Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693) was a legendary Japanese poet, novelist, and playwright who invented the genre of ukiyo-zoshi ("floating world" novel), bucking convention and enchanting readers with his racy stories about amorous merchants and lusty courtesans and rising from lowly origins to become the toast of Osaka.
Little is known about Saikaku's early life. He was born in 1642 to a merchant family (merchants being the lowest rung of the Japanese class system at the time), and was probably originally named Hirayama Togo. Other than that, we know almost nothing except that he was married early in life and his wife died young, leaving him with a blind daughter who also died soon thereafter. Saikaku then spent several years traveling about Japan, rare in an age when most people were relatively sedentary, and accumulated a wide range of experiences with a broad cross-section of Japanese society that he would draw upon later in his writings.
Saikaku first rose to fame in Osaka in his middle years as a poet of haikai linked verse (the forerunner of the haiku). In particular, Saikaku amazed contemporaries with his capacity to compose linked verses with astonishing speed. In 1671, at the age of 36, he composed 1,600 linked verses in a single sitting of "one day and one night." Not satisfied with this rate of more than a verse a minute, he continued to hone his craft, achieving 4,000 linked verses in a single 24-hour sitting in 1680, and finally working his way up to a ridiculous 23,500 verses in a single 24-hour session in 1684, a rate of more than 16 verses per minute, after which he was known as the "20,000 master."
But today, Saikaku is best remembered for his novels. In 1682, he published his first and perhaps most famous novel, koshoku ichidai otoko ("A Man Who Loved Love"), chronicling the adventures an amorous merchant who travels the countryside making love to every woman and boy he meets. The book was a rousing success, and he followed it with a steady stream of equally picaresque stories featuring similar erotic themes, such as "Five Women Who Loved Love," "The Comrade Loves of the Samurai," and his later series of tales "Mirror of Manly Love." Making use of literary allusions, drawing upon techniques from poetry, and writing in an irreverent style with a keen sense of the ironic, he almost single-handedly elevated the popular prose novel to a high art.
In peering into the seedy depths of Osaka's underbelly to examine the lives of rogues, prostitutes, commoners, and merchants, Saikaku's rejection of the stuffy literary conventions of the day earned him the nickname "Dutch Saikaku," which was meant not to indicate that he had anything to do with the Dutch, but merely to highlight his outlandishness and nonconformity. Although his radical approach and subject matter was at times criticized (Basho, for example, derided his poetry as "vulgar and uninspired"), he won a huge following among the Osaka elite and his fame spread nationwide within his own lifetime. His two dozen or so novels and his handful of incisive, tersely-written plays set high standards of maturity and wit for a generation of imitators and remain a powerful evocation of the topsy-turvy cosmopolitan world of Genroku-era Osaka.