Born the son of the wealthy merchant Hirayama Tōgo (平山藤五) in Osaka, he first studied haikai poetry under Matsunaga Teitoku, and later studied under Nishiyama Sōin of the Danrin School of poetry, which emphasized comic linked verse. Scholars have described numerous extraordinary feats of solo haikai composition at one sitting; most famously, over the course of a single day and night in 1677, Saikaku is reported to have composed at least 16,000 haikai stanzas, with some rumors placing the number at over 23,500 stanzas.
Later in life he began writing racy accounts of the financial and amorous affairs of the merchant class and the demimonde. These stories catered to the whims of the newly prominent merchant class, whose tastes of entertainment leaned toward the arts and pleasure districts.
In 1642, Ihara Saikaku was born into a well-off merchant family in Osaka. From the age of fifteen Saikaku had begun to compose haikai no renga (linked verse). In 1662 at the age of twenty Saikaku had become a haikai master. Under the pen name Ihara Kakuei, Saikaku began to establish himself as a popular haikai poet. By 1670 Saikaku had developed his own distinctive style of haikai poetry. In essence his haikai style relied on the use of colloquial language to depict contemporary chonin life. Furthermore, during this time Saikaku also owned and ran a medium sized business in Osaka.
In 1673 Saikaku had changed his pen name to the one we recognise today. However, the death of his dearly beloved wife in 1675 had an extremely profound impact on Saikaku. A few days after her passing in an act of grief and true love Saikaku started to compose a thousand-verse haikai poem in a matter of twelve hours. When this work was published it was called ‘Haikai Single Day Thousand Verse’ (Haikai Dokugin Ichinichi).
It was the first time that Saikaku had attempted to compose such a lengthy piece of literature. The overall experience and success that Saikaku received from composing such a mammoth exercise has been credited with sparking the writer’s interest in writing fictional novels.
However, shortly after his wife’s death the grief stricken Saikaku had decided to become a lay monk and began to travel all across Japan, thus leaving behind his three children (one of whom was blind) to be cared for by his extended family and his business by his employees. He started his travels after the death of his blind daughter.
In 1677 Saikaku returned to Osaka and had learnt of the success his thousand-verse haikai poem had received and from then on pursued a career as a professional writer. Initially Saikaku continued to produce haikai poetry, but by 1682 he had published his first of many fictional novels ‘The Life of an Amorous Man’.
As Saikaku’s popularity and readership began to increase and expand across Japan so did the amount of literature he published. When he died in 1693 at the age of fifty-one Saikaku was one of the most popular writers of the entire Tokugawa period. Yet at the time his work was never considered high literature because it had been aimed towards and popularised by the chonin. Nevertheless, Saikaku’s work is now celebrated for its significance for developing Japanese fictional literature.
Amorous or erotic stories
- The Life of an Amorous Man (好色一代男 Kōshoku Ichidai Otoko?, 1682)
- The Great Mirror of Beauties: Son of an Amorous Man (好色二代男 諸艶大鏡 Kōshoku Nidai Otoko Shoen Okagami?, 1684)
- Five Women Who Loved Love (好色五人女 Kōshoku Gonin Onna?, 1685)
- The Life of an Amorous Woman (好色一代女 Kōshoku Ichidai Onna?, 1686) (made into the 1952 movie The Life of Oharu by Kenji Mizoguchi)
- The Great Mirror of Male Love (The Encyclopedia of Male Love) (男色大鏡 Nanshoku Okagami?, 1687)
Townspeople (Chōnin 町人) stories
- Twenty Cases of Unfilial Children (本朝二十不孝 Honchō Nijū Fukō?, 1686)
- The Eternal Storehouse of Japan (日本永代蔵 Nippon Eitaigura?, 1688)
- Reckonings that Carry Men Through the World or This Scheming World (世間胸算用 Seken Munazan'yō?, 1692)
- Transmission of the Martial Arts (武道伝来記 Budō Denraiki?, 1687)
- Tales of Samurai Honor (武家義理物語 Buke Giri Monogatari?, 1688)
- Men take their misfortunes to heart, and keep them there. A gambler does not talk about his losses; the frequenter of brothels, who finds his favorite engaged by another, pretends to be just as well off without her; the professional street-brawler is quiet about the fights he has lost; and a merchant who speculates on goods will conceal the losses he may suffer. All act as one who steps on dog dung in the dark.
Ihara Saikaku, "What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker" (1686)
- Mathers, E. Powys, "Comrade Loves of the Samurai" (translation of "Great Mirror of Male Love" and introduction), Tuttle Publishing
- Morris, Ivan, "The Life of an Amorous Woman and Other Writings" (translation and introduction)
- Schalow, Paul Gordon, "The Great Mirror of Male Love" (translation and introduction)
- Stubbs, David C. and Takatsuka, Masanori, "This Scheming World" (translation and introduction)
- Earl Miner, Hiroko Odagiri, and Robert E. Morrell, The Princeton Companion to Classical Japanese Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 167. ISBN 0691008256
- Yoel Hoffman, Japanese Death Poems: Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death (Tuttle Publishing, 1998), 274. ISBN 0804831793
- Donald Keene, translator, Anthology of Japanese literature, from the earliest era to the mid-nineteenth century (Grove Press, 1955), 350. ISBN 9780802150585
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