Book Review: The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Jun‘ichirô

Yukiko is thirty years old and unmarried — that is a disaster. She was born in the year of the Ram, which is an unfortunate sign, some Japanese believe. But what is more important, her younger sister Taeko cannot marry before her elder sister, but has a steady boyfriend since long …

Ito Shinsui

The Makioka Sisters were called the “Pride and Prejudice” of Japan. Written in the 1940‘s, when most Japanese writers were silent, because of the nationalistic censorship, Tanizaki wrote one of his masterpieces. It was serialised in 1943, but was halted by the government. Tanizaki secretly distributed copies of it in his private circles. After World War II it was published in three parts from 1946 to 1948.

The story is about the decline of a wealthy upper-class family from Ôsaka in the 1930‘s. Traditional customs are now bound to fail and the new attitudes of the young generation is breaking with the lifestyle of the parents. The national crisis has it‘s impact on everyone‘s live in Japan. The international threatening of the upcoming World War II and Japan‘s nationalistic expansion policy is the background of the story.

Yukiko is an old-fashioned proud character, who takes her time to consider her marriage carefully. There were many miais („seeing each other“ as traditional marital arrangements), but no man seems to be good enough for her. One has a mentally ill mother, the other speaks to himself loudly, when he thinks himself alone and they all have something ridiculous, which in the end leads to the failing of negotiations. Tanizaki is a master in describing the miais and their circumstances en miniature. His storytelling is lively and often amusing.

Yukiko seems to be unmarriageable. And that goes on the nerve. She lives her life by fulfilling family duties and is shifted around from one household in Ôsaka to the other household, the so-called main house, in Tôkyô. Behaviour and customs of an aristocratic Japanese family, once being respected, is described fully detailed and can be regarded as a unique chronicle of Japan in the 1930‘s, when overcoming traditions clashed with adopting Western ideas.

The Makiokas have contact with Italian and Germans. Especially the German family named „Stolz“ (proud) is described vividly as neighbours and friends of the Makiokas, who‘s friendship lasts, as the Stolz‘ family is moving back to Germany, when they write letters to the Makiokas. It is evident why Tanizaki choose Germans as foreigners in this novel as Japan had an alliance with Germany. They were described a bit silly, when for instance they shouted banzai, when they were rescued after a heavy rainfall in Ôsaka.
Sometimes Tanizaki names historical landmarks as the invasion of China and the building of the puppet regime Manchukuô. Taking the risk of censorship Tanizaki is critical of the Japanese policy.

Taeko, called Koi-san as the youngest sister of the Makiokas, is a modern working woman of Japan in the 30‘s, a typical moga (modern girl). The character reminds one even of Naomi in Tanizakis novel of 1924.

Taeko does not want to marry her boyfriend Kei-Boy, as he reveals himself as an unfaithful, pampered mama’s boy, who is seeking only pleasure for himself. Taeko therefore changes her boyfriend and has several affairs hidden by her sisters to hold up the facade of the Makioka family on the outside. On the other hand her unmoral behaviour is a risk for Yukiko, who has one failing miai after another. The head of the Makioka family is getting desperate, as the family image slightly cracks. Yukiko is getting harder to marry, because Taeko‘s escapades sum up. Taeko is reluctant to advises of the main house in Tôkyô and to her sisters good words. Whereas Yukiko plays cool: she is reluctant to any of the prospects. Will she ever get married?

In the neighbourhood, where the Stolz‘ family once had lived, suspicious foreigners move in. A Swiss and his wife, who are spyed upon. The reader is tapping in the dark. The Makioka sisters travel between Ôsaka and Tôkyô often, Tanizaki describes both cities and the contrasting customs and conflicts lively.

After a while Taeko is abandoned by the Makioka family when her love life becomes uncontrollable. After that she has to go through many hardships, but Yukiko is on her side.

Until the end the story is entertaining and has many unforeseen turning points. It is a multi-faceted story of Japanese women in the 30‘s and Japans modernization conflicts. Tanizaki intersperses some political turning points and stories without being politically too much. The Makioka Sisters are a chronicle of Japan before World War II. It has rich and vivid characters, a well-structured intertwining story, thrilling until the end.

Japanese: Tanizaki Jun’ichirô. 細雪 Sasameyuki, 1943-1948.

7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Jun‘ichirô

  1. I loved the novel and I loved the film as well. While the world seems to be falling apart around her, she always manages to keep herself together. She knows what she wants and she isn’t going to compromise, no matter the pressure.

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  2. Our book club in San Juan, Puerto Rico will discuss this novel next Friday, June 29. I have greatly enjoyed reading the story of the 4 sisters, that presents Japanese pre IIWW society in such an ample and detailed manner. Is there anything you or anybody can comment to guide us in understanding and discussing the novel? For example why it is built on tle “miais” of Yukiko. And especially the last paragraph? Thank you.

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    • Thank you for your comment on the book. Arranged marriage is a very famous topic of Japanese literature. There are many stories dealing with the psychological consequences, the suffering and romantic affaires besides marriage. The romantic marriage is a Western idea, which was new to Japan and was introduced in the beginning of the 20th century. “Miai” is a Japanese tradition, which can still be found today. In his novel Tanizaki writes about the problems arising with the modernization process of Japan in the first half of the 20th century. That is the conflict of the Japanese society, the clash of traditions and modern thoughts, the modern behavior, the heat of the Japanese Jazz Age, all this can be seen in the stories of the protagonists. Yukiko stands for the more traditional Japanese woman, but she has a strong will and is a real unique character. Her younger sister stands for the modern age, and the other sisters for the old tradition. Apart from that, this novel is a very good insight about life in Japan in the 1930’s.

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