Ihara Saikaku (1641-93) was born

Hirayama Tougo in Osaka to a prosperous merchant family. Little

is known about his early life, but his wife died young and his

only daughter shortly thereafter. Rather than enter the priesthood

as might have been expected under the circumstances, he began

traveling extensively and writing. He was recognized initially

for his skill as a haikai poet,

and is credited with being one of the most prolific renga

(linked verse) poets of all time. Late in life, however, he turned

his attention instead to writing novels, and it is for the brilliant

literary works of this period that he is best known today.
The Japan of the late seventeenth-century had existed under the

stern yet unified rule of the Tokugawa shogunate for nearly a

century before the publication of the literary classic The

Life of an Amorous Man. The work was the first novel

by then forty-one year-old Saikaku, and in its pages he recounted

the life and exploits of the ridiculously amorous hero Yonosuke

(lit.- man of the world), a rake who devotes most of his life,

from early youth till death, to pursuing and enjoying the intimate

company of women and, some cases, young boys. The work was an

important one for two fundamental reasons: first, it was the first

literary work to emerge in Japan that treated sex and sensuality

with a candor hardly before seen in Japanese literature. So influential

was it, in fact, that it produced an entire genre of fiction that

would become characteristic of the period, Ukiyo-zoushi,

or “tales of the floating world.”

The term “floating world”

was used to describe the environs of the pleasure quarters and

theater districts that were becoming popular at that time. Moreover,

the typically short passages that make up the work provide the

modern reader with an unobstructed (but decidedly masculine) view

into the brothels and pleasure quarters of feudal Japan.
The pleasure quarters (yuukaku)

were government-sanctioned districts, mostly urban, where men

could purchase the favors of the demimondaine.

In some cases, like that of the expansive Yoshiwara

district in Edo, the licensed quarters were active on a rather

grand scale. The insulated world of Yoshiwara

and other districts like it provided the writers of the time with

a world of superficial dazzle and ritualized pleasure populated

with rogues and hypocrites of all descriptions. “There

were devious merchants, scheming courtesans, fallen or slumming

samurai, slimy sycophants, lecherous monks, horny nuns, vainglorious

actors, ludicrous fops and fey spendthrifts.”

[Bornoff, 174] Saikaku used these figures, often drawn as caricatures,

as inhabitants of his own literary “floating

In his richly drawn portraits of life behind

the scenes in the world of recreational sex, Saikaku never treats

the reader to excessively explicit detail. One does find, though,

that although prostitution was very much present in current sense

of the word, the male patrons were highly selective of the partners

they chose to spend time with, and that a fulfilling “evening

of pleasure” may have included

little more than food, drink, and pleasant conversation. This

is wholly apart from what we might think of as prostitution today,

where services purchased and anticipated are almost exclusively

within the realm of physical, sexual gratification. For the characters

in Saikaku’s world a woman’s

manner and grace were as important or more so than her physical

attributes, and this reveals her to having been more than simply

a sexual object.
In addition to exploits in the yuukaku,

Saikaku wrote on other areas of the sexual spectrum. One theme

that received particular attention was that of same-sex love,

or more specifically, love between men and boys. This type of

affection was referred to as nanshoku,

or “male love,”

and it contrasted with joshoku, “female

love.” In Saikaku’s

day homosexual love among men had none of the stigma attached

to it today in Japanese society or that of our own. In fact,

the contemporary view of the rugged, lethal samurai might find

itself sharply at odds with the reality of the commonplace nature

of male love and its pervasive acceptance in medieval and Tokugawa

Saikaku writes about nanshoku

at great length in his book Nanshoku Oukagami

(The Great Mirror of Male Love). In it he depicts male love as

it existed around the samurai tradition, as well as in the other

arena in which it was most predominant, the kabuki

theater. The short stories that make up the work are evenly divided

between the two types.

Nanshoku existed exclusively

between men and boys, and the age of nineteen was the point at

which a male would assume the role associated with the former.

Prior to that time he was exclusively a member of the latter,

and known as a wakashu. The

men who practiced homosexual love were divided into two categories:

onna-girai and shoujin-zuki.

Onna-girai (”woman-haters”)

were those men that dallied exclusively with wakashu, and

by contemporary terminology might be called “gay.”

Shoujin-zuki were those who continued to have sexual relations

with women in addition to their liaisons with boys, and in many

cases even had wives and families. Nanshoku Oukagami was

made up entirely of the former, however, and some critics argue

that it is for this reason that a discernible misogynistic bias

exists in many of the stories. Paul Gordon Schalow says:
Because he adopted the onna-girai’s

extreme stance toward female love rather than the shoujin-zuki’s

inclusive position, Saikaku was obliged to write disparagingly

of women in the pages of Nanshoku Oukagami. But Saikaku’s

misogynistic tone, which many readers of this translation will

find offensive, is directed not so much at women as at the men

who loved them. [Schalow, 4]
The status and perception of women had seen a noticeable decline

Japan in the Middle Ages and into the feudal period. Tokugawa

society, with its strict class divisions and clearly defined societal

roles, was inhospitable to women to such a degree that the fruits

of their artistic and creative pursuits, having reached their

apogee in the Heian Era, were now being stifled in almost every

quarter. One glaring example of this practice was the barring

of women from performing on-stage by the bakufu

in 1629. Although initially allowed to perform in the blossoming

kabuki theater, the role of women

had slowly shifted from that of performer to prostitute. This,

it was feared, would turn performance halls into brothels, and

women were summarily excluded from further participation in hopes

of averting the progression. Curiously, however, those selected

to fill the now-vacant female roles on the kabuki

stage (i.e.- young, feminine boys) soon experienced the same evolution

of role, and in like fashion became ready bedmates for enthusiastic

spectators. It is noteworthy that this form of the theater, called

wakashu kabuki, was subsequently

banned as well.
If anything, Saikaku only echoed the kind of biased, subjugative

view of women already well-established in Japan in his time.

One particularly apropos example is his treatment of the main

characters in the two works The Life of

an Amorous Man and The Life of

an Amorous Woman. In the former case the protagonist,

the ever-infatuated Yonosuke, progresses through his entire lifetime

experiencing successes and failures but ultimately achieving great

prosperity after many years spent in the familiar embrace of the

pleasure quarters. The heroine in Amorous

Woman, however, enjoys a wonderfully auspicious existence

in her youth, but experiences a steady, inexorable decline which

finds her a gnarled and pathetic wretch at the end. The same

similarly unpleasant yet inevitable fate seems to await many of

the female characters in Saikaku’s other works

as well, and the dual underlying messages seem to be that promiscuity

and licentious behavior are the bailiwick of men alone, and that

women are of little worth once their looks and sexual appeal have

The rake, the Lothario who demonstrates masterful skill in seduction,

holds a certain appeal for Saikaku. His protagonists are overwhelmingly

attractive, clever men who, much like the famous

poet Ariwara no Narihira, entice the objects of their fancy,

be they young women or wakashu boys, with carefully chosen

words and cultured manner. The ploy for luring widows regularly

used by Yonosuke’s elderly confidant

in The Life of an Amorous Man sounds so appealing to the

young dandy that employs it himself at the first opportunity [41].

It is known that Saikaku was an active patron of the pleasure

quarters himself, and one must wonder if his characters were the

product of his own self-image. Whatever the case, the sensual

world held great interest for him, and he traversed its broad

expanses with a keen eye and vigorous pen.
It is important to note that Saikaku’s works,

though often quite erotic, were not oblivious to the realm of

the heart, and some of his pieces relate tales of ardent love

by common people, not unlike the works of his contemporary, Chikamatsu.

Saikaku wrote of lovers who experience great depth of emotion

and caring. These figures are often torn between the love they

feel for one another, and the duty that conspires to keep them

apart. An example of this type is the first story in Five

Women Who Loved Love where, much like Chikamatsu’s

The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, the leading figures are

doomed to be separated against their will, deceived, shamed, and

decide eventually to die gloriously together. Although in Saikaku’s

work the ending finds the couple as somewhat apart from the “models

of true love” that die together,

the mettle of their devotion is nonetheless tested under dire

circumstances, and is found to ring true. I think it is these

works which must have led to his great popularity because they,

along with the stories of the bunraku and kabuki

stage, gave new voice to the lives and dreams of commoners and

Ihara Saikaku is described as “one of

the most uninhibited writers who ever published a tale”

by translator Kengi Hamada. His unabashed, straight-forward style

of writing may not seem to the modern reader to be especially

sensual or otherwise erotic, but for his time it was a new direction

in literature, and it launched an entire genre. In his characters

we can find a little of the author himself, his views of women,

and his love for the sensual world.

Works Cited


Saikaku, Ihara. The Life of an Amorous

Man. Trans. Kengi Hamada. Rutland, VT: Charles E.

Tuttle Company, Inc., 1979.


Saikaku, Ihara. Five Women Who Loved Love.

Trans. Wm, Theodore de Bary. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle

Company, Inc., 1956.


Saikaku, Ihara. The Great Mirror of Male

Love. Trans. Paul Gordon Schalow. Stanford, CA: Stanford

University Press, 1990.


Bornoff, Nicholas. Pink Samurai: Love,

Marriage and Sex in Contemporary Japan. New York,

NY: Pocket Books, 1991.

An essay about the life and works of 17th century Japanese author Ihara Saikaku.