"Usually people who do bad things make good writers. I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting."
~Jakucho Setouchi, novelist-turned-Buddhist nun
Jakucho Setouchi is one of my heroes, and she made this comment during an interview with Reuters back in 2008, when she was eighty five years old. Here are some of the reasons why I admire her.
She was born in 1922 in Tokushima prefecture. She married and had a child, and then in her mid-twenties, she fell in love with one of her husband's students. She left her husband, lost custody of her daughter, and started writing novels. She wrote about the affair, and later about her relationship with a married man, breaking ground by freely describing sex from a woman's point of view. She was quickly labelled a pornographer by the mostly male Japanese literati, and the publisher of her second novel described her as "a writer who thinks with her womb." Responding to this, Setouchi said, "I was very excited about releasing the book, so I was shocked and flabbergasted when I saw the advertisement copy. Most upsetting was that some male critics reviewed the book and said I must have written it while masturbating."
She fought back and continued to write, but as her success grew, she started to lose what she called her power of judgement. Without hearing the Japanese, it's impossible to know exactly what she meant by the word "judgement," but I can't help feeling she might have been referring to a kind of breakdown of moral or ethical discernment in regard to her fiction, her self, and her voice in the world. She went into psychotherapy, which was very unusual in Japan at the time, and a decade later, at the age of 51, she shaved her head and took vows as a Tendai Buddhist nun, explaining that while she was willing to give up writing completely, she knew that were she to continue, she would need a backbone.
And continue she did. In 1998, she wrote a best-selling modern translation of the classical novel The Tale of Genji, focussing on the experiences of the women characters instead of the prince, and in 2006, she received the Japanese Order of Culture. Now, at the age of 90, she's still writing novels and plays and essays, giving hugely popular public talks, and working a political activist. She's best known for her opposition to the death penalty and to the Gulf Wars and she went to Iraq to distribute medicine. Most recently, at the age of 90, she staged a hunger strike to protest the reopening of Japan's nuclear facilities in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Jakucho was an inspiration for the character of Old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being, and she was an inspiration to me when I was thinking about ordination, too. The comment she made about needing a backbone in order to continue writing resonated strongly, and I wrote about it in an essay for the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine, exploring the ever-changing relationship—sometimes harmonious and most often confounding—between my two beloved practices of writing and Zen.
I would like to meet Setouchi Jakucho, but I don't think she would like my novels. In another interview she said, "The most important thing to write about in novels is love affairs. Corporations and politics -- none of that is interesting." I disagree with her on this point, although maybe I could convince her to change her mind. She seems willing to admit when she's wrong. In talking about her decision to become a nun, she said that she had no regrets about her ordination, but she might have gotten the timing wrong. "I'm glad I did it, but it was a little bit early. It was a bit of a waste. I had no idea I was going to live so long. I thought it would be 25 years at most."