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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 台所太平記 (The Maids)

Tanizaki is, of course, best know for his novel 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters), based on events in Tanizaki’s own life. The novel under review, Tanizaki’s last, is the downstairs to the 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters)‘s upstairs. That it is to say that it tells the story of the the maids, while 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters) tells the story of the owners of the house. This is no Downton Abbey, however. Unlike in the grand English country houses, there was no physical basement where the staff lived. Indeed, they often lived on the same floor as the owners of the property. Moreover, as we shall see, at least towards the end (the novel is set approximately between 1935 and 1962), the maids are much closer to the owners than they would have been in Downton Abbey.

This is a much lighter novel than 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters), which may explain why it has never been translated before. As a good Japanese novel, it starts off on the issue of convention and hierarchy, wondering how to refer to the maids, both collectively and individually. Like the owner of the house in this novel – Raikichi – Tanizaki sticks to the old style. Indeed, Raikichi is almost certainly based on Tanizaki himself, as there are quite a few similarities between the two men. Raikichi has married Sanko, a woman seventeen years younger than him. His first wife and his daughter now live in Tokyo, near Kobe In the West of the country, near Osaka. As well as Raikichi and Sanko, the household consists of Sanko’s seven year old daughter from a previous marriage and Sanko’s younger sister.

Most of the novel consists of the stories of the various maids who work for the household, all of whom have their own character and personality, which Tanizaki brings out. We start with the language issue. Raikichi is from Tokyo and finds the Osaka dialect difficult (Tanizaki gives several examples). However, both the maids and his wife speak in the Osaka dialect so he gradually picks it up.

We start with Hatsu. He starts with her as her name means first. It is not, in fact, her real name, which is Sakihana Wakae. It was the custom in Osaka at that time to give a maid a new name as keeping her old name was deemed to be an insult to her family. Hatsu was stout,with a flat nose. Indeed, she was said to resemble Hattie McDaniel, from Gone with the Wind. (All the cinematic references in this book are to Hollywood rather than Japanese films, Tanizaki being fond of Hollywood films. Hatsu’s bust will later be compared to Marilyn Monroe’s!) However, she had a good heart and it was she who looked after the subsequent maids to arrive in the household.

One of the issues we follow is the various flirtations and, in many cases, subsequent marriages of the maids. With Hatsu and the maids of her era, it was with the employees of Kansai Electrical, who would be summoned for any minor electrical fault, but really so that the maids could flirt with the men. Hatsu was friendly with Terada but he was called up to fight against the Chinese and then the other employees followed. When the family bought a small house in Atami after the Doolittle Raid, fearing air raids on Kobe and Osaka, it was Hatsu who accompanied Raikichi to the house, as it was she he trusted. Throughout the novel, Raikichi will have a favourite maid (and also, on occasions, one he really did not like) who will accompany him, not just when he goes to another house but also to go out eating or to the cinema, and to look after him when his heath deteriorates. When Sanko suggests that he get a geisha he declines and says he is happy with the maid. There is no suggestion of any sexual liaison with any of these maids.

We follow the stories of several other maids, including the epileptic Ume for whom the recommended cure is marriage (she marries Hatsu’s brother); Koma who gets upset about most things but particularly sad films, and cries out loudly; Sayo and Setsu the Lesbian maids and Gin and Yuri who are rivals for the love of Mitsuo the taxi driver (and gambler and womaniser), till Yuri manages to get the job as a companion to a famous actress. All of them, except one of the Lesbians, end up getting married and Raikichi becomes closer to their children than he does to his own grandchildren, whom he rarely see, as they are in Tokyo.

The main focus is on the stories of the maids but Tanizaki also wants to show us how life has changed. The closeness between the maids and their families on the one hand and Raikichi on the other would never have happened before the war. However, there are other social customs that have changed, which we learn about. One is that, in the later period, it is difficult to recruit maids, as young women prefer working in an office or factory. In short, this is also a story of how Japan changed over the period of the novel.

This novel is clearly no 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters) and does not pretend to be. However, it is interesting to see a Japanese novelist writing about the downstairs people and not just about the upstairs ones. He brings out the characters of the maids he writes about well and tells their stories with enthusiasm and conviction.

Publishing history

First published by Shuppanchi fumei in 1963
First English translation by New Directions in 2017
Translated by Michael P Cronin