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

Jakucho Setouchi, Japan’s outspoken nun and the author dead at 99

Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun and one of Japan’s best-known authors best known for novels depicting passionate women and her translation of “The Tale of Genji,” a 1,000-year-old classic, into modern language, died Tuesday, Nov. 9 of heart failure.

The outspoken nun and author Jakucho 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 main southwestern 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 large because author Murasaki Shikibu examines Genji’s passions and 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.

Jakucho Setouchi, a Buddhist nun
Jakucho Setouchi, Japan's outspoken nun and the author dead at 99 1

“It’s been 1,000 years since he wrote the book, 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 pen name “Purple,” after the name of the author of “The Tale of Genji,” 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 around the country. Her events were always packed with fans of all ages, including women seeking her advice about life and relationships.

Setouchi was also a pacifist and anti-nuclear activist. She fasted at her Kyoto temple to protest the 1991 Gulf War and 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.


In 1973 Setouchi took vows and became a Buddhist nun in the Tendai school of Buddhism. In 2007 she was installed as a nun at Chūson-Ji, a temple in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. She received her name Jakuchō. Her name means “silent, lonely listening.” At this time, Setouchi also became a social activist, built a center for women, and became a spiritual advisor. She was noted for her opposition to the death penalty in Japan.


  • Joshidaisei Chui Airin (1957) Qu Ailing the Coed – received the Shinchosha Coterie Magazine Award.
  • Kashin (1963)
  • Miren (1963) Lingering Affections
  • Kiji (1963) Pheasant translated by Robert Huey in ISBN 978-4-77002-976-8
  • Beauty in Disarray translated by Sanford Goldstein and Kazuji Ninomiya ISBN 978-0-80483-322-6
  • Natsu no Owari (1963?) The End of Summer translated by Janine Beichman ISBN 978-4-77001-746-8. A collection of linked stories detailing her own adulterous affair.
  • Hana ni toe (1992?) Ask the Blossoms, a novelized biography of the classical poet-priest, Saigyo.
  • Basho (2001) Places


  • 1962 Women’s Literature Prize for Natsu no Owari 
  • 1992 Tanizaki Prize for Hana ni Toe
  • 2001 Noma Prize in literature for Basho[citation needed]
  • 2006 Order of Culture of Japan 
  • 2006 International Nonino Prize in Italy