Japan’s outspoken nun and author Jakucho Setouchi dies at 99

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Jakucho Setouchi

Japanese Buddhist nun and author Jakucho Setouchi speaks during an interview in Kyoto, Japan, June 1, 2017. Setouchi, one of Japan’s best-known authors known for novels depicting passionate women and her translation of “The Tale of Genji” into modern language, has died. She was 99. (Keiji Uesho/Kyodo News via AP)

TOKYO (AP) — Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun and one of Japan’s best-known authors known for novels depicting passionate women and her translation of “The Tale of Genji,” a 1,000-year-old classic, into modern language, has died. She was 99.

Setouchi was already an established novelist before she shaved her head and became a nun at age 51. She was mostly based at a small temple in Kyoto, where she wrote hundreds of books from biographical novels to romance, often depicting women defying traditional roles.

Even in her late 90s, she was active in writing and giving talks, but her health declined recently and she had been treated at a hospital in Kyoto, where she died on Tuesday of heart failure, according to her temple, Jakuan.

Born Harumi Setouchi in 1922 in the city of Tokushima on the southwestern main island of Shikoku, she debuted in 1957 and has since published more than 400 books. Many of her stories of independent and somewhat rebellious women won many female readers.

Setouchi brought “The Tale of Genji” back to life with her 1998 translation into modern, easy-to-read Japanese, gaining new fans to an ancient story. It took her six years to finish.

Setouchi said the work’s appeal to readers today is largely because of author Murasaki Shikibu’s examination of the main character Genji’s passions and of relationships between men and women. “The Tale of Genji” chronicles the life of the Shining Prince, who was the son of an emperor, and one of his concubines.

“It’s been 1,000 years since the book was written, but relations between the sexes haven’t changed all that much,″ Setouchi said in an interview with The Associated Press. “For women today, the book is a good lesson in what men like and don’t like. For men, it’s still a good primer in how to seduce women.″

Her edition sold 2.5 million copies.

She maintained her curiosity well into her 80s when she wrote a novel on her cellphone under a penname “Purple,” after the name of the author of “The Tale of Genij,” Murasaki, or “purple” in Japanese. She also used social media to communicate with her young fans.

Setouchi’s own life resembled a character in one of her stories. At age 25 and married to a scholar, she fell in love with her husband’s student and left him and their 3-year-old daughter, saying she would be a novelist.

Her earlier book, “A flower Aflame,” was criticized for its sexual scenes, unusual for novels written by a female author in a male-dominated world of literature then.

After she entered Buddhism and became a nun in 1973, she established her base in the ancient capital of Kyoto and regularly gave religious talks there and around the country. Her events were always packed with fans of all ages, including many women seeking her advise about life and relationships.

Setouchi was also pacifist and anti-nuclear activist.

She fasted at her Kyoto temple to protest the 1991 Gulf War and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

She also joined disaster-hit residents in anti-nuclear rallies in Fukushima after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Her last novel, which she finished at age 95, was “Life.”

“If I’m reborn, I want to be a novelist, and a woman,” she wrote.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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