Hirayama Tōgo Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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Ihara Saikaku (ee-hahr-ah si-kah-kew) 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 Tgo 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.{$S[A]Hirayama T{omacr}go[Hirayama Togo];Ihara Saikaku}{$S[A]Ihara Kakuei;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 Bash 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 (chnin) 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 kagami (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 Wanky (a real person) in the licensed quarters, and Saikaku was also fascinated with jruri 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...

(The entire section is 1,943 words.)