Jakucho Setouchi lived with love, encouraged people

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Jakucho Setouchi speaks during an open-air sermon event at Tendaiji temple in Ninohe, Iwate Prefecture, in 2015.

Jakucho Setouchi, who died on Tuesday at age 99, loved and lived with passion just like the women she wrote about in her novels. Her energetic activities and charisma reached well beyond the notional boundaries of her identities as a writer and a nun. She remained remarkably active until near the very end of her life, but reportedly became ill and was hospitalized in mid-October.

The starting point of Setouchi’s career was her wartime experiences. She was in Beijing when World War II ended. She learned of her mother’s death in a bomb shelter only after she returned to her hometown of Tokushima with her husband.

While Setouchi went through sadness and felt the misery of a country that lost a war, she also saw the rebirth of Japan as a democratic country, which sparked a desire in her to write the novels she had always wanted to write and live a new life. She fell in love with a student of her scholar husband and ran away from home, saying she would become a novelist. She thus left her daughter behind when the girl was only 3 years old.

“If there had been no war, I wouldn’t have loved a man other than my husband or deserted my daughter,” Setouchi said later.

When she was 51 and already a popular writer named Harumi Setouchi, she suddenly became a Buddhist nun. She decided to do so after becoming stuck both professionally and personally. “To write a good novel, one needs a philosophy that becomes the backbone of one’s literature,” she explained. She was given her religious name, Jakucho, by writer Toko Kon, who was a Buddhist priest of the highest order. The name consists two kanji characters, jaku (lonely) and cho (listening) and suggests the meaning of a holy person calmly listening to the sounds made by everything in the universe.

Setouchi broke new ground in the second half of her life. She held events featuring sermons and copying Buddhist sutras at Jakuan, her own hermitage in Kyoto’s Sagano district, where she listened to various visitors and gave them encouragement. She also became much talked about due to her correspondence with death-row inmate Hiroko Nagata and her friendship with actor Kenichi Hagiwara, who was arrested over a drug offense.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Jakucho Setouchi, then Harumi Setouchi, has her hair shorn and receives a nun’s robe during a ceremony to officially become a Buddhist nun at Chusonji temple in Iwate Prefecture on Nov. 14, 1973.

Since February last year, all sermon sessions at the Jakuan hermitage had been canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Setouchi had fewer opportunities to go out, but she continued with her regular writing commitments for newspapers and literary magazines. Her secretary recently posted photos and videos of Setouchi playing with the secretary’s child.

In January next year, the second set of a collection of Setouchi’s literary works is scheduled to be published by Shinchosha.

“To me, living is about continuously writing,” she wrote in an article introducing the collection. “With all the volumes in front of me, I release a sigh, thinking that I can die at any moment.”

Nurturing ‘young shoots’

In 2016, Setouchi started a project for young women who have difficulty living for various reasons, such as victims of sexual assault and girls who have attempted suicide. Under the Wakakusa (young shoots) Project, she invited such women to the Jakuan hermitage, gently patted their backs and softy touched their arms, which sometimes had scarred wrists. And she would tell them kindly: “You had a hard time. Now you will be all right.”

She sent a video message titled “My Last Words” to a briefing session about the project last autumn.

“Now you have so many pains, but bear in mind that things will definitely change. Live your lives with determination to endure them. This is my last wish,” she said in the video.