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The Makioka Sisters

By Junichiro Tanizaki
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
First Vintage International Edition, 1995

Mrs. Bennet, meet Sachiko Makioka!

The Makioka Sisters, a twentieth century Japanese classic by Junichiro Tanizaki, came to my attention through a literary blog I follow, Whispering Gums. I’m so glad to have read it.

As in Jane Austen’s books, this story takes place in a time of pending and actual war, yet focuses on domestic life. Just as Jane Austen is criticized by the misguided for writing books in which nothing much happens, this story meanders through the life of the four Makioka sisters in the years 1938 to 1941, with the overarching theme being the need for a woman to find a husband. As in Austen’s works, the author critiques prevailing social mores. Perhaps even surpassing Austen in its leisurely and detailed scene-setting, Tanizaki’s final chapters deliver a quiet bombshell.

Sachiko Makioka and her older sister Tsuruko are married with children. The two younger sisters, Yukiko and Taeko, are single. It is the family’s responsibility to get Yukiko safely wedded. For until the third sister is married, the fourth must wait.

Marriages were arranged at that time in Japan. The families of eligible young women would be approached by intermediaries suggesting a suitable spouse. After “investigations” by the families on both sides, a meeting would be arranged. This was often a dinner party. The idea was to allow the potential couple to meet in a chaperoned setting but in an enjoyable and relaxed way, so that conversation could flow. Decisions could be made in a very short time following this “miai,” with little time for the couple to really get to know each other.

Junichiro is a master of dialogue, particularly of the light, bantering, dinner party kind. Gentle jokes from a foreign culture and a different century must be hard to get across, but translator Edward G. Seidensticker does a marvelous job of this.

When the story starts, Yukiko has a history of failure in the marriage market. While her sister Taeko is shockingly independent, trying to support herself through making dolls and later through learning to be a seamstress, Yukiko is extraordinarily passive. Now in her thirties, she is so extremely shy she cannot make conversation. Yet, in a response that is sadly familiar today, Sachiko worries that Yukiko’s problem must be a physical imperfection. The only possible blemish is a transitory brown spot above Yukiko’s eye, and Sachiko obsesses about this – allowing others to define a woman’s attractiveness. For Yukiko’s part, she seems happy enough in her role of unpaid baby-sitter and nurse for her sisters’ children.

A sub-text of this story is how much harder it is for women with many children, like Tsuruko, than for women with one child, like Sachiko. Yet this theme is very much linked to the main problem of the novel, which deals with the eligibility issues of the younger sisters. Tsuruko and her husband and six children have moved to Tokyo, where they must cope with an expensive big city lifestyle, finding it very difficult. Sachiko, on the other hand, still lives in Osaka, where everything is familiar. Sachiko is happily married to the thoughtful Teinosuke, one of the most attractive characters in the novel. She spends her days practicing calligraphy, goes to the beauty parlor, sees a lot of movies, often dines out. It is a very recognizable life to us, and yet aspects of it are ritualized and slow to change. There are some wonderful scenes of excursions to see cherry blossoms and fireflies, in which certain clothes are worn, and we see the expectation that year after year, elaborate services, with entertainment and catering, must be provided to honor the anniversary of parents’ deaths.

Yet war is coming, and as the novel progresses, the once comfortable Makioka household becomes depleted of its fine wines and the older sister, Tsuruko becomes more and more desperate for the financial burden of the younger sisters to be lifted by their marriages.

Sachiko, though, is the classic unreliable narrator. She is half aware that it suits her very well to have Yukiko available to help her with her daughter, Etsuko. She is much more worried about Taeko, who has had undesirable relationships with men, but cannot marry until Yukiko does. Taeko’s reputation is such that it sullies Yukiko’s by association, and eventually the family takes action, which only makes matters worse. Sachiko’s frantic yet indecisive behavior towards the naughty Taeko reminds one of the Bennets’ despair about Lydia in Pride and Prejudice.

This novel builds slowly, showing us a world which is both modern and stultified. It protected women, but also bound them in convention. Symbolically, the female characters wear Western clothes when they want to be comfortable, but in situations like the marriage negotiations, sit stiff and uncomfortable in rigid Japanese dress. Both the old-fashioned, obedient Yukiko and the independent Taeko are caught in impossible positions.

Junichiro Tanizaki, 1886-1965, lived through the great upheaval of the Second World War. Without making an overtly political point, Tanizaki shows the beauty and appeal of traditional Japanese culture, and its dark side, in which non-conformity is punished severely. A moral failure or just an inability to think independently? That’s for the reader to decide.

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