Aug 22, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: Ninth Book Review

The more books I read the more I understand how ignorant I am. That is always a good thing; to recognize a lack in ourselves. And the ninth book I read in the 2016 Reading Challenge showed me how ignorant I am when it comes to Japan, and in particular, Japan immediately prior to WWII.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, published in Japan in 1948 and here in the USA in 1957, fits in the category of a Classic By a Non-White author. It tells the story of four sisters of a once proud and leading merchant family now in decline.

The story centers for the most part on finding a husband for sister number 3, Yukiko, who is in her 30's. Her younger sister, Taeko, affectionately known as Koi-san to her family and friends, is unable to marry until her older sister does so you can imagine the potential issues that can bring.

The family was so prominent that the two older sisters' husbands took their wives' Makioka name at marriage. Needless to say there is a lot of pride wrapped up in that name; some of which is good and some not so much.

Tsuruko is the oldest and married to Tatsuo and somewhat early in the story their family (six children) relocates from Osaka to Tokyo. Tatsuo becomes the official head (main branch) of the family after the death of his wife's father. All members of the extended family are expected to submit to his leadership just as they would to the father. Needless to say this becomes a source of contention now and then.

Sachiko, the second oldest, is married to Teinosuke. They live in Ashiya, a suburb of Osaka along with their young daughter, Etsuko. Somewhat contrary to custom the two unmarried younger sisters live with Sachiko and her family instead of with the main branch family in Tokyo. This also becomes troublesome at times for all concerned.

A number of prospective husbands for Yukiko are introduced to the family, but are found wanting. After all, the family name has to be considered. Yukiko appears to have no mind of her own when it comes to a marriage partner, and will submit to the choice made for her by the family.

Not so with Koi-san. The youngest sister has a mind of her own and the most Westernized of the four. She wears Western clothes, Western make-up, and doesn't always willingly submit to the powers that be as her older sister Yukiko does. And that, of course, has serious consequences for the whole family.

While the book does contain dialogue, obviously, it also frequently uses narrative, condensing the conversations of who said what. In the example below Taeko wants the money that has been put aside by her father, for her wedding (some day) to be given to her now so she can go to France and study to become a seamstress. She wants to be able to support herself without depending on the family. Unfortunately, her brother-in-law, Tatsuo refuses.

When she (Sachiko) showed the letter to Taeko the next day, the results were exactly as she had expected. Takeo said that she was no longer a child, that she did not need the guidance of any Tatsuo, that she understood her affairs better than anyone else. And what was so wrong with a woman who worked? The people in Toyko still worried about family and position, and it seemed to them a disgrace that the Makioka family should produce a seamstress. But was not that ridiculously old-fashioned? She would go herself and explain everything, she would make them see how wrong they were. And she was furious about the money. 

What is condensed in a paragraph could have likely taken several pages to convey in dialogue. And at over 500 pages long I can only imagine how many pages the book could have contained!

What struck me the most about this story was the amount of propriety that is woven throughout Japanese culture. The family is constantly concerned about what others will think, about saving face, about doing the proper thing. Letters are written with such courtesy, so carefully worded, with apologies scattered profusely throughout. Lying, or withholding information, is a matter of course. Openness and honesty are almost always sacrificed to propriety.

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965)
The sisters were very real people. I felt like I came to know them, some better than others. Without a doubt the sister I felt I knew the best was Sachiko the second oldest. So much of the story is seen through her eyes. How I felt for her at times, watching her mind work, trying to balance her words and feelings so as not to give the wrong impression or hurt someone's feelings.

So, was a husband eventually found for Yukiko? And how did Taeko fair in the end? And what about the War? How did it affect the Makioka family? Did they all live happily ever after?

This book is so worth reading. And what a glimpse you will get of the years immediately preceding WWII Japan.  I want to read it again. How many times have I said that in my book reviews?

Another excellent book for your to-be-read stack!


  1. I agree, this was such an interesting book and a fascinating look at pre-WWII Japan.

  2. I kept wondering how the family fared after the bomb was dropped. I'm glad Tanizaki didn't go there! I'd much rather write my own ending in regards to that!

    As I said, I learned so much about Japan and its culture. This one is near the top of my favorites read (so far) this year.

  3. Chiming in to agree. What an interesting book. It's amazing how through the lens of a family story the author gives us so much insight about Japan, and that time in particular.


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