Ihara Saikaku: author vs. narrator

In 1687 Ihara Saikaku, son of an Ôsaka merchant, wrote a book about sexual love between men: the Nanshoku Ôkagami, a title usually translated as “Great Mirror of Male Love”. The “Great Mirror” part is an allusive variation on a theme that started in the 12th century, and signaled to readers that the text was a collection of idealized (not to say fictionalized) biographies—and futher, by Saikaku’s age previous works had made the snippet come to suggest eroticism. When trying to understand the Ôkagami, a modern, foreign label like “homosexuality” can be misleading. The kind of relationship the book celebrates is very specific: a traditional Japanese institution of adult-to-teenager male companionship that we inevitably have to compare to Greek paiderastía.

One thing about the Nanshoku Ôkagami that shocks our sensibility is the extremely virulent attacks on women. From available evidence it seems that, in pre-modern Japan, homosexuality wasn’t considered an identity but rather a behavior—or, in the case of floating-world cultured hedonism, a particular taste among prostitution connoisseurs. In that society, what was noticeable in what we today would call an “homosexual” man wasn’t that he fancied the same sex (a taste unremarkable by itself) , but rather that he despised women. Consequently such men weren’t called, as we say, “lovers of the same sex”, but “woman-haters” (女嫌い onnagirai).

And boy does the Nanshoku Ôkagami hate women:

[…] even if the woman were a beauty of gentle disposition and the [male] youth a repulsive pug-nosed fellow, it is a sacrilege to speak of female love in the same breath with boy love. A woman’s heart can be likened to the fuji vine: though bearing lovely blossoms, it is twisted and bent. A youth may have a thorn or two, but he is like the first plum blossom of the new year exuding an indescribable fragance. The only sensible choice is to dispense with women and turn instead to men.

Given out-of-context quotes like this, a modern reader would be justified in thinking Ihara Saikaku was some kind of Burroughs-style misogynistic old queer. But our hypothetical reader would be surprised to find out that, in the space of five years before the Nanshoku Ôkagami, Saikaku published no less than four books about the love of women, at least two of then openly praising the ladies of the good life. How come? Did Saikaku suddenly change his mind? Perhaps he came out of the closet in 1686, thought Keene, and was now “revealing his true preferences”? (But at that time they had not yet invented closets…)

This surprise is an example of how hard it is not to project cultural assumptions. We have been quietly assuming that what Saikaku writes in his—fiction? manifesto? advocacy?—are his “true opinions”. That is, we assumed that the narrator would necessarily reflect the author. To this day the most common archetype for the artist is that of the lone Romantic genius whose technique is but a means to express his deepest feelings. This image, however, would make no sense to Saikaku. He saw himself as a professional writer, meeting the demands of various audiences in the then-flourishing Ôsaka-Kyôto-Edo publishing market. Having already written books to the taste of woman-fanciers, he foresaw monetization potential in the onna-girai segment, so to speak. Thus the Nanshôku Ôkagami reads like an intellectual defense of boy love—not morally, but artistically; not to prove it’s not a sin, but to prove it’s more refined and tasteful (tsu) than its rival pasttime. Half of it is fanfiction… I mean tales of samurai love, and the other half of ukiyo love between merchants and kabuki actos; by implicitly equating his merchant-class readers to the prestigious samurai class, he brought them a noblelike legitimacy. He’d also enlist (very unconvincingly) the prestige of myth, claiming that such figures as gods and Ariwara no Narihira did in fact play in the other team. Undoubtly Saikaku’s ingenuity proved valuable to countless nighttime arguments over saké.

It’s interesting that the structure of the Nanshoku Ôkagami mirrors (heh) the arguments in praise of woman-loving that he published in his earlier Shoen Ôkagami (« The Great Mirror of Numerous Beauties »). For the attentive reader, this refutation of his own work rendered the entire œuvre in a playful, urban, ironic haikai spirit that Yedo-period townspeople excelled.

(This post’s reading of Saikaku is presented by Schalow in his excellent Introduction to his translation of the Nanshoku Ôkagami, which I heartly endorse.)

2 thoughts on “Ihara Saikaku: author vs. narrator

  1. Well, I recently had an older Japanese gentleman ask me why I wasn’t married. 女が嫌いですか?So I’m just wondering how much to read into the comments about the ‘disliking women’ aspect of homosexuality… (BTW, I said no).

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