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Jakucho Setouchi

Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist priest and feminist, was a prolific writer who published over 400 titles which includes her translation of The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese. Born Harumi Mitani in May of 1922 in Shikoku, an island in southwestern Japan, to her cabinetmaker father and stay at home mother. She studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Women’s University and married Yasushi Sakai in 1943 and accompanied him when Japan’s foreign ministry sent him to Beijing where they had their daughter in 1944 (Rich). After World War II, which took the lives of both her mother and grandmother, she returned to Japan and settled in Tokyo by 1947. However, after a year she left her husband and daughter to be with a younger man. She later told reporters in an interview that abandoning her daughter was the biggest regret of her life (Rich). The relationship didn’t last long and throughout her life she had many relationships, some even with married men. Even after becoming a Buddhist priest in 1973 at the age of 51, shaving her head and taking a vow of celibacy, she talked publicly about the importance of sexual freedom, for women in particular (Smith). Popular especially with women, her works were semi-biographical, drawing inspiration from her relationships and life experiences.

Setouchi published her first work in 1950, the same year she divorced her husband. By 1957, she was awarded a literary prize for her novel “Qu Ailing, the Female College Student.” When some critics dismissed her works as pornography for her sexual imagery and the use of the word “womb,” she later told The Japan Times, “I should have stayed quiet, but I was so upset and responded to that criticism, saying, ‘Those who criticize the novel should be impotent and their wives should be frigid.’ Because of that remark, all the literary magazines refused to publish my novels for five years (Smith).” This didn’t deter her and she continued publishing and went on to publish one of her best-known works, her translation of The Tale of Genji.

She was 70 years old when she began translating The Tale of Genji. When she went to sell the idea to Kodansha International and spoke to an executive director she had known since she was still fresh in her career, he said, “It is an honor that you now offer us this great project; however, you are now already seventy years old, aren’t you? Will you still be alive long enough to complete translating all fifty-four chapters?” to which she replied, “I don’t know how much longer I can live. But, I will bet my life on it (Toyoshima).” However, The Tale of Genji was written in ancient Japanese, a form most Japanese would be unable to decipher. Setouchi took to translating it into modern Japanese, condensing and simplifying its hard to read text. On its relevancy to modern times, she told the New York Times in an interview from 1999, “When a man and a woman are in love, the situation hasn’t changed in the last thousand years. There’s jealousy. There’s agony. Even a modern career woman can feel those same pains of love. So, yes, [The Tale of Genji] is relevant to today’s people. And after all, it teaches the basics of love. And that’s very useful, isn't it (Smith)?”

But what is most interesting about The Tale of Genji is Setouchi’s realization about key details of the story. In an interview, she states:

“As you know, the last ten chapters of Genji are often said to be different from the preceding chapters. Some even say that these chapters were written by someone else. Almost three-quarters of the women characters become nuns. The last one is Ukifune. The scene of her shaving her head is so detailed and real. Before Ukifune, whenever a woman character renounced the world, it was simply described with the words, “she renounced the world” and “Genji wept” and that’s all. With Ukifune, there are descriptions such as, “the lead priest told her to bow to the Buddha,” “face this direction” and “express your thanks to your mother and father.” The words, the sutras, and the order of the process are exactly the same as those I used! Then I understood: aha! Lady Murasaki herself had renounced the world when she wrote these final chapters (Toyoshima).

In addition to the writing career she is known for, Setouchi was a prominent activist. Her activism included protesting against the Gulf War, campaigning against capital punishment and after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant, she joined a hunger strike and called for an end to nuclear power (Smith). She established the non-profit Little Women Project in 2016 to support young girls and women struggling with poverty, sexual assault, drug addictions and other trauma.

She continued writing until her death in November 2021 at the age of 99. Her last full-length novel, Life, was published in 2017 and she wrote monthly for Asahi Shimbun with her last publication in October 2021.

Additional Selected Notable Works

Natsu no owari (The End of Summer) (1962)

Kashin (Center of a Flower) (1963)

Hana ni toe (Ask the Flowers) (1992)

Basho (Places) (2001)


Jakuan, temple opened by Jakucho Setouchi in Kyoto


Works Cited

Rich, Motoko, and Makiko Inoue. “Jakucho Setouchi, 99, Dies; Buddhist Priest Wrote of Sex and Love.” The New York Times, 26 Nov. 2021, Accessed 9 May 2024.

Smith, Harrison. “Jakucho Setouchi: Outspoken Buddhist Nun Who Penned Hundreds of Books.” The Independent, 3 Dec. 2021, Accessed 9 May 2024.

Toyoshima, Mizuho. “On Genji Monogatari: A Conversation with Setouchi Jakucho.” Kyoto Journal, 16 Apr. 2011, Accessed 9 May 2024.

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