Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, Japan, on July 24, 1886. His father, Sogoro Tanizaki, was a rice merchant by virtue of his marriage into the Tanizaki family, whose name he subsequently adopted. It was Jun’ichirō’s grandfather, Hisaemon, who had built the business. Sogoro could not appropriate the Tanizaki business acumen as he had the name. When his father-in-law’s fortune came into his hands, he grossly mismanaged it. As a result, the performance of the business fluctuated wildly, the long-term effect being a steady decline in the family fortune. The death of an elder brother left Jun’ichirō heir to the dissipated Tanizaki wealth. Although he was a brilliant student, there was at one point a serious problem regarding his tuition fee at the Tokyo Metropolitan First Middle School. Later, he would observe, in his typically paradoxical fashion, that his rearing in Tokyo’s merchant class had left him with both a distaste for materialism and a strong sense of nostalgia.
Tanizaki studied classical Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University after first sampling English law and English literature. Very early, he had exhibited a talent for literary composition, and he published several pieces in small magazines during his years at the university. He was not graduated and, again, the lack of money was quite probably a contributing factor. In the autumn of 1910, he published two plays and two short stories in Shinshicho, a magazine that he and university friends were editing. The short story “Shisei” (1909; “The Tattooer,” 1956) introduced one of Tanizaki’s enduring themes—the erotic power of feminine beauty. Seikichi, a tattooer, becomes obsessed with a young geisha. He drugs the girl and tattoos an enormous spider sprawling across her back. When she awakens, however, she announces to Seikichi that he has become her victim.
In January, 1911, Tanizaki’s first paid piece, Shinzei, a play, was published in Subaru. In June and September, two of his stories appeared in the same periodical. The earlier of these, “Shōnen” (youth), attracted the attention of several prominent literary figures. In October, his first novel, Taifū (typhoon), appeared in Mita-Bungaku. He was married in 1915 to Chiyoko Ishikawa. The first decade of Tanizaki’s career was an exciting period in Japanese literature. Japan, by virtue of its victory in the Russo-Japanese War, was now a force to be reckoned with internationally. Western literary influences had been growing since the previous century, and the hold of ancient conventions had been loosening. A controversy was in progress between the naturalist writers, who had commanded the literary field, and their opponents. Tanizaki embraced Westernism and fell under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Baudelaire, especially the mixture of sensuousness and morbidity in their fiction. The critic Gwenn Boardman Petersen argues, on the other hand, that Tanizaki’s Westernization has been overstated, that Japan’s long tradition of ghost and horror tales is sufficient to account for the bizarre elements in his early work. These elements had by 1920 caused some critics to label him a “Satanist.”
In 1923, a great earthquake struck Tokyo, and Tanizaki subsequently relocated to Okamoto, near Osaka. This move has been characterized as the turning point in Tanizaki’s career. His simpler way of life, as he left the great metropolis behind, brought with it a reexamination of traditional Japanese customs and a disenchantment with industrialization and Western values. Some critics suggest that at this point Tanizaki ceased to be merely a good writer and became a great one. Again, Petersen sounds a cautionary note, pointing out that Tanizaki’s residence in the Kansai area was not so very lengthy and that the writer, according to his own testimony, made no conscious break with Tokyo. Still, for whatever reasons, his writing underwent a noticeable change in the early 1920’s. His themes were more surely developed. His narratives became more realistic. His style became more descriptive, less sensuously suggestive (he had been accused of disguising a lack of content with a complex and urbane style). Chijin no ai (1924; a fool’s love), serialized in Osaka, reflects Tanizaki’s gradual disillusionment with Western culture.
Tade kuu mushi (1928-1929; Some Prefer Nettles, 1955), set in Osaka, dramatizes the clash of East and West through a failing marriage. The husband, whose position the narrative seems to favor, has become a traditionalist, while the wife is chic and Westernized. As a result, the two are drifting further and further apart. The novel also contains a strong autobiographical element. Tanizaki’s own marriage was failing. A choice bit of Tokyo literary gossip in 1928 had Tanizaki seeking to act as go-between in a proposed affair between his wife and the novelist Sato Haruo. In 1930, the marriage ended in divorce, and, in April, 1931, Tanizaki married Furukawa Tomiko. Within the next five years, he would be divorced and remarried again. Also by 1930, he had gained such distinction that his complete works were published.
An emphasis on physical mutilation and a strain of sadomasochism run through Tanizaki’s work. Blindness is featured in “Momoku monogatari” (1931; “A Blind Man’s Tale,” 1963) and “Shunkin shō” (1933; “A Portrait of Shunkin,” 1936). In the latter,...