正), also known as Kakuyō (覚猷 1053-1140), was a Tendai monk and artist of the late Heian period, and an older contemporary of Emperor Toba (1103-1156). Toba the emperor reigned from 1107 to 1123, when too young to rule, and did not rule until a few years after he was forced to abdicate.

Kakuyu the monk is rumored (without evidence) to have drawn, or had a hand in drawing, the picture scroll known as "Comic pictures of birds and beasts" (鳥獣戯画 Chōjū giga). The scroll shows rabbits, frogs, monkeys, and other non-human animals frollicing in anthropomorphic poses. Satirical drawings of this kind flourished during the Edo and Meiji periods, when they were known as "Tobae" (鳥羽絵).

draws pictures reflects 繪かく, a verb which was probably read "ekaku" and understood to mean 繪を書く (e o kaku) -- or "brush pictures". Today the verb "egaku" is usually graphed 描く or 画く and is used to mean "draw" [pictures] regardless of the drawing medium or method.

brush reflects 筆, which was probably read "fude" -- meaning either "brush" as an object or "brushing" as an action.

drawing pictures reflects 繪書, which is glossed ゑかき (wekaki, ekaki) and represents a nominalization of 繪かく (see above).

My bonze reflects わ僧 (wa sō) and my monk reflects わ法師 (wa hōshi). "Wa" (わ) -- "my" as in "waga " (我が) -- was used toward subordinates.

pictures of images of laying and resting reflects おそくづの繪 (osokudzu no we) -- "spring pictures" (春画 shunga) according to the annotation (headnote 18).

Kojien (5th edition) graphs the phrase 偃息図の絵 (osokuzu no e), which it attributes to Book 11 of Kokon chomonjū by way of citing the rest of the line that is translated here. Kojien also equates the expression with 春画 (shunga) or "spring pictures" -- the most familiar present-day term for such pictures.

Kojien parenthetically notes that 偃息 means 男女同衾 (danjo dōkin) -- literally "man woman same futon" or "a man and woman sleeping together". The Chinese term 同衾共枕 (tóngqīngòngzhĕn) means "same quilt, shared pillow.

偃息 -- "yānxī" in Chinese and "ensoku" in Sino-Japanese -- means "cease and stop" in the sense of "collapsing on one's back and sleeping" or "laying down and resting". Here it is pressed into the service of representing the Japanese word おそく (osoku) -- which would conjecture means either "late (at night)" (晩く osoku) or "rest" (お息 o-soku).

old masters reflects ふるき上手ども, which could be read "furuki jōzu domo" or "old skilled ones". Other possible readings of 上手 -- meaning a person who is highly skilled at something -- are uwate, jōshu, and jōte -- made plural by ども (domo). Here ふるき means "old" in the sense of "from old" or "in the past".

those things (その物) alludes to the "private parts" (陰部 inbu) depicted on the pictures (headnote 19).

a picture is something in the air reflects 繪空事 (esoragoto), which is glossed "pictures (絵画 gaiga) [are] a matter, not of drawing [objects] realistically (写実的に shajitsuteki ni), [but] of exaggeratingly expressing [them]" (headnote 21).

you reflects 君 (kimi), then a term of address toward a person one served or was otherwise of superior status. Today the term is mostly used between friends, or by men toward their girlfriends or wifes, or by supervisors toward underlings in an office, and the like. Throughout the narrative, terms of address and verbs reflect the status difference between Sojo and his assistant.

Truth in depiction

Story No. 395 (pages 315-316), which immediately precedes the esoragoto account, provides a foundation for understanding something drawn "in the air" as being worth seeing.

The story is called "Matter of alluding to unlawfulness in the deliveries of rice with a picture by Toba Sojo" (鳥羽僧正繪を以て供米の不法に付き諷する事 Toba Sōjō e o mote kyōmai no fūhō ni tsuki fū suru koto). It describes a drawing by Toba Sojo showing a scene in which (page 316, translation mine):

辻風の吹(ふき)たるに米の俵をおほく吹上(ふきあげ)たるが、塵灰のごとくに空にあがる . . . .

When a whirlwind blows [it] blows up bags of rice, and [they] rise in the air like dust and ash . . . .

The picture caught the attention of Emperor Toba, who understood that the bags had only chaff and bran (糟糠 sōkō) and not the real thing (實の物 makoto no mono). Thus made aware of the malfeasance in the shipments of rice -- probably from manor estates (荘園 shōen) to temples, rice being a standard of wealth and the most common currency for tributes, taxes, and stipends -- the emperor took steps to correct the problem.

A bag of rice would have been too heavy for a mere wirlwind to blow into the air.

糟 (zao, kasu) are the lees or dregs that remain after using lowgrade rice to make sake. 糠 (kang, nuka) is the chaff and bran left after threshing and sifting grains rice.

The compound (糟糠 zaokang, sōkō) can mean the chaff and bran used to make an alcoholic beverage, resulting in lees or dregs. By extension it can also mean the lowest quality of rice that poor people would eat.

The expression 糟糠の妻 (sōkō no tsuma) -- from 糟糠之妻 (zaokang zhi qi) in the 5th-century 後漢書 (Hou Hanshu) -- means "a wife of chaff and bran" -- i.e., a poor man's man.

Other sources

Other sources in English include the following.

Yoshiko K. Dykstra
Notable Tales Old and New: Tachibana Narisue's Kokon Chomonju
Monumenta Nipponica (Sophia University)
Volume 47, Number 4 (Winter 1992), pages 469-493 (25 pages)

Haruo Shirane (editor)
Sonja Arntzen, Robert Borgen, Richard Bowring, Karen Brazell et al. (translators)
Traditional Japanese Literature: An Anthology, Beginnings to 1600
Translations from the Asian Classics Series No. 1
New York: Columbia University Press, 2007
1288 pages, softcover

The Columbia anthology includes the following selections from Konkon chomonju -- to give some indication of the variety of stories it contains.

Traditional Japanese Literature

"A Collection of Things Written and Heard in the Past and Present" (Kokon chomonju)

A Certain Woman in Retreat at Iwashimizu
Composes a Poem and Is Blessed by the Gods
Minamoto Yoshiie Exchanges Verses with Abe Sadato at Koromogawa
A Supernumerary Priest of the Outer Shrine, Watarai Morihiro, Tells His Wife About Kyushu Women
A Big Woman and a Small Man in Bed Together
The Monk Who Fell in Love with a Perfectly
Chaste Nun Keisei