Jakucho Setouchi, 99, dies; Buddhist priest wrote of sex and love

The author Jakucho Setouchi, at the temple where she lives as a Buddhist nun in Kyoto, Japan, in May 1999. Setouchi, a feminist author who wrote frankly and prolifically about sex, entertained audiences with her insouciant wit and rendered one of Japan’s greatest classic works into a readable bestseller, died in Kyoto on Nov. 9, 2021. She was 99. Nicholas Kristof/ The New York Times
Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist priest and feminist author who wrote frankly about sex, entertained audiences with her insouciant wit and rendered one of Japan’s greatest classic works into a readable bestseller, died Nov 9 in Kyoto, Japan. She was 99.

Her private secretary, Manaho Seo, said the cause was heart failure.

Setouchi, whom some critics called “Womb Writer” because of her controversial novels about sex and family, flouted expectations for women throughout her lifetime. She left her first husband and young child to have an affair with a younger man; drank alcohol and ate meat even after becoming a Buddhist priest; and talked publicly about the importance of sexual freedom, for women in particular.

“I think it’s good to be free,” she told The New York Times in 1999, “and to have sex with anyone.”

Into her 90s, she continued to write and dispense advice to visitors to the temple she opened in Kyoto in 1974. She had almost 300,000 followers on Instagram.

Setouchi wrote more than 400 novels — fictional versions of her own love affairs and stories of rebellious women from history. Some critics labelled her works pornographic, a characterisation she rejected.

Her best-known work was a modern translation of “The Tale of Genji,” a 2,200-page, 11th-century romantic drama considered the world’s first novel and Japan’s greatest classic. Published in 1998, her translation sold more than 3.5 million copies.

Setouchi recognised the popular appeal of the protagonist, the licentious son of an emperor and his concubine.

“People hear ‘Genji’ and immediately they talk in whispers, like in a museum,” she told the Times. “Hah, ridiculous! ‘Genji’ should be read on a sofa, with a box of cookies in hand.”

She conveyed a feminist sensibility when speaking publicly about her translation. She called out sex scenes in the novel as rape, observing that most of the depicted relationships began when a man “broke into” a woman’s chambers.

Harumi Mitani was born May 15, 1922, in Tokushima, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. She was the second daughter of Toyokichi and Koharu Mitani. Her father was a cabinetmaker, her mother a homemaker. In 1929, her father was adopted by an aunt’s family and took their surname, Setouchi, for his own family.

Setouchi studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and married Yasushi Sakai, who was nine years her senior, in 1943, during World War II. She accompanied him when Japan’s foreign ministry sent him to Beijing, and she gave birth to her daughter, Michiko, there in 1944.

On July 4, 1945, shortly before the end of the war, Setouchi’s mother, who had been hiding in a bomb shelter in Tokushima, was killed during an air raid by US B-29 bombers. In one of Setouchi’s final essays, published last month in The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest daily newspapers, she wrote of the horror of contemplating her mother’s death.

“Imagining her despair at the moment of losing consciousness,” she wrote, “my heart twists and can never be healed no matter how many years have passed since then.”

She returned to Japan in 1946 and settled with her family in Tokyo in 1947. It was the following year that she left her husband and daughter for a relationship with a much younger man. Afterwards, as she once said in a newspaper interview, her father wrote in a letter to her that she had “derailed from the human path and entered the world of devils.” Setouchi later told reporters that abandoning her daughter was the biggest regret of her life.

She divorced her husband in 1950, the same year she published her first novel, which was serialised in a magazine. Her relationship with her young lover did not last long, and she fell into successive affairs with married men. Areno Inoue, a novelist and the daughter of one of Setouchi’s lovers, writer Mitsuharu Inoue, later told public broadcaster NHK that Setouchi was a free spirit who “followed her own will” and “embodied freedom.”

In 1957, Setouchi was awarded a literary prize for “Qu Ailing, the Female College Student,” a story of the love between two women, set in Beijing during World War II. She published another novel later that year, “The Core of a Flower,” about an affair between a woman and her husband’s boss. When some critics called it pornographic, she fired back, “The critics who say such things all must be impotent and their wives frigid.”

She returned to her young lover and based a 1962 novel, “The End of Summer,” on her romantic shuttling between two men. It also won a literary prize and became a bestseller.

But by the early 1970s, she had had a change of heart about her life’s path.

“I was thinking that I shouldn’t be happy in this world, as I had shed my family and child, and I wrote novels that hurt other people,” she told The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily newspaper.

In 1973, at age 51, she entered a Buddhist temple in Iwate prefecture to train as a priest, taking the name Jakucho. “I felt a mental ease after I became a priest,” she told the paper.

She also became a political activist, protesting the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the use of nuclear power in Japan and laws passed in 2015 that authorised the Japanese military to engage in overseas combat missions again after a 70-year postwar government policy of pacifism.

As a priest, Setouchi took a vow of celibacy, but she could not bring herself to give up the earthly pleasures of alcohol or meat. She founded her temple in Kyoto a year after she was ordained, and it attracted frequent visitors, many of them women who wanted advice on affairs of the heart.

After her translation of “The Tale of Genji” was published in 1998, she became a popular speaker on television and at live events, charming audiences with the incongruity of a Buddhist priest, with her traditionally shaved head, peppering her remarks with sharp and sometimes bawdy humour.

Setouchi, who died in a hospital, is survived by her daughter and two grandchildren.

Well into her 90s, she helped found the Little Women Project, a nonprofit that assists young women struggling with domestic abuse, bullying, sexual exploitation or drug addiction.

In a video message this year to the women who used the project’s services, Setouchi said that as a woman herself, “I thought there were a lot of people who suffer unnecessarily.”

“I cannot die even though I’m already 99 years old,” she added. “I want you not to lose hope.”

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