Characters Discussed

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Yonosuke

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Yonosuke, “Man of the World,” the son of a wealthy playboy businessman and a courtesan of the pleasure quarter in Kyoto who settle down into domesticity after marriage. Precocious concerning love and sex, Yonosuke has his calligraphy teacher copy down his first love letter at the age of seven. As a teenager, he engages in numerous escapades in his search for pleasures of the flesh. Finally, his father disowns him when he is nineteen years old. For the next fifteen years, Yonosuke engages in a variety of occupations, such as salmon peddler, Shinto priest, wandering singer and actor, male prostitute, manager of male prostitutes, and attendant of rich businessmen. The money he earns is quickly frittered away drinking and visiting women of the pleasure quarter. Although physically attractive, well educated, and personally charming, Yonosuke is not always successful in his quest for love and is several times rejected, is beaten by outraged husbands, and once ends up in jail. After almost dying in a shipwreck, he learns that his father has died and that his mother wants him at home. He returns to become head of his family and receives a gift of twenty-five thousand kan of silver from his mother to do with as he wishes. He immediately decides to use the money to ransom all the courtesans in Japan’s pleasure quarters that he finds appealing. Yonosuke marries after being accepted back into his family, but domestic life does not long satisfy him, and soon he resumes his travels throughout the country to visit brothels and pleasure houses. He is a likable rake and is frequently generous to women and servants. He is knowledgeable about the customs, manners, and ranking of the world of the demimonde and often makes fools of courtesans and their masters who do not behave properly. By the time he is fifty-four years old, he had made love to 3,742 women and 725 boys and has a museum full of mementos of lovers he has abandoned all over Japan. Gray-headed and emaciated at the age of sixty (a time of rebirth in Japan), he builds a ship, the Yoshiiro-maru (its name means “lust”), to set sail with six male drinking companions for an island inhabited only by women. Yonosuke is the model playboy of the merchant class during Japan’s feudal age, a hero of the new urban culture that was emerging in Japan in the seventeenth century. Only occasionally is he stricken with remorse for his deeds, and his penitent mood never lasts long.

The Characters

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Yonosuke’s escapades are the focus of virtually every page, but Yonosuke is not a particularly interesting or complex individual. Saikaku Ihara was much more concerned with using Yonosuke as a device with which to examine all corners of the gay world than with studying his psyche. Yonosuke is a flat and static character whose commitment to the gay world dominates his life. He is distinguished by his sensitivity to the nuances not only of sensuality but also of etiquette, style, and graciousness. Yonosuke becomes more sophisticated, experienced, and celebrated as he grows older, but he never changes in any essential way. He does go through a few periods of questioning and self-reproach, even of bad dreams and despair, but these moments of doubt pass quickly and seem to have no lasting effect. For all of his sophistication, Yonosuke is finally a superficial, “whimsical, and aimless” man, content to live in and for the moment.

A modern writer might wish to examine the causes of Yonosuke’s ceaseless quest for the new and the pleasing, but Saikaku is content simply to record Yonosuke’s capers and to allow him to enjoy himself. Yonosuke’s “invincible determination,” his resourcefulness, his unquenchable appetite, and the ingenuity and imagination that he employs in the pursuit of pleasure are admirable. In addition, he repeatedly proves to be a generous and pleasant-spirited, though somewhat solipsistic and callous, man. Yonosuke is incorrigible but charming.

The most interesting characters in the novel are the many briefly sketched inhabitants of the gay quarters. Saikaku, with a few deft strokes, gives vivid life to a gallery of courtesans, male and female. The stoical youth to whom Yonosuke loses his virginity graphically reveals what it is like to be bound into service as a male whore: “We cannot refuse any man, no matter if his body is covered with sores or if he has never used a toothpick in his life.We must endure everything he does throughout the long autumn night.” Yonosuke’s wife is truly “gentle and courteous and big of heart.” She wins the approval of his haughty family quite graciously. She deals with his philandering with tolerance and civility and then ends the marriage with dignity. Miskasa, a courtesan with whom Yonosuke has a prolonged affair, is a woman of “deep feeling” and great strength of character, with a capacity for genuine commitment. She is literally willing to die for Yonosuke. Her love is wasted on him, for he is incapable of sustained commitment. When Yonosuke finally arranges to spend an evening with the famous Hatsune, he realizes as soon as he is in her presence that he is “no match for this astute courtesan in witty conversation.” Hatsune’s superior intelligence justifies her conviction that “men are fools”; yet she must spend her nights entertaining one man after another. Perhaps the most endearing portrait of a courtesan is that of brilliant Komurasaki, who, through her perceptiveness and generosity, saves the life of Juzo, a tailor, “just another man from another city.”

The novel is also peopled with numerous nameless but nevertheless memorable creatures of the dark world of rural poverty and moral decay: a priestess who lives in shadows and who sells “strange drugs and secret accommodations,” “cheap itinerant entertainers...living just this side of the beggar’s lot,” the myriad poor of country villagers who “exploit one another just to keep body and soul together,” nuns who have “long since degenerated into a state of semi-prostitution,” humane grave robbers, and many others. Although he is not concerned with, or particularly skilled at, creating a central figure of great range, depth, or complexity, Saikaku is quite adept at drawing sharp, interesting character sketches.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

Hamada, Kengi. Introduction to The Life of an Amorous Man, 1964.

Hibbett, Howard Scott, Jr. The Floating World in Japanese Fiction, 1959.

Hibbett, Howard Scott, Jr. “The Japanese Comic Linked-Verse Tradition,” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. XXIII (1960/1961), pp. 76-92.

Hibbett, Howard Scott, Jr. “Saikaku and Burlesque Fiction,” in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies. XX (June, 1957), pp. 53-73.

“Koshoku Ichidai Otoko,” in Introduction to Classic Japanese Literature, 1948. Edited by The Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai.

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