Jakucho Setouchi: a free nun who goes against conventional standards for women

Jakucho Setouchi used to say “To live is to love,” and this is exactly how the nun and Buddhist author lived her life to the fullest before she died last week at the age of 99.

Setouchi, known for her charm and wit, spent the second half of her life as a nun, delivering inspiring sermons and earning a reputation for herself as a popular speaker and guest on television. But before starting her religious journey in 1973, the Tokushima native first and foremost established herself as a writer – and controversial – who wrote a number of biographical novels about feminist activists and women who fought the power in place.

In Setouchi’s earlier works, many people saw parallels with the vicissitudes of his own colorful life.

In what became one of the most defining moments of her life in 1948, Setouchi, then in her mid-twenties and five years after her marriage, fell in love with her husband’s former protege and ran away. with the young man, leaving behind three years – old maid. Separated from her family and not knowing how to make a living otherwise, she began to write.

As an author, however, she got off to a rocky start. In 1957, she published “Kashin” (“A Flower Aflame”), a novel known for its unbridled description of love and sex which so scandalized the Japanese literary world that it was essentially “ostracized”, as she would put it. later from the great literature magazines for the next five years.

Her sultry style made her anathema to the male-dominated intelligentsia of the day, who called the novel “pornography” and called her “writer of the womb”.

But undeterred, Setouchi continued to write and found success in a series of biographical novels paying homage to pioneering writers and activists of the pre-war era. Among these were feminist novelist Kanoko Okamoto, known for her actual marriage and polyandry-like practices, and Toshiko Tamura, another prominent feminist writer famous for her challenges to the patriarchy.

Jakucho Setouchi speaks in an interview in Tokyo in March 1970. | KYODO

There is no doubt that the freewheeling lifestyles and sexual arousals personified by these women resonated with Setouchi.

“A long story where it has been said that obedience to men is the only virtue of women has made us unconscious women to think for ourselves, to act for ourselves and to take our responsibilities”, Setouchi wrote in “Ai no Rinri” (“The Ethics of Love”), a bestselling essay published in 1968.

In the article, she listed a long list of “domestic” qualities that men often expected from their wives – including their abilities to “not act hysterically,” “not be critical,” “be good at being. cooking ”and“ being sexually passive and always submissive to the needs of their husbands.

“This will give you an idea of ​​how difficult it is to be a ‘domestic’ woman,” she wrote.

As if true to her own words, she continued to lead a vibrant romantic life even after her first runaway, including relationships with married men. Her 1962 masterpiece, “Natsu no Owari” (“The End of Summer”), was based on her own passionate love life and later won her a Women’s Literature Award.

“In my afterlife, the men I loved will welcome me,” she once said in an interview with Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “I wonder which of them I’m going to talk to first. “

The iconoclastic writer’s other works featured political fighters, such as Sugako Kanno, a socialist executed for her plot to assassinate Emperor Meiji, and anarchist Fumiko Kaneko.

Jakucho Setouchi addresses a rally organized by a group of citizens to protest against security bills outside the Diet building in Tokyo in June 2015. | usage worldwide  KYODO
Jakucho Setouchi addresses a rally organized by a group of citizens to protest security bills outside the Diet building in Tokyo in June 2015. | usage worldwide KYODO

In her later years, the nun fasted in protest against the 1991 Gulf War and more recently joined protesters opposed to nuclear power and the controversial 2015 security legislation of former Prime Minister Shinzo. Abe. She was also fiercely opposed to the death penalty.

The obvious turning point for her was in 1973 when, in the midst of her highly successful writing career, surprised the nation by suddenly committing to Buddhism. Not that this foray into religion prevented him from writing, producing more than 400 works in his lifetime.

One of his greatest achievements was the 1998 translation of “The Tale of Genji”, a classic masterpiece written by the 11th century nobleman Murasaki Shikibu and centered on an aristocratic prince’s relationship with different women, in modern Japanese. In 2006, Setouchi was awarded the Order of Culture of Japan.

Plus, after turning to a life of religion, with her shaved head and all, she didn’t cut ties with her worldly desires either – even as a nun she continued to eat and drink. meat. His outspoken recognition of these acts charmed the audience, won him many fans.

Her likability was also evident in her taste for new things and her knowledge of the internet which kept her in touch with a younger generation: teenage girls at the time, contributing works under a pseudonym.

Books written by Jakucho Setouchi are on display in a Tokyo bookstore on Friday after his death earlier in the week.  |  KYODO
Books written by Jakucho Setouchi are on display in a Tokyo bookstore on Friday after his death earlier in the week. | KYODO

In 2016, she co-founded the Little Women Project, an initiative that sought to provide assistance to girls and young women trapped in difficult situations such as poverty, abuse, harassment, sexual exploitation and drug addiction.

On her 99th birthday in May, a video posted to her Instagram account showed the nun, with a big smile on her face, clapping and singing as she and her staff celebrated her birthday with a cake.

“I lived until my 99th birthday, and I think that’s too long a life,” Setouchi wrote as he posted the video.

“I’ve done a lot more things in life than people normally do,” she said. “I don’t regret any of them. I have lived my life to the fullest.

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