Five Women Who Loved Love
As a fan of Japanese literature and history, Saikaku Ihara is an author I quite enjoy. That being said, these stories are very much 17th Century Japanese literature – a combination of morality tales, daily life, and the benefits (and consequences) of bucking against tradition to go after what, and who, you want. I’d definitely rate it as classic literature, though it’s certainly not like classic Western romances. The culture and etiquette of Japan shine through in the tales, and I really enjoyed that.
There are a total of five separate vignettes following our characters, though I will be discussing them and their heroines more as a whole than individually. First up, we have Onatsu, a 16 year old girl declared to “surpass in beauty the former queen of courtesans.” She also “has the makings of a superb lover”, so anxious is she to fall in love. Next up, Osen. Osen is a faithful wife who has been accused of adultery. Angered at the unfair treatment she has received, she decides that she might as well do the thing she is already being punished for. After Osen, we meet Osan, a beautiful young woman who manages to fall asleep in the wrong bed. Specifically, the bed of her husband’s assistant, there to run the business while her husband is away. Oshichi, the following heroine, falls for a samurai, and is so desperate to be with him, she is willing to burn down a city. Finally, we read of Oman, who falls in love with a traveler, but has to compete against beautiful young men for his affections.
Time for a bit of historical background. Five Women was written in the Tokugawa period, which is generally characterized as a time of internal peace, stability, and economic growth. Japan is also the land of the oldest recognized novel (The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, written in the 11th century), so the idea that Five Women was written to entertain the townspeople is not unexpected. On top of that, Saikaku became a monk after the death of his wife, but a Japanese monk and a Christian monk are two very different things. Saikaku traveled around Japan, leaving his children behind, and wrote prose, mainly about the merchant class and demimonde. While not erotic by modern standards, most of his prose writings were considered quite racy for the time.
The stories remind me a bit of The Canterbury Tales in the variety of stories, some more innocent than others. The tales aren’t tied together with an overall narrative, but by the general theme of women going after love (and sometimes sex), regardless of what the men in their lives really want. It’s about independence at a time women were still considered property (in one, the marriage contract is sealed with a keg of saké). It’s an interesting historical period, and that come through in the stories written.
Saikaku wrote mainly about the day-to-day – there aren’t any grand declarations or angsty reunions here. Instead we have a combination of established relationships and new marriages, accidental and actual adultery, and definite consequences to actions.