Junichiro Tanizaki
Junichiro Tanizaki; drawing by David Levine

“I can’t get over all the sexual imperialism in Haruki Murakami,” a writer friend complained recently, as she made her way through the Japanese novelist’s tales of passive, rather feckless men lusting after dewy, elusive young beauties. I didn’t know quite how to tell her that, by Japanese standards, Murakami’s obsessions are mild. The “male gaze” so frowned upon in the West these days has long been the dominant point of view in Japanese literature, and although some writers may claim that what they’re ogling is an emblem of a pure and virginal Japan in danger of being corrupted, that doesn’t begin to diminish the unsettling effect of seeing nymphets being doted on by much older men.

The delicate, lyrical works of Yasunari Kawabata nearly always turn upon a male’s connoisseur interest in a snow-white younger beauty; The Doctor’s Wife, by Sawako Ariyoshi, gives us a woman’s take on a world—the late Edo period—in which a couple feels slighted if a visiting lord doesn’t enjoy fondling their daughter after dinner; even Yukio Mishima, in his early, romantic The Sound of Waves, offers up twenty-two short paragraphs in a row on female divers who are comparing and exulting in their breasts. These days, Japanese women occasionally get their own back, as Amy Yamada, for one, devotes her novels to anatomizing the attractions of hunky black American men; but still, one of the most useful words I learned upon arriving in Japan thirty years ago was the typically cheeky and ingenious Japlish portmanteau term “Loli-com,” to describe an entire nation that can seem afflicted with a “Lolita complex.”

Even against this background, though, Junichiro Tanizaki (who lived from 1886 to 1965) is a special case. Part of what gives his works their often lurid fascination is the gusto with which the novelist indulges his delight in everything girlish: the handwriting, the regional dialects, the hands, and especially the feet of the women on whom his novels are fixated. But the other part is that he so unflinchingly measures the cost of such obsessions. His slippery, impenitent early novels give us the world through the voyeuristic gaze of his heavy-breathing alter egos—but they also step outside those men to expose them as dupes. “For Kaname,” Tanizaki writes of the protagonist of Some Prefer Nettles (1929), “a woman had to be either a goddess or a plaything”; it doesn’t take much to notice that in either case marriage—the central theme of this, as of many of his novels—is not a happy prospect. Tanizaki’s seminal novel, translated as Naomi, bears a Japanese title that literally means “A Fool’s Love,” and much of his early work could bear the same title. Lurching erratically between tragedy and farce, these young books somehow end up becoming juicy first-person accounts of sexual infatuation that can also be read as cautionary tales.

What gives his writing an even wider importance, however, is that, in his unguarded and eccentric way, Tanizaki conflated his interest in young women with his other great concern: Japan’s relations with the West. Like most Japanese writers, he evinces much less interest in the civic order or the political world than in private dramas recorded in locked diaries and enacted in tight spaces; yet he was by turns so spellbound by the West himself, and then so removed from it, that he ended up catching many larger tremors as his country seesawed between servility and hostility to the larger world over the course of his lifetime. The more he turned into a loving archivist of imperiled Japanese customs, the more Tanizaki came to seem a clear-eyed prophet.

It’s startling to see how much Tanizaki’s life—and therefore his art—was split down the middle. Coming of age during the Meiji Period, a child of Tokyo’s old, affluent merchant class—none of his protagonists ever seems to bother much about making a living—he was as transfixed as many around him by all the new foreign excitements streaming in after 230 years of absolute seclusion. Turning thirty in 1916, Tanizaki was soon to be found eagerly working on movie scripts, reading Edgar Allan Poe in English, and dancing the foxtrot in the cosmopolitan Yokohama quarter known as the Bluff.

Yet when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed much of Yokohama and neighboring Tokyo, Tanizaki, like others of means, moved 250 miles south to what is known as Western Japan, to wait out the reconstruction of his hometown. Unlike most people from Tokyo, however, he never went back, settling instead around the adjoining cities of Osaka and Kobe and Kyoto for decades until his death; it was almost as if a dashing man-about-town in Greenwich Village were to relocate to Boston and suddenly decide that the distinctive ways of New England were much more sustaining than the perishable fashions of Manhattan. The man who had written, in 1922, “There’s no going against the trend of the times” ended up doing nothing but turning against that trend as he retreated into traditional villas around Osaka and Kobe and set about translating the eleventh-century Tale of Genji again and again.


In his leisurely epic, The Makioka Sisters (the Japanese title might be rendered as “Softly Falling Snow”), he becomes the fascinated overseer of four aristocratic sisters feeling the last vestiges of their kimono world slipping away from them. And as Japan began to come even further under the sway of Western ways with the end of the war, that story, set in the last years before Pearl Harbor, gained more poignant meaning with every passing season.

Tanizaki’s first significant novel, Naomi—previously he had been best known for plays and short stories—came out just one year after the earthquake, in 1924, and sets the pattern for all his gleefully extreme early work. The girl of the title is a fifteen-year-old coquette, working as a hostess at the Café Diamond, who gets picked up by an engineer who describes himself as “conventional to a fault, even colorless.” With the vanity—and the blindness—that distinguish many of Tanizaki’s young protagonists, the narrator nevertheless decides to play Pygmalion to this unlikely Galatea, whisks the teenager off to a “fairy-tale house” where they can play blindman’s buff and tag, and then marries her. As he puts it, with the lack of self-consciousness that is one of Tanizaki’s redeeming features, he’d wanted a house, a maid, and a bird and through Naomi he can get all three.

It comes as a surprise to no one but the narrator that a restless young flirt is not going to be satisfied by a self-described “clumsy oaf” almost twice her age with no experience of women. Before long Naomi is dragging her “Papa” to dance classes, where he meets a set of worldly young students much closer to his wife in age and interests. As the heroine ripens into a femme fatale—in Tanizaki at his pulpiest, all the femmes are fatales—the story descends into ever more ludicrous scenes of the electrical engineer hiding behind a sack of coal to see how his girl is betraying him, and then spending time with one of the students, who finds himself similarly betrayed. “It’s exciting to be tricked so skillfully,” the narrator confesses, with the unabashed masochism of many a Tanizaki hero. “Anybody would be impressed by such beautiful technique.”

Even as the engineer calls Naomi “a beautiful flower,” a “precious doll and an ornament,” he never begins to treat her as an equal. Yet what makes this more than just another tale of weird autocastration is that Naomi’s domination of her suitor is inseparable from his (and later her) obsession with things Western. The girl has a name that is, of course, ambiguous—as much Western as Eastern—and she cheerfully assures her admirer that everyone takes her to be Eurasian. The narrator constantly likens her to Mary Pickford, and later sees her as a beauty from a Mack Sennett film. He devotes at least an hour each day to trying to teach her English, and grows enraged over her inability to grasp the past participle and the subjunctive voice. Long before one of her friends starts whistling “Madame Butterfly,” we’re seeing Naomi as another version of the hired companion at the center of Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème and Puccini’s opera.

Tanizaki’s novel was a scandalous success when it came out; “Naomi-ism” became all the rage, and when censors and complaints forced Osaka’s Asahi newspaper to stop serializing it, it was picked up five months later by the magazine Josei (or Woman). To a reader today, it can seem strikingly similar to Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, from nine years before. But where Maugham was writing partly about class, Tanizaki added a charged element of race. At the dancing lessons, the engineer cannot contain himself over the “honor” of shaking the hand of the teacher, a white Russian, and delights in the smell of her sweat mingled with her perfume. After he finally throws Naomi out of the house, the final sign of her degradation is her affair with a Westerner called William McConnell and a whole crowd of foreigners. And when she returns to the fairy-tale cottage to ensnare her hapless slave again, having been used up by her Western admirers, he doesn’t recognize her at first, taking her for an “unfamiliar young Western woman” whose “arms and shoulders were as white as a fox.”


The fox-woman is a central figure in Japanese folklore, an almost demonic spirit who dresses up as a beauty to beguile susceptible souls; Naomi comes to resemble not just the larger-than-life succubus of a contemporary manga, but also a kind of otherworldly creature the narrator sees as “evil incarnate.” And yet the more he finds her “fickle and selfish,” the narrator admits, the more he’s entranced by her.

In the novel that followed, Quicksand, it’s a female narrator—telling her story in confessional letters—who succumbs to a devouring young beauty. As that novel descends into its own frenzied melodrama of mutual manipulation, her husband also falls under the spell of the sorceress, and finally all three of them plan an elaborate mock-suicide like something out of Romeo and Juliet—but devised by a maker of horror movies, and featuring Bayer sleeping pills as the near-fatal elixir.

Though Tanizaki’s novels never lack the courage of their perversions—he’s often likened to Nabokov—Tanizaki the sophisticated thinker and genuine aesthete devoted much of his energy to reflecting upon the right direction for his culture. The West had given Japan a sense of sexual liberation, he wrote in 1931, but what would that mean to a country whose traditional sense of beauty lay in reticence and delicacy? What would a striptease culture do to those who had gotten their kicks from seeing just a flash of the nape of a neck? His still-celebrated essay “In Praise of Shadows,” in which he recalls the suggestiveness of the dark nooks and blackened teeth of his youth, remains a passionate modern defense of traditional Japanese ways.

To me the turning point in his career comes in his novel of the late 1920s, Some Prefer Nettles, the story of a man and a woman in a perfectly pleasant but sexless marriage, unable to make a break because each lacks the courage to initiate a divorce. (Tanizaki himself, it should be noted, divorced his own wife in 1930, a radical act at the time, and is said to have offered her after dinner one night to a friend and fellow novelist.) The book is essentially an extended meditation on the plight—and delight—of a “woman worshipper,” its main character Kaname. Yet it doesn’t deal in comedy, and in truth it slowly turns into a mortifying lament. It says something about Japan that Kaname is unable to divorce his wife partly because he’s so taken with his father-in-law, an aging epicure who’s eagerly doing his own Pygmalion routine with a young geisha from Kyoto, permitting her “to see only puppet shows and to eat only insubstantial Japanese delicacies.”

As the book lingers, in typical Tanizaki fashion, over the fabric of kimonos, the “rough tearoom style of flower arranging,” and different ways of playing the shamisen, it effectively thrashes out relations between the old Japan and the new. The father-in-law dresses his girl up as a pilgrim and takes her on a tour of Buddhist temples; Kaname finds satisfaction only in the “natural golden brown” arms of a Eurasian prostitute at a Yokohama bordello run by a weeping Englishwoman.

It’s the sting of self-awareness, even chagrin, that gives Some Prefer Nettles its power and a complexity much deeper than in the racy tales of doomed passion that came before it. The word used for Kaname, more than once, is “cold,” and he’s kept up at night by the sound of his wife sobbing beside him. We’re told that the protagonist has worked through his appetite for Tokyo materialism and wishes to consecrate himself now to “the sublime and the ideal”—all of which sounds strikingly like his maker. Indeed, as Kaname observes his father-in-law, with his old-fashioned Kyoto “doll,” he might be anticipating his author’s future, when he, too, will have a taste for the formality of traditional Bunraku puppet drama, will grumble about the ways of the trend-loving young, and, though still preoccupied with female beauty, will bring to it the avuncular observation of The Makioka Sisters rather than the erotic intoxication of Naomi.

In its almost excruciating anti-drama of a couple caught in an impasse, Some Prefer Nettles takes us into what will become one of Tanizaki’s central themes, indecisiveness. The 530 pages of The Makioka Sisters revolve around a young woman whom everybody is trying to marry off, but who is such a classic Japanese picture of impassive diffidence that she cannot bring herself to say yes to any proposal, or to say no. She might almost stand for a nation that’s stuck, unable to commit itself in either direction; her two elder sisters speak for the more traditional way of arranged marriages, while her younger sister, freethinking and modern, is impatient to claim a Western-style love-marriage of her own. But delicate, unbiddable Yukiko hovers inconclusively in the middle, and might be crying out for some of the bold decisiveness that Tanizaki has long associated with the West.

Hideko Takamine in Yutaka Abe’s 1950 film adaptation of Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel The Makioka Sisters

New Directions has now added to our Tanizaki canon by bringing out two novels that have never been translated into English before*; both are throwaways, of little interest in themselves, but because one comes from the very beginning of his career and one from the end, they trace, quite dramatically, how his work turned on its head even as some aspects of it never changed. Devils in Daylight, from 1918, reads like a breathless snuff film cowritten by Poe and Simenon. A writer is called by an unstable friend and asked to join an after-midnight excursion to spy upon a beautiful woman and what seems to be her lover as they commit a murder. Before long, of course, both men are deliriously under the influence of the “tremendously beautiful monster,” and one of them ends up watching the other with her, through a keyhole—Tanizaki was always in love with secret openings—even as the latter gladly gives himself over to what he takes to be an incarnation of pure evil.

The Maids, serialized in 1962, is essentially a rambling appendix, or companion piece, to The Makioka Sisters, as seen from the servants’ entrance, and might at first seem to have been written by a completely different person. As languorous and spacious as Devils in Daylight is speedy and compulsive, it’s nothing but a litany of the lovable quirks, rustic accents, and amours of a series of young women in the service of an older writer and his wife. The ruling couple might well be the Tanizakis, ensconced in their homes around Osaka and Kyoto. The old man delights in the penmanship of one girl. He rejoices in the tales of “night crawling” and “trial marriages” some of the others bring from their country homes. He reproduces the name of every railway station they pass through, as if he were the official historian of Western Japan.

Yet what haunts one now, in the light of Tanizaki’s more substantial work, is that both books betray many of the same idiosyncrasies, even if rendered in a very different key. The murderous couple in Devils in Daylight are first seen in a movie house; the girls from the work written forty-four years later go to see “Waterloo Junction, starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh” and the Disney documentary The Living Desert. One of the maids is extolled as having breasts “better than Marilyn Monroe’s.” Tanizaki gives us microscopic, unblushing descriptions of “the alluring musculature between the lobe of her ear and her back” (in the early book) and “the beautiful, lily-white soles” of a woman who tramples upon his back while giving him a massage (in the late one). He could have been not just a delighted judge at a beauty pageant but, perhaps, a fashion director for Vogue (a magazine that Naomi consumes voraciously). Even while peeping through a knothole at what looks to be a murder, one of his men dwells on a woman’s “squashed Shimada hairdo and a light summer haori of black silk gauze.”

This attention to local minutiae is part of what gives the writer his unsettling intensity: when quoting a love letter in Quicksand, Tanizaki devotes more than a page to describing the envelope in which it came and how this speaks for the Osaka area, not Tokyo. Indeed, his later works are, as he hoped, living museums of customs that really are close to extinct nowadays in the Kyoto-Osaka area where I live. Yet he’s offering much more than “picturesque studies in linguistic geography and below-stairs comradeship,” as Proust had it, scrutinizing his own housekeeper’s dialect and how it differs from her daughter’s.

In the end, it’s Tanizaki’s very freedom from indecisiveness, his openness about his fascinations, that give his books their wild and commanding conviction. Not every writer would show his male narrator being happily ridden around a house by his teenage bride, without a word of embarrassment or judgment. Tanizaki pursued his obsessions to the end without apology—when I arrived in Kyoto in 1987, I was shown (on the temple-filled Philosopher’s Path, no less) the coffee shop said to be owned by the daughter-in-law whose feet the old man had fondled. Ultimately it’s the nakedness of the writer, rather than of his characters, that startles and tantalizes.

In the years I’ve been in Japan, the possibilities for women there may have opened up a little; the number of Japanese marriages to Westerners has risen dramatically, and more and more spirited women—my daughter and wife included—are claiming foreign destinies and opportunities they know they still can’t get at home. But Tanizaki was alert to that as well: one of the nicer ironies of his self-incriminating early work is that, in truth, it’s the Pygmalions who are completely controlled by their supple Naomis, rather as, in Yasujiro Ozu’s much gentler movies, it’s the women who make so much happen even as the amiable men sit at their desks, vaguely murmuring, “Is that so?” And as Japan still gestures with one hand toward the latest thing from Paris or L.A., and with the other toward an ancient homegrown culture that it shows off to a fast-increasing number of more than 20 million foreign visitors, it’s the man who threw himself slavishly toward every extreme who seems to have caught both his country’s malaise and its grace in the same excited breath.