Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Written from the perspective of Joji, a thirty-six-year-old Japanese man, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki's Naomi depicts the chaotic relationship between a married couple struggling to reconcile their disparate values. The novel showcases the twentieth-century clash between Eastern and Western values in Japan and deals with the differences between men and women. The narrator, Joji, meets his wife-to-be, Naomi, when she is fifteen; at the time, he is twenty-eight. Their relationship is unconventional and often paternal, as he wishes to raise her into a “fine young woman” he can eventually take as his wife. She, in turn, calls him “Papa.” The early days of their confusing relationship unfold from the perspective of one writing with the objectivity of distance, recalled and recorded from twelve years on. Despite Joji’s attempt to remain unbiased, his retelling is laden with his somewhat jaded perspective. Readers realize that Joji feels that Naomi's ties to Western culture have ruined their relationship and made her unrecognizable.
Indeed, Joji’s perspective highlights the fragmentation within Japan at the time. As Western—particularly American—culture began to interject itself into the traditionally insular and isolated nation, many struggled to reconcile the changing value system they encountered. Japan’s traditional system of family hierarchy, filial piety, and modesty struggled to adapt to the Western world’s idea of the Modern Woman as it appeared during the late 1910s and 1920s. Naomi, a poster child of the Modern Woman, struggles to reconcile Joji’s expectations with her internal desires. Rather than adapting to suit his desire for an independent woman who abides by his wishes and desires, she acts as she pleases.
Naomi rejects the roles of wife and mother; she grates at Joji’s view of her and the idea that she is a “rare, precious doll and an ornament.” She does not appreciate that he makes her feel like a project or an object and grows tired of being treated like “a beautiful flower in one vase.” Naomi’s perspective on female value and agency is just as unconventional as Joji's idea of courtship: she enjoys feeling desired but does not wish to be owned or objectified. Instead, she wishes to exist independently, living per her momentary desires and whims. Unhappy with the confined life of an early-twentieth-century Japanese wife, Naomi desires new places, new people, and new things. As Joji explains: “The atmosphere of our bright ‘birdcage’—our fairy-tale house—had changed completely, and the stuffy rooms assaulted the nose with the smell of neglect.”
As much as Naomi is a conversation on Westernization, it is also a discussion of Japanese feminism, which aimed to tear away the edges of patriarchal control and female dependency. Perhaps Naomi’s independence is a grotesque distortion, but it is nonetheless rooted in the rapidly-changing gender dynamic in Japan. Just as Western styles, music, and movies influence and interact with Japanese culture, so, too, do the strides Western women make in terms of political, social, and sexual independence affect Japanese women. Unfortunately, the Western influences seem to be mostly corrupting or corrosive of the Japanese culture in the text, but the text makes it clear that—for better or worse—Western ideals, including women’s rights, do have a real effect on the rest of the world.
Tanizaki’s Naomi is an overt critique of Western cultural colonialism. In his terms, colonization is a seduction rather than an assault. No character is free of Westernization; instead, they are marked by their susceptibility to such undesirable influences. Corrupted and complicit in the loss of traditional values, the bitter end of Naomi—which concludes with the titular character living a life of meaningless luxury and her husband miserable and humiliation—is a warning: the allure of the West is not to be trusted.