Setouchi Jakuchô, a writer and hyperactive Buddhist nun until she was 99

Setouchi Jakuchô, a writer and hyperactive Buddhist nun until she was 99

A novelist with an exceptionally long career

Since the disappearance of Setouchi Jakuchô, in November 2021, many magazines have devoted special files to him, and several new books about him have been published. This shows that she was highly esteemed in our time when well-known writers are rarer than in the past. But one wonders to what extent his work has been truly understood and appreciated.

Born in the year 11 of the Taishô era, that is to say in 1922, Setouchi Jakuchô is contemporary with “the third generation of post-war writers”. She was also particularly close to Endô Shûsaku (author of Silence), born a year after her, who was one of them. The two writers have points in common: both authors of novels with serious themes of great literary quality, they also addressed their readers through essays, and did not hesitate to participate in television broadcasts.

“The third generation of post-war writers” is the name given to the wave of writers who began in the early fifties, such as Kita Morio, Yoshiyuki Junnosuke, or even Agawa Hiroyuki.

However, Setouchi Jakuchô made his debut in literature alongside authors perceived as belonging to popular literature, such as Shiba Ryôtarô, Itsuki Hiroyuki, Tanabe Seiko or Yamasaki Toyoko. That was before she took holy orders, when she published under the name Setouchi Harumi. These authors created novels that were widely talked about, which appeared first in serials in daily newspapers and magazines, and which often became, once they hit the bookstores, best-sellers. At that time, the world of publishing and literature was at the center of cultural life.

Japan’s bubble economy period of the 1980s was also a time when many new and diverse writers emerged. Japanese novels began to be read abroad with authors like Murakami Haruki or Yoshimoto Banana, and in 1994, Ôe Kenzaburô won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The bubble period lasted for publishing until the years 1996-1997, but everyone knows that with the spread of the internet, magazines suffered a lot. The major publishing houses then had very difficult years, and they only recently managed to raise the bar with the successful launch of electronic publishing with content such as manga. Setouchi Jakuchô was an exception in that his works continued to be read. She had a very long career.

One of the reasons for this longevity can undoubtedly be sought in the series kien mandaraserialized in the daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun, from 2007 to 2011. These are essays in which she depicts with great vivacity 135 deceased personalities. Shimazaki Tôson, whom she had glimpsed when she was a student at Tokyo Women’s University, is the first portrait she paints, and there are also politicians with whom she had dialogued such as Tanaka Kakuei and or great writers like Tanizaki Junichiro. She deploys there the curiosity and the capacity for action that she already showed before the war, as well as the force of her destiny which made her meet so many people.

A filiation of writers who have greatly influenced her

Among the women writers of her time whom Setouchi saw as landmarks, and who were also her allies, are talented authors, such as Enchi Fumiko and Uno Chiyo, who both belonged to the previous generation, or Kôno Taeko and Oba Minako, who were of his.

Ariyoshi Sawako and Sono Ayako are considered the most popular women writers of the 1960s today. medicine, thus meeting the expectations of the time. But the world and the literary prizes maintained a certain distance from their works.

In contrast, these circles valued other female writers like Enchi Fumiko, who had a deep knowledge of the classics, or Uno Chiyo, whose consummate art of the novel was appreciated. Their work was considered contemporary literature. Setouchi, who respected him, often declared that these two authors had given him a lot of encouragement.

In 1987, the last year of the Shôwa era, Ôba Minako and Kôno Taeko were the first women to join the jury of the Akutagawa Prize, and we can probably consider that it is only from this moment that women writers have entered on an equal footing with men in Japanese literature. Setouchi herself, long described as a fashionable author, and who had also rubbed shoulders with Kôno Taeko in amateur literary journals where they both cut their teeth, began to be published in recognized literary journals.

She and Ôba Minako have also endeavored in their work to link classical and contemporary literatures. Born during the Taishô era (1912-1926), Setouchi had no trouble reading classic literature, and the research she undertook to write fictionalized biographies of personalities like Higuchi Ichiyô or Kanno Sugako, allowed her to further develop its capabilities in this area. In the 1980s, she continued on this path, describing with the historical and religious acuity of which only she was capable, the lives of great men of the past such as Saigyô, Ryôkan, or Ippen Shônin, which brought her more readers. masculine.

Its translation into the modern language of Tale of Genji, a project to which she was very attached, ten volumes, the last of which was published in 1998, was a huge success, with more than two million copies sold. Faithful to the original text while including the results of the most recent academic research, written in an easy-to-understand language, the “Genji of Setouchi” surpasses the translations of Yosano Akiko or Tanizaki Junichiro, and will undoubtedly continue to be read as the modern definitive edition.

Having become a Buddhist nun, she begins hunger strikes

After becoming a nun of the Tendai sect in 1973, at the age of 51, she adopted the name Jakuchō and devoted more time to her religious activities. Responding as far as possible to requests for advice from her readers on matters such as love, divorce, or the death of loved ones, urging in her essays women and young people to acquire their independence, she is very listened to and has certainly contributed to a change in mentalities. The torments caused by her departure from the family home immediately after the war, abandoning her then four-year-old daughter, have something to do with it.

In 1987, she became Superior of Tendai-ji Temple in Ninohe City, Iwate Prefecture. I had the opportunity several times, when I went to interview her, to see the lines of tour buses from all over Japan filled with people who wanted to attend her teachings on the days she was giving them. Installed in her hermitage of Jakuan in Sagano, near Kyoto, she went regularly to her temple, and also gave conferences throughout Japan. The physical vigor she retained until the middle of her ninth decade was astounding.

In her teachings, faithful, she permanently associated the Four Visions of the life of every man with politics and international problems. It’s hard to forget the way she gave herself completely in those moments when she preached as a Buddhist, for whom life and the human soul are what matter most. If Endô Shûsaku, mentioned above, is the Catholic writer par excellence, we can consider that Setouchi’s novels come from a literature impregnated with a Buddhist thought adapted to our time.

It was as a Buddhist that she began a hunger strike in 1991 to express her opposition to the Gulf War. She then bought, from her private funds and those she had collected, for 13 million yen of medicine, which she went to Baghdad herself in April 1991. After the attacks of September 11, 2001 , she began a new hunger strike in order to plead for an immediate end to the war waged in Afghanistan to avenge them. Until his death, the doctor Nakamura Tetsu [Ce médecin japonais, né en 1946, s’était installé en 1991 en Afghanistan. Il y avait ouvert trois cliniques et œuvré à la création d’un canal dans une zone désertique. Il est mort là-bas en 2019, victime d’un attentat.] was his friend.

Ten years later, in 2011, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, she went to attend memorial services across the region, despite her declining health, and spoke with Donald Keene, born the same year as her and now deceased, in the Chûson-ji temple of Hiraizumi which had just been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was in charge of transcribing this dialogue for the Yomiuri Shimbun. The two nonagenarians, both decorated with the Japanese Order of Culture, could only get around in a wheelchair. But in front of the cameras, they stood and smiled. I was deeply impressed by their long talk intended to encourage those affected by the earthquake.

Continuing to write in his hundredth year

While constantly being talked about, by a novel written on a mobile phone, or by the early opening of an Instagram account, Setouchi Jakuchô continued to publish until the year of her death. Here is what she wrote in the brochure announcing the publication of the last five volumes of her complete works, which number twenty-five:

“For me, to live is to write. Now in my hundredth year, I sigh at this new addition to my complete works, thinking that I can now die. »

His life ended in November 2021, shortly after writing these lines. Setouchi Jakuchô, whose literary career spanned 70 years, renounced sex on her own when she entered holy orders. In our new era, women writers are no longer categorized and discriminated against. She will have lived long enough to know her.

In the process that saw her take up the torch of Japanese literature with a millennial history to make it flourish today, she must have known intense conflicts between the writer and the nun in her, but they made him stronger, and gave even more depth and appeal to his work. She showed us what a century-long life could be like.

For readers unfamiliar with it, I would like to recommend three of its nearly four hundred titles. First of all Basho, (The Places), a long novel in which she looks back on life, published in 2001, just before her eightieth birthday, crowned by the Noma prize. Then Kanoko ryoran, (1965), a relentless biography of the real Okamoto Kanoko, a genius poet and writer of the Taishō era, known as the mother of the painter Okamoto Tarō. And finally Bi ha ranchô ni ari Itô Noe to Ôsugi Sakae, (1966), authentic chronicle of the couple formed by the last editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine Seito, and the representative anarchist of the Taisho era. Those works that portray human beings who lived their lives passionately, though they did not have the same sense of values ​​as to love and ethics, will no doubt continue to be read.

(Editor’s note: a novel by Setouchi Jakuchô has been published in French, The end of summer, published by Philippe Picquier. Published in Japan in 1963, it tells the story of a threesome with a student.)

(Title photo: Setouchi Jakuchō addresses the crowd during a special teaching at Tendai-ji Temple in Ninohe City, Iwate Prefecture, in October 2015. Kyōdo)


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