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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters)

This novel is Tanizaki’s best novel and is considered one of the great Japanese novels. As the title tells us, the story is about a group of sisters – four, specifically – but it is also about change and adapting (and not adapting) to change). The four sisters – Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko – have grown up in a well-to-do family. Their father was a successful businessman and the family was old and distinguished. However, as there were no sons to take over the business or family name, the husbands of Tsuruko and Sachiko adopted the Makioka name and Tatsuo, husband of Tsuruko, the oldest sister, has become the titular head of the family. However, the family business did not do well and had to be sold. The Makioka family clearly is not what it was, though the family itself is reluctant to accept this.

While the two older sisters are married, the younger two are not. Taeko wants to marry but custom prevents her from marrying before her older sister is married. Indeed Takeo eloped with her boyfriend but the two families managed to extract their respective child before anything happened. Both families blamed the other. However, it was felt that Taeko should have a bit more independence, as she was prevented from marrying. She has taken to making dolls and has been so successful that she has sold some to department stores and even gives classes in doll-making. To do this, she has rented a room to use as as studio. Inevitably, she has seen her boyfriend there.

The problem is Yukiko. Numerous suitors have been selected for her but either she had rejected them or the family had rejected them. As a result, the number of suitors has dried up as the family now has a reputation of being difficult in this respect. Yukiko seems happy looking after her niece, Etsuko, Sachiko’s daughter. The other problem seems to be that Yukiko seems to be withdrawn and shy. Indeed, when she and her family meet the families of potential suitors, she is always compared unfavourably with her older sister, Sachiko. At the beginning of the book, a new suitor has been found by Mrs Itani, owner of the local beauty shop. He is Mr. Segoshi. He is forty years old and has never been married. He works for a French chemical company based in Japan. On the surface, he seems a fairly good catch, even if his family is not as distinguished as the Makiokas. Inevitably, however, there is delay and more delay, as Yukiko hesitates, each of the two Makioka husbands carries out an investigation and Mr Segoshi himself raises a few points. There is a meeting (but not a formal miai). All seems to be going smoothly but, naturally, there is a glitch and the whole thing is called off. Other suitors appear but, for various reasons, are deemed unsuitable. Meanwhile, Okubata, Taeko’s boyfriend, has indicated that he wants to marry Taeko but will wait till Yukiko is married. This, of course, puts pressure on Yukiko.

During the course of the book, various people present various suitors for Yukiko but they are rejected for various reasons. Finally, of course, they are rejected. The Makiokas were, for the first time, being told they had failed an examination For the first time they were branded the losers. This has a profound effect on them, particularly Sachiko. However, Taeko turns out to be just as much a problem. Taeko hardly knew her mother, who died when she was very young, and was till fairly young when her father died, so she does not share the sense of responsibility and tradition that her sisters have. When the main house, i.e. Tatsuo and Tsuruko and their children – move to Tokyo because of Tatsuo’s job, it is expected that the two unmarried sisters will move with them. Both are very reluctant but Yukiko does spend some time in Tokyo though she is not really very happy there. Taeko, however, refuses, so much so that, eventually, there is even talk of expelling her from the family. Her reasons are twofold – her work and, though she does not tell her family this, her boyfriends. From the family perspective, her choice of boyfriends is quite unsuitable and the main house is not entirely happy with her work, particularly when she wants to go to France to study sewing. And what was so wrong with a woman who worked? The people in Tokyo still worried about family and position, and it seemed to them a disgrace that the Makioka family should produce a seamstress. In short, Japan was changing and the Makioka family was not really changing at the same speed.

The key theme, as mentioned, is the slowness with which the Makioka family adapt, both to their own changing role in society but also to the changes taking place in Japan. Tanizaki shows this skilfully and gradually. But he also shows us Japan or, more particularly Osaka and Tokyo of the period. From the Osaka flood to medical advances we learn of changes in Japan. Interestingly enough one change we learn little about is the encroaching war. Because the Makiokas have German friends, we do follow developments in Europe but apart from a couple of mentions of the Chinese incident and the possibility of one of the characters working for the puppet Emperor of Manchuria, we learn nothing of the Japanese invasion of China and little of the encroaching war with the USA and Europe. Indeed, one of the characters goes off to the USA to live, in 1940. The novel ends shortly before Pearl Harbour. However, it is the small world in which the Makiokas live and their inability to see how it is changing and how this change will affect them, that makes this novel one of the classics of Japanese literature.

Publishing history

First published by Chuō Kōronsha in 1948
First English translation by Knopf in 1957
Translated by Edward Seidensticker