A Biographical Sketch of Ishikawa Jozan

Ishikawa Jozan (1583-1672) was born in a small village called Izumi, near the castle town of Anjo in what was then known as Mikawa province. Students of Japanese history will recognize Mikawa as the home province of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the unifier of Japan who became Shogun in 1603. Ishikawa’s samurai family had a long and distinguished service to the Tokugawa that he continued by participating in the two largest battles in samurai history, Sekigahara (1600) and Osaka Castle (1615). The two battles are famous for establishing and solidifying the Tokugawa clan’s hegemony in Japan. Whether by choice or by force, Ishikawa relinquished his samurai status in 1615 to pursue a life informed by intellectual passions.

While studying at Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto, Ishikawa met the two leading Neo-Confucian scholars of the time, Fujiwara Seika and his disciple, Hayashi Razan. Soon after, Ishikawa left the temple to pursue Neo-Confucian studies and write Chinese poetry. His period of artistic freedom in Kyoto ended when his mother became too ill to care for herself and he was obligated to take a position as a scholar-in-residence serving the Asano clan in the distant city of Hiroshima. Although he was well treated, Ishikawa’s unauthorized departure following his mother’s death suggests that he was eager to return to Kyoto. That Ishikawa was able to leave under such circumstances without being punished attests to the esteem in which he was held.

Ishikawa spent a few desultory years in Kyoto, living in various places. He traveled extensively in the area and wrote a number of poems inspired by such locales as Kinkakuji and Ishiyamadera (made famous by Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji). One of the highlights of this period was when he met the Korean poet Gonchoku who praised him as “the Li Po of Japan.” Around the same time, he began to live near Shokokuji Temple in a house called Suichikudo, which poetically translates as “The House of Dreaming Bamboos.”

In 1641, Ishikawa completed his retirement villa of Shisendo in Ichijoji, on the northeast outskirts of Kyoto. He spent the remainder of his life there writing kanshi poetry in Chinese, reviving ancient Chinese scripts in his shuji (brush calligraphy), and caring for his home and garden. In 1643, he is credited with assisting in the redesign of Shoseien, the garden popularly known as Kikokutei, which is attached to Higashi Honganji Temple in central Kyoto. Based on information received from an inquiry to the temple, Ishikawa assisted with the garden layout but not in the design of the small buildings located throughout. Since then, I have found at least one source, Kyoto Station, which credits Bokakaku to Ishikawa. Based on my initial impressions when I saw the structure in person, I am inclined to agree because it is consistent with his unique architectural style.

His reputation was such that his work was praised by the retired Emperor, Go-Mizuno, and that his friends and benefactors arranged to have his poetry published during his lifetime. Although many of his artistic accomplishments are sadly forgotten today, Shisendo remains as a testament to the singular vision of an artist who sought to live in an environment where he could realize his creativity.

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