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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 友田と松永の話 (The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga)

The narrator of this book, a famous novelist, known only as F. K. (as it uses the Japanese format, K. is his first name) receives a letter from a woman. He is used to receiving letters, most of which he ignores but this one he reads. The woman’s name is Shige Matsunaga (Western order of names) and she is married to a man called Gisuke. She lives in a rural village called Yagyu. She is an admirer of the author’s work and has written to him for help regarding her husband. They had rural property so he did not have a job, despite being a university graduate. However, they lived happily together. When his mother died, however, he became more agitated, making journeys to Kyoto and Osaka. Finally, when Shige was pregnant, he told her that he was leaving for a long journey. She and his family tried to stop but off he went. He stayed away for four years and, during that time, she received no communication from him. Their daughter was born. Then, after four years and without warning, he reappeared but looking decidedly unhealthy. He became a loving husband and father but then, three years later, he was off again. Again he stayed away for four years and again he returned without warning, looking unhealthy. Three years later he was off again. Shige has written to the narrator during the latest absence, not least because her daughter is very ill with pleurisy. While he was home the last time, she took a look at his private things and found a bag, containing a gold ring, a seal with the name Tomoda on it, some indecent photos of foreign women and a postcard addressed to a Ginzo Tomoda at the Café Liberté in Tokyo, saying Apologies for the other evening. How did the matter turn out? I await your reply but with no signature. Shige does not known anyone called Tomoda.

Shige suspects that Tomoda might be a pseudonym used by her husband and wonders if the author might know this Tomoda. She also enclosed a photo of her husband, a thin, sickly-looking man. The narrator is interested because he does know Tomoda. Tomoda is one of his drinking companions. He recalls that they have never met at either of their respective houses but have met at the Café Liberté and other café/brothels, particularly those where the prostitutes are Western. Tomoda clearly is not the husband as Tomoda is a big man, younger-looking and with a healthy appearance. Moreover, the narrator is fairly sure that the postcard is one that he wrote to Tomoda. He believes that he has met Tomoda regularly over the past few years but, when he thinks about it, he remembers that there were long periods when they did not meet. Indeed, when he starts to calculate and think back, he works out that the periods when Tomoda was not around coincided with the periods Shige said that her husband was home. Can Tomoda and Matsunaga be one and the same?

He decides to go and find Tomoda at their usual meeting place, which he does. Finally, he confronts him. Tomoda denies everything but cannot explain how Matsunaga happened to have the postcard and other items, till he remembers that he was robbed on the train and his bag containing these items had been stolen. Either Matsunaga is a thief or somehow got them from the thief. The narrator persuades Tomoda to let him have some recent photos of himself, which he sends to Shige and she says, while he does seem to be a bit like her husband, he clearly is not him. Eventually, her husband returns and, while Tomoda seems to have disappeared again, the narrator think no more of it. When he is in the area, Shige hears about it and invites him over and introduces him to her husband. The narrator is adamant that this man is not Tomoda.

As well as dealing with the issue of identity, Tanizaki brings in other favourite themes. In particular, Tomoda and the narrator spend a considerable time at Western bars and brothels and consort primarily with Western prostitutes. Tomoda, in particular, is very enthusiastic about things Western. He speaks excellent English and French and considers Western culture, Western women and Western style to be far superior to Japanese culture, women and style. We know that Tanizaki was fascinated with Western culture as well. A respectable man going off the rails and the travails of love are also favourite themes of Tanizaki, which we see here. This is certainly a fascinating tale and it makes you wonder why it has only been translated into Italian and not other languages.

Publishing history

First published by Shun’yodo in 1926
First English translation in 2018 in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories