Ms. Setouchi studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and married Yasushi Sakai, who was nine years her senior, in 1943, during World War II. She accompanied him when Japan’s foreign ministry sent him to Beijing, and she gave birth to her daughter, Michiko, there in 1944.
On July 4, 1945, shortly before the end of the war, Ms. Setouchi’s mother, who had been hiding in a bomb shelter in Tokushima, was killed during an air raid by American B-29 bombers. In one of Ms. Setouchi’s final essays, published last month in The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest daily newspapers, she wrote of the horror of contemplating her mother’s death.
“Imagining her despair at the moment of losing consciousness,” she wrote, “my heart twists and can never be healed no matter how many years have passed since then.”
She returned to Japan in 1946 and settled with her family in Tokyo in 1947. It was the following year that she left her husband and daughter for a relationship with a much younger man. Afterward, as she once said in a newspaper interview, her father wrote in a letter to her that she had “derailed from the human path and entered the world of devils.” Ms. Setouchi later told reporters that abandoning her daughter was the biggest regret of her life.
She divorced her husband in 1950, the same year she published her first novel, which was serialized in a magazine. Her relationship with her young lover did not last long, and she fell into successive affairs with married men. Areno Inoue, a novelist and the daughter of one of Ms. Setouchi’s lovers, the writer Mitsuharu Inoue, later told the public broadcaster NHK that Ms. Setouchi was a free spirit who “followed her own will” and “embodied freedom.”
In 1957, Ms. Setouchi was awarded a literary prize for “Qu Ailing, the Female College Student,” a story of the love between two women, set in Beijing during World War II. She published another novel later that year, “The Core of a Flower,” about an affair between a woman and her husband’s boss. When some critics called it pornographic, she fired back, “The critics who say such things all must be impotent and their wives frigid.”