Last reviewed: June 2018
Japanese short-story writer, poet, and novelist
September 9, 1693
Ihara Saikaku was the major writer of popular fiction during the Genroku period (1688-1703), and his novels and short stories are classics in Japanese literature. Despite his fame, there is not much verifiable information about his life. He evidently was born Hirayama Tōgo and was reared in Osaka, the son of a wealthy merchant family. It appears that he became heir to the family business and married young, but when his wife died in 1675, leaving him with a blind daughter, he reportedly left his affairs in the care of assistants and took up the life of an itinerant Buddhist pilgrim in 1677, a sign of mourning and a symbolic renunciation of the mundane world. Statue of Ihara Saikaku.
Statue of Ihara Saikaku.
He then traveled about Japan, gathering impressions and information later expressed in his writings. He began to write long, epigrammatic, linked haikai poems at age fourteen, and by age twenty, he was proficient enough to be a teacher and judge of such compositions. Writing under the pen name Ihara Kakuei (Ihara may have been his mother’s maiden name), his first published poems probably were four works included in a 1666 collection of haikai compiled by followers of the dominant Teimon school. He then came under the influence of Nishiyama Soin, founder of the Danrin haikai school. The liberal Danrin style appealed to Saikaku’s preference for a more natural style of composition, even though the famous poet Matsuo Bashō criticized him for writing in such a vulgar form. Saikaku became famous for participating in yakazu poetry composition marathons. In 1673, he joined an estimated two hundred poets at a twelve-day composition session producing ten thousand works at Osaka’s Ikudama Shrine. Three hundred of Saikaku’s contributions appeared in Ikudama manku (1673; ten thousand verses at Ikudama), his first of a dozen books of poetry and verse criticism. Saikaku’s prolific composition talents enabled him in 1684 to create 23,500 verses in a single day, a feat that earned for him the title Master of the Twenty Thousand Verses.
Perhaps because of factional disputes among Danrin poets following the death of Soin, Saikaku gradually gave up writing haikai (he would resume haikai composition in his later years) and concentrated on writing popular fiction. His haikai-writing talents were resented by some fellow Danrin poets, and he was pejoratively called “Oranda Saikaku” (Dutch Saikaku), a derogatory term ridiculing his eccentricities. Turning from prestigious haikai to fiction, a relatively new form of writing lacking literary prestige, was risky, but at the age of forty, using the name Ihara Saikaku, he published his first work of prose fiction, the fifty-four-chapter The Life of an Amorous Man, a picaresque work inspired by the colorful life of the urban middle class (chōnin) and the “floating world” (ukiyo) of the licensed pleasure quarters. The commercial success of this work prompted a sequel to the ribald adventures of Yonosuke, the seducer of women and young boys in The Life of an Amorous Man, and Shoen ōkagami (the great mirror of various amours) appeared two years later. Both were humorous retellings of Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933), lifted from the refined Heian era and recast with the denizens of the teahouses, theaters, brothels, and commoners’ houses of Saikaku’s time.
The kabuki theater furnished the plot for a 1685 story about the dalliances of the wealthy townsman Wankyū (a real person) in the licensed quarters, and Saikaku was also fascinated with jōruri puppet plays. Taking the 1683 real-life crucifixion of a pair of illicit paramours and the suicide of an adulterous barrel maker’s wife who lived near his home as background, he produced Five Women Who Loved Love, five stories about the tragicomical misfortunes of a quintet of lovers with attention focused on the women protagonists who sacrifice all for love. He created Yonosuke’s female counterpart in The Life of an Amorous Woman, in which an old woman reminisces about her profligate life as a prostitute. Homosexuality, an accepted practice among monks and warriors and condoned in Saikaku’s time by the shogun Tsunayoshi, who preferred men, was featured in The Great Mirror of Male Love, or “comrade loves of the Samurai,” about male relationships among samurai and kabuki actors. Samurai and the celebration of duty (giri) provided the theme for two other books about the warrior class, uneven works lacking the inspiration that informed Saikaku’s earlier writings.
Saikaku was a product of chōnin culture, and he returned to this milieu in The Japanese Family Storehouse, recounting the successful (and failed) moneymaking ways of ingenious Osaka and Sakai businessmen. The pressure to keep producing lucrative works may have resulted in several inferior writings in Saikaku’s later life, books semipornographic and pandering to the prurient interests of the townsmen but without the redeeming literary qualities of the earlier erotic prose fiction. His last major work, written as his eyesight was failing, was Worldly Mental Calculations, about the humorous sparring relationship between debtors and bill collectors. He died when he was fifty-one years old, leaving numerous uncompleted manuscripts later edited and added to by his disciple Hōjō Dansui. His ashes were interred at the Seigan Temple in Osaka.
Though Saikaku reached his literary eminence through haikai, he is appreciated more for his works of fiction and their capturing of the joie de vivre of the merchant townsmen. He took the kana zōshi (booklet) form of writing popular during the early seventeenth century and, using an elliptical style influenced by his experience with haikai composition, created a new genre, ukiyo zōshi (notes of the floating world), to express in a mixture of colloquial and classical prose the sensual preoccupations of the wealthy chōnin(bourgeois) class. A participant in that of which he wrote, Saikaku produced Daniel Defoe-like portraits of rakes, loose women, and wily merchants, carefree symbols of an age when townsmen were the arbiters of taste and the pessimistic, sense-denying tenets of Buddhism and the feudal society of the Tokugawa regime (1600-1868) were being challenged.
Whereas erotic works (kōshokubon) and the frequent theme of human feelings (ninjō) in conflict with social norms dominated Saikaku’s oeuvre between 1682 and 1686, the period from 1686 to 1688 was typified by wide-ranging miscellaneous works, including travelogues, detective stories, biographical sketches, and drama. The stories about samurai, a declining class officially forbidden to partake of the townsmen’s pleasures but surreptitious participants (to their frequent economic ruin) nevertheless, were the focus of several of his middle-period works exploring samurai loves, obligations, and conflicts of duty. Saikaku returned to a subject he knew at first hand in the chōninmono (townsmen works) of his last period, 1688 to 1693; these writings concerned merchants’ crafty ways of making money, realistic works less indulgent than the earlier lubricious pieces.
Even if Saikaku’s works are weak in plot development and character portrayal and his stories ignore the harsh realities of the demimonde, as critics frequently charge, what he does give the reader is more than detached voyeurism. In his humorous and wry vignettes of the “floating world,” he produced a corpus of fiction that complements the works of his contemporaries—the poet Bashō, the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon, and the woodblock artist Hishikawa Moronobu—to preserve in literature an insightful portrait of the Genroku age.