Japanese Literature is not very commonly known in Germany with the exception of Haruki Murakami, whose novels are widely popular. I found a special interest in literature from Japan and Korea last year and searched a while for suitable reading material. Firstly I only came across the popular novels by western authors set in Japan, for example ‘The Geisha’ and ‘Shogun’. But I wasn’t especially interested in those and looked for native authors. That was when I found out about Junichiro Tanizaki, one of the most important authors in Japanese literature history.
A detailed look into the life in Japan in the 1930s
Japan, 1938 – the Second World War is already on the horizon in Europe and the old empire of Japan will have to suffer great changes in this very turbulent 20th century. The novel ‘The Makioka Sisters’ by author Junichiro Tanizaki tells the story of the merchant family Makioka based in Ashiya and Osaka. Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko – the four daughters of the merchant Tatsuo are the main protagonists of the story. After the death of Tatsuo the financial situation declined and the former wealthy family now has to arrange itself with a lot less comfortable living situation. Because of these circumstances the chances of Yukiko and Taeko getting married to rich men has dropped considerably.
A merchant family between tradition and modernity
While Yukiko is the image of the perfect Japanese woman of that time – never going out unsupervised, never offering her opinion unasked – Taeko is a completely different personality. Outgoing, selfconcious and very laborous, Taeko evades the family’s efforts to marry her off to a potential candidate. Yukiko on the other hand passively awaits the next miai – a formalized meeting with potential suitors. But at the age of 22, she is already past her prime as a bride and it gets harder every year to find a good match. Staying in the family household the two women heavily depend on the family’s wealth to live a comfortable life.
The conflict between tradition and modernity is a huge topic in this novel. Taeko decides at one point to open a studio and to make little puppets, that she sells to interested customers. After cutting her hair short and shedding the daily kimonos for a more western style, Taeko represents the modern Japanese woman open to new cultural influences. For her family this behaviour is hard to live with, since earning money and being independent is not what they expect from a family member in the Makioka family. Taeko is not interested in marrying a man she does not know and openly fights against the family’s wishes.
With these two main protagonists Tanizaki paints a detailed picture of Japanese society between 1938 and 1941. His strength certainly is his ability to refer to the big events of world history only marginally as a backdrop to certain events and to wholly concentrate on the microcosmos of the Makioka family. The relationships of the family’s members with each other and the passages telling about everyday-life are enchanting and engaging.
A milestone of Japanese literature and a perfect introduction to culture and tradtion
As a European reader I had some trouble at first to follow the rather different style of narration and the very slow pace. I constantly had to look up background information about the routines and rituals of Japanese life in the 1930s. But it was exactly this, that made reading this complex novel so much fun. I highly recommend it to everyone, who is interested in Japanese life and wants to find a suitable entry to the style of narration. It is not a cheesy love story or an overly emotional historical binge-read, but a masterpiece of its time.
Title picture: Cherry Blossoms in Kobe – via wikipedia