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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 痴人の愛 (Naomi)

This is Tanizaki’s first real novel (お艶殺し (A Spring-Time Case) can best be described as a long short story or novella). After the Great Japan Earthquake (also known as the Great Kanto Earthquake, as it struck the Kanto Plain), Tanizaki moved away from the hurly-burly of Yokohama to Osaka. Other refugees returned when Tokyo and Yokohama had been rebuilt; Tanizaki did not. It was at this time that he wrote this novel. The title of the novel in Japanese actually means A Fool’s Love but the main character is clearly Naomi. It evokes, in part, the popular culture of Tokyo after World War I, which was very much Western-influenced. Dancing is key in this novel and it said that the character of Naomi was influenced by Tanizaki’s sister-in-law, who introduced him to dancing.

The narrator of the book is Joji Kawai (note that the book used the Japanese name order, i.e. surname first; I am using the Western order, i.e. first name first). He is a young, single engineer who has come to Tokyo to work. He has a good job and relatively cheap accommodation, so he is comfortably off. During the course of the book he will receive promotion and his salary will rise. When he goes to a local café, he sees Naomi, a fifteen-year old waitress. He is attracted to her though, he claims, his initial attraction is merely concern for her welfare. We know very early on, however, that he will marry her. He talks to her and learns that she is from the country. She is very reluctant to speak about her family, and only that she has no father. He also learns that she wishes to get some education and he soon agrees that he will rent a small house, where they will both live, she as his maid. He will pay her to study English and music. This goes on for a while but, despite having a teacher from England, Miss Harrison, Naomi seems to make little progress in her English. Finally, Joji loses his temper with her and they have a big row. He threatens to throw her out but they make up. Joji, by now, realises that his attraction is more than paternal and Naomi is very clever at taking advantage of his attraction for her. Soon they are married though, at least initially, they are to remain just ‘friends’.

Gradually, however, Naomi starts to change. She is attracted to Western culture as is Joji. Indeed, one of his initial attractions for her was her Eurasian look and the fact that she reminded him of Mary Pickford. She now takes up dancing and encourages Joji to participate. He does so reluctantly but is surprised to find how many people she knows at the dance club. But she also spends more money. She no longer considers herself a maid and does not tidy up. During the day, when he is at work, she has expensive food sent in for her. Soon Joji is struggling financially, despite their low rent and his good salary. Things get worse when he learns from various sources that Naomi is spending a lot of time with other young men.

Joji falls passionately in love with Naomi and cannot imagine a life without her. Despite her many faults, she is clearly a very attractive young woman, some sixteen years younger than he is. Equally, Naomi, coming from a poor and very conventional background, is attracted by the idea of the good life which, for her, means parties, dancing, nice, preferably Western clothes, good food and lots of men friends. She is quite happy to use her sexual charms to obtain these things. This was considered a very risqué novel for the period so much so that, while it was initially serialised in a newspaper, the paper eventually stopped serialising it before completion because of complaints from its more conservative readers, though it was later picked up and finished by a magazine. It is this risqué nature that has led to its success in Japan, where it still remains one of Tanizaki’s most popular novels. Of course, for twenty-first century Westerners, it seems relatively tame but it still makes interesting reading, not least because Naomi probably does not conform to the stereotype of the Japanese woman that many Westerners have. But it is also a novel worth reading for seeing how Tanizaki portrays how Joji, a conventional, responsible man, can essentially give up much of what this means for the love of a woman.

Publishing history

First published by Kaizōsha in 1924
First English translation by Knopf in 1985