Junichiro Tanizaki
Junichiro Tanizaki; drawing by David Levine

Although a brief, uncluttered, and happily accessible novel, Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi arrives from somewhat tangled origins. A reader making Tanizaki’s acquaintance through this book—and there’s probably no better gateway into the dense, haunting world of this man who may have been Japan’s finest modern novelist—might well keep these in mind as a sort of warning. For Naomi’s plot, too, comes with hidden complexities.

The book was serialized in the Osaka Asahi newspaper from March until June of 1924, when it was dropped after eighty-seven installments in response to protests from conservative readers and government censors. When, while working on another novel a few years before, Tanizaki had found it difficult to meet the demands of serialization, he simply abandoned the book altogether. Naomi was different, though, as he explained in a note to his unexpectedly interrupted readers: “This novel is my favorite of recent years, and my inspiration is at its peak. As soon as I can, I shall find another magazine or newspaper in which to publish the remainder.” Tanizaki proved true to his word. Five months later, publication was resumed in a magazine called Josei and—despite the story’s increasingly lurid revelations, far more shocking than those which triggered the original banning—continued without incident to the book’s conclusion. Although Naomi remains in Japan one of Tanizaki’s most popular books, and is so commonly known as his “first important novel” among his Western critics that the phrase seems to have affixed itself as a kind of subtitle, it has until now gone unpublished in America. Readers here may have seen references to it under either of two titles, A Fool’s Love or An Idiot’s Love. Anthony H. Chambers, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, has chosen to resolve this confusion by taking an inspired liberty and calling his clean, flowing translation Naomi. But even this title is less simple than would appear, for the heroine’s name is not pronounced with the long “a” customary in America. She is a Japanese girl whose name is written in ideographic characters and spoken with the soft ah of a Japanese “a”—one of the few softnesses to be found in the person of the book’s beautiful, predatory heroine.

Like so many other Tanizaki novels, Naomi is a tale of deception. Its narrator, Joji Kawai, a provincial farmer’s son whose career as an electrical engineer has landed him in Tokyo, seems in no hurry to explain the “undreamt-of misfortunes” resulting from his marriage to a very young café hostess named Naomi. Only slowly does the reader see the extent to which Kawai has been lied to, and has lied to himself.

A reader well acquainted with Tanizaki’s books—seven of which have now been published by Knopf—will find much that is familiar in Naomi. In this novel, too, one yields immediately to a narrative deftness, a sense of being in the hands of someone who knows a good story when he finds one and delights in its telling. And like so many of Tanizaki’s protagonists, Kawai is a feckless man given to self-mockery—a self-described “country bumpkin,” “idiot,” and “oaf.” Again one encounters a fascination with the trappings of Western civilization, as well as misgivings about their suitability to the Japanese temperament; a love of the movies (not long before writing Naomi, Tanizaki worked for a time as a screenwriter); and a keen eye for furniture, architecture, food, and women’s clothing. Above all, one meets again what Kawai himself calls a “terrifying enchantress”—another manifestation of that cruel yet irresistible woman who seems to have figured as the largest archetype in Tanizaki’s imagination.

This enchantress began to brew her sorcery early in Tanizaki’s career. In 1910, while still a university student, Tanizaki established his reputation with a short story entitled “The Tattooer.” An ugly fable, at once unsatisfying in its construction and unforgettable in its grisliness, it recounts the story of Seikichi, a tattooer who longs to display his art on the body of a flawlessly beautiful woman. When at last he meets the perfect woman, he lures her into his apartment, drugs her, and, working unrelentingly through the day and night, realizes his masterwork: a hideous spider perched indelibly on the milky whiteness of her back. The woman gradually wakes to a double revelation. She discovers not only her frightening new appearance but also, at Seikichi’s prompting, a corresponding internal malevolence. Seikichi unveils for her his secret collection of paintings that depict torture and slaughter, and she (with rather unconvincing rapidity) acknowledges the thrill they bring her. She has found her fate, and will now go forth to enslave and punish men. Although Seikichi has in a sense created her, he proves no less her slave for that; the spider on her back has ensnared him, too. Tanizaki often returned, over the years, to variations on this twisted tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, and one might view Naomi, as well as the later novel The Key, as expansions of “The Tattooer.”


Naomi is only fourteen when Kawai spots her working in a seedy cafe. Quiet and tractable, she would seem to present the perfect clay from which an idealistic young man of twenty-seven might mold a mate. Kawai soon liberates her from her job, sets her up in his house, and marries her, vowing to make her “a diamond,” a lady of such polish that she “won’t even be ashamed to mix with Westerners.” Kawai keeps a diary entitled “Naomi Grows Up,” in which he records her progress and pastes her photographs. This little girl’s appetites prove colossal, however, and Kawai is soon bankrolling an endless line of steak dinners and Western-style dresses, as well as lessons in music, dancing, and English. Eventually, Kawai must lie to his mother in order to stave off bankruptcy with a loan. Meanwhile, it turns out that he is no match, either on or off the dance floor, for an assortment of boorish young men whom Naomi has somehow befriended. A plodding fellow, Kawai proves remarkably slow to reach the truth, and the reader is no doubt meant to chafe with impatience at his bottomless gullibility.

Like much of Tanizaki’s other fiction, Naomi induces a sense of claustrophobia. While Tanizaki is hardly unique among novelists in frequently compelling his readers to witness a slow, predictable, and hopeless decline—slowness, predictability, and hopelessness being elements common to most tragedy—he manages to lend disaster an additional, constrictive poignance. Time and again, it is not simple ignorance that makes his characters behave so stupidly. They march knowingly for Hell. By the time Kawai admits to himself that Naomi has been exploiting and cuckolding him, he is so thoroughly her sexual and psychological prisoner that he seeks only to ensure that she will find him worthy of continued mistreatment; the one fate he cannot endure is abandonment. By the book’s close, he has become her slave. The reader has been longing to have Kawai see the truth, but it turns out (as so often for Tanizaki’s characters) that the truth will not set him free.

Tanizaki relieves the book’s suffocating atmosphere in a couple of ways. Here and there he inserts aerating hints of surrealism, of a world lying well removed from Tokyo in the Twenties. Naomi is repeatedly compared to an animal, initially to a bird and mouse, then to a colt, and finally to that creature so rich to the Japanese imagination, a fox. Japan’s folklore abounds in tales wherein foxes are transformed into human beings, and the reader almost comes to believe that this puzzling, protean creature, this Naomi who is both café hostess and enchantress, is not quite human. Such possibilities are subtly invoked, as in Kawai’s reflections when Naomi, who has left him for, among others, an American, returns to the house briefly:

My nose detected a faint but familiar scent. Aah, that scent—it evoked in me thoughts of lands across the sea, of exquisite, exotic flower gardens. It was the scent of the dance teacher, Countess Shlemskaya. Naomi was wearing the same perfume.

Whatever Naomi said, I could only nod in response. Even after her form had vanished again into the darkness of night, my sharp sense of smell pursued her gradually fading fragrance as one pursues a phantom.

Tanizaki also dilutes the book’s confining air in an unsettling way, through hints of some purgative act of violence. Halfway through the novel, Kawai comes home to find Naomi peacefully asleep. The reader is treated to a lovely but disturbing description that suggests the possibility of an eventual murder:

As I sat gazing, her breast, in the shadow thrown by the lampshade, loomed vividly, like an object lying in the depths of pellucid water. Her face, too, radiant and kaleidoscopic by day, now wore a mysterious cast, a melancholy frown, like that of one who’s just swallowed bitter medicine, or of one who’s been strangled. I loved her sleeping face. “You look like a different person when you’re asleep,” I often told her, “as though you’re having a terrible dream.” “Her death-face would be beautiful, too,” I often told myself.

On the following page, Naomi’s limbs “dangle limp as a corpse.” While the reader has good reason to doubt that Kawai, a pathetically timid figure, could ever commit a murder even if he overcame his formidable indecisiveness, these presentiments of violence at least leave the possibility open. And even in the book’s last chapters, when Kawai seems hopelessly subjugated, the reader may feel both queasy and tantalized when Naomi asks Kawai to shave the nape of her neck in preparation for the low-cut gown she plans to wear to a dance that evening:


Spellbound, she seemed to be savoring the pleasurable sensation of the razor’s caress. I could hear her steady, drowsy breathing, and I could see the carotid artery pulsing beneath her chin.

It is a testament to the book’s evocation of entrapment that murder could seem to promise some workable escape. The reader may almost hope to see Kawai trade his psychological prison for a physical one.

Naomi was the first novel Tanizaki published after moving from the cosmopolitan hubbub of Tokyo-Yokohama to the more traditional Osaka-Kyoto region of western Japan. Tanizaki left Tokyo after the great earthquake of 1923. He was thirty-seven. He planned a brief sojourn, just long enough to let Tokyo rebuild itself, but he stayed on in western Japan until his death in 1965. The move appears to have been a happy one for Tanizaki personally, as well as a great boon for his readers: nearly all of Tanizaki’s best work emerged after his resettlement.

Today the differences between Osaka and Tokyo—those two thriving industrial megalopolises that lie only a few hours apart by bullet train—can seem almost negligible. Both were largely razed by bombs in the war, and in either city one can walk the gleaming streets for block upon block without meeting a single structure that looks weathered. But in the Twenties, the disparities in pace and outlook must have been vast. Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, into a merchant family of failing finances, and one might view his move to Osaka as a further repudiation of his parents, who had hoped to see their bright son enter business. Yet one might also regard the move as a pursuit of profound familial loyalties. What seems to have drawn Tanizaki to Osaka were its provincial vestiges of a vanishing world—that of his childhood—and in particular a somewhat outmoded standard of feminine beauty. In western Japan, one still commonly found women who cultivated the delicate refinement and manner Tanizaki had known in the Tokyo women of his mother’s and grandmother’s generations.

At some point after his move, Tanizaki the combative literary iconoclast became Tanizaki the mournful social conservative. He began to treasure what he’d previously reviled. Tanizaki himself presented this transformation in the starkest terms when describing his first response on learning of the vastness of the earthquake’s destruction:

Joy welled up inside me…. Various scenes of Tokyo after the reconstruction passed before my eyes like flashes from a film. Scenes of parties where champagne glasses floated like jellyfish among the evening dresses, tailcoats and tuxedos, the congestion late at night before theaters where many strands of headlights criss-crossed in the darkly glowing streets.

This account, written eleven years after the earthquake, probably should not be deemed wholly trustworthy, given Tanizaki’s penchant for dramatic overstatement, but his books themselves leave no doubt that he underwent some permanent change in the Twenties. The belated arrival of Naomi should make clear to Western readers that for Tanizaki the allure of Europe and America faded quite soon after he left Tokyo—if not before. The book lampoons the Japanese eagerness to adopt Western styles of dining, dancing, dress, and architecture. And for all her beauty, the book’s heroine, with her Western-sounding name and “Mary Pickford expressions,” finally proves shallow, insecure, meretricious—and a force of destruction.

One perhaps would not expect Tanizaki, who showed so little interest in politics, commerce, and science, and whose best books were often historical fictions submerged deep in a shogunate past, to clarify for Western readers much about the metamorphosis of modern Japan. But his books prove remarkably enlightening on the subject of modernization, which in Japan has been an especially complicated process. As Tanizaki pointed out in a celebrated essay published in 1933, “In Praise of Shadows,”* Japanese society in this century has been struck by two not always separable tidal waves. The Japanese have been required not only to adapt themselves to the technological miracles that have uprooted and dizzied societies all over the globe but also to absorb that sweeping mass of enticements and priorities that goes under the heading of Westernization. Tanizaki’s dynamic blend of dissatisfaction and openness, his heightened sense of the contrary pulls of tradition and innovation, gave him an ideal vantage for analyzing the shifting of his own culture. “In Praise of Shadows” is a long, hyperbolic, rambling (an anecdote about Albert Einstein set beside a highly detailed recipe for persimmon-leaf sushi), sometimes illogical, and unflaggingly fascinating essay. It ambitiously seeks to isolate the essence of Japanese aesthetics, which Tanizaki thought partly a result of architectural and climatic conditions:

The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain…. The quality that we call beauty…must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends…. Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them no more than ashen walls bereft of ornament. Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows.

For Tanizaki, the power and mystery of shadows ultimately lay in their elusive alliances with the past. Through their very obscurities, they seem to offer liberation from the brutal fixity of the present moment. He praised the “elegance of age” in tin tableware that has become tarnished, the “sheen of antiquity” in Oriental pottery, the “accumulation of the long Chinese past” discernible in the cloudiness of jade. Not surprisingly, given the torment found in so much of his writing, this invitation to a kind of time travel held for Tanizaki a bit of terror:

In temple architecture the main room stands at a considerable distance from the garden; so dilute is the light there that no matter what the season…the pale, white glow scarcely varies…. Have you not yourselves sensed a difference in the light that suffuses such a room, a rare tranquility not found in ordinary light? Have you never felt a sort of fear in the face of the ageless, a fear that in that room you might lose all consciousness of the passage of time, that untold years might pass and upon emerging you should find you had grown old and gray?

Tanizaki was content to keep the past a mysterious, shadowy place. Unlike his contemporary Ogai Mori, who strove for rigorous accuracy in his historical fiction, Tanizaki relished the freedom to invent, to create a past that wasn’t limited merely to what had occurred. He especially delighted in creating sham historical documents. In a preface to one of his historical fictions, he explained that he had set his tale in the remote sixteenth century because it was a period that neither he nor his countrymen knew much about.

For all the powers of the traditional Japanese shadow world, it proved curiously vulnerable. Tanizaki saw no way in which it could endure exposure to a bolder, light-loving Western aesthetic. Indeed the shadow’s beauty, like that of the cherry blossom, resides in its fragility:

There can be no harm in considering how unlucky we have been, what losses we have suffered, in comparison with the Westerner. The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years.

While acceding to this “surrender,” Tanizaki found himself haunted by the notion of an alternate world, one in which present and future would be shaped by Orientals:

I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science. Suppose for instance that we had developed our own physics and chemistry: would not the techniques and industries based on them have taken a different form, would not our myriads of everyday gadgets, our medicines, the products of our industrial art—would they not have suited our national temper better than they do?

The stunning emergence of Japan in the last few decades as a world leader in technological innovation, as well as the recent industrial awakening of Taiwan and Korea, exposes the idealism of Tanizaki’s notions. Those processes and products that so discomfited him would now seem to spring from economic imperatives that know no national boundaries. It was not Western, but modern, technology—with its demands for assembly-line production and fungible goods—that left him feeling so woeful.

Whether working as iconoclast or conservative, Tanizaki in book after book revealed a dislocated soul. Much of his fiction sprang from a nostalgia for a past that he freely admitted had never quite existed, and from yearnings for a future that never could. Fervent, fertile illusions, and they served him well.

Tanizaki needed, perhaps more than other novelists, to draw on whatever creative resources he could. For he would appear to have been artistically handicapped from the outset by virtue of an idiosyncratic and in many ways straitened temperament. He suffered from severe blindspots. As a child of the merchant class, he developed a precociously rebellious aversion to business which never left him. Almost no one in Tanizaki’s novels seems to hold a real job. A character may be assigned some nominal employment, like Kawai’s position as an “electrical engineer,” but the actual place of work—and, beyond it, that whole tiered structure of loyalties and tensions which composes the world of Japanese commerce—never engages Tanizaki’s imagination. Kawai’s colleagues are so peripheral that they’ve become mere initials (the only characters so designated in the novel), and they serve no narrative function except to offer an outside source from which to cast doubts on Naomi’s chastity.

It would probably be fair to extend this generalization and say that Tanizaki’s writing shows little interest in men, or at least in their dealings with each other. The whole polychromatic palette of male friendship, and of father-son relations, rarely colors his work. His men appear to take on a purpose, and animation, only in the presence of women. The typical Tanizaki hero walks timorously through a world of pallid, uninteresting men and irresistible but painfully indifferent—or, worse, painfully attentive—women.

An even graver artistic handicap may have been Tanizaki’s inability, or stubborn unwillingness, to distance himself from his personal obsessions. One would not expect to have to launch this criticism at an artist who fought so splendidly against the close-to-home, autobiographical tendencies of so much Japanese fiction, and whose own books strike off with such boldness across the densely wooded hills of Japanese history. But even the most accommodating reader eventually must grow weary of Tanizaki’s sexual preoccupations—particularly the foot fetishism, which appears unabashedly in book after book. The reader will find himself at some point wishing that Tanizaki would bend the powers of his imagination over a wider range of human anatomy.

Any investigation of Tanizaki’s artistic shortcomings must inevitably, if hesitantly, lead to an examination of his personality in the aggregate, and to the conclusion that he could be a very unlikable man. His books make it hard to maintain that laudable, civilized critical convention which supposes that an author stands wholly apart from his books and that the blindnesses and cruelties they record are not to be imputed to the author himself. An unignorable streak of sadism runs through Tanizaki’s books, and a reader can hardly escape a sense at times that their author delights more than he should in piling misfortunes on his characters. Admittedly, Tanizaki’s personality seems to have little troubled his American reviewers (his books have been often greeted as masterpieces here, even The Secret History of The Lord of Musashi, that gleeful tale of human mutilation which is surely one of the most vicious books anyone ever wrote), but one suspects what may be coming into play here is an admirable, if slightly misguided, attempt to avoid ethnocentricity through the suspension of moral judgements. Among literary people in Japan, the mention of Tanizaki’s name is apt to provoke vehement, head-shaking censure. This is not to suggest that in his own country Tanizaki lacks a wide and devoted readership; but if it is reasonable to call him “much loved” in Japan, it’s probably also fair to call him “much disliked”—a mix of responses he himself seems to have striven for.

Tanizaki is best known, and rightfully so, for The Makioka Sisters, his voluminous portrait of the four sisters of a declining Osaka merchant family in the years before Japan entered the Second World War. It is not merely the family fortunes but the very world the Makioka family embodies—an aristocratic and artistic, insular, and introverted world—that trembles on the rim of extinction. The book is a muted but profoundly affectionate elegy. It is also one of the world’s great shaggy dog stories. It recounts in unstinting detail the search for a husband for Yukiko, the pretty but paralyzingly shy third sister. The reader gradually perceives that the book will proceed in cycles: first a potential suitor will materialize, then an elaborate courtship will ensue, to continue chapter after chapter, as investigations are made and negotiations are carried out, until—until, perhaps for some trifling reason, the courtship collapses, often in a page or two, and the suitor disappears forever. Meanwhile, a new Mr. Almost Right stands in the wings….

Impressive in a variety of ways, The Makioka Sisters perhaps makes its deepest impressions through a masterful evocation of passing time. Tanizaki had a rare talent for making a book’s internal calendar seem palpable. One comes to feel almost physically the seasonal flow through which the four sisters so charmingly pursue their lives—the weighty heat of an Osaka summer, the flaring of a poignantly late fall.

The arrival of Naomi, his “first important novel,” should make clear to Western readers that Tanizaki early on possessed this talent. Naomi is just fourteen when the story opens. When it closes, some two hundred pages later, she is twenty-two. The reader is asked to believe that eight eventful, erosive years of married life are encompassed in this short book. And the reader believes it without question. To follow this sad, engrossing, unsettling little tale to its conclusion is to feel that one has traversed some considerable distance.

This Issue

November 21, 1985