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The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki.

March 3, 2014

The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki.  Vintage, 1995.  Paperback.  530 pages.


A Japanese classic telling the stories of four sisters of an aristocratic family losing their traditional prestige as the country modernizes before World War II.

The Maki0kas have been an influential family in Osaka, Japan, but the parents have died and their prosperity has declined.  The two oldest sisters are married.  Tsuruko and her husband occupy the “main house” with final authority over family affairs.  Living in Osaka and then Tokyo, they regard preserving the family’s traditional prestige as their chief priority.  Sachiko, her husband and her daughter live in Ashiya, a suburb of Osaka, and have adopted some western habits in their dress and home. They are also concerned about tradition and propriety, but are somewhat more flexible in their demands.  The two younger sisters prefer to live with them than in the main house as they properly should.  Yukiko, the third daughter, is passive and reserved.  Although she is 30, she is still unmarried, in part because her family had rejected possible husbands as unworthy of her.  Now few men are interested in her.  Taeko, the youngest sister, is in some ways the opposite of Yukiko.  She is rebellious, wants to earn money, and associates with men in ways that scandalize her family.  She cannot marry until her sister does.  Family interactions often center on the marriage possibilities for the two single sisters.

Junichiro Tanizaki is considered one of Japan’s most important authors.  He tells the story of the sisters in an epic manner with lots of subplots and luxurious descriptions.  His writing, in translation, resembles that of other world writers of the early and middle twentieth century.  He gives us a look inside the lives of relatively prosperous, aristocratic Japanese families just before the outbreak of World War II.  We witness how their households are run and how servants are treated.  We visit Kyoto to see the cherry blossoms in the spring and observe the family rituals.  Most of all we witness the required steps of arranging a marriage and the ways in which they are modified as the book progresses.   References to the approach of war are muted and indirect.  As Japan’s invasion of China drags on there is some effort to limit lavish displays of wealth and some of their friends in Europe are affected, but the Makioka family continue to focus narrowly on themselves.  The prospect of war and the destruction of all the Makiokas hold dear hangs over the book, making their concerns for decorum and ritual seem even more fragile.

The story that Tanizaki tells is largely a domestic one.  His focus is on his women characters whom he describes with sensitivity.  The husbands are powerful, but that power derives from their connections to the Makioko women.  Sachiko, caught in the middle between her older and younger sisters is particularly well drawn.  Tanizaki is another example of a man capable of writing about women with sensitivity and skill.

The question of loyalty to family versus an individual’s right to choose whom to love and how to shape their lives has appeared in several books I have read recently.  In Dependence and Love like Water are examples of family loyalty preventing marriage with spouses of different races and cultures.  Four Sisters is a different variation on that theme.  I was amazed by the elaborate rituals and investigations that a possible husband had to undergo.  At times the real needs of the man and woman involved seemed irrelevant beside issues of how the family would be regarded by outsiders.  Yet in Tanizaki’s hands, these practices and presumptions are simply part of the cultural world in which his characters live.  They structure what is and is not considered possible, even if they are strikingly different from the world in which I live.

I wholeheartedly recommend this wonderful book to all who love big, international novels, somewhat traditionally written, that dig deeply into characters’ lives and to readers who appreciate sensitive depiction of women by male authors.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 3, 2014 11:42 pm

    Great review Marilyn. I was introduced to this book about 20 years ago when I was living in California and made a good friend – an American who had lived in Japan for several years. It was quite an eye-opener for me, particularly the introduction of non-Japanese people. Japan has always seemed so insular I was surprised that there were other people living there in that post-war period. Silly I know. I loved the discussion of a society at a time of social change. I have gone on to read quite a few Japanese novels but I remember this one with great fondness and would willingly read it again.

  2. March 4, 2014 10:45 pm

    Thanks. Yes, there is much to surprise and educate us in this great book. Do you recommend any other Japanese novels? I have read few of them.

    • March 4, 2014 11:14 pm

      If you are looking at women, I’d particularly recommend Sawako Ariyoshi – The River Ki, The twilight years, and The doctor’s wife. I’ve reviewed the latter, which was her only historical novel I think, but would probably recommend you try the other two. The twilight years is about ageing parents and is a great read as I recollect. But there are so many great Japanese writers. Others I’ve read include Banana Yoshimoto (I’ve read two), Haruki Murakami (I’ve read a few), and Mishima, Kawabata (Nobel Laureate), Kirino (young woman writer). These are the ones that come to mind now but I’ve read a few others, and have quite a few in the pile!

      • March 5, 2014 9:34 am

        Thanks for the suggestions. I will see what I can find.

      • March 5, 2014 3:48 pm

        I’ll be watching out. It’s been 20-22 years since I read The Makioka Sisters and the other two Ariyoshis.

  3. March 5, 2014 6:57 am

    Great review, Marilyn.

  4. aartichapati permalink
    March 9, 2014 11:30 am

    I am going to Japan in May, so I should try to read this one either before I go or while I’m there!

    • March 10, 2014 11:04 am

      Enjoy your trip! This book has some sections of Koyto that might be relevant for it. Overall, it more about the decline of a culture–or social group–that ended with WWII. Lots of symbols of endings–snow melting, etc. that seem to be common. But it is a wonderful book, so I am glad you are planning to read it.


  1. Recommended historical fiction, memoirs, and mysteries by people of color. | Me, you, and books

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