Junichiro Tanizaki 谷崎 潤一郎 Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (July 24, 1886—July 30, 1965) was was one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature, and remains perhaps the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Soseki. (Tanizaki's given name has been romanized in various ways by different English language publishers. For example, Leetes Island Books, which published the translation of his In Praise of Shadows, romanizes his given name as "Jun'ichirō,' while other publishers have romanized his given name as "Junichiro," "Jun'ichiro," or "Junichirō.")
Tanizaki explored the themes of Japanese adherence to tradition, and male infatuation with dominant women, throughout his many novels, novellas, short stories, plays and essays. His popularity extended through the reigns of three Japanese emperors. He is perhaps best known for “Sasameyuki” (1943-1948), translated into English as The Makioka Sisters (1957). Tanizaki often wrote about women and about obsessive love, the destructive forces of sexuality, and the dual nature of woman as goddess and demon.
Junichiro Tanizaki was born July 24, 1886, son of the struggling owner of a printing establishment, and spent his childhood in the Nihonbashi area in the center of Tokyo. In 1889 his father’s company was sold because of a business slump, and in 1890 his father opened a rice dealership. The same year, his brother, Seiji, who later became a professor of literature, was born. Their mother was quite attractive, and the young Tanizaki later describes in autobiographical statements how he was enthralled by her beauty. Tanizaki himself was a handsome youth, often bullied by his classmates. In 1892, he entered primary school, where a teacher recognized his precociousness and guided him to explore the Japanese and Chinese classics, giving him an early appreciation of traditions and literary aesthetics.
In 1901, as the family business declined, Tanizaki was almost sent out to work, but acquaintances who recognized his ability provided financial aid so that he could attend middle school. In 1902, Mr. Kitamura arranged for Tanizaki to become a private tutor so that he could continue attending school. In 1903, he became the leader of the school literary magazine. In 1905 he enrolled the First Municipal High School in Tokyo, where he was an outstanding student. He went on to study Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University, where he joined the student literary magazine, “Shinshicho” (Tides of New Thought). Unable to pay his university tuition, he did not finish his degree but chose instead to pursue writing as a career.
In his early years, he was infatuated with the West and all things modern, living briefly in a Western-style house in Yokohama, the foreign expatriate suburb of Tokyo, and leading a decidedly bohemian lifestyle. In 1910, he published his first work “The Tattooer,” an erotic short story describing the coming to life of a spider etched on the back a drugged courtesan, and its enraptured entrapment. In 1911, this Poe-like creation and other works won the praise and recognition of Nagai Kafu.
In 1915, Tanizaki married Ishikawa Chiyo, and the next year their first daughter was born. The marriage, which ended in divorce in 1930, was complicated by a liaison between Chiyo and Tanizaki’s friend, the writer and poet Sato Haruo; and by Tanizaki’s fascination with his sister-in-law, Seiko. The writer’s involved personal life received autobiographical treatment in “Itansha no kanashimi” (Sorrow of a Heretic), about a gifted writer and the sadistic carnal attentions of his prostitute lover, and “Haha o kouru ki” (Yearning for My Mother), published a year after his mother died. His reputation began to grow in earnest when he moved to Kyoto after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. The move triggered a change in his enthusiasms, as he tempered his youthful love for the West and modernity with a greater emphasis on his long-held interest in traditional Japanese culture, particularly the culture of the Kansai region comprising Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. This move in 1924 interrupted the writing of “Chijin no Ai” (Naomi), a long work (reminiscent of Pygmalion) about an effort to change a Japanese bar girl into a sophisticated woman capable of mingling in refined circles with foreigners. His interest in the customs, language, and style of the Kansai region became manifest in his writings, particularly the serialized novels “Manji” and “Some Prefer Nettles.”
In 1931, Tanizaki was married again to a young woman named Tomiko, but soon became infatuated with Morita Matsuko, (who later became his third and last wife), the wife of a wealthy local merchant. She inspired him to write “The Blind Man’s Tale” and “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi.” Other important works from this time are “Ashikari” (1932) and “Shunkinsho” (A Portrait of Shunkin,1932). These writings reflected what Tanizaki described, in his 1934 essay “Inei Raisan” (In Praise of Shadows), as a preference for the traditional aesthetic over glaring modernism.
His change of attitude can be seen in his multiple translations into modern Japanese of the eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji and in his masterpiece Sasameyuki ("A Light Snowfall," published in English as The Makioka Sisters ), a tale about the four daughters of a waning Osaka merchant family. Though his early novels paint a rich atmosphere of 1920s Tokyo and Osaka, during the 1930s Tanizaki turned away from contemporary affairs to write about Japan's feudal past, perhaps as a reaction to the growing militarism in society and politics. After World War II Tanizaki again emerged into literary prominence, winning a host of awards and regarded until his death as Japan's greatest living author. Most of his works are highly sensual, a few particularly centering around eroticism, but they are laced with wit and ironic sophistication. His last major work, “Futen Rojin Nikki” (Diary of a Mad Old Man, 1961), was a humorous account of love in old age.
Though Tanizaki is remembered primarily for his novels and short stories, he also wrote poetry, drama, and essays. He was, above all, a masterful storyteller.
“Sasameyuki” (The Makioka Sisters) describes, using the leisurely style of classical Japanese literature, the harsh inroads of the modern world on traditional aristocratic society. A recreation of Osaka family life in the 1930s, the work reflects Tanizaki’s admiration for old Osaka. The first chapters of the novel appeared during World War II, but censorship by the military government stopped its publication. Tanizaki continued to work on it, published the first part at his own expense and delivered the copies to his friends. The second part appeared in 1947 and the third part was first serialized in a magazine.
Tanizaki’s novels satisfy the Western reader’s sense of plot better than most Japanese novels; Many Westerners consider The Makioka Sisters to be the best Japanese novel. It has been favorably compared to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbroooks. The story is about four sisters of an upper-middle-class merchant family in Osaka and their marriages. The central concern is finding a suitable husband for the third sister (modeled on Tanizaki’s third wife), and the many elements of the plot revolve around this.
Donald Lawrence Keene, a noted Japanologist and interpreter of Japanese literature and culture, says about The Makioka Sisters: “This novel’s central people are four sisters and the consistent story line is the search for a suitable husband for the third sister; this novel does not need to be given a story line or synopsis, because Tanizaki has described in such detail the memories of this Makioka family.”
The author never wrote about “going to some restaurant,” for example, but about going to “The Oriental Grill,” a specific and clearly-named restaurant. When one of the sisters boards a bus, the author gives the exact number of the bus. Western readers tend to think that these detailed descriptions are preparation for an important event in the story, in the style of Marcel Proust, but Tanizaki evaded these expectations. For example, when a doctor is carefully portrayed as brusque and short-tempered, readers assume that these characteristics will be part of an important development in the story. Instead, the story develops in an unexpected direction, and the detailed description of the doctor has nothing at all to do with the plot. There are no cause-and-effect relationships between these detailed descriptions and events in the story, just a faithful reproduction of everyday life in Osaka.
In another example, the sisters encounter an officer on the train, and he begins to sing songs from Schubert. The poetic words of the songs are repeated in full, so the reader thinks that this officer is an important new character in the novel. Instead, the officer gets off the train at the next station and is never heard from again.
This style of writing clearly contradicts modern methods of plot formation. Tanizaki adopted this style as an intentional reaction against modern literature. At that time he had just completed a translation of The Tale of Genji in colloquial Japanese, and he wanted to revive the style of Genji, in which the author tries to describe the aristocratic society of her day without concealing any details.
Naomi (痴人の愛 , Chijin no Ai, lit. A Fool's Love) (1924), a Japanese novel along the lines of Pygmalion, is a comic commentary on Japanese fascination with the West. At the time, Japan was a slowly emerging country, Western contacts were still rare, and the charade of Western culture was the ultimate in daring fashion. Traditionally, women in Japan had been assigned specific roles, and the idea of a woman choosing her male lover was a scandalous concept.
The “modern girl” represented by Naomi was undefined; women were attempting to create something new, with no role models and fewer inhibitions. The novel had such a powerful influence at the time that real-life "Naomis" followed in its wake, and "Naomi-ism" became the word to describe their new sub-culture. Hated as she is in modern times, Naomi was an idol to oppressed girls seeking freedom.
Narrated in the first person by the protagonist, the novel is written in easy Japanese. The protagonist, a salary-man named Joji, takes a 15-year–old downtown waitress under his wing and seeks to transform her into a glamorous Western-style lady modeled on such figures as Mary Pickford. They move to a trendy neighborhood and Naomi proves a maddeningly restless and willful pupil, but develops into a seductive and dominating woman, reducing her protector to slavery.
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