Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Tanizaki is considered one of the foremost Japanese writers. I had originally intended to read The Makioka Sisters, which is considered his best - or at least most popular work. However, I ended up with this collection of short stories and novellas. Probably because I felt I was due for a short story collection, and it looked interesting. In any case, the seven tales are unique enough, I will adopt my past approach of discussing each separately.

The stories range from 1910 (“The Tattooer”) to 1959 (The Bridge of Dreams), so they represent the full sweep of Tanizaki’s career. They also cover both of his most “signature” of themes: destructive sexual obsession and the difficulty of adapting to social change.

Tanizaki lived from 1886 to 1965, a time of significant change in Japan - and indeed around the world. A generation before his birth, Japan had gone from an insular, isolationist, and feudal state to one reluctantly engaged with the outside world. Concurrently with this change, the patchwork feudal rule of the shoguns gave way to a more modern, centralized government, one which would eventually adopt the colonialist mindset of the European states of the Victorian Era.

While my knowledge of Japanese culture is pretty limited, one thing that has struck me from what I have read is the tendency to sublimate anxiety and distress into both rigid social formality and a form of sexual disfunction. (Google “imaginary girlfriends in Japan” if you want to go down just one rabbit hole. Or, if you are really brave, read Seth Stevenson’s bit on the Japanese Id.)  Even the cartoons aimed at children have some interesting psychological implications. I’ll just mention Castle in the Sky, which is ample proof that Japan is very much not over being the only victim of nuclear weapons. (To be fair, the US has its own issue which it is definitely not over, and about which we Americans - particularly white Evangelicals - are in deep denial, namely slavery and the Civil War.)

That said, these stories are (even in translation) an intriguing window into a culture which is both recognizably human, and significantly different from our own.

A Portrait of Shunkin

I’m not sure whether to call this a short story or a novella. It is a bit long to be a short story, and it has a longer narrative arc than one would expect from that genre. But it is still pretty short, so it feels almost too brief to really be a novella.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator researching the life of Shunkin, a blind musician and teacher, whose unorthodox relationship with her servant and lover illustrates the old ideas of one’s place in society.

As a little girl, Shunkin becomes blind. Because she belongs to a wealthy family, she is coddled and given every advantage. Sasuke is a little older, but he is from a lower class, a son of a merchant. The two apparently fall in love - although the way she treats him seems too cruel for love. (The cruel and beautiful woman is a common character in Tanizaki.) However, because of the class difference, they refuse to marry. They have several children together - which are sent for adoption and never acknowledged. Yet they live in a weird relationship limbo. Clearly, they are lovers, in a way. And yet, outside the privacy of the bedroom, they maintain the appearance of master and servant. He remains as deferent and humiliated as ever, while she appears appropriately dominant and imperial.

I won’t give away the twist at the end, but the degree of devotion that Sasuke has is truly astounding.

This story is intriguing both for the cultural aspect and for the tension between social hierarchy and sexual frisson. By the time Tanizaki wrote this, the old social roles were already breaking down, and a marriage between the two would have been more possible - and far less “humiliating.” Even in the time where the story is set, a marriage would have been possible - Shunkin’s parents attempt to convince the two to marry. But they themselves find it unthinkable.

Tanizaki makes the whole question even more ambiguous by his narrative choice. The scholar is attempting to piece together the truth, acknowledging that his main source is, of necessity, the biography that Sasuke wrote of Shunkin. This work is so clearly biased, it is really a hagiography of Shunkin, and doesn’t ever give Sasuke himself the slightest credit. The narrator has to rely on other sources as to the truth of Sasuke’s own musical genius. There are multiple perspectives, therefore, and one must - like the narrator - attempt to piece together the truth - or at least something like the truth - from the information available.

I am inclined to think that this is the best of the stories for that reason, but that is no knock on the others.


This one is clearly a short story, as it is a mere ten pages. It is a look inside the head of a man who has an irrational terror of trains and other engine-driven forms of transportation. It is therefore the most “modern” setting of these stories, although it is also one of the earliest. (1913) In some ways, it is almost like the nightmare version of Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The narrator of this story isn’t escaping the dull reality of his life into exciting fantasy. Instead, he keeps slipping into the horror of an inescapable nightmare, the only result of which will be death. Even drunkenness cannot dull the terror enough for him to function. It’s a lot contained in a short space, but it is quite effective.

The Bridge of Dreams

This is another novella-length story. It is also a truly bizarre and disturbing tale with a strong resemblance to Oedipus. The narrator’s father loses his wife and then marries a woman who seems to be an almost exact replacement for his first wife - and expects his son to treat her as such. And then, it is strongly implied, take his father’s place after his death.

Along the way, there are extended descriptions of older Japanese traditions, from the “water mortar” to the tea ceremony, to the idyllic life on a garden estate. 

It is the juxtaposition of the idyll and the memories of childhood with the creepy (and mostly implied, rather than stated) quasi-sexual incestuous relationship that makes the story so disturbing.

“The Tattooer”

This is another short story, one of the earliest of Tanizaki’s works. The titular character is a true craftsman in the art of Japanese tattoos (I flipped through a book on this during a visit earlier this year to the Japanese American National Museum. It’s an interesting art form.)

In this story, the artist is obsessed with finding the perfect female body on which to display his finest art. When he finds her, he drugs her and tattoos her while she is unconscious. When she awakes, she tells him, “Giving me your soul must have made me very beautiful.”

Another story that is pretty disturbing on a certain level. It isn’t just the rape metaphor, but the way that she indeed embraces the sucking of his soul as she becomes the femme fatale he imagines - or perceives - her to be. In a bare minimum of words, Tanizaki draws you in, and then messes with your head. Outstanding writing, discomfiting result.

“The Thief”

This is another story which messes with one’s head. But perhaps in a less lurid manner. The narrator is a boy at a boarding school. He is the one from the poor family who feels he doesn’t fit in, but desperately wants to. Someone at the school has been stealing things, and the narrator’s nemesis seems to imply it is the narrator. The narrator claims innocence, but seems to feel guilt at merely being suspected. Eventually, internalizes this guilt to the point that he becomes a thief. Or was he the thief all along? It is unclear. This is another glimpse into the honor culture of Japan (and most other feudal societies), where shame is the great motivator, and it better to die by one’s own hand than to feel the weight of disgrace.


Another short story about a neurotic individual. Okada is a reasonably well-off man who has taken on a courtesan as his girlfriend. His obsession with her has led to him neglecting his own health (including what is probably diabetes). As he fades, he tries ever more to make her fulfil his fantasies of her. She is presumably a typically shallow girl, happy to be spoiled by her sugar daddy. In any case, she says little to nothing, and is as much window dressing in this story. His imagination of her as some transcendent being mixes with his fear of his own death - and excuses his own contribution to his decline.

One interesting cultural bit is the way that Okada wishes to see Aguri dressed in “Western” clothing, which - to him at least - reveals the sensuousness of her body in a way that traditional Japanese dress does not. Considering that this was written in 1922, and set in the pre-war decades, it is hard not to feel amused. Particularly when one considers that the Japanese fashions of the same time period were considered sensual to Western sensibilities. I guess the lure of the “exotic” is erotic, regardless of the specifics.

A Blind Man’s Tale

This one is a true novella, telling of an entire sequence of events, and the history of a particular feudal dynasty. In fact, this tale is historical fiction, a retelling of the history of Japan in the 1500s, when Oda Nobunaga initiated the unification of Japan during the Sengoku period

The titular “blind man” is the blind servant who tells the tale, late in his life, after just about everyone else involved has been murdered, committed suicide, or died in battle.

I strongly suspect that this story would have been more thrilling had I known the history - or better yet, known the history as that of my own country and thus personally identified with it. Since I was unfamiliar with the events, and had a hard time really caring who all the characters were, I found it a bit tedious at times. On the other hand, this story is an intriguing look into the realities of the feudalism of the times, and the tenuous hold that power had on its domains - and even life itself.

It was jarring to read of the need for each of the defeated parties to commit ritual suicide when defeat was imminent. And even worse to see the brutality which followed. An example early in the story is when the victor tricks the wife of the defeated into revealing the location of her infant son. The heir is summarily whacked, and his head varnished and displayed on a stake. Ah, the good old days…

The other notable reality of life in those times (and feudal times in general) is that peace was an anomaly. At best, it lasted for a few years, but alliances crumbled, nobody trusted anyone, and preemptive murder was pretty much the winning strategy all around. Honor culture, battle glory, and senseless brutality all around. But “men were men” in those days, right?

I am definitely interested in reading The Makioka Sisters now. Tanizaki’s writing is compelling and delightfully descriptive, if a bit disturbing at times. These stories opened a unique world, where the familiar and the exotic come together much like the past and present in Tanizaki’s own world.

Musical note:

Two traditional Japanese instruments regularly appear in these stories. The first is the koto, which is considered (according to Tanizaki) to be the more mainstream, easier instrument. It is what all the upper class women are expected to be able to play. In contrast, the samisen is considered finicky, difficult, and something that only the true musician can master. As such, this instrument is played by both men and women, wealthy and poor, in the stories. It is used to communicate secret codes, express the inexpressible, and distinguish between the merely charming and those who hold deep wells of expression.

One might draw the Western equivalent of the piano and the violin. (I’m totally prejudiced here, of course!) The Victorian young woman of class was expected to know her way around the piano enough to sing and entertain others. But few would take the time and effort to become a true string virtuoso. But, like in the case of the koto and samisen, the true master of either the piano or the strings transcends the stereotype of the instrument - a fact of which Tanizaki was well aware, as evidenced by the prominent role music plays in his stories.

A couple of things about the koto: first, it is related to a number of similar instruments common throughout Asia. My first exposure to one of these was at a phenomenal Thai restaurant in the Thai Town section of Los Angeles. http://thaipatio.menutoeat.com/ (Best Tom Yum Gai anywhere…) One evening there, a young lady played this instrument, demonstrating its ability to play tunes of every genre, Eastern and Western.

The other bit I wanted to mention was our visit this year to Manzanar, one of the internment camps we shipped Japanese Americans to during World War II. (I hope to blog about this at some point.) They have a beautiful koto there, as an example of what a few prisoners took to the camp.

Anyway, here are some examples of each instrument.


  1. Also a bit like the difference between the piano and the organ. Both keyboard instruments, but VASTLY different, and one is played by a lot of people and the other, not so many. Thought the analogy kinda breaks down if you know your way around the organ world, because there's a huge difference between true organ artists and the average employed church organist (who might just be a pianist who got stuck on the instrument because the congregation was too cheap to pay a real organist and/or doesn't understand the difference between organ and piano anyway).

    Why the huge picks/plectra for the samisen? When the video first started I thought they were playing them with paintbrushes…

    1. The plectorum is part of the technique. It's called a bachi, and was traditionally made from tortoise shell or ivory (although endangered species laws have made synthetics necessary as a substitute for some species). The strings were originally made of silk, which clearly wore out fast, another reason it might be considered a rich-person's instrument. The body of the instrument has a head, like a banjo, which was traditionally made from the skin of a cat.

      The creative use of the bachi to create a wide variety of sounds is one of the goals of a samisen master.

      In contrast, the koto is played with finger picks similar to those used by some guitarists. (Although the one time I heard it live, the musician chose bare fingers, for a more mellow sound.)

    2. The difference between a real organist and a pianist filling in is pretty significant, I agree. We have a fairly active group of organists in our city (a couple years back, we actually hosted the regional conference of the American Guild of Organists, which meant some amazing free public concerts) A friend of mine also participates in a couple of annual organ concert series (for Advent and Lent) hosted by local churches. We have some sweet pipe organs here, and it really is amazing to see what a true craftsman can do. :)