Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

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For Western readers, Jun’ichir Tanizaki is best known for his short stories and short novels.

Throughout his career, however, he was a prolific writer of plays, essays, and translations as well. Many English readers favor his long novel Sasameyuki (1943-1948, 1949; The Makioka Sisters, 1957) as his best work. It is the story of a family’s efforts to arrange a marriage for Yukiko, the third of four daughters in a respectable Osaka family. Tanizaki has written a number of plays, and also noteworthy are his two translations into modern Japanese of Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; first English translation, The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933). The earlier translation was restricted by the severe censorship during the time of the war with China; the later one was in more liberal and colloquial language.

Achievements

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The modern Japanese writers most commonly suggested as comparable to Jun’ichir Tanizaki for the quality of their fiction are the 1968 Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima. It is widely believed that Tanizaki was Kawabata’s chief rival for the Nobel Prize that year. Mishima’s easier fiction gains more readers but cannot match Tanizaki’s more innovative complexity. From his earliest years, however, Tanizaki has had his detractors, because many found his youthful “demoniac” works offensive. Throughout his career, for that matter, his frank portrayal of unconventional, even bizarre sexual and marital relationships among his characters caused consternation. In spite of such reservations, Tanizaki was elected to the Japanese Academy of Arts in 1937. He was awarded the Mainichi Prize for Publication and Culture for Sasameyuki, 1943-1948, 1949 (The Makioka Sisters, 1957) and the Asaki Culture Prize and the Imperial Cultural Medal, both in 1949. These are the most important awards the Japanese can give a writer.

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The history of the novel in Japan is quite different from its history in the West, and the distinctions normally observed between the short story and the novel do not apply there. If, arbitrarily, one refers to Japanese works of fewer than one hundred pages of prose fiction as “short stories,” Jun’ichir Tanizaki (tah-nee-zahk-ee) is as famous for his short stories as for his longer works. Typical of his early period, “Shisei” (1910; “The Tattooer,” 1963) indicates his early interest in sexual symbolism. “Akuma” (1912; Satan) deals with male masochism, and “Otsuya goroshi” (1913; a springtime case) deals with murder and amorality in Tokyo. Later, Tanizaki wrote such remarkable stories as “Ashikari” (1932; English translation, 1936), “Shunkinsh” (1933; “A Portrait of Shunkin,” 1936), “Mmoku monogatari” (1931; “A Blind Man’s Tale,” 1963), and the exquisite “Yume no ukihashi” (1959; “The Bridge of Dreams,” 1963).

Tanizaki also wrote a number of plays, including Aisureba koso (pb. 1921; all because of love), Okumi to Gohei (pb. 1922), and Shirogitsune no yu (pb. 1923; The White Fox, 1930). In 1932, he began translating Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1936-1941, 1951-1954) into modern Japanese; over the years, he produced several revisions of it. Bunsh tokuhon (1934; a manual of style), in which he outlined his craftsmanlike attitude toward composing fiction, is often called a minor masterpiece of criticism. Although he published several highly accomplished reviews and essays, he seldom was persuaded to undertake them, believing that he ought to concentrate on his fiction.

Achievements

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Jun’ichir Tanizaki was recognized as a remarkable talent even in his twenties and continued to be so recognized throughout a long and prolific career, which outlasted several publications of his complete works. At first, he was considered shockingly Western by his contemporaries; during the 1920’s, however, he gradually began to incorporate more conservative Japanese literary elements, implicitly warning his readers of the dangers of being overly Westernized. Late in his career, his characters are not...

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endangered by Western culture, enjoying, for example, Western clothes and houses as everyday realities in modern Japan.

Tanizaki’s mastery of a carefully composed style and his insight into the psychology of his characters place him among the great writers of twentieth century world literature. A slow, careful writer, Tanizaki argued that one of the most important elements of Japanese is its “vagueness” in comparison to other languages, a vagueness that allows the Japanese author to suggest motives, feelings, and details in delicate strokes rather than in precise exposition. Considering the imagination crucial, Tanizaki often dealt with sensational material and abnormal states of mind; by controlling his style, he did not allow his intensity to become hysterical. Despite their bizarre aberrations, his characters rarely become unbelievable as human beings, because of the objective manner in which he treats them. Like many great writers, Tanizaki was also able to assimilate opposing elements such as tradition and innovation, imagination and realism, and the influences of West and East.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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, a blind musician has such a profound effect upon her student that he blinds himself in order to share her suffering. Their relationship, however, despite its intensity, is very ambiguous (another quality that is characteristic of Tanizaki’s fiction). Tanizaki’s repeated use of unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, and peculiarly Japanese symbols often give to his narratives—especially for the Western reader—an oblique and problematical tone.

In 1937, Tanizaki was elected to membership in Japan’s Imperial Academy of Arts. The coming of war had an effect upon Tanizaki, as it did upon all Japanese writers. Out of mixed feelings of nostalgia and despair, he began to re-create in Sasame-yuki (1943-1948; The Makioka Sisters, 1957) the world that after the war would never exist again. The progress of the serialized version was long and difficult and involved more than one periodical. The first installment appeared in January, 1943, the last in October, 1948. In between, Tanizaki even published a part of the novel himself, in July, 1944, after it was censured. It appeared in book form in December, 1948. The Makioka Sisters is set in the Kyōto-Osaka region. The regional differences that supposedly affected Tanizaki so deeply are dramatized in the novel when one sister is forced to move from her beloved Osaka to Tokyo. The novel contains a wealth of detail about daily life in Japan. Tanizaki received two prestigious awards for The Makioka Sisters: the Mainichi Prize for Publication and Culture in 1947 and the Asahi Culture Prize in 1949. In the latter year, he was awarded the Imperial Cultural Medal.

In 1962, more than fifty years after the appearance of “Tattoo,” Tanizaki was still exploring the phenomenon of the self-willed victim of erotic desire in Fūten rojin nikki (Diary of a Mad Old Man, 1965). The diary of seventy-seven-year-old Utsugi Tokusuke makes up the bulk of the novel, but it is supplemented by his nurse’s report, his physician’s clinical record, and his daughter-in-law’s note. These multiple points of view ambiguously interpret the old man’s relationship with his ex-chorus girl daughter-in-law.

Tanizaki was elected to honorary membership in the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964. He died on July 30, 1965, and two months later his last piece of writing appeared in the journal Chuo Koron.

Summary

Several themes recur in the work of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki throughout his long literary career: the artist’s search for beauty, the fascinating quality—both erotic and aesthetic—of womanhood, and the clash of cultures—traditional and modern, Eastern and Western. Yet, often as Tanizaki has treated these themes in stories, novels, and plays, the reader must be careful in drawing generalizations from them. Tanizaki’s narrative technique is habitually ambiguous, oblique, and ironic. He may use narrators who are dishonest or naïve. He may use multiple narrators. The narrator sometimes uses the authorial voice but without comment, forcing the reader to interpret for himself the actions, words, expressions, and gestures of the characters. Tanizaki has been called the chronicler of modern Japan, but for a long period he devoted himself to retelling the tales of ancient Japan. The view from ten centuries past gave him yet another perspective for his fiction. His scenes of perversity, especially in the early stories, have led some to include him in the “Satanist,” or “demonic,” school of writers. The autobiographical elements in his work have linked him to the “I-novelists,” the confessional school of writers. His emphasis upon the erotic and his supposed worship of women have associated him with the “love-talk” school of writers. Yet Tanizaki cannot be fitted comfortably into any school or movement. The differences are always more striking than the similarities.

In his later years, Tanizaki was considered a strong and deserving candidate for the Nobel Prize. The rumor coming out of the Swedish Academy was that he was passed over because it was believed that too little of his work was available in translation. Still, he had succeeded in accomplishing what only the greatest writers can accomplish: He had converted his homeland, with all its cultural singularity, into a universal stage. Many agreed with the Asian scholar Donald Keene when he wrote in 1955 that The Makioka Sisters is “the most important Japanese novel published in the years following the war.”

Bibliography

Chambers, Anthony Hood. The Secret Window: Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki’s Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Chapters on “ideal worlds,” “A Portrait of Shunkin,” and “The Bridge of Dreams.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. Concentrates on Tanizaki’s handling of the theme of modernism. With detailed notes but no bibliography.

Golley, Gregory L. “Tanizaki Junichiro: The Art of Subversion and the Subversion of Art.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 21 (Summer, 1995): 365-404. Examines the “return to Japan” inaugurated by Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles. Discusses themes and images in the work and suggests that Tanizaki’s traditionalist fiction both championed and undermined the idea of an essential Japanese traditional culture.

Ito, Ken K. Visions of Desire: Tanizaki’s Fictional Worlds. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. Chapters on his handling of the “Orient” and the “West,” on his treatment of the past, “The Vision of the Blind,” “Fair Dreams of Hanshin,” “Writing as Power,” and “A Mad Old Man’s World.” Includes notes, bibliography, and a section on names and sources.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A massive study of the fiction produced since the Japanese “Enlightenment” in the nineteenth century. Chapter 20, pages 720-785, is devoted exclusively to Tanizaki, and he is mentioned in the introduction and in several other chapters in association with other writers and literary movements.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A companion volume to the entry cited above. Tanizaki’s writing for the stage is discussed in “Part Three: The Modern Drama,” and he is also mentioned in passing in “Part Two: Poetry in New Forms” and “Part Four: Modern Criticism.”

Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers. New York: Grove Press, 1955. Unlike the comprehensive treatments cited above, this is a brief introduction to Japanese literature, designed for the neophyte reader. Tanizaki is only touched upon in the introduction and chapter 4, “The Japanese Novel,” but is discussed throughout chapter 5, “Japanese Literature Under Western Influence.”

Lippit, Noriko Miuta. Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. Considers the struggle of several Japanese writers to define the function of art and literature both socially and personally. Sections on Tanizaki deal with his aesthetic preference for fantasy and complex structure, with a comparison to Edgar Allan Poe. Notes.

Rubin, Jay. Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and the Meiji State. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984. In this unusual approach, the author tackles censorship in Japan and analyzes the relationship between writers and the government. The sections on Tanizaki, an apolitical period writer, suggest ways censorship affected his early career. Contains interesting discussions of the bans on his short stories. Chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Suzuki, Tomi. Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. See especially the epilogue, “Tanizaki’s Speaking Subject and the Creation of Tradition.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Thornbury, Barbara E. “Kagura, Chaban, and the Awaji Puppet Theatre: A Literary View of Japan’s Performing Arts.” Theatre Survey 35 (May, 1994): 55-64. Discusses the traditional performing works of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro and Uno Chiyo; claims that for both authors the traditional performing arts were a connection between the present and past, an important element in Japan’s cultural identity—and one that could be lost.

Ueda, Makoto. “Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.” In Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Discusses Tanizaki as one of the eight major writers who make up the bulk of modern Japanese fiction familiar to Western readers. Provides an introduction to major literary theories underlying Japanese novels and stories. Supplemented by source notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Discusses twelve modern Japanese writers, analyzing the ways each dealt with the difficult personal, social, and intellectual questions in art. The sections on Tanizaki focus on the concept of eternal womanhood in his works. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Bibliography

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Chambers, Anthony Hood. The Secret Window: Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki’s Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Chapters on “ideal worlds,” “A Portrait of Shunkin,” and “The Bridge of Dreams.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. Concentrates on Tanizaki’s handling of the theme of modernism. With detailed notes but no bibliography.

Golley, Gregory L. “Tanizaki Junichiro: The Art of Subversion and the Subversion of Art.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 21 (Summer, 1995): 365-404. Examines the “return to Japan” inaugurated by Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles. Discusses themes and images in the work and suggests that Tanizaki’s traditionalist fiction both championed and undermined the idea of an essential Japanese traditional culture.

Ito, Ken K. Visions of Desire: Tanizaki’s Fictional Worlds. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. Chapters on his handling of the “Orient” and the “West,” on his treatment of the past, “The Vision of the Blind,” “Fair Dreams of Hanshin,” “Writing as Power,” and “A Mad Old Man’s World.” Includes notes, bibliography, and a section on names and sources.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A massive study of the fiction produced since the Japanese “Enlightenment” in the nineteenth century. Chapter 20, pages 720-785, is devoted exclusively to Tanizaki, and he is mentioned in the introduction and in several other chapters in association with other writers and literary movements.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Poetry, Drama, Criticism. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. A companion volume to the entry cited above. Tanizaki’s writing for the stage is discussed in “Part Three: The Modern Drama,” and he is also mentioned in passing in “Part Two: Poetry in New Forms” and “Part Four: Modern Criticism.”

Keene, Donald. Japanese Literature: An Introduction for Western Readers. New York: Grove Press, 1955. Unlike the comprehensive treatments cited above, this is a brief introduction to Japanese literature, designed for the neophyte reader. Tanizaki is only touched upon in the introduction and chapter 4, “The Japanese Novel,” but is discussed throughout chapter 5, “Japanese Literature Under Western Influence.”

Lippit, Noriko Miuta. Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. Considers the struggle of several Japanese writers to define the function of art and literature both socially and personally. Sections on Tanizaki deal with his aesthetic preference for fantasy and complex structure, with a comparison to Edgar Allan Poe. Notes.

Rubin, Jay. Injurious to Public Morals: Writers and the Meiji State. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984. In this unusual approach, the author tackles censorship in Japan and analyzes the relationship between writers and the government. The sections on Tanizaki, an apolitical period writer, suggest ways censorship affected his early career. Contains interesting discussions of the bans on his short stories. Chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Suzuki, Tomi. Narrating the Self: Fictions of Japanese Modernity. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. See especially the epilogue, “Tanizaki’s Speaking Subject and the Creation of Tradition.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Thornbury, Barbara E. “Kagura, Chaban, and the Awaji Puppet Theatre: A Literary View of Japan’s Performing Arts.” Theatre Survey 35 (May, 1994): 55-64. Discusses the traditional performing works of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro and Uno Chiyo; claims that for both authors the traditional performing arts were a connection between the present and past, an important element in Japan’s cultural identity—and one that could be lost.

Ueda, Makoto. “Tanizaki Jun’ichir.” In Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Discusses Tanizaki as one of the eight major writers who make up the bulk of modern Japanese fiction familiar to Western readers. Provides an introduction to major literary theories underlying Japanese novels and stories. Supplemented by source notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Discusses twelve modern Japanese writers, analyzing the ways each dealt with the difficult personal, social, and intellectual questions in art. The sections on Tanizaki focus on the concept of eternal womanhood in his works. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.

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