Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanazaki

This novel has been on my "To Read" (or, more accurately, "To Finish") list for over a year. I picked it up sometime last year and started it, but unfortunately life got in the way and then I mislaid my copy. I recently found a copy at the library and decided to finish it.

To me, the novel is best described as Jane Austen writing in World War II Japan. The novel is set mostly in Osaka and features the Makioka family, a once-prosperous merchant family that is slowly declining. There are four Makioka sisters: Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko, in order of age. Both Tsuruko and Sachiko have married and their husbands were adopted into the Maikoka family. Tsuruko's husband, Tatsuo, is the head of the main house. Though the two youngest daughters should live in the main house, most of their time is spent in the branch house with Sachiko and her husband, Teinosuke. Part of this is due to friction between the youngest daughters and Tatsuo. Yukiko is also extremely fond of Sachiko's daughter, Etsuko, while Taeko is fond of the freedom she is allowed in the branch house, including the ability to make dolls and earn her living.

More than anything, the novel reads like a collection of scenes from domestic life. However, if there is an actual plot, it would most likely be the family's efforts to find a husband for Yukiko, who is already thirty. Their efforts to find a husband for Yukiko have been thwarted both by Yukiko's extreme shyness and the family's difficulty in accepting their current position and their refusal to allow Yukiko to marry a man that doesn't meet their criteria.

Throughout the novel, the sisters not only struggle with their changing positions in life, but also the changes of the world around them. The novel is set between 1936 and 1941, so the world is in a state of flux, due to both social and political events. The sisters all deal with those changes in their own way.

Tsuruko seems to be the most adaptable and the least attached to her past. When her husband is transferred to Tokyo, they leave the family's home in Osaka and take a much smaller home in Tokyo. They seem to be liberated by moving away from Osaka, where they are well-known and where they feel they must keep up appearances. This causes certain friction between Tsuruko and her younger sisters, especially when she tries to demand that the two youngest sisters live in the main house in Tokyo, in accordance with tradition, despite lacking room for them. It also causes problems when the family feels that Tatsuo and Tsuruko are economizing too much in regards to the family.

Sachiko isn't as adaptable as Tsuruko, or at least doesn't have a motive try to adapt. She embraces certain aspects of modern life, but she is overall a traditional Japanese woman. Interestingly enough, she and Teinosuke spend the most time trying to find a husband for Yukiko, despite the fact that the responsibility should fall to the main house.

Yukiko seems to cling the most to the old ways in both dress and mannerisms. She rarely wears Western clothes and her extreme shyness, due to her very sheltered upbringing, puts off several prospective husbands. The original title of the novel is Sasameyuki or Light Snow, and Yukiko's name uses the same character for Yuki. This, combined with the focus of the novel on her marriage attempts, seems to indicated that Yukiko is the main character of the novel, despite the fact that the reader seldom sees the events from her perspective. When reading the novel, Yukiko seems extremely detached to most events and the reader gets the impression that everything would be better if Yukiko were just left alone to live her life.

Taeko is much more modern, both in dress and behavior. As the youngest, she not only remembers the glory days of the family less, but she also has little memory of her mother, who died shortly after her birth. She made the newspaper (and inadvertently dragged Yukiko into them, due to a misprint) because she eloped with the son of another prominent Osaka family. She's focused on owning her way and embracing modern ideals (though she also is interested in tradition Japanese culture) and her behavior not only causes consternation to the family, but may interfere with Yukiko's miai (formal meetings between two prospective marriage partners).

Overall, I loved the novel. It was long and it took me a long time to get through it, despite being a fairly fast reader. I suppose one of the reasons might have been the fact that there were so many foreign concepts, not just because the novel was set in Japan, but also because it took place in Osaka and a lot of the language and culture was Osaka specific. For instance, Taeko, as the youngest daughter, is referred to as Koi-an.

The characters fascinated me, as did their struggles to find their place in a world that most of them seemed ill-equipped for. The Makioka women were raised in a sheltered and privileged environment and taught skills such as calligraphy and traditional dance that would have served them well in previous generations. They were also raised, for the most part, to be retiring, and all of them (except for Taeko) seem to struggle with that for the whole story. The two older sisters find themselves unable to reply to letters they receive, while Yukiko's inability to even talk to potential husbands is almost comical.

Finding a husband for Yukiko is the driving force of the entire story and it also helps to show exactly how poorly the Makioka family generally, and Yukiko specifically, is adapting to the new world. In previous years, she had several proposals even as the Makioka family was declining, yet because her older sisters were unable to accept their new position, they were too choosy and rejected them. Now, the family's standards have relaxed significantly, but they still won't accept the new prospects. This, in turn, places Taeko in a holding pattern and helps contribute to the problems she experiences later.

There's also a significant amount of illness in the book, both real and imagined. In the opening pages of the book, the reader finds that Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko are so obsessed with beriberi that they keep syringes full of vitamin B in the house and routinely inject each other. Yukiko's close relationship with Etsuko is partially attributed to the fact that Etsuko was frequently ill and Sachiko was so frail that she was unable to properly nurse her daughter through illnesses without getting sick herself that Yukiko stepped in.

Despite being somewhat ridiculous in clinging to the past at certain points, I found the characters relatable, especially Sachiko and Yukiko. Since most of the story was told from Sachiko's point of view and focused on Yukiko, it makes sense that they were the most sympathetic. The world that Tanizaki described was a very idyllic one and I found it very easy to get lost in, to the point that I was as frustrated at certain characters for ruining it as the sisters were. I regretted the end of the novel, not just because it felt like it left so much of the story untold, but because I would have loved to spend more time in that world. Seeing the novel end was bittersweet also because I knew what would happen in Japan in the coming years and I wanted to see the characters spared that fate.

The novel was also made into a movie which is also available at the library. I plan to pick it up soon to see how the story translated. Based on some of the descriptions in the book, it should be visually impressive.


  1. I am happy to be your first follower-I am avid read of the work of Junichiro Tanizaki-I enjoyed reading your insightful post a lot-to me the book lets us see what life was life in Osaka-like you I hoped they survived WWII-I will enjoy seeing your blog develop

  2. Thanks for the support! I've just started Naomi and I'm definitely a fan. I feel the same way about the sisters. It was almost painful to read some of their plans, knowing what was going to happen in World War II Japan.

  3. loving this post & am not put off by the Austen reference (not a fan)& like Mel, will be interested to see this Blog develop, as i'm liking what you do.