Saikaku: The Comic Novelist

Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) was one of the first and greatest writers about urban life in seventeenth century Japan. His two favorite themes were love and money, and he wrote about them in an amusing way. This selection is from the story "What the Seasons Brought the Almanac Maker," which is included in his Five Women Who Loved Love, published in 1686.

Excerpt from What the Seasons Brought to the Almanac-Maker:
"The Beauty Contest"

... There was in the capital a band of four inseparable young men who were known for their handsome appearance and riotous living. ...

After the theater one evening they were lounging around a tea shop called Matsuya and one of them remarked, "I have never seen so many good looking local girls as I did today. Do you suppose we could find others who would seem just as beautiful now?" They thought they might, and decided to watch for pretty girls among the people who had gone to see the wisteria blossoms and were now returning to their homes. After a worldly actor in the group had been chosen as chief judge, a beauty contest was conducted until the twilight hours, providing a new source of amusement for the jaded gentlemen.

At first they were disappointed to see some maids riding in a carriage which hid them from sight. Then a group of girls strolled by in a rollicking mood — "not bad, not bad at all" — but none of the girls quite satisfied their exacting standards. Paper and ink had been brought to record their entries, and it was agreed that only the best should be put on their list.

...

Next they spied a lady of thirty-four or thirty-five with a graceful long neck and intelligent-looking eyes, above which could be seen a natural hairline of rare beauty. ... Underneath she wore white satin, over that light blue satin, and outside — reddish-yellow satin. ... Assuredly this was a woman of exquisite taste.

... Around her head she had draped a veil like that worn by court ladies; she wore stockings of pale silk and sandals with triple braided straps. She walked noiselessly and gracefully, moving her hips with a natural rhythm. "What a prize for some lucky fellow!" a young buck exclaimed. But these words were hardly uttered when the lady, speaking to an attendant, opened her mouth and disclosed that one of her lower teeth was missing, to the complete disillusionment of her admirers.

From Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century, edited by Donald Keene (Grove Press, 1955), 336-337.

Discussion Questions

  1. What makes this story funny?
  2. What makes this story sound particularly modern?
  3. Can you think of a situation where reality has not matched your expectations? Can you write an amusing story about that situation?
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