Jakucho Setouchi: outspoken Buddhist nun who wrote hundreds of books

“The most important thing to write about in novels is love stories,” Jakucho Setouchi once said. “Business and politics – none of this is interesting.”

Setouchi, who died aged 99, was one of Japan’s most popular and prolific novelists, drawing on her own tumultuous love life in over 400 books on romance, sex, motherhood. and the family. Its protagonists were free-spirited women who, like their creator, bristled with traditional sexual mores and gender roles, refusing to fade into the decor of their homes while living in “a society of men. As Setouchi called contemporary Japan.

His candid descriptions of sex and romance won him a devoted following in the country, and was all the more striking as Setouchi became a Buddhist monk at the age of 51, shaving his head, donning monastic robes and taking a vow of celibacy. For decades she delivered sermons and spiritual talks while continuing to handwrite with a fountain pen, publishing books including a bestselling translation of The Tale of Genji, one of Japan’s most famous novels.

“Usually people who do bad things make good writers,” she said at a conference in 2008. “I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting.”

Housewife turned author, Setouchi outraged her family when she abandoned her husband and daughter for a relationship with a much younger man. She then had an eight-year affair with a married writer and rocked the Japanese literary world with a 1957 novel about a young woman who leaves her family and becomes a prostitute.

The book – its title, Kachine, is variously translated by Pistil and stamen, The core of a flower and A flower on fire – has been described as pornography by some critics who objected to his sexual images and the use of the word “uterus”. At the end of the novel, the main character imagines that even after his death and cremation, his belly will survive intact. Setouchi acquired a mocking nickname, Womb Writer, and went on the offensive.

“I should have been silent,” she said later The Japan Times, an English-language daily, “but I was so upset and responded to this review by saying, ‘Those who criticize the novel should be helpless and their wives should be frigid.’ Because of this remark, all literary journals refused to publish my novels for five years.

By the end of this period, Setouchi had published one of his most acclaimed books, The end of summer, a semi-autobiographical novel that won a female literary honor in Japan and was based on her own tangled relationships with her ex-boyfriend, lover, and wife.

For all of her writings on contemporary women and society, Setouchi was perhaps best known for her 1998 translation of a 1,000-year-old classic, The Tale of Genji. Written by Murasaki Shikibu, a maid of honor at the imperial court, the book chronicles the romantic life of Emperor Hikaru Genji’s son, “the brilliant prince,” who seduces a crowd of women, including his mother-in-law and his wife. adopted daughter.

The plot of the book was “hot stuff,” noted Setouchi in an interview with the New York Times. “Why pretend it’s the height of culture? ” she asked. “People hear Genji and immediately they speak in low voices, as in a museum. Hah, ridiculous! Genji should be read on a sofa, a box of cookies in hand.

Written in an archaic mark of old Japanese, the original Genji is largely indecipherable to modern readers. Setouchi sought to translate the book “into plain, pragmatic language”, cutting down some of its longest sentences and producing a 10-volume version that has sold millions of copies and helped spark a new interest in the novel.

Setouchi meets Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Spring Festival at Akasaka Imperial Garden in 2007

(AFP / Getty)

“When a man and a woman are in love, the situation has not changed in the past thousand years,” she told the New York Times in 1999. “There is jealousy. There is agony. Even a modern career woman can experience these same pains of love. Then yes, Tales of Genji is relevant to people today. And after all, he teaches the basics of love. And it’s very useful, isn’t it?

Setouchi was born Harumi Mitani in Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku in southwestern Japan, on May 15, 1922. Her mother was a housewife and her father was a cabinetmaker and craftsman who made religious objects for Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. He was adopted by a wealthy relative and took his last name, Setouchi, for his own family.

Setouchi was studying Japanese literature at Tokyo Christian University when she married Yasushi Sakai, a scholar and teacher, by arrangement in 1943. They had a daughter and lived in Beijing at the end of World War II. Her mother and grandmother were killed in American bombing raids in Japan.

While living in China, Setouchi started the affair which ended her marriage. She realized that her husband “had different values ​​from me,” she said. The Japan Times, but was never sure about the precise origins of the romance, or any other love affair. “You don’t know when it is happening and you can’t avoid it,” she said, “even though you can hurt yourself or die.”

Back in Japan, she worked in a publishing house and a hospital in Kyoto before writing novels for young women and then for adults. Her books have come to include biographical novels about the lives of pioneering Japanese women, including author Toshiko Tamura and social critic Noe Ito, although her own life has felt increasingly “empty,” she said. declared to Agence France-Presse.

Deciding that she “wanted to pursue something else,” she became a Buddhist nun in 1973 and adopted the first name Jakucho, although she later lamented that she took her vows too soon. “I didn’t know I was going to live that long,” she said. “I thought it would be 25 years at the most.”

Rather than retreat from daily life in her temple in Kyoto, Setouchi has become a leading anti-war activist, protesting the Gulf War in 1991 and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. She also campaigned against capital punishment, corresponding with those on death row. in Japan. After an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 sparked a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant, she went on a hunger strike and called for an end to nuclear power.

She received the Japanese Order of Culture in 2006, during a ceremony at the Imperial Palace. A decade later, she helped launch the Little Women Project, a nonprofit organization that supports girls and young women struggling with poverty, sexual assault, substance abuse and other trauma. She has published her latest complete novel, Life, in 2017.

His death, in a Kyoto hospital, was announced on his Instagram account; at the age of 99, she was still posting selfies and writing updates to an audience of nearly 300,000 subscribers. The Associated Press reported that she died of heart disease.

Information on the survivors was not immediately available.

Setouchi described it Genji translation as her “life plan,” but said she initially struggled to connect with the book’s female characters, who were alternately romanticized and rejected by the young prince. She developed a new take on history during a new reading, when she was struck by how many women had become nuns.

“To them,” she said, “the nun was a declaration of independence.” Setouchi seemed to feel the same about his own immersion in the faith, telling the New York Times that as a Buddhist, “I cry and laugh like everyone else but at the same time I am detached. Like nothing matters, and I’m not here at all. It’s freedom, you know, real freedom. Guess that’s what the women at Genji wanted too.

Jakucho Setouchi, writer and activist, born May 15, 1922, died November 9, 2021

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