Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki

I requested this book from the library after reading JoAnn's posts about it over on Lakeside Musing.  I was disappointed when I saw the library copy, a small hardback with minuscule print and a boring cover.  In addition to judging it by its cover, I have to confess that I was initially put off by discovering the author was a man.  It was my own prejudice that assumed a book not just about four women but four sisters would be written by a woman; as a fan of Anthony Trollope, I should have known better.  I set the book aside, but I picked it up again a couple of days later, when I was having trouble settling on a book, and soon found myself completely engrossed in the sisters' lives and their complicated relationships.

Set in Japan in the 1930s, The Makioka Sisters is the story of the four sisters of the title, members of an illustrious Osaka family now sliding down the social scale.  The sisters work hard to uphold their position and the honor of their name, as their financial situations tighten amidst Japan's involvement in "the China incident," foreshadowing World War II.  As I read, I found myself constantly reminded of Jane Austen, despite the obvious differences between her world and theirs.  The oldest sister, Tsuruko, is the head of the "main" house.  Her husband Tatsuo took the family's name at their marriage and after their father's death became the head of the family.  Tatsuo sold the business on which much of their family's prestige was based.  He works in a bank, and to support his large family he accepts a position in Tokyo.  Like Sir Walter Elliot, he and Tsuruko leave behind the family home and their place in the local society, to move to a cramped and flimsy house in the capital.  They continue, however, to assert their authority as the "senior" house and to insist on recognition of the family name and position.

The second sister, Sachiko, is mistress of the "junior" house in Ashiya, a suburb of Osaka.  She has also married a man who has taken the Makioka name.  Her husband Teinosuke works as an accountant, and they have one daughter, Etsuko.  Also living in the "junior" house are the two remaining sisters, both of whom are unmarried. Yukiko, the elder, is a quiet, shy woman, a traditional Japanese beauty.  There have been many formal proposals for her marriage, but the senior house and Yukiko herself have turned them down for a variety of reasons.  Tanizaki explores the whole process in great detail, beginning with inquiries and perhaps the exchange of photos.  Inquiries might come through family connections, or through semi-professional matchmakers like Mrs. Itani, who runs a local beauty parlor.  If there is sufficient interest on both sides, then a formal meeting called a miai is arranged, involving not just the couple but other interested parties (in Yukiko's case her sisters and brothers-in-law).  At the same time both sides are conducting detailed investigations, often with the help of private detectives.   The match may break down over the discovery of health or family issues.  With the Makiokas, the senior house often objects that a prospective match's status does not merit marriage to their family.  Yukiko sometimes has more personal and idiosyncratic reasons.  Whatever the reason, the family now has a reputation for being difficult and overly picky, and there are fewer and fewer proposals.  All of this take place in public, with many parties involved in the negotiations, and constant discussions of Yukiko's prospects, the results of the investigations, the progression of the negotiations, and the ultimate failure of them all.  I was reminded again of Austen, with the frank evaluation of suitors, the lack of privacy for courtship, and the essentially passive role that Yukiko plays.  She has the right of refusal, up to a certain point.  If the senior house insisted, however, she would marry as they directed.  While affection plays a part in these marriages, certainly with Sachiko and Teinosuke, that affection seems to follow (or not) from marriage, the matches themselves being made on practical grounds.

The fourth sister is a classic "problem child."  Taeko cannot marry before Yukiko does, but impatience with that convention led her to elope at age 19.  Both families opposed the hasty marriage and it was broken up, but Taeko continues to see the man, a spoiled and dissolute younger son, in hopes that their elders may reconsider after Yukiko's marriage clears the way.  Meanwhile, the most modern of the sisters, she keeps busy making traditional dolls for sale, even opening a studio and studying sewing.  Both she and Yukiko prefer to live with Sachiko, though convention demands that as unmarried women they live with the senior family.  They find Sachiko's family much more congenial, and they prefer Osaka to Tokyo.  However, the senior family frequently orders Yukiko at least back to Tokyo, while tacitly ignoring Taeko and her growing independence.  Unlike Austen's heroines, the sisters can at least travel by themselves, but they are bound just as tightly by other social conventions and in Yukiko's case by her economic dependence.

The story focuses on the Osaka family, on Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko.  We spend very little time in Tokyo with Tsuruko and her family, and I feel like I only saw her through others' eyes, and she remains something of a stranger, compared with our immersion in the junior family.  We follow the family's lives, the constant anxiety over Yukiko's prospects (particularly as she moves into her 30s) and Taeko's increasingly unconventional life.  There are frequent reminders of the global conflicts that are building.  The next-door neighbors are Germans, and the families discuss the crises of the 1930s, from the German perspective as potential allies (which made disconcerting reading after my last book, The Oaken Heart).  Japan is arming itself, funneling troops into the war in Manchuria.  As in Austen's novels, though, these conflicts are in the background.  The only direct impacts are in austerity edicts, and a reference toward the end of the book to rationing.

After 529 pages, the book ends in April 1941, and I turned the last page unable to believe that the author chose to end the story when and where he did.  I want to know what happened to these people, in the war and in the peace.  One character (not a family member) had just sailed for Los Angeles, and I am convinced she must have spent the war interned in America as a hostile alien  If Junichiro Tanizaki were still alive, I would be writing him to beg for information about the family's fate.

This is one of the best books I have read this year, and I already have my own copy.  I couldn't wait for lunch or for the end of the work day to return to it and see what happened next with the sisters.  I'm sure that as an American I missed much of the context and the nuances of the story, in both the family's relationships and the larger society.  The edition I read, and the modern Vintage reprint, have some notes, but I regret that there is no introduction.  This is apparently considered Tanizaki's masterpiece; I will be looking for more of his work.


  1. This sounds wonderful! I have another of Tanizaki's novels, Some Prefer Nettles, on my bookcase, and now I'm looking forward to it very much.

  2. That's one of the titles I've seen mentioned. I'm glad to know it's available.

  3. I just love the books you've been reading lately, Lisa! They are all so wonderful-sounding. This is another one that I'd definitely be interested in reading. I've seen it come through the library occasionally and have always been intrigued. I'm going to add it to my Classics Club list to ensure that I get to it soon.

  4. I just haven't mentioned any of the duds :) I did consider posting about this one for the Classics Challenge, and then I forgot - but I think it's definitely a modern classic.

  5. I have this and it's on my Classics Club list as well! I've heard some people compare it to Pride & Prejudice, which intrigues me. I've read very little Japanese lit though I did live in Japan for two years -- very embarrassing.

    I'm really glad you liked it and I must rethink my to-read list and move it up higher!

  6. It definitely reminded me of Austen, Persuasion as much as Pride & Prejudice (the youngest sister and Lydia Bennet have a lot in common) - though the leisurely pace and attention to detail remainded of Trollope as well. I envy you having the chance to live in Japan! I very much hope to visit one day.

  7. What an excellent review. My google reader is playing tricks on me again and your post just showed up today! I finally finished the novel earlier this month and loved it, too. Will also admit to being reminded of Jane Austen. I'm going to look around for more books by this author.

  8. This is the third great book I've gotten from your reviews (with Below Stairs & 97 Orchard). I will be looking for his other books as well.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!