Jakucho Setouchi: A freewheeling nun who bucked conventional norms for women

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

Setouchi, known for her charm and flair for wit, spent the latter half of her life as a monastic, delivering inspirational sermons and carving out a reputation as a popular orator and TV guest. But prior to beginning her religious journey in 1973, the Tokushima native established herself first and foremost as a writer — and a controversial one at that — who penned a number of biographical novels featuring feminist activists and women who fought the powers that be.

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

In what became one of the most defining moments of her life in 1948, Setouchi, then in her mid 20s and five years into her marriage, fell in love with her husband’s former protege and eloped with the younger man, leaving behind her three-year-old daughter. Separated from her family and not sure how else to make a living, she began writing.

As an author, though, she got off to a rocky start. In 1957, she published “Kashin” (“A Flower Aflame”), a novel noted for its unbridled depiction of love and sex that scandalized Japan’s literary world so much that she was essentially “ostracized,” as she put it later, from major literature magazines for the next five years.

Her sensual style made her anathema to the male-dominated intelligentsia at the time, who called the novel “pornography” and branded her a “womb writer.”

But undeterred, Setouchi kept writing, and found success in a series of biographical novels paying homage to trailblazing female writers and activists from the prewar era. Those included feminist novelist Kanoko Okamoto, known for her real-life 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
Jakucho Setouchi speaks in an interview in Tokyo in March 1970. | KYODO

There is no mistaking that the freewheeling lifestyles and sexual awakenings personified by those women resonated with Setouchi.

“A long history of being told that obedience to men is the only virtue of women has made us women oblivious to thinking for ourselves, acting on our own and taking responsibility for ourselves,” Setouchi wrote in “Ai no Rinri” (“The Ethics of Love”), a bestselling essay published in 1968.

In the piece, she enumerated a long list of “domestic” qualities men often expected from their wives — including their abilities “not to act hysterical,” “not to be critical,” “be good at cooking” and “be sexually passive and always submissive to their husbands’ needs.”

“These will give you an idea how tough it is being a ‘domestic’ woman,” she wrote.

As if true to her own words, she continued to lead a vibrant romantic life even after her first elopement, 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 earned her a women’s literature prize.

“In my life after death, men I loved will welcome me,” she once said in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “I wonder which one of them I’ll go talk to first.”

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

Jakucho Setouchi addresses a rally held by a citizens' group protesting security bills outside the Diet building in Tokyo in June 2015. | KYODO
Jakucho Setouchi addresses a rally held by a citizens’ group protesting security bills outside the Diet building in Tokyo in June 2015. | KYODO

In her later years, the nun fasted in protest against the 1991 Gulf War, and, more recently, joined demonstrators opposed to nuclear power and former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial 2015 security legislation. She was vehemently opposed to capital punishment, as well.

The obvious turning point for her was in 1973 when she, in the middle of her very successful career as an author, surprised the nation by suddenly committing herself to Buddhism. Not that this foray into religion stopped her from writing, producing more than 400 works in her lifetime.

One of her biggest accomplishments was the 1998 translation of “The Tale of Genji,” a classic masterpiece written by 11th-century noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu that centered around an aristocratic prince’s relationships with different women, into modern Japanese. In 2006, Setouchi was awarded Japan’s Order of Culture.

In addition, 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 drink and eat meat. Her candid acknowledgement of those deeds charmed the public, winning her many fans.

Her personable side was also evident in her fondness of new things and an internet savvy that allowed her to stay connected with a younger generation: In 2008, at age 86, she took a stab at the emerging mobile-phone novel genre that was popular with teen girls at the time, contributing works under a pen name.

Books written by Jakucho Setouchi are displayed at a bookstore in Tokyo on Friday following her death earlier in the week. | KYODO
Books written by Jakucho Setouchi are displayed at a bookstore in Tokyo on Friday following her death earlier in the week. | KYODO

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

On her 99th birthday in May, a video posted on 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’ve lived to my 99th birthday, and I think that’s too long a life,” Setouchi wrote while posting the video.

“I’ve done far more things in life than people normally do,” she said. “I have no regrets about any of them. I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”

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