First published in 1686, Five Women Who Loved Love
is a classic of Japanese literature. The work, which consists of five short stories, was written by the renowned poet Ihara Saikaku (井原 西鶴). Saikaku was born into a wealthy merchant family as Hirayama Tōgo (平山藤五), and adopted his pen name when he began studying the genre of haikai
– a poetry style that relied on satire and wordplay to describe bawdy topics. Developing these themes further in his prose writing, Saikaku created a new genre of his own: ukiyozÅshi
, or the “floating world” – fiction dealing with “matters of love and the pleasure quarter.”Five Women Who Loved Love
is an example of floating world literature – each story, though based on a real event, is a somewhat off-color account of the ways in which women in Japan’s newly rising middle class reject sexual norms in order to pursue their desires. What elevates Saikaku’s work above similar erotic tales of the demimonde that became popular as entertainment for the middle class is his approach to psychological incisiveness. As critics have noted, his characters retain their dignity and humanity regardless of the humiliations they undergo for the reader’s prurient laughter.
In the first tale, “The Story of Seijuro in Himeji,” Seijuro, a handsome and charming young man whose father has disowned him for being a wastrel, decides to apprentice himself to a shopkeeper. His master’s younger sister, sixteen-year-old Onatsu, falls madly in love with him and pursues him until Seijuro returns her feelings. Because he is in no position to formally marry her, Seijuro and Onatsu instead elope. However, when they run off, 700 gold pieces also go missing from the shop. When the couple is found, Seijuro is accused of theft and is summarily executed. Then, the gold is recovered – it hadn’t been stolen but had simply been mislaid. Onatsu goes mad with grief and then becomes a nun.
The second tale is titled “The Barrel Maker Brimful of Love.” Osen, a well to do peasant woman is married to a cooper (or, barrel maker). When she decides to help her friend Chozaemon, the town’s yeast producer, with his preparations for the fiftieth anniversary of his father’s death, Chozaemon’s wife accuses Osen of having an affair with Chozaemon. Osen, who is happily married, is incensed at the accusation. In vengeance, she decides to have sex with Chozaemon – that way, at least the gossip will be true. Then Osen’s husband finds the two together. Horrified, Osen commits ritual suicide to preserve her honor, and Chozaemon is executed.
The third tale, “What the Seasons Brought the Almanac Maker,” follows the adventures of Osan, a beautiful woman from the city of Kyoto. When her maid and close friend, Rin, complains about her boyfriend, Moemon, who is unwilling to fully commit to Rin, Osan concocts a scheme to punish the man. Together with Rin’s help, Osan will take her maid’s place in Moemon’s bed, and then will blackmail him into committing to Rin for good. However, the plan backfires: when Osan sleeps with Moemon, she falls in love with him, and he with her. They run off and for a while hide in a distant village, but eventually, they are found and executed.
In the fourth tale, “The Greengrocer's Daughter with a Bundle of Love,” we meet a young woman named Oshichi. When her house accidentally catches fire, she hides in a nearby temple and there meets Onogawa Kichisaburo, a young and dashing samurai. Onogawa is a fireman – firemen were figures of bravery and even celebrity in seventeenth-century Japan. They fall in love. Wanting to see him again, Oshichi decides to set fire to another building – she is willing to burn the whole city down if it means seeing her lover. However, she is caught and burned at the stake for her crimes. Onogawa considers killing himself but instead becomes a monk.
In the last tale, “Gengobei, the Mountain of Love,” we meet the monk Gengobei. He has joined the priesthood in part because he is mourning the deaths of two young boyfriends. When a young girl named Oman falls in love with Gengobei, she is at first distraught that she isn’t male and thus might not be able to win Gengobei’s affections. However, she gets an idea: she will disguise herself as a beautiful young man in order to get into his bed. The plan works perfectly, and once they are in bed together, Gengobei discovers that he likes her very much despite the fact that she isn’t a handsome young man after all. This is the only story in the collection that ends with a happily ever after: newly in love, Gengobei leaves the priesthood so that he and Oman can get married. They plan to spend the rest of their lives together.