In 1964, Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in literature. Although his death the following year ended that bid, The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s masterpiece, demonstrates that the Committee’s consideration of Tanizaki was no Bob Dylan fluke. The Makioka Sisters blends Jane Austen with a smidgeon of Edith Wharton. It’s a novel of manners set in pre-World War II Japan, the impending conflagration a ticking time bomb that will shatter forever the traditional Japanese society that Tanizaki depicts.
The four Makioka sisters are the offspring of Osaka merchant aristocracy. The oldest two sisters are married. The novel opens in 1936 with the family anxiously trying to marry off the next sister, Yukiko. Approaching 30, Yukiko’s getting a bit long in the tooth. That’s not all: the youngest sister Taeko is forbidden by tradition to marry until Yukiko’s off the market.
Tanizaki writes about the Japanese ritual of miai or matchmaking. The matchmaker, usually a family friend or relative, obtains the approval of both families to set up a dinner at which the prospective couple accompanied by a relative or two size each other up. If both families give the green light, the couple meet alone or attended by family members two or three more times. Negotiations and investigations proceed. In The Makioka Sisters, everything is up for inquiry: pedigree, income, health, even a freckle above Yukiko’s brow. The sins of the family are visited upon the singletons. Taeko’s aborted elopement at 19 blemishes Yukiko’s prospects. So, too, the Makiokas’ fussiness is disproportionate to their sinking financial fortunes, and over the years they have come to reject far too many suitors. The family’s declining prestige is not helped by Taeko’s continuing moral descent. Unlike the cloistered and reserved kimono-wearing Yukiko, Taeko dons Western garments, works outside the home, and is not very careful about her relations with men.
Just as Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence bemoans the loss of societal order that accompanies the loosening of etiquette, Tanizaki writes with sadness about the passing of old-fashioned norms. Yukiko spends her time learning calligraphy and takes lessons in the tea ceremony. When she’s not shopping, Sachiko, the next to oldest sister who oversees her two younger siblings, plays the koto, a thirteen-stringed musical instrument. Taeko absorbs herself in traditional Japanese dance. The sisters are regulars at performances of the Kabuki theater. Both Sachiko and her husband compose letters in traditional Japanese brushstrokes. The letters radiate humility and are directed to saving the faces and honor of both writer and recipient. Well-mannered Japanese don’t utter concerns and complaints. Communication is indirect, making reading between the lines another artform.
The looming war is a character in itself. It’s already being fiercely waged in Europe where it touches the Makiokas’ friends and acquaintances. Katerina, a White Russian raised in China and Japan, moves to England and accomplishes her goal of catching a rich husband; she now hunkers in a bunker as German bombs explode over London. Sachiko’s neighbors, the Stolzes, have returned to a Germany at war and a life filled with privation. Their son Peter, once the playmate of Sachiko’s daughter, has joined Hitler Youth. The China Incident, Japan’s euphemism for its invasion of China, requires the Makiokas to accept austerity.
After a series of miais, each one of which almost reads like a thriller, Yukiko finally becomes betrothed to a dilettantish man of good family. As for Taeko, the best that can be said is that she injudiciously courts misfortune and the match she catches reflects a reputation torn to pieces.
As the novel ends, Yukiko is preparing to travel to Tokyo for her wedding. She’s taking the night train on March 26. Yukiko’s scarcely delighted despite more than a decade of failed miais. The wedding kimonos have arrived and “Yukiko looked at them and sighed–if only they were not for her wedding.” The novel’s concluding sentence sums up a family and a nation about to implode: “Yukiko’s diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo.” (Unlike Austen, Tanizaki does not shy away from bodily functions.) It’s March 26, 1941. Pearl Harbor is just nine months away. Japan is doomed, its social fabric about to be shredded. Tanizaki draws the reader so intently into the lives of the Makioka sisters that it’s disappointing not to know what happens to them next, particularly to the sensitive, generous, and compassionate Sachiko.
I very much doubt that matchmaking or patriarchy deserves a comeback although the ancient arts and the gentler forms of communications Tanizaki describes may merit revival. I am certain that The Makioka Sisters deserves a second chance.