A Japanese Masterpiece

Japanese literature has gifted the world of literature with several literary geniuses such as Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Haruki Murakami, Shusako Endo, Kenzaburo Oe, Yoko Ogawa, Kobo Abe, to name a few. They are names who command respect and whose individual corpus has placed Japanese literature on the literary pedestal. Another prominent figure in contemporary Japanese literature is Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965). His works, such as Some Prefer Nettles, Quicksand and Naomi, are widely regarded as classics. His legacy is timeless that one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards was named after him.

Of Tanizaki’s corpus, one of the titles that easily standout is The Makioka Sisters. Set in pre-World War II Osaka and Kobe, The Makioka Sisters revolve around the story of the four titular sisters. Tsuruko, the eldest, was married to Tatsuo, a bank employee. With their parents’ premature demise, Tatsuo, who was adapted by the family to preserve the family name, has reluctantly assumed the role of head of the family. Tsuruko and Tatsuo and their six children live in the main house. Sachiko was the second oldest of the four sisters. She married Teinosuke, an accountant who, like Tatsuo, was also adapted into the family name. Sachiko and Teinosuke, and their daughter Etsuko, have left the main house and established themselves in the Ashiya branch house.

Yukiko is the third born. She has already reached the age of thirty but is still unmarried. Whilst it is not totally considered as a disgrace, being unmarried at that age was considered to be unusual in the pre-World War II Japanese society. To set the record right, the two oldest sisters, along with their husbands, have collaborated to find a suitable husband for their timid and usually reserved younger sister. Taeko, the youngest, was the antithesis of her older sisters. She was free-spirited and strong-willed, an independent-minded young woman who was adamant about establishing her own identity separate from her family name.

“The ancients waited for cherry blossoms, grieved when they were gone, and lamented their passing in countless poems. How very ordinary the poems had seemed to Sachiko when she read them as a girl, but now she knew, as well as one could know, that grieving over fallen cherry blossoms was more than a fad or convention.”

~ Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

Originally published in Japanese as 細雪, Sasameyuki, or “light snow”, The Makioka Sisters was first published as a series that ran from 1943 to 1948. Following the conclusion of the Second World War, Tanizaki published the novel in three parts. Book One was published in 1946, followed by Book Two a year later. Book Three was published in 1948. It was warmly received by the reading public and literary pundits alike. The story of the four Makioka sisters was a sensation and a critical success. This success has earned Tanikaki the Mainichi Prize for Publication and Culture and the Asahi Culture Prize.

The Makioka family used to be very influential in the high society of Osaka. It was a name that was revered and dignified by everyone who uttered them. The Makioka patriarch singlehandedly built the family fortune through his business acumen. Their shop in Semba, the heart of old Osaka, used to be the symbol of prosperity, but extravagance and bad management have adversely affected the business, hence, the family fortunes. When their father died, the shop was eventually sold and the best days of the Makiokas, which “lasted perhaps into the mid-twenties,” started to slowly fade. “Their prosperity lived now only in the mind of the Osakan who knew the old days well.

The family’s fall from grace was particularly hard on the two oldest daughters. Unlike their two younger sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko grew up basking in the best moments of their family. They are like most of us; our bodies and minds cling to every vestige of those halcyon days. They endeavored to preserve whatever they can. Despite the passage of time, they remained steeped in traditions, devoutly observing every family ritual without fail. In carrying out these traditions, they were also hoping to recapture the glory of their best days. It was, however, these yearning to be connected to their past that somehow has disillusioned them. It was also hampering them from choosing a suitable husband for Yukiko. It was repeatedly underlined by peers and friends that the Makioka standard is too high that finding a good husband for Yukiko it has become an improbable job.

In a way, The Makioka Sisters is an ode to the past, with vignettes of the past a recurring theme all throughout the narrative. Through the story of the four sisters, the readers witness a society and a culture in transition. It is a theme that is ubiquitous amongst early 20th century Japanese writers and Tanizaki added his spin into this familiar theme in the ambit of Japanese Literature. In the two older sisters the readers meet the guardians of traditions. They endeavor to keep it alive. The younger sisters, on the other hand, seek to be untethered from the burdens of tradition. Yukiko, for instance, was burdened by the preoccupation surrounding the selection for her husband. However, she viewed marriage more as an obligation rather than as part of a family rite of passage. Taeko, on the other hand, yearned for things her older sisters have never considered such as working for her own money, and engaging in relationships even though she has to wait for Yukiko to get married before she gets her turn.

In the last moment of light, with darkness creeping up from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far as the river stretched- an infinite number of little lines in two long rows on either side, quiet, unearthly. Sachiko could see it all even now, here inside with her eyes closed. Surely that was the impressive moment of the evening, the moment that made the firefly hunt worth-while.”

~ Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

However, the novel does not reduce itself into a mere narrative about zeroing in on a suitable husband for Yukiko. The Makioka Sisters is wrapped in several layers that slowly unfolded as the narrative moved forward. Through the interactions of the family members, the readers were provided an intimate peek into family dynamics, especially in pre-World War II high society. There was an emphasis into the functions and roles of the members of the family. The eldest, for instance, is automatically bequeathed the authority as the head of the family. The level of authority dwindles down as one goes lower the family hierarchy. With Tsuruko unable to fulfill her role as the head of the family, it fell into Sachiko’s shoulder to shepherd her two younger siblings.

Arranged marriages were once part, not just of Japanese culture, but of most Asian cultures. Tanizaki regaled the readers with intricate details of the process of selection for a suitable partner practiced by Japanese high society. Miai is a term that was repeatedly mentioned in the narrative. It is the Japanese version for the Western concept of matchmaking. Many frown upon arranged marriages and Tanizaki was rarely in favor of it either. Nevertheless, Tanizaki endeavored to demonstrate balance. The marriage of Sachiko and Teinosuke was once forged out of need but they eventually grew fondness for each other. Yes, their union was barely perfect but it was brimming with warmth, companionship, silent understanding, and sympathy. They made their marriage work.

The vivid details of Japanese culture provided a lush backdrop for the narrative. Tanizaki further complimented the narrative with references to historical events. The details of the Kobe Flood of 1938 was carefully woven into the novel’s rich tapestry. There were also references to the Second Sino-Japanese War and the growing tensions in Europe. The two latter events also underscored the detachment of the Makioka’s sheltered lives from the world outside of it. Sino-Japanese War was referred to as the “China Incident”. They also expressed satisfaction upon hearing about the early success of the war for their German friends in the 1940s. The novel also highlighted the contrasts between the Kansai and Kantō regions. Tokyo was depicted as poor and bleak whilst Ashiya was seen as “harmonious integration of tradition, modernity, and cosmopolitanism.”

What made the narrative move forward is the mix of eclectic personalities. Each sister was carefully drawn with subtlety and detail. The complexities of their relationships also made for a compelling read. Tsuruko, still longing for vestiges of the past, has basically shirked her responsibility as the head of the family. She was more obstinate and her voice was barely audible in the narrative. In contrast to Tsuruko, the presence of Sachiko, the more warm-hearted and sensible of the sisters, dominated the narrative. The two older sisters were also allegories of the old days, of tradition and memory. Yukiko was the most timid sister whilst Taeko was rebellious by principle. Taeko was also artistic and represented the social change taking place in Japan. Where her sisters wore kimonos, she wore “modern” dresses. The epitome of the modern woman she embodied the shift to personal choices, to taking control of one’s destiny by working.

“I have always heard that the cold in Tokyo is particularly hard to bear, and in fact I have never seen anything like it. Not a day passes without that cold, dry north wind. This morning the towels were frozen like boards and crackled when you picked them up. I do not remember that this ever happened, in Osaka. They say it is warmer in toward the city, but here we are high up and far out.”

~ Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

The novel’s wonderful elements were carefully woven together by Tanizaki’s dexterous hands. He delivered a scintillating story with his powerful yet elegant prose. However, it can be observed that there was rarely any insight into the inner thought processes of the characters. This is characteristic of 20th Japanese literature and can also be observed in similar works. Rather, Tanizaki relied on the descriptive power of his prose to make the peripheral reflect the prevailing attitudes and atmospheres. Cherry blossoms and fireflies are no simple interjections into the narrative as they are poignant symbols for the fleeting of time. The lack of inner insights was an offshoot of the novel’s grander aim, that of a portrait of traditional Japanese customs that were slowly eroded by the Westernization of the country. The story brimmed with nostalgia and poignant details without getting nauseating or melancholic.

The Makioka Sisters, with its aesthetics, mourns the loss of tradition and values of a time that has become ephemeral, a part of memory. But whilst enamored with the vignettes of the past, Tanizaki was propelling the discourse to what would turn out to be the inevitable: the shift in values and mores. Pulling off The Makioka Sisters, however, was by no means an easy feat and it was something only a literary genius like Tanizaki can. Tanizaki, with his wonderful storytelling, managed to capture the spirit of a time long gone. Whilst the novel was drawn in the veins of traditional Japanese literary work, Tanizaki worked on contrasts, incorporating elements of the past and the present, the modern and the traditional, the East and the West, to produce one of the most highly regarded masterpieces of contemporary Japanese literature.

Ratings

83%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 24%
Writing (25%) – 22%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%

For the longest time, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters is a title that I have been looking forward to. The first time I have encountered it in must-read lists, I just knew I have to read it even though I was bereft of any iota on what it was about. The title was simple and was barely innovative but it mystified me. What could this book behold? It was one of those rare times when I just knew I had to have this book. It did take me some time finding a copy of the book for I was hoping to find a hardbound copy but it was easier said than done. I had to settle for a paperback copy but it was fine for what matters is the story it has in store. My anticipation for the book finally culminated this year when I included it as part of my July 2021 Japanese Literature Month. The Makioka Sisters was exactly what I imagined it to be. It was a powerful time piece that explored Japanese mores and conventions in a particular time period. I loved the details imbued into the story. It is easily one of my best reads this year. Japanese writers never fail to deliver, if I may say so myself.

Book Specs

Author: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Translator:  Edward Seidensticker
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: October 1995
Number of Pages: 530
Genre: Novel, Fiction

Synopsis

In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing. As told by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, the story of the Makioka sisters forms what is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century, a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family – and an entire society – sliding into the abyss of modernity.

Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepared to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing. Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters. The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family’s exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances. Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of its protagonists, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.

About the Author

To learn more about Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, click here.