Popular modern literature, especially erotic literature, is generally seen by critics as being “trashy” or “lacking in literary merit.” But perhaps such literature contains insight into modern social mannerisms centering around sex that will not be fully appreciated in their full depth until later centuries rediscover them. Such an idea is suggested by the continuing relevance of Ihara Saikaku’s 17th century work, The Life of an Amorous Woman to the modern reader. Saikaku wrote commercially, for a wide audience, and thus sought just as much to entertain and excite as to instruct. Indeed, even the so-called “moral lessons” of his stories seem to serve only to heighten their erotic content by making the sexual liasons of the “amorous woman” all the more illicit. To the modern reader, Saikaku’s work, while losing its relevance as erotic entertainment, serves to provide insight into the social perceptions of sex in a culture very different from both Japanese and American modern culture. Ultimately, The Life of an Amorous Woman maintains its interest as classic literature by providing insight into current society through the comparison and contrast of Saikaku’s portrayal of 17th century Japanese society.
That The Life of an Amorous Woman was written largely for a male audience seems certain, as demonstrated by its misogynistic sentiment and role-playing fantasy of the male author as a female nymphomaniac. Women’s desires and passion are portrayed as base and corrupt, and throughout the stories the narrator laments her sexuality: “there is nothing in the world so wretched as a woman. Aye, this is indeed a fearful world!” ( Saikaku, 164). The males in the stories are often portrayed as victims to the woman’s sexual appetites—even the narrator herself ends up a victim of a woman’s sexual appetite in the story of “He Who Looked for Future Splendour.” Another story, “The Fair Mistress of a Provincial Lord,” makes a closing comment that is shrewdly intended to spur the passions of its male audience: “looking about us, we can truly say that a man whose appetite for love is weak is a sorry thing for the women of this world” (136). Such a comment as this sounds like a challenge to male sexuality, and doubtless was intended as such. Modern forms of entertainment for men are similarly misogynistic and portray women as seductive temptresses whose allure is in their ability to use men for pleasure and thus, paradoxically, to make men feel empowered by the sense of being victimized.
The culture of Saikaku’s 17th century Japan was clearly repressed, it being under a strict and formal feudal system of government that centered around money and yet featured a moral mentality towards how the money was made that placed the warrior class on the top and the merchant class on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Social etiquette, customs, and formality were all highly important—indeed, in Saikaku’s stories characters are portrayed as sexually desirable simply by the fashionableness of their attire and with little regard to their physical qualities. Conversely, the modern American and Japanese government is capitalistic—again centered around money, but featuring a lack of moral mentality towards how the money is made that places the merchant class on top. The sexual attractiveness of an individual is judged based upon their physical appearance.
The modern culture, like Saikaku’s, also features sexual repression, as evident in the Clinton “scandal” and by the many deviant sexual fetishes and practices that abound. However, the repression is of a different nature than Japanese society in the 1600s—the issue of sex has been so successfully ignored by the controlling, conservative elements of society that it is present everywhere in the products of popular culture. In contrast, Saikaku’s society attempted to subvert its sexual desires into the “pleasure quarters,” although the ineffectualness of this is indicated by the very existence of Saikaku’s stories. In order for a modern writer to address sexual issues that are analogous to Saikaku’s and that would similarly entertain and enlighten his audience, he would have to describe practices that are either very bizarre or extremely sordid, for unlike Saikaku’s society, the modern prostitute is not highly esteemed and lives a life that is ten times more horrific than the life of the Japanese courtesan who claims that there is “no calling in the world as sad” as hers in the story of “A Beauty of Easy Virtue” (148).
Stripped mostly of their erotic, as well as ethical, significance by time, Saikaku’s stories remain an intriguing form of literature due to their realism and insight into the social climate of their times. Yet there is, too, a lingering relevance in Saikaku’s fascination with sexual desire and its destructive impact upon social order. Sex seems to be an issue that will remain misunderstood and tabooed in society due to its inability to be controlled by the ruling classes. Sex empowers the individual, a realization that Saikaku skates around in his stories, and seems be the issue that really makes women so frightening and fascinating to men, for in a society in which women have little upward mobility, sex always offers some form of empowerment. There appears to be a link between a society’s level of sexual repression and the level of its integration and acceptance of women into the economic playing field.