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Socially Engaged Japanese Buddhist Nun Jakucho Setouchi Dies Aged 99

Venerable Jakucho Setouchi. From

The prominent and outspoken socially engaged Japanese Buddhist nun Venerable Jakucho Setouchi, renowned as a writer, a translator, a feminist, and a peace activist, died in Kyoto last week, her home temple announced on Thursday. Media reports indicated that Ven. Setouchi died from heart failure. She was 99 years old.

A recipient of Japan’s Order of Culture medal in 2006, which is awarded for contributions to Japanese art, literature, science, technology, or culture, Ven. Setouchi was a prominent anti-war and anti-nuclear activist and a prolific writer, whose works included biographies, autobiographical novels, and historical fiction. 

According to her home temple, Jakuan, Ven. Setouchi had been hospitalized since September due to poor health and had been undergoing treatment before passing away on 9 November. The temple said that a funeral would be held for family members, with a post-funeral gathering in her memory to be scheduled in Tokyo.

“Her fresh, youthful heart and strong conviction to correct what needs to be corrected in both individuals and the nation did not wane even at the last moment,” Tetsuo Yamaori, a religious studies scholar and close friend, was quoted as saying. (The Mainichi)

Born Harumi Setouchi in 1922 in the western Japanese prefecture of Tokushima, Setouchi began her prolific writing career in 1956. As an author, her work, sometimes controversial, spanned genres, from serious literature to popular fiction. In 1963, Setouchi was awarded the women’s literature prize Joryu Bungaku Sho for her novel Natsu no Owari (End of Summer).

In 1973, at the age of 51, Ven. Setouchi was ordained in the Tendai school of Buddhism as a Buddhist nun at Chuson-ji, a Buddhist temple in Iwate Prefecture, northeastern Japan. It was there that she received her Dharma name, Jakucho, which translates as “silent, lonely listening.” She relocated to Kyoto in 1974, where she founded the temple Jakuan and drew large crowds to her popular Dharma talks.

During this period, Ven. Setouchi became active as campaigner for social reform, building a center for women, and becoming a Buddhist teacher. She also voiced opposition to capital punishment in Japan. Ven. Setouchi’s social engagement activities extended to peace activism. She fasted in protest during the 1991 Gulf War and following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan and subsequent nuclear disaster, Setouchi visited affected communities and campaigned for an end to nuclear power.

Harumi Setouchi at age 20 in 1942.

Setouchi completed translating the 11th century classic of Japanese literature by the noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji, from classical into modern Japanese in 1998. In the process, she created a renewed wave of public interest in the work, considered by many to be the world’s first novel. Ven. Setouchi published her final full-length novel, Inochi, in 2017, although she continued write serialized works for literary magazines.

In 2016, Setouchi co-founded an initiative, the Little Women Project, to help to girls and young women escape poverty, abuse, sexual exploitation, and drug addiction.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno gave a public statement following the news of Setouchi’s passing in which he offered praise  for her “great contributions to Japanese culture,” noting: “She devoted herself to listening to the thoughts and feelings of those in distress through her sermons and also contributed to social activities.” (The Mainichi)

Renowned for her efforts to keep pace with modern media and technology, Setouchi posted a video to her Instagram account for her 99th birthday in May this year, in which she appeared clapping and singing as she and her staff celebrated her birthday with a cake.

“I’ve lived to my 99th birthday, and I think that’s too long a life,” Setouchi wrote at the time. “I’ve done far more things in life than people normally do. I have no regrets about any of them. I’ve lived my life to the fullest.” (The Japan Times)

See more

Japanese novelist, Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi dies at 99 (The Mainichi)
Novelist and Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi dies at 99 (The Japan Times)
Jakucho Setouchi: A freewheeling nun who bucked conventional norms for women (The Japan Times)
Japan novelist, Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi dies at 99 (Kyodo News)

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