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Sunday, Oct. 5, 2008

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Crowd-pleaser: Jakucho Setouchi addresses a multitude from all over Japan who gathered in the rain last month at the Tendaiji Temple in Joboji, Iwate Prefecture, where the Buddhist nun was the chief priest from 1987 to 2005. ERIKO ARITA PHOTO

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Living high: living deep

Jakucho Setouchi — a most unlikely nun


Staff writer

It was pouring down with rain, but in early September thousands of people thronged inside and outside a temple in Joboji, in Japan's northeasterly Iwate Prefecture, to listen to a sermon by Jakucho Setouchi. As a Buddhist nun, and one of the most popular writers in Japan, it was Setouchi's remarkable insight on life, her humor and her eloquence that had drawn so many to listen to her words of wisdom whatever the weather.

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Eye-pleaser: Harumi Setouchi (Harumi was her name before she became a nun) at age 20 in 1942 in a photo to be shown to prospective arranged-marriage partners. NAGAO SHOBO

"We don't know when we're going to die," 86-year-old Setouchi told the assembled masses. "But we must live our lives to the full every day without any regrets. Eat and drink what you want — and if you have someone you love, go and tell them that you love them.

"But if you love your neighbor's husband, she will be hurt. It is nearly impossible for you to be happy while hurting others. I think many of you have done such things, and I also did them so many times," she said with a laugh.

In those few words, this small, elderly nun brimming with energy gave a big hint as to the colorful and rather dramatic life she has lived.

Known as Harumi Setouchi before becoming a nun, she was born in Tokushima Prefecture on the southern island of Shikoku in 1922. She studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Women's Christian University and married at 21. Then she moved to Beijing, where her husband's work took him, and gave birth to a daughter there. After World War II ended in 1945, the family returned to Japan, but before long she fell in love with a young man and, at age 26, abandoned her husband and child . . . so embarking on a particularly passionate phase of her life.

As well, Setouchi also began writing novels in the 1950s, and at age 35 won a literary prize for "Joshidaisei Chu Ailing (Woman University Student Chu Ailing)." Though her next novel, "Kashin (Flower's Core)," was branded as pornography by some critics, in 1963 she was awarded the prestigious Woman's Literature Prize for "Natsu no Owari (The End of Summer)," in which she describes her quadrangular relationship with her ex-boyfriend, her lover and his wife.

But then, astonishingly — while busily writing novels and essays — Setouchi became a Buddhist nun at the age of 51.

At age 70 she received one of Japan's top literary awards, the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize, for "Hana ni Toe (Ask the Flower)," which is based on Ippen, the founder of the Ji sect of Buddhism, and in 2006 she added the International Nonino Prize for her novels and activities as a Buddhist nun.

But Setouchi is not only a novelist. She is an activist, too.

In 1991, she went on a hunger strike against the Gulf War; then she took humanitarian supplies to Iraq; and then, after 9/11, she paid for an advertisement in a national newspaper condemning the invasion of Iraq. In addition, Setouchi is also a forceful opponent of capital punishment — which Japan still allows — and has corresponded with some of those on death row.

This year, however, is particularly busy for Setouchi, who has now published nearly 400 books and continues writing, appearing on TV and speaking at temples. That's because this year marks the 1,000th anniversary of "The Tale of Genji" by Murasaki Shikibu — often hailed as the world's first novel — and Setouchi, whose modern Japanese translation was published in 1996, has been lecturing on "Genji" all over Japan for several months now.

Despite her rigorous schedule, however, Jakucho Setouchi made time to talk to The Japan Times before delivering her sermon that rainy day in Iwate last month.

In a recent biography of you by Shinji Saito, he says that as a writer you are following in the footsteps of the female French philosophers Simone Weil or Simone de Beauvoir. What do you think of that?

It's a bit of an exaggeration, but maybe he said that because I have not just written books but have also faced social problems in my life. In that respect, I think my actions have been different from other writers.

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Needs-easer: Setouchi meditates while sitting on relief goods for Iraq piled in a warehouse of the Red Crescent Society in Amman, Jordan in April 1991. AKIO HAGA

Two years ago, I received the International Nonino Prize in Italy, even though I'd never heard of it until I was chosen. I believe I got the prize because of my activities to do with social problems as well as for my writings.

One person on the judging panel for that prize was V.S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. I heard that he read your novel "The End of Summer" in English. In that book you wrote about your quadrangular relationship with your lover, Jinjiro Oda, his wife and your ex-boyfriend. What made you write about such a difficult, complicated experience?

I didn't have any special idea, but I just wrote about the most important problem in my mind to be solved at that time. It was a complete "I" novel. This is a method of writing about the author's own life experience honestly, which is a specialty of Japanese literature. I have written many "I" novels.

Apart from me, nobody writes really honestly about their own experiences. Nobody writes about their most embarrassing things or things they never want others to know. By writing "I" novels, I can reflect on what I have done from an objective point of view — a viewpoint I didn't actually have during those events.

By writing the novels, I can realize if I have done a stupid thing or what I should have done. Although a human being may try to live life to the full every moment, life cannot always be perfect. That's all right, I think.

For the eight years you dated Oda he was spending his time at your place and also at his family home. What did you gain through your relationship with him?

I learned about literature from him, and the difference between great literature and the rest. He expressed it as literature's spirit being high or low. If I hadn't met him, I wouldn't have my life as a literary person now. I owe my life to him.

While living with Oda, you also met your ex-boyfriend again and started seeing him, too. What kind of person was he?

He was a student of my ex-husband who had been teaching in a junior high school in Tokushima Prefecture before we moved to China. Now I realize it was immature love . . .

I was not so unhappy in my life with my ex-husband. But it was during the war, and while struggling to overcome that extraordinary situation, I realized what was his real personality and that he had different values from me. That gave me a very uneasy feeling — and then I met the young man.

But I think there is no reason why people fall in love. It's like lightning. You don't know when it's coming and you can't avoid it even though you may get injured or die. I think that is what falling in love is like.

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