From Amorous Novelist to Buddhist Nun

Kyoto – 10th of November 2009 – The writer and nun Jakuchō Setouchi, 87, in the garden of her property in the Sagano district.
After the construction of the house in 1974, she told her friends that she didn’t want any gift, except trees or plants. She also let them choose the place in the garden. Now many of them are dead, but she can keep thinking about them with those trees. (Photo by Jérémie Souteyrat)



“Usually people who do bad things make good writers,” observes Jakuchō Setouchi. “I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting.”

Now ninety-nine, she became a Buddhist nun at fifty-one—and later joked that she took her vows too soon; she had not realized she would live so long. Bald and serene, with the kind of smile that adds joy to the room, she draws crowds of 15,000 to her talks. She continues to write, and even her biographies are often loosely autobiographical.

Obedient as a young woman, Harumi Setouchi married the man her parents had chosen for her and bore him a daughter. Then she fell in love with a younger man, one of her husband’s students. When her husband reacted with violence, she left home—with no money and a patch covering the eye he had damaged. Unable to support their three-year-old daughter, Setouchi left her behind.

She forged a literary life, joining a group of writers and having a passionate, years-long affair with a married man. Her father, a craftsman who made religious objects for Shinto and Buddhist altars, was so deeply shocked by her loss of reputation that he forbade her to come home during daylight.

Deeply hurt, she wrote her heart out: “The End of Summer,” for example, is about a woman’s daring affairs; “The Pheasant” mourns the daughter a divorced mother abandoned and the affairs she indulges in to distract herself.

But first, Setouchi wrote Kashin (The Stamen), using the Japanese word for “womb” (the center of a flower). In the novel, she was candid about women’s hunger for physical pleasure. Male critics promptly branded her “a womb writer” and the novel “pornography,” saying she must have masturbated as she wrote it. When she retorted that they must be impotent and their wives frigid, she was shoved to the silent margins; no one would publish her for the next five years. (“They got furious maybe because my speculation was true,” she would tease later.)

She managed to work her way back into print by writing the biography of pioneer feminist Toshiko Tamura. In her early forties, though, Setouchi fell apart. “I didn’t notice at the time,” she told Christopher Harding, “but I was starting to drop things, starting to become a bit strange.” After she nearly hurt herself trying to walk up a down escalator, a friend introduced her to the first Japanese psychoanalyst, a man who had trained with Freud himself and was now retiring. She would be his last patient.

When Setouchi leaned back on a couch and free-associated, she “described various phallic objects to him, suggestive of man-trouble and a hot, possibly violent temperament,” Harding tells us, adding that the details are not for the prudish, but she insists that at the time she spoke it all effortlessly, and felt immeasurably lighter at the end even of that first session.”

Setouchi, who is not prudish, found the analyst’s gentleness healing. “When people are suffering, when they have some kind of complex, or when they’re lonely, they need someone to notice them, simply to recognise them,” she realized. Slowly, her fierce sense of control—and the recent panic of feeling it shatter—began to soften. “I’d always thought that it was me making my way in this world,’ she confided to Harding. “I’d become a novelist because I had talent; my books sold because I had talent — plus a bit of luck. That’s not how I see it anymore. There’s no one born into this world because they decided they would be. You’re not born, you’re born”—using the second, more passive verb form in Japanese, “being made to be born by something.”

That shift in thinking may have begun her religious calling—but it did not still her pen.

In 1962, she wrote a scathing essay: “Requirements for Becoming a Woman Writer.” I read a translation by Rebecca Copeland, professor of Japanese language and literature at Washington University, and nodded at every item on the list. Setouchi begins with the inevitable contradiction: You must be a woman, but you must be manly. Writing, she remarks dryly, “is in and of itself an act of male aggression.” Next: Be homely, because the flattery collected by a beautiful woman makes “a dull, physically taxing profession like writing” less appealing. Be talented (with the caveat that those who think their muse is speaking to them may well have schizophrenia). Be egotistical, not timid: “One must be willing to disclose oneself with great bravado.” Also, be jealous; she has a hard time believing women writers who insist they are not. “If one lacks jealousy, then one ends up sniveling and bowing in all directions. . . . A jealous spirit is the source of energy that fuels one’s own creativity.” Be a bad wife, be willing to strip naked at least metaphorically, be financially independent, be strong in solitude.

A year later, in a delicious twist of irony, Setouchi was awarded the Women’s Literary Prize.

In 1973, she shocked the literary world once more—this time by becoming a Tendai Buddhist nun. Her new name would be Jakuchō, which means “silent, lonely listening.” Did she choose it, I wonder, or did a wise nun hand it to her?

Celibate since taking vows, she nonetheless urges people toward passion: “The meaning of life is to love someone—or not just that, to get besotted with someone.” As for her books’ frequent love scenes, she says “the most important thing to write about in novels is love affairs. Corporations and politics—none of that is interesting.”

According to her biographical note in Japanese Women Novelists in the 20th Century, “she has shown intense philosophical insight into human love, happiness and integrity since she left the world and entered the Buddhist nunnery.” It is possible, however, that she also showed intense philosophical insight before entering religious life. Like money that is laundered, rinsed through the accounts of a legitimate business, Setouchi’s past has been scrubbed by her present—but she does not allow it to be erased.

In 1988, soon after becoming president of Tsuruga Women’s College, she published a volume of essays: The Glory of Women Who Gained Independence. Her next book was a historical novel, Beauty in Disarray, about Itō Noe. Noe fled a forced marriage, took over the feminist journal Seito (Bluestocking), and had a long relationship—and five children—with a famous social anarchist. He and Noe were killed in the massacre that followed the Great Kantō Earthquake, when authorities seized on chaos as a chance to erase dissidents.

The appeal of Noe’s story, Setouchi said, was “the elaborate drama of the lives she was entangled in, the extraordinary intensity of each of the individuals . . . [and] the dissonant play of the complexity and disharmony performed by all those caught up in these complicated relationships.” Which sounds as though she was also speaking for herself.

Her own activism was growing, too. She built a center for women, decried the sarin poisonings in the Tokyo subway, opposed the death penalty. She would bring medicine to Iraq after the first Gulf War, protest the second, go on a hunger strike to protest the reopening of Japan’s nuclear facilities.

In 1998, she recast the refined court language of The Tale of Genji, said to be the world’s first novel, in contemporary, highly accessible Japanese prose. Her edition—which emphasizes the heroines, not just the prince—sold more than 2.1 million copies and set off an explosion of interest in the classic. Eight years later, a grateful emperor placed the Order of Culture medal around her neck.

“I thought they could have given it to me a bit earlier, to be honest,” she deadpanned afterward.

Her work is only now being published in English, although she is one of Japan’s best-known female writers and religious figures. She shows up in odd places, even in a fake shot on Facebook that shows her clad in leather pants, not her usual black robe and white socks, and standing next to Sid Vicious. She wrote a cell phone novel. The Tokyo Bozu Bar named a cocktail the Jakuchö in her honor.

Unlike many Buddhist nuns, Setouchi drinks, eats meat, and writes what she chooses. That may account for her long life, she suggests mischievously; there is far less stress when you do as you please. When people come to her exhausted and soul-sick, she reminds them to laugh—and to love.

Her story makes me question my instant fascination: Why is that playboy-to-priest trajectory so intriguing? We see it (and approve of it) more often in men. But a woman who moves through scandal to holiness heals that old dichotomy in which one was either a good girl or a bad girl. It also heals our notion of religion as shunning anyone who breaks the rules to follow their heart.

“We human beings are so foolish and insensitive that we cannot feel anything until we experience it,” she told the Buddhist Channel. “Unless you go through real heartbreak, you cannot understand the agony that drives you crazy.” Does that mean we all need to crash our hearts on the shoals, as she did? Ah, no. “That is why we have art.”


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.