‘Five Women Who Loved Love’ by Ihara Saikaku (Review)

At the end of my review of Donald Keene’s Anthology of Japanese Literature a couple of years back, I predicted that I would be persuaded to dip my hand into my pocket as a result.  Unsurprisingly, that proved to be the case, but (perhaps equally unsurprisingly…) most of those books have remained on my shelves gathering dust, with only The Gossamer Years (AKA Kagerō Nikki) getting a review so far.  Some of those will have to wait for another day, but today’s review finally sees me looking at another of these classic J-Lit texts – although I suspect that when people talk about the classics, these stories aren’t exactly what they have in mind…

Ihara Saikaku’s Five Women Who Loved Love: Amorous Tales from 17th-Century Japan (translated by Wm. Theodore de Barry) was first published in 1686.  It consists, as you’d expect, of five longish stories, each taking place in a different Japanese location, and all the stories focus on a woman and her problems in love.  For the modern reader, the subtitle may contain a suggestion of something slightly racier than is actually the case.  The ‘amorous tales’ here mainly concern forbidden love, and the need to keep the women’s liaisons secret (and, of course, the sad consequences of those secrets being uncovered).

One of the major features of Five Women Who Loved Love is the focus on a different set of people to those readers would have been used to.  Forget your shining princes and flawless beauties – Ihara’s attention is drawn to another layer of society altogether, namely the newly emerging trading classes of the growing Japanese cities.  As de Bary remarks in his introduction:

Wherever one found merchants and tradesmen in those times, there were sure to be signs of this new life described by Saikaku – busy markets, side lanes lined with little shops, the dignified establishments of money-changers, great warehouses, teahouses frequented by smartly dressed people, theatres, restaurants, bathhouses, brothels, and streets full of peddlers, panders, jugglers, freaks and dancing shows.
p.17 (Tuttle Press, 1956)

For the first time, literary heroes are to found among the everyday folk, with Ihara’s stories reflecting life on the streets of the cities.

The five stories, then, feature ordinary people in commonplace situations, with a series of young women experiencing love and heartbreak.  In ‘The Story of Seijuro in Himeji’, Onatsu falls in love with the young man working for her father, but when their attempted elopement is thwarted, her lover is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, bringing their love to a crushing end.  By contrast, Oshichi, the heroine of ‘The Greengrocer’s Daughter with a Bundle of Love’, brings her fate upon herself.  Having been forbidden to see her beau, a dashing young samurai residing at a local temple, she decides to take drastic action, which only leads to public disgrace and punishment.

Not all of the women are quite as admirable as these two, though.  In ‘The Barrelmaker Brimful of Love’, the beautiful maidservant Osen is happy to marry a local cooper, yet (in a rather far-fetched plot twist) she ends up cheating on him for no particular reason.  Meanwhile, ‘What the Seasons Brought the Almanac Maker’ sees the almanac maker’s wife, Osan, playing a trick on one of her husband’s workers, who was planning to slip into the bed of one of the maids:

Her plan was to take the place of Rin that night, disguise herself in cotton summer-clothes, and lie in Rin’s bed.  It was also arranged for the various women-servants to come running with sticks and staves and lanterns when Osan called out.
‘What the Seasons Brought the Almanac Maker’, p.135

It probably won’t surprise you to know that events play out rather differently, and it isn’t long before Osan and her young lover are on the run.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the stories is the final piece, ‘Gengobei, the Mountain of Love’, where the main female character must fight against men, not women, to win the attention of her lover.  After poor Gengobei has two young male lovers pass away (one in his arms), he decides to head off to the mountains to live in solitude (with only the two ghosts for company).  Oman, a woman who had fallen in love with him knowing of his preference for men, heads off to the mountains dressed as a boy, hoping to seduce Gengobei before he realises that she’s not who he thinks she is.  Whether modern readers will approve of her actions is debatable, but it certainly makes for a very different take on the concept of forbidden love.

While there’s a lot to like about the stories, and each, taken by itself, is a decent read, the book does seem to lack a certain something at times.  The structure is somewhat formulaic (five tales, each with five short chapters), and the stories are a little short for what they are and can consequently be lacking in depth.  ‘The Barrelmaker Brimful of Love’ rather spoils a perfectly good story with a weak ending while ‘What the Seasons Brought the Alamanac Maker’ is a bit silly, to be honest.  I did enjoy the other pieces, particularly ‘The Greengrocer’s Daughter with a Bundle of Love’ (an excellent Romeo and Juliet story with a similarly tragic end), but overall, it wasn’t as succesful as it I thought it would be.

Of course, a little insight helps, and Richard Lane’s concluding essay is invaluable in this regard, stressing a daring and transgressive nature to Ihara’s writing that might not be apparent to the average reader. Lane looks at some of the possible real-life influences for the five stories, comparing them not only with prose accounts, but also other versions, such as ballads.  With this background information, the stories start to take life, and the reader begins to understand just what risks the lovers were taking.

This is especially revealing when Lane focuses on the crime of love in 17th-Century Japan.  Although the society of the writer’s time was more inclusive than in previous eras, it wasn’t quite as progressive as I made out earlier.  Japanese culture was still highly stratified, and for many ‘crimes’, such as adultery, the punishments were disproportionately harsh towards the lower classes (offenders from higher classes, such as samurai, often got away far more lightly…).  Lane carefully examines the situation in each of the stories and uses the laws of the day to see what penalty each of the characters would face:

The legal implications of the affair involve the edicts already quoted concerning Osen.  Here, however, the crime is greater as being perpetrated by a servant upon his master’s wife, and this doubtless accounts for the extreme penalty of death by crucifixion.  As noted earlier, Tama, as go-between, was liable also to capital punishment. (p.253)

As you can see, most of these punishments were pretty brutal, and terminal.

Despite the issues noted above, Five Women Who Loved Love is still an interesting take on an era I hadn’t looked at before, and the background behind the stories provides something extra for the modern reader.  These are tales from a very different time and place, but some things are universal.  There’ll always be lovers, and there’ll always be heartbreak – oh, and there’ll always be someone to write about it, too…

2 thoughts on “‘Five Women Who Loved Love’ by Ihara Saikaku (Review)

  1. So good to see this wonderful translation being rediscovered and reviewed more than half a century after it was first published. Just reading the titles of the stories reminds me of what a great translator Wm. Theodore de Bary was.


    1. Janine – I looked him up on Wikipedia after finishing this, and it certainly seems like he was an enormously influential man…


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