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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Corrupting Influence of the West

Japan, a deeply insular nation, has a long history of isolationism. After the introduction of Spanish and Portuguese colonial influence in the late sixteenth century, Japan closed itself off from the world. The nation would not reopen its borders until the mid-nineteenth century. Naomi, a novel published in 1924, carries the weight of this history. Tanizaki’s tale is a cautionary one, and his fear of Western influences reflects two hundred years of isolation, which, at the time of his writing, had dissipated only two generations prior. 

Western names, appearances, and values seem to act as a temptation, leading Japanese citizens away from tradition and into promiscuous and immoral lifestyles. When Naomi’s connection to the West is limited to her name and appearance, she seems relatively innocent and virtuous. She enjoys learning English and taking music and dance classes, but her connection to Western culture seems limited and confined to observation rather than participation. However, she quickly adopts the style and mannerisms of Western women; the more Westernized she appears, the more manipulative, deceitful, and nontraditional her actions become. Naomi’s connection to the West makes her callous and unappreciative, and Joji attributes her regular infidelity to her attraction to Western media and men. Readers are meant to understand that all of the Western influences have morally corrupted her, rendering her, in Joji’s words, “a whore” and “a slut.”

Tanizaki’s narrative furthers a contemporarily popular sentiment, arguing that, if Western influences can corrupt a simple, unstudied girl such as Naomi—and in so short a time (three or four years)—then Western ideals can negatively impact entire countries, like Japan. The West’s materialism, greed, and selfish lack of concern for others could infect, like a disease, whole nations. The Westerners in the novel tend to be vulgar, even if they can be charming, and they seem like a significant threat to the Japanese way of life.

The Folly of Rejecting Tradition

At the beginning of the novel, Joji bemoans the structures of traditional Japanese courtship methods. He feels that the practice of meeting a potential partner only once or twice before marriage is not functional. Moreover, he wishes to live with a woman before marrying her, so he can better understand who she is and how she acts. His desires for a relationship are unconventional; ultimately, he suffers from his rejection of traditional values, as he languishes in an unfulfilling relationship with little to no agency. Rather than expecting Naomi to occupy the expected role of Japanese wife and mother, he suggests that she avoid having children and nourish her interests in Western culture and media. Tanizaki presents this choice as a mistake, for it is her interest in music, dance, and media that leads to her descent into hedonism. 

However, Joji is equally complicit in her decline, as it was his disdain for tradition, his hand in her unconventional upbringing, and his willing permissiveness which led Naomi to mature into a demanding and arrogant young woman. Indeed, Tanizaki seems to advocate for strong, patriarchal standards of family control, a role that the submissive and sexually-frustrated Joji seems incapable of filling. The novel examines the changing place of tradition in Japanese culture in the early nineteenth century and draws several clear conclusions: Western influence is damaging and to choose the glamorous but immoral lifestyles of the West is to accept disaster and unhappiness, as Joji does.   

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