Jun'ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965)

During a career that extended for more than half a century, from the end of the Meiji era in 1912 to the high-growth era of the 1960s, the novelist Tanizaki Jun'ichirō was a champion of the imagination. In a literary milieu dominated by the autobiographical ruminations of the naturalists and later of the shishōsetsu (personal fiction) writers, he upheld fiction founded on invention. For Tanizaki, who once said that only lies interested him, truth existed in the reification of the imaginary through language that declared its own primacy and materiality. A grand old man of letters, he accumulated a body of work--comprising a dozen major novels, scores of short stories and novellas, and many plays and essays--that fills thirty substantial volumes in the standard edition of his works. Each of his pieces attests to his undying faith in artifice as the cornerstone of art; his tightly constructed plots and ingenious narrative schemes reveal his conviction that stories exist only in the alchemy of their telling.


Yet, for all of its inventiveness, Tanizaki's fiction shows a decided connectedness to the larger world. A writer preternaturally sensitive to the cultural currents swirling around him, he mirrored in his fiction the fascinations of his society. Thus, in the 1920s his stories displayed the craze for Western things that marked the Taishō Period of 1912 to 1925, and in the increasingly conservative 1930s they showed a conscious embrace of tradition. His post--World War II work reflected both a nostalgia for a gentler culture that had been destroyed by the war and a recognition of the freedom brought by defeat. With a relentless focus on sexuality, Tanizaki explored such cultural twists and turns through stories about the male pursuit of the feminine. The most frequently encountered motif in his fiction is that of a man remaking a woman to accord with his desires. While there is clearly an element of fantasy in these transformations, there is also a persistent analytical counterpoint, expressed through a consideration of the power dynamics that make women subject to the fantasies of men, and of the limits of subjectivity in imposing its will on the exterior world.

There has been a certain ambivalence in the Japanese critical evaluation of Tanizaki. Because of his rejection of shishōsetsu (personal fiction) ideology, his embrace of playful narrative strategies, and, perhaps, even his idiosyncratic expressions of sexuality, a certain faction of Japanese critics have labeled Tanizaki a writer shisō no nai sakka (without serious philosophical concerns). But Tanizaki has always had his supporters, and his focus on the cultural dimensions of desire has been recognized as nothing if not serious. His love for highly plotted fictional narratives has also come up for reevaluation, with some critics now seeing him as an inheritor of the diegetic tradition of the classical monogatari (tale). Today few would dispute the assessment of Tanizaki as a writer of the first magnitude, one whose work figures large in the literary history of modern Japan.

Tanizaki was born on 24 July 1886 in the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo, when the city still retained many of the features and customs of the old city of Edo. Two aspects of his background, which the writer himself emphasizes in his Yōshō jidai (1957; translated as Childhood Years: A Memoir , 1988), were to be of special consequence for his later writing. First, he was a true Edokko, a child of Edo, whose merchant-class family had lived for generations in the shitamachi, the merchants' and artisans' quarter of the city. The majority of modern Japanese writers, in contrast, came from the provinces. Tanizaki was a descendant of the chōnin (urban commoner), who during the Edo period from 1600 to 1867 had evolved a vibrant culture that valued verve and style and reveled in the merchant's frank enjoyment of material comforts. As a child, Tanizaki came to love the urban pleasures of going to the Kabuki and participating in the shitamachi's many seasonal observances.

The second important factor in Tanizaki's background is that his family, which was prosperous during his earliest years, suffered a considerable decline in its fortunes during his childhood. The family's prosperity had been established by Tanizaki's grandfather, Kyuemon, who had started out working in a kettle making shop but had parlayed a small real estate investment into many other enterprises. Kyuemon arranged the marriage of two of his daughters to a pair of orphaned brothers whom he adopted; Jun'ichirō was the eldest son of the younger of these couples, which consisted of Seki, a renowned neighborhood beauty, and Kuragorō. Kuragorō, however, proved to be nowhere near the merchant that Seki's father had been. He quickly ruined the Western style liquor shop that he was given to run at the time of his marriage, and, though he was subsequently set up in several other family businesses, he never succeeded at anything. Kyuemon died during Jun'ichirō's second year; for a while the Tanizakis were able to live in relative comfort on what Kyuemon had left, but with Kuragorō's mounting failures the family's fortunes slid downward. It did not help that Jun'ichirō was followed by three brothers and three sisters. Although a brother and two of the sisters were sent away to foster families, the remaining children strained the precarious family finances.

Despite his family's troubles, Tanizaki did well at school. He was consistently at the top of his class once he got past the first grade, which he was required to repeat because of his infantile behavior--a notorious crybaby, he had initially refused to go to school without his nursemaid. While still a primary school student he also attended private academies to study English and classical Chinese. He won admission to the First Metropolitan Middle School and the First Higher School, which were among the best secondary schools in the country. By the time he entered middle school his family was living from hand to mouth, and there was talk of taking him out of school and apprenticing him in a trade; only by working as a live in houseboy for a wealthy family was he able to continue his education. As a result of these experiences, Tanizaki felt forever deprived of his birthright: the comforts and pleasures that he had known as the scion of a shitamachi merchant family had been snatched away and replaced by the petty indignities of domestic service. Soon the shitamachi itself would be physically transformed by industrialization and overrun by migrants from other areas of Japan.

In 1907 Tanizaki moved back into his parents' home, having been dismissed from his houseboy position for becoming romantically involved with a maid. He matriculated at Tokyo Imperial University the following year.

Tanizaki's literary inclinations surfaced early: in primary school he and some friends started a hand copied magazine, and during his middle and high school years he contributed frequently to school literary journals. But it was as a university student that Tanizaki began to write fiction in earnest. He chose Japanese literature as his major because the requirements were undemanding and would leave him the most time for his own writing. Initially, however, he had difficulty in getting his work published; starting his career at the height of the naturalist domination of the literary world, Tanizaki could not find an outlet for his flamboyant, highly crafted stories. He and a group of like-minded Imperial University students finally started a coterie magazine as a way of getting themselves into print. It was in this magazine, Shinshichō; (New Currents), that in 1910 Tanizaki published "Shisei" (translated as "The Tattooer," 1963), the story that launched his career.

"The Tattooer" is a manifesto for a certain kind of artistic sensibility--a glove slapped across the face of Japanese naturalism and its sober autobiographical realism. Blending the flash and decadence of late Edo Kabuki with the flash and decadence of Western fin-de-siScle literature, it is a celebration of craft and artifice. This characterization applies to the story's finely wrought language and skillful storytelling, but it is most evident in its plot, which exalts the artist's capacity to create his own transcendent ideal. Set in an Edo reconstructed as a hotbed of aestheticism, "The Tattooer" is the tale of a gifted tattoo artist who has one wish: to find a beautiful woman to become the perfect canvas for his artistry so that he could create his masterpiece on her body. After years of searching the tattooer discovers the appropriate girl, whom he recognizes by the loveliness of a milk white foot peeping out from within a palanquin. When the girl falls within his grasp he drugs her and stipples on her back the image of a gigantic black widow spider. When the tattoo is complete, after a day and a night of exhausting labor, more than the girl's appearance has been transformed: made incomparably beautiful in a world where beauty equals strength, she now glares down at the tattooer, who must beg to see what he has created. The story ends as she disrobes and bares a body made luminous by the power of art: "Just then her resplendently tattooed back caught a ray of sunlight and the spider was wreathed in flames."

This brief and brilliant story epitomizes Tanizaki's early work. His archetypal plot of a man laboring to transform a woman into the object of his desires makes its first appearance here, as does the femme fatale. It is noteworthy that in "The Tattooer" the femme fatale is literally a male construction, brought into being through the exercise of the artist's mastery over a helpless girl. The parading of an idiosyncratic sexuality is also characteristic: foot fetishism and masochism are the favorite perversions of his heroes, but Tanizaki, a reader of the works of Sigmund Freud and Richard von Krafft Ebing, was capable of writing about a cornucopia of erotic delights. Nor was his striving to re create extraordinary sensual experiences based solely on Western writings on sexuality: a cultural syncretist of a high order, Tanizaki could combine, with flair and imagination, images from various cultures. The femme fatale in "The Tattooer" derives as much from the sanguinary sensibilities of late Edo Kabuki and wood block prints and the early Meiji fascination with dokufu (poisonous women) as she does from Tanizaki's avid reading of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Baudelaire. Finally, there is a love for the exotic setting. In "The Tattooer" the shitamachi of Edo is hardly a historically accurate locale; it functions as an alternative world supporting possibilities unavailable in the desiccated present.

These elements appear in various permutations in Tanizaki's early stories. In "Himitsu" (1911; translated as "The Secret" 1993), the protagonist, who disguises his identity by dressing as a woman, is beguiled by a lover who hides the location of her shitamachi love nest. In "Shōnen" (Children, 1911) a mansion that stands apart from the surrounding shitamachi becomes the setting for sadomasochistic games played by a group of children in which a girl emerges as the victor by taking on the guise of a Western temptress.

These early stories established Tanizaki as a promising newcomer to the late Meiji literary scene. The respected writer Nagai Kafu, who singled out "The Tattooer" as Tanizaki's best story, gave the younger man's career a mighty boost with a glowing review that portrayed him as an urban stylist in search of the heightened sensuality of decadence. Immediately thereafter, Tanizaki's stories began to be carried in the leading literary journals, and his first collection of stories was published under the title Shisei in 1911.

As his career took hold, Tanizaki's personal life became increasingly unsettled. He was expelled from the Imperial University in 1911 for failing to pay his fees. For the next several years he lived in a succession of inns and boardinghouses, sometimes leaving behind a pile of debts when he moved on. During this period he was linked with a succession of women, including the wife of a cousin. In 1915 he married Ishikawa Chiyo; he makes clear in his later writings that he married not for love but for stability, calling his wife "an implement for forming my own household." He rationalizes his attitude by saying that his art required a change in his life, and that life is subordinate to art. This radical self absorption also characterizes his pronouncements on his only child, his daughter Ayuko, who was born the year after his marriage: "Why did I dislike having a child so much? To put it briefly, it was because I was a singular egoist. It was because I was a person who had only taken care of himself." Though the chilling bluntness of such declarations must be partially attributed to Tanizaki's love of posing, there is some truth in his statement.

Needless to say, the marriage was not happy. Tanizaki soon grew tired of Chiyo; he had hoped that she would have something in common with her brash and lively older sister, who had initially attracted his attention but had been unavailable. Chiyo, however, proved to be a gentle, retiring woman, and it was not long before Tanizaki began to look elsewhere for companionship. Within two years of his marriage he had placed Chiyo and Ayuko in the care of his father so that he would have more freedom for his pursuits, artistic and otherwise. His foremost quarry at this time was Chiyo's younger sister Seiko, in whom he found something of the eldest sister's sauce and brass.

Aside from Tanizaki's marriage, the other event that stands out in these years is the death of his mother in 1917. Because a man's longing for the maternal is a recurring theme in Tanizaki's fiction, his critics and biographers tend to emphasize the writer's relationship with his mother. But Tanizaki's stories and his psychology are complex, and a facile equation between fiction and biography is misleading. The "mother" who is the object of so much yearning in Tanizaki's fiction tends to be an abstraction, often identified with the shitamachi and defined by her "whiteness," a color that signifies transcendent beauty in the symbolic vocabulary the writer developed over the course of his career. Two stories that Tanizaki published in the years immediately following his mother's death suggest some of the problems with attempting to anchor the longing for "mother" in his biography. The portrait of the mother is decidedly unflattering in Itansha no kanashimi (A Heretic's Grief, 1917), an autobiographical piece set at a time when the Tanizaki family fortunes were at their lowest ebb: the embittered old woman who berates her husband over the loss of her inheritance and drives her son away with her ceaseless complaints is hardly an object of longing. Tanizaki says in the foreword that this story, which he had written previously but did not publish until two months after his mother's death, was his "only confessional work." A quite different mother appears in "Haha o kouru ki" (1919; translated as "Longing for Mother," 1980), an eerily effective re creation of the skewed reality of dream. The first Tanizaki story about the yearning for the maternal, it tells of a meeting in a dream of a son and his mother, the latter a pale erotic apparition who takes the guise of a wandering singer of shinnai ballads.

The fiction that Tanizaki wrote in the late 1910s and early 1920s is greatly varied. His febrile imagination continued to produce decadent, sensually heightened celebrations of femmes fatales and sadomasochistic thrill seekers in exotic locales. After a trip to China in 1918 he wrote a group of stories set there, and China proved to be as open to the play of his imagination as the shitamachi had been. He also wrote mysteries and crime stories that are considered to be among the progenitors of these genres in Japan. But perhaps the most consequential strain in his writing was that dealing with the West. Like many other writers in a developing Japan, Tanizaki viewed the West as a land of freedom, prosperity, and beauty, but he was unique in the degree to which he was aware that this "West" was largely a creation of the Japanese imagination. Thus, such stories as "Aoi hana" (The Blue Flower, 1922; translated as "Aguri," 1963) and "Ave Maria" (1923) are set not in the West but in Japan and deal with the efforts of Japanese men to secure Western women.

Tanizaki was quick to recognize the new Western medium of film. While other Japanese authors considered movies nothing more than popular entertainment, Tanizaki realized that film was a form of narrative with its own possibilities. In 1920 1921 he put much of his energy into writing scenarios for the Taishō Katsuei production company. Late in 1921 he moved his family to the port city of Yokohama, a point of entry for all things Western. There they rented a Western style house, wore Western clothes, ate Western food, took ballroom dancing lessons, and made friends with members of the large foreign community. In early 1923 Tanizaki announced that he intended to travel to the West by the fall, but the plan was never to be carried out: on 1 September Tokyo and Yokohama were leveled by the Kantō earthquake. Tanizaki was away from Yokohama at the time; rushing back, he found that his wife and daughter were safe but that his house and the city that had supported his Westernized way of life were in ruins. He and his family took refuge in the Kansai region, staying briefly in Kyoto and then settling in the Hanshin suburbs between Osaka and Kōbe.

It was in Kansai that Tanizaki wrote Chijin no ai (A Fool's Love, 1925; translated as Naomi , 1985). This work is a milepost in Tanizaki's career: it is his first true novel; it is the work in which he combines social observation and imagination; and it both celebrates and coldly analyzes the phenomenon of cultural aspiration. Naomi is narrated by a man in the grip of an obsession. Jōji, an otherwise humdrum engineer, has "imitated the Western style in everything." He sees an opportunity to acquire a mate appropriate to his desires when he encounters Naomi, a fifteen year old waitress who resembles the actress Mary Pickford. Jōji takes Naomi from the caf where he found her, installs her in a Western style cottage decorated with the iconic images of American movie actresses, and endeavors to Westernize her through English, piano, and dancing lessons. He succeeds so well that she soon starts to despise him for being too Japanese. Before long she is having affairs, first with upper class Japanese and later with Western men. Jōji tries to banish Naomi from his life, but his obsession with the woman he has created is too powerful to resist. By the end of the novel he has acceded to Naomi's demand that they move to Yokohama, where he supports her dalliances with a string of Western lovers who call him "George."

The novel has been read as a warning against losing one's cultural moorings; Jōji himself says, "If you think that there's a moral in it, then, please let it serve as a lesson." But even when she has apparently gained the upper hand, Naomi remains Jōji's creation; thus, her story is that of an invented West brought into being to fulfill Japanese fantasies. Tanizaki is all too aware of the hierarchies of class and gender that allow the transformation of a waitress into a temptress. His novel is laced with the ironic insight that a man can only be possessed by what he already owns.

After the publication of Naomi Tanizaki wrote a series of essays tracing his gradual conversion from a typical Edokko, harboring an inborn discomfort in an alien land, to a devotee of Kansai, a "second homeland" where he found traces of the merchant quarter of his youth. As he felt the pull of this older part of Japan, Tanizaki sought to define for himself what was essentially "Japanese." In his essays he struggles with the notion of Japanese cultural identity, taking note both of the desperate need to absorb Western knowledge and technology and of the losses incurred in the process. These concerns led to Tanizaki's reconstruction of "traditional" Japanese aesthetics in In'ei raisan (1939; translated as In Praise of Shadows, 1977), an essay that is both playful and lovingly lyrical in its delineation of a unique Japanese sense of beauty based on the appreciation of shadows and darkness.

Apart from the notion of cultural identity, the key issue that engaged Tanizaki as an essayist during these years was the nature of fiction. In the collection of essays titled Jōzetsuroku (Garrulous Jottings, 1929) Tanizaki carried on his side of a debate with his friend and fellow writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke over what the latter called hanashirashii hanashi no nai shōsetsu (fiction without plotlike plots). Akutagawa, who had once produced his share of ingenious, tightly constructed stories, felt in his last years the attraction of writing that avoided the "vulgar interest" of artifice by practicing a kind of autobiographical lyricism. In the face of his friend's defection, Tanizaki held firm to fiction that was unabashedly fictional. He argued that imaginatively conceived and artfully constructed plots graced fiction with "architectonic beauty" and were indispensable.

The concerns addressed in Tanizaki's essays recur in various combinations in the fiction he produced in the late 1920s, particularly the two important novels that he wrote nearly simultaneously: Tade kuu mushi (1929; translated as Some Prefer Nettles , 1955) and Manji (1931; translated as Quicksand, 1993). In Some Prefer Nettles Kansai assumes the contours assigned to the region in Tanizaki's essays. It is a land with a lingering past, where the work's protagonist, the superficially modern Kaname, feels the pull of an older Japan. Kaname's search for cultural identity is set into motion by his failed marriage, which is portrayed with chilling precision. All passion has gone out of Kaname's marriage to Misako, a woman who is superficially modern in much the same way that he is. Unwilling to act decisively, yet wanting to end the marriage, Kaname pushes Misako into a relationship with another man in the hope that the affair will lead to a painless divorce. As he pulls away from his wife, however, Kaname is paradoxically drawn to her father, who seems to have achieved a life in tune with the Japanese past. The assurance that the old man exhibits in his traditional tastes and in his relationship with his doll like mistress fills Kaname with envy. In the closing scene of the novel, which takes place in his father in law's old fashioned house in Kyoto, Kaname seems to be on the verge of indulging himself in a replacement fantasy by becoming involved with the older man's mistress.

On one level, the novel appears to depict a man being pulled to his own cultural roots. Yet the work resists a simple reading because, like all of Tanizaki's novels, it attends to the contradictory and subversive dynamics of desire. These dynamics are apparent in the portrayal of the old man, who engaged during his earlier years in "foreign tastes of the most hair raising variety." Since then he has embarked on a painstaking program of reconstruction, remaking himself into a cultural type from the past--a retired man of taste--and forcing his mistress into antique kimonos in an effort to turn her into an appropriate partner. The relationship of a puppeteer to a bunraku puppet--a figure in a Japanese puppet play that dates back to the seventh century--recurs as a leitmotiv throughout the work to underscore the older man's manipulative relationship with his mistress. Kaname, it turns out, has been attracted by another man's carefully crafted fantasy about the past. Some Prefer Nettles is as much about the constantly mediated and constructed nature of cultural desire as it is about the rediscovery of cultural identity.

Kagi (1956; translated as The Key , 1960) highlights the essential inventiveness and arbitrariness of fiction by organizing its narrative as a succession of lies. The narrator, Sonoko, relates an escalating series of tricks and deceptions that she, her lesbian lover, and her husband put over on each other in carrying out the suicide pact in which the lover and the husband die. Sonoko is telling her story retrospectively, after all the deceptions have been unmasked; but she insists on conveying only information that was known to her at the time of the events--in effect, practicing on the reader the deceptions that others practiced upon her. The reader of The Key soon learns that the "truth" is only provisional and is likely to be revised by the next revelation. The result is an elaborately plotted text that constantly flaunts its own status as a fabrication and challenges the notion that writing can ever be sincere. The Key also exhibits Tanizaki's growing fascination with Kansai. Here the value of the region lies not in its association with the past but in its exoticism, an exoticism that is embodied in the Osaka dialect in which Sonoko tells her story and that is heightened by descriptions of her showy Kansai dress and mannerisms. The distance from the Tokyo standard renders alien everything that Sonoko says and does, and it establishes Kansai as a landscape of possibility that can support the exotic sexuality and behaviors related in the story.

The portrait of the failed marriage in Some Prefer Nettles may well have been drawn from life, for in 1930 Tanizaki divorced Chiyo, who immediately married the writer Satō Haruo. The three principals scandalized the Japanese press by sending out a jointly signed announcement of the divorce and remarriage. The triangle that was resolved in this fashion went back many years to what was called the "Odawara Incident." Named for the seaside town where the Tanizakis had lived for a few years before moving to Yokohama in 1921, the incident had involved an intense, but reportedly chaste, love affair between Satō and Chiyo. The younger writer, who had been a close friend of Tanizaki's, had initially pitied Chiyo because of her husband's brutish treatment of her, but his feelings had gradually turned to love. Tanizaki had encouraged the relationship because he saw it as a way to dissolve the marriage; but, after agreeing to a divorce, he had suddenly changed his mind, saying that his friend and his wife had failed fully to understand his motives. Chiyo and Satō were dumbfounded, but they had no choice except to end their relationship. Incensed by Tanizaki's reversal, Satō declared that he wanted nothing more to do with him and went on to attack his behavior in a thinly veiled roman à clef. The chill between the two writers did not ease for many years. Meanwhile, the Tanizakis' marriage was no better than before, and in the spring of 1930 the older writer approached Satō about marrying Chiyo. After some understandable hesitation, Satō had accepted the proposition. This time the arrangements for the divorce and the subsequent marriage proceeded smoothly.

In the year following his divorce Tanizaki married Furukawa Tomiko, a reporter twenty one years his junior. Tanizaki initially crowed over his good fortune: "I have finally learned, at the age of forty six, the blessings of a marriage where there is a true spiritual and physical union." Yet the marriage was over almost as soon as it had begun. Tanizaki and Tomiko were living apart a year after their wedding, and a divorce followed soon thereafter.

The marriage's quick demise was tied to Tanizaki's relationship with the woman who became his greatest muse: Nezu Matsuko, who, when she first met Tanizaki in 1927, was married to the scion of an old Osaka wholesaling firm. Matsuko represented to Tanizaki all that was graceful and refined about women of the upper reaches of the Osaka merchant class. Although Tanizaki was smitten with Matsuko from the start, the presence of her husband and her wealth initially stopped him from considering her as anything more than a friend. These circumstances changed, however, as Matsuko's wealth evaporated with the failure of the family business and her marriage disintegrated because of an affair between her husband and her youngest sister. Despite his recent marriage to Tomiko, Tanizaki was soon declaring his love for Matsuko. In these declarations he was careful to preserve the illusion of hierarchy; a letter he wrote on 7 October 1932 shows how he delighted in playing the role of Matsuko's slave: "My lady, you once had chambermaids ten and more to do your bidding. From here on, all by myself I will take the place of your manservant, your steward, and your chambermaids." Waiting on Matsuko's needs, Tanizaki claimed, helped him "overcome an impasse in my art" and made him "brim with limitless creativity."

The works that Tanizaki professed to have written under Matsuko's influence are notable for two characteristics: they feature male protagonists' worshipful treatment of distant mistresses, and they exhibit a connection with the Japanese past. The tie with the past is established either through the use of a historical setting, as in Mōmoku monogatari (1932; translated as A Blind Man's Tale, 1963), which retells the history of the late sixteenth century civil wars from the point of view of a blind masseur who serves the ladies of the warring lords, or through the deliberate evocation of traditional Japanese literature, as in Jun'ichirō jippitsubon Ashikari (The Reed Cutter, 1933; translated as "Ashikari" 1936), a tale about a man's yearning for a ghostly mother that makes skillful use of the structure and conventions of the No play.

The masterpiece of this period is undoubtedly Shunkinshō; (1933; translated as The Story of Shunkin , 1936), a chilling novella set in the late Edo period about the relationship of a blind musician and her manservant. From childhood on, Sasuke strives to satisfy the cruel and demanding Shunkin's every whim. Held in thrall by the erotics of distance, whereby a man's desire is fanned by the remoteness of its object, Sasuke grovels before his mistress's surpassing beauty, wealth, and social superiority. His self abasement reaches its extreme when Shunkin's face is disfigured by a mysterious attacker; to continue serving his mistress without gazing on her ruined features, Sasuke puts out his own eyes with a needle. Thus transformed, he attends to Shunkin's needs until her death. On the surface, then, The Story of Shunkin is a story of monstrous devotion. But it can also be read as the record of another kind of monstrousness, for it reveals the mastery underlying Sasuke's seeming servility: Sasuke has used his acquiescence to make Shunkin totally dependent on him, thereby ensuring that she will continue to play her assigned role. When he puts out his eyes, Sasuke secures his idealized inner vision of Shunkin against the encroachments of time and reality. There is even a suggestion, though it is never confirmed, that Sasuke may have disfigured his own mistress before age destroyed her beauty.

In a postscript to the novella Tanizaki says that in writing it he had sought to "find the form that would convey the greatest feeling of reality," and that he had finally "settled on the laziest, easiest method for a writer." The narrator is an antiquarian researcher who pieces together the story and retells it through quotations from various sources, as well as providing his own interpretations. So successful was this multilayered narrative that some readers initially mistook the unlikely story for a factual account.

In the late 1930s Tanizaki's fascination with the past and with traditional literature reached its apex when he set out to translate into the modern Japanese the greatest fictional narrative of classical Japanese literature, the eleventh century Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji). He devoted three years to the project, completing it in 1939, and would undertake two complete revisions (1951, 1964) before his death. His first effort reflected the ideological currents of the times. Sensing that the authorities would object to even a fictional representation of an act of lSse majest, Tanizaki excised all references to Genji's relationship with Fujitsubo, the emperor's consort, and illicit fathering of a future emperor. He also allowed drafts of his work to be checked by a leading right wing scholar. Though Tanizaki was quick to restore the excised sections in his postwar revisions, it remains true that he was all too ready to sacrifice the integrity of a text that he loved.

Should his work on The Tale of Genji leave the impression that Tanizaki was an ideologically accommodating writer, one should keep in mind his paradoxically determined stand during the writing of his next major work of fiction, Sasameyuki (Light Snow, 1944 1948; translated as The Makioka Sisters , 1957). A loving evocation of the refined domestic life of an Osaka merchant family, The Makioka Sisters was inspired by the atmosphere of Kansai manners Tanizaki created during the late 1930s when he established a household with Matsuko, whom he had married in 1935, and her younger sisters. After a few installments of the novel appeared in serial form in early 1943, the military authorities forbade further publication on the grounds that the work's celebration of bourgeois comforts was inappropriate for a nation at war. Tanizaki continued to write, with no immediate prospect of publication, until bombs began to fall around his house in the Hanshin suburbs, and he carried the manuscript with him when he fled with his family to the seaside resort of Atami and, later, to rural Okayama Prefecture. He continued to add to the work after the surrender and completed it in 1948.

The Makioka Sisters was a major publishing phenomenon of the late 1940s. The novel allowed the postwar reader to enter, if only in fiction, a gentler, more graceful world, unspoiled by war and defeat, where the traditional and the cosmopolitan seamlessly combined in the service of good taste. The elegiac atmosphere of the novel is heightened by its focus on a once prosperous merchant family in decline and by its setting in the late 1930s, when Japan had already embarked on the war in China. A sense of an approaching end suffuses the work as Sachiko endeavors to uphold the sagging status of the Makioka family by finding an appropriate match for her younger sister, Yukiko. These efforts are set against a background of lyrically rendered family rituals and seasonal observances that unfurls like a picture scroll. The Makioka Sisters is the most beautiful of Tanizaki's novels, but its elegiac thrust also makes it the most conservative work in his oeuvre. Anyone who violates the family's nearly religious belief in the maintenance of appearances--including a black sheep sister who attempts to establish a life for herself as a workingwoman--is roundly punished. The work's beauty is purchased at the price of rejecting all human aspiration that exceeds the bounds of class and tradition.

Once the uncertainties and deprivations of the immediate postwar years were over, Tanizaki's last two decades proved to be the most comfortable of his life. Untainted by the stigma of having been a supporter of the war, he found it relatively easy to reestablish his career. With the success of The Makioka Sisters he achieved the status of a respected literary elder, and in 1949 he received the Imperial Order of Culture, his country's highest award for writers and artists. In 1964 he became the first Japanese to be made an honorary member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. The popularity of The Makioka Sisters and the subsequent republication of many of his earlier works gave him financial security and enabled him to purchase a series of graceful houses in Kyoto, where he lived for some years after the war, and, beginning in the early 1950s, in Atami, a resort on the Izu peninsula whose warm climate was more comfortable to him in his old age. Tanizaki's final decades were also a time of domestic tranquillity: advancing age had brought to an end the elaborate role playing that had characterized his marriage in the early years, and Matsuko became a helpmeet to her husband. As he grew older Tanizaki suffered intermittently from severe high blood pressure and a stroke in 1958 partially paralyzed his right hand, forcing him to dictate his works. But his imagination and creativity only seemed to expand, and he produced some of his most distinctive fiction when he was in his sixties and seventies.

In this period Tanizaki's characteristic concern with sexuality began to be colored by an absorption with the deprivations and opportunities of aging. He examined the exigencies of desire in a stage of life marked by diminishing physical powers and explored the satisfactions available through suggestion and control. In particular, he considered the possibilities of fatherhood as a relationship whereby one's desires could be made to live on within another human being. While Tanizaki's engagement with the past and with classical literature continued, there was also a regeneration of his interest in modernity and in the West. He was quick to recognize the modern comforts made available to the Japanese by the postwar recovery, and he once again began to attribute to Western material goods--such as Courvoisier brandy and Polaroid cameras--the power to excite Japanese passions. Also evident in Tanizaki's writing of this period is a more cerebral turn. In his later works desire is analyzed as a function of individual subjectivity that is both cursed and blessed by its uncertain relationship with exterior reality. Writing comes to dominate the foreground as a means of expressing subjective desire and obtaining its fulfillment.

Two masterful novellas emerged from Tanizaki's later years. Shōshō Shigemoto no haha (1950; translated as Captain Shigemoto's Mother , 1994), set in the Heian period, is perhaps the zenith of Tanizaki's stories dealing with a yearning for "mother." Here the longing for the mother is linked to the actions of the father, an aged courtier who, in a drunken moment of self contempt and madness, gives his wife to a younger, more powerful nobleman. This impulsive and disastrous action plunges the courtier and his son into depths of loneliness that neither can escape. After the death of his father the son suffers an increased yearning that is only relieved at the end of the story when, well along in years, he is finally reunited with his mother. The tale is "retold" by a narrator who has found the story in other sources. The technique is similar to that of The Story of Shunkin, except that here the sources are actual well known historical and literary texts. After liberally citing these sources to emphasize the authenticity of the story, however, Tanizaki does not hesitate to introduce a "source" of his own creation. Such an action shows that, despite his professed fascination with tradition, for Tanizaki the past was fundamentally a receptive milieu for his imagination.

The past is again invoked in the other great novella of Tanizaki's later years, Yume no ukihashi (1960; translated as The Bridge of Dreams , 1963). Though set in modern times, the work repeatedly alludes to the Heian classics, particularly The Tale of Genji. Genji's yearning for his mother and his quasi incestuous coupling with his father's concubine are echoed in the novella by the protagonist's relationship with his stepmother, which results in the birth of a son who is socially regarded as his brother. Tanizaki's story departs from the earlier classic tale by emphasizing the role of the protagonist's father, who has methodically reconstructed his second wife to resemble his dead first wife, even making her take her predecessor's name. Having executed one substitution, the father sets out to engineer another by designating his son as his own replacement when he becomes terminally ill. In contrast to the Heian tale, which plays with the unwitting reduplication of feminine identities, Tanizaki's novella fastens on a man's power to reconstruct deliberately not only an object of desire but also a second desiring self. The father's authority is not absolute, however, for the son is the narrator of the novella, and he emphasizes his power to tell his story in any way that he sees fit: "Of course, all that I record here is true: But there are limits even to telling the truth; there is a line one ought not to cross. And so, although I certainly never write anything untrue, neither do I write the whole of the truth." The narrator/protagonist of The Bridge of Dreams here says explicitly what is implied in every Tanizaki work: that writing and narrating are invariably selective and willful acts.

The essentially inventive nature of writing is the focus of the most challenging works of Tanizaki's last years, the two novels in diary form that are his most concentrated analyses of human sexuality: The Key, and Futen rōjin nikki (1962; translated as Diary of a Mad Old Man , 1965). The former work consists of two sexual diaries kept by an aging college professor and his wife. While maintaining the pose that the diaries are private documents, the protagonists use them as a means of communication by reading each other's entries. This technique makes the work a combination of the diary novel and the epistolary novel. The diarists use their writing as a weapon of sexual gamesmanship: the professor, whose desires are inflamed by jealousy, encourages his wife to have an affair with a younger colleague; the wife reports on her encounters and thus invigorates her husband's diminishing virility. With the diaries as a catalyst, the characters turn up the sexual intensity in their marriage until the professor dies of a stroke brought on by overindulgence. The uses to which the diaries are put reveal the manipulative dimensions of writing; moreover, the many lies that the characters set down to achieve their ends, as well as the frequent inconsistencies in their descriptions of the same sexual encounters, point to the arbitrariness of writing. The manipulativeness and illusoriness assigned here to writing are also inherent in sexuality as it is depicted in the novel.

The isolated peregrinations of human subjectivity pursuing its desires is nowhere more poignantly captured in Tanizaki's works than in Diary of a Mad Old Man. In his diary an old man chronicles both the physical toll exacted by aging and the pleasures still possible for a septuagenarian--with the emphasis decidedly on the latter. An inveterate plotter, the old man gains vicarious satisfaction by pushing his daughter in law into an extramarital affair. All in all, the old man, as depicted in his diary, is thoroughly alive, continuously galvanized by the stirrings of desire. A quite different picture emerges, however, when he suffers a stroke during one of his sexual adventures and is no longer able to write. The novel is brought to a close through extracts from journals and medical records kept by a nurse, a doctor, and the old man's daughter, who attend him during his illness. In the words of these external observers the old man is reduced to a mere collection of symptoms and pathologies.

It is an insight into the contingency of writing, then, that brings to a close the written record of a thoroughly vital and exuberant spirit. Though Tanizaki continued to write almost to the day of his death--the notes for yet another work, set down in a shaky hand, were found on his desk the morning after he was struck down by kidney failure--Diary of a Mad Old Man makes a fitting coda to his career, for it embodies what animates Tanizaki's fiction from beginning to end: the exploration of desire from a perspective at once celebratory and ironic. An indefatigable searcher, Tanizaki pursued the source of his yearnings in various cultural topographies; he located it finally in human subjectivity and in writing. When he died on 30 July 1965, Tanizaki left behind a body of work that marks his culture's most sustained engagement with the power and the insubstantiality of the imagined.


From: Ito, Ken K. "Jun'ichiro Tanizaki." Japanese Fiction Writers, 1868-1945, edited by Van C. Gessel, Gale, 1997. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 180.


  • Further Reading


    • Tachibana Hiroichirō, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō Sensei chosho sōmokuroku (Tokyo: Gallery Gohachi, 1965).
    • Nagae Hironobu, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō--shiryō to dōkō; (Tokyo: Kyōiku Shuppan Center, 1984).



    • Tanizaki Matsuko, Ishōan no yume (Tokyo: Chuō Kōronsha, 1967).
    • Nomura Shōgo, Denki--Tanizaki Jun'ichirō; (Tokyo: Rokkō Shuppan, 1974).
    • Watanabe Taori, Sofu: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō; (Tokyo: Rokkō Shuppan, 1980).



    • Ara Masahito, ed., Tanizaki Jun'ichirō kenkyu; (Tokyo: Yagi Shoten, 1972).
    • Anthony Hood Chambers, The Secret Window: Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction (Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1994).
    • Chiba Shunji, ed., Tanizaki Jun'ichirō: Monogatari no hōhō;, volume 18 of Nihon bungaku kenkyu shiryō shinshu; (Tokyo: Yuseidō, 1990).
    • Van C. Gessel, "An Infatuation with Modernity: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō," in his Three Modern Novelists: Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1993), pp. 68 132.
    • Ken K. Ito, Visions of Desire: Tanizaki's Fictional Worlds (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991).
    • Sumie Jones, "How Tanizaki Disarms the Intellectual Reader," Literature East and West, 18 (March 1974): pp. 321 329.
    • Donald Keene, "Tanizaki Jun'ichirō," in his Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era--Fiction (New York: Holt, 1984), pp. 720 785.
    • Nihon Bungaku Kenkyu Shiryō Kankō Kai, ed., Tanizaki Jun'ichirō; (Tokyo: Yuseidō, 1972).
    • Noguchi Takehiko, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō ron (Tokyo: Chuō Kōronsha, 1973).
    • Edward G. Seidensticker, "Tanizaki Jun ichirō, 1886 1965," Monumenta Nipponica, 21 (1966): pp. 249 265.