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Saikaku, Ihara (1642-1693)  
 
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Saikaku's primary appeal to modern readers interested in a gay and lesbian literary tradition is his collection of forty short stories called The Great Mirror of Male Love (Nanshoku ókagami [1687]; tr. Schalow, 1990), which depicted male homosexual love (nanshoku) as it was practiced in seventeenth-century Japan.

The issue of female homosexuality is notable for its absence from the discourse of the day and is likewise missing from Saikaku's works, with the one exception of a scene in The Life of an Amorous Woman (Kóshoku ichidai onna [1684]; tr. Morris, 1963) in which the female protagonist is forced to make love with the mistress who hired her as a maid.

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Virtually nothing is known of the man behind the pen name Saikaku ("western crane") apart from the several dozen poetic anthologies and collections of short stories that were published under this and another pen name of his, Kakuei ("crane eternal").

From all accounts, the man's first love was haikai poetry (comic linked verse), which he practiced from an early age and with an eccentric ardor that earned him the sobriquet "Dutch Saikaku" (oranda Saikaku) after the outlandish Europeans allowed to trade with Japan during the Edo Period (1600-1868).

In 1682, he turned to writing prose fiction, and in little more than a decade until his death in 1693, he managed to create a literary legacy in prose that placed him firmly among the major writers of narrative fiction in Japan.

His real name may have been Hirayama Tógo; he was possibly the scion of a sword-making family from the town of Ibara who had settled in the castle town of Osaka as members of the urban merchant class, manufacturing, selling, and maintaining the swords that were so vital to the samurai and urban classes. (Samurai traditionally sported two swords, one long and one short, and merchants were allowed to carry a single short sword, whereas farmers were forbidden to own swords at all.)

His status as son of a wealthy merchant family meant that he was a man of means, able to afford the urban pleasures of attending theater performances and visiting the pleasure quarters that would appear later in his fictional creations.

The fact that he came from a family of sword-makers may have given him special access to the world of the samurai class, to which the average merchant or urban dweller would have had limited entry, and this may explain his detailed knowledge of samurai manners and mores.

His lifelong composition of comic linked verse was also a leisurely pursuit indicative of wealth, but he took it further than expected of the average well-to-do young merchant and in fact became a respected teacher of haikai, widely sought by potential students and ultimately master to a large group of direct disciples.

The equilibrium between the merchant activities he was born into and the poetic avocation he cultivated was shattered in 1675 upon the death of his young wife in an epidemic, after which he retired from business and devoted himself completely to haikai composition and his poetry students.

He composed long sequences of verse in so-called "arrow counting" (yakazu) contests in which the aim was spontaneously to release as many verses as possible within a prescribed time limit, and became so adept at the form that rivals no longer dared challenge him.

He then tried his hand at writing plays for the kabuki and puppet (jóruri) theaters, but they failed. More successfully, he wrote an actor-evaluation book (yakusha hyóbanki), critiquing the acting and sexual skills of youthful male actors on the kabuki stage who doubled as boy prostitutes.

These activities reveal an active literary mind that was engaged with the newly emergent popular urban culture of Osaka and Kyoto. When he wrote his first collection of short stories, The Life of an Amorous Man (Kóshoku ichidai otoko [1682]; tr. Hamada, 1964), it was for private circulation among his students and friends in Osaka, but the work so captured the imagination of its readers that he attempted further publishing efforts. Gradually he developed a sense of himself as a writer and created the literary persona whom we refer to today as "Saikaku."

Saikaku's writing career took him through three discernible though not entirely distinct periods based on the themes he chose to address: These were his books on love (kóshoku bon), books on samurai life (buke bon), and books on merchant life (chónin bon).

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