Tag Archives: Japanese fiction

Diary of a Mad Old Man (Tanizaki)


Tanizaki Junichiro was one of the greatest 20th-century Japanese writers—in my opinion greater than the two who won Nobel Prizes for literature and surpassed only by Dazai Osamu as a stylist and as a master of portraying masochistic males dominated by perverse young women. The “mad old man” of his last novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962), Tokusuke, is very lucid in detailing his flirtations with his son’s undemure wife Satsuko, who is neglected by the husband who insisted on marrying so unsuitable a woman (she had been a dancing girl). Like the husband in Tanizaki’s masterpiece The Key, Tokusuke derives vicarious pleasure from aiding Satsuko’s affair with Haruhisa, who is (I think) Tokusuke’s nephew: “Now that I can’t enjoy the thrill myself any more, I can at least have the pleasure of watching someone else risk a love affair. It’s a pitiful thing when a man sinks that low” (58). Satsuko is bored, cooped up in the house with a very proper mother-in-law. The old man’s lusts provide some relief from boredom as well as support of varying kinds for her.

Like many other Tanizaki male characters, Utsugi is a foot fetishist, and Satsuko doles out some access to the adored parts of her anatomy. Some other Tanizaki connoisseurs of women are even more completely destroyed by what they represent as femmes fatales, for instance, Mitsuko in Quicksand . Tokusuke is very aware that he is “more susceptible to a woman with bad character. Occasionally, there are women whose faces reveal a streak of cruelty—they are the ones I like best” (27).

The old man’s deviousness and delight in shocking his nurse, his wife, and even his daughter-in-law are presented plausibly in his diary, along with (considerably less interesting) details about his deteriorating health and various failed treatments for his maladies. There is a problem — also recurrent in Tanizaki’s oeuvre — of narrating the end, after the first-person narrator can no longer narrate and the book rather dribbles out in documents supposedly from other hands that leave the reader unsure whether Tokusuke’s final perverse project succeeded. To me, this is a technical problem of a novel using supposed documents. In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene (who knew Tanizaki and championed his work to American audiences) writes that “the death of the old man was the one subject that Tanizaki could not treat with humor at this stage of his life [1961-62; Tanazaki died in 1965] (p. 780).

Unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s portraits of obsessed males, I am not certain that Tanizaki was aiming for ironic humor. Tokusuke’s stratagems make me laugh, but I have the nagging suspicion that Tanizaki was expecting readers to share his excitement.[1] Given how often foot fetishism appears in Tanizaki’s fiction, it is hard to believe that it is just one metaphor for obsession and not a record of the author’s own obsession. (“One time a philosopher,” Voltaire said of exploring non-normative sexual behavior, “but [from] the second time, a pervert.”)

I guess that in our age of denigrating invention and imagination and insisting on authenticity, on documenting one’s own positionalities and feelings, this may be an advantage. The feelings of veneration for kabuki and regret for the artificiality of Japanese females that was lost to western influences after the First World War are also recurrent Tanizaki themes, and the distaste for modern (post-World War II) Tokyo is certainly Tanizaki’s. Tokusuke chooses a cemetery in Kyoto, and Tanizaki himself moved from the modern to the premodern capital city.

[1] In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene asserts that, like Thomas Mann and William Faulkner, Tanizaki ended his career with “a wonderfully comic work” (p. 779). If it is a satire, it would seem that it can only be a satire of Tanizaki’s own male characters’s unseemly lust-driven masochism.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray





A Cat, a Man, and Two Women (Tanizaki)



The title novella “A cat, a man, and two women” (first published in 1936) is not top-flight Tanizaki. It has many familiar elements: a weak, obsessive male, a very indulgent mother, willful female love objects. The cat Lily is an exceptionally spoiled feline with fur resembling a tortoise shell.

Shozo’s first wife Shinako was jealous that Shozo was more devoted to the cat than to her and decides to ask for the cat for a variety of reasons that do not include liking it. Once she has the cat, however, she comes to dote on it to nearly the extent her ex-husband did. Shozo is very unhappy at having allowed the three women (including his mother) to maneuver the cat away from him, and going to check up on it greatest threat, his second marriage.

He reasons, “he had only been married to Shinako for a total of two and a half years spread over four calendar years. And Fukoko had been in the household barely a month. Naturally, then, it was Lily, with whom he’d lived so long [ten years] who was most intimately bound up with many memories of his; who formed an important part of Shozo’s past” (39).

Aside from the slightness of the plot, and a lack of sympathy for cat worship, and a lack of sympathy for someone who is as easily manipulated (spineless) as Shozo, what I find most disappointing about the novella is the overabundance of explaining. Partly, this is a result of a third-person omniscient narrator in contrast to the alternating first-person narrators of The Key and other Tanizaki novels.

In contrast, the story “The little kingdom” (originally published in 1918) shows rather than tells. Although it definitely takes up Tanizaki’s most basic theme, dominance and submission, this is not eroticized. A charismatic student becomes a (relatively benevolent) dictator of a fifth-grade class, eventually adding the impoverished teacher to his empire. “A cat…” is also unusually (for Tanizaki) explicit about money and its lack. It is not being able to support his large family that drives the teacher (Kajima Shokichi) to submit to the ruling order, which has an elaborate economy of its own redistributing all sorts of goods. Like Robert Musil’s The Young Törless, “The little kingdom” seems to prefigure the mixture of domination by a charismatic leader providing some sort socialism that became widespread after the First World War (in Japan, as in Germany and Russia).

The other story, “Professor Rado” (originally published in 1925 and 1928) shows yet another male masochist eager to be dominated by an adored woman. I prefer it to “A cat…” because it shows rather than explains. A newspaperman comes to interview Professor Rado, who is bored and completely unhelpful. This pushes the interviewer to try to learn more by other means than interrogation. He sees that the arrogant, aloof professor likes to be flogged and worship women’s feet. Later, surprised to find the professor at a musical revue, the reporter is enlisted to supply information about one of the performers. While the narrative is slanted to make the reader sympathetic to the reporter, he ultimately is used, so that the reader can end up feeling superior to both.

Tanizaki was so capable of making the most extreme pursuit of various fetishes seem matter of fact (“natural”), that it is difficult to be sure whether he sees them as martyrs or as comic figures. I guess “comic martyr” is the easy solution, and applies to Shozo as well as to Professor Rado, and perhaps even to Kajima. All are in some ways ridiculous, yet are also sad failures. And the objects of their desires? They, especially Lily, are indifferent to the sufferings of those who love them.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Two Tanizaki novellas


I didn’t enjoy reading what Tanizaki mistakenly thought was Donald Keene’s favorite of his works, The Mother of Captain Shigemoto (1949), though it had an impact by the time I finished. With Keene’s negative feelings for his mother (along with the lack of any evidence of heterosexual desire), it seems very unlikely that he would like best a book in which a mother taken away from the young child is idealized.

There is plenty of self-sacrifice in The Reed Cutter (1932), too, with Oshizu marrying a man so he can be near her sister Ozû (who, as a widow with a young male son, cannot remarry), and him later giving up Ozû (whose son has died) to marry another.

Finding a suitable partner for one’s wife seems a uniquely Japanese concern! It occurs in all three Tanizaki novel(la)s I’ve read (in both The Reed Cutter and The Mother of Captain Shigemoto, it is a wife (de facto in the first instance, de jure in the second) the man adores and continues to love after she is gone.  In The Key (1956), to stimulate his jealousy, the husband gets his wife drunk and throws his physician at her. In Some Prefer Nettles and Oe’s Silent Cry, it is one the man no longer loves. Male jealousy is generally absent in Dazai, too, except the retrospective jealousy about the earlier liaisons of his first wife, the ex-geisha. (I can’t recall men in Mishima novels feeling jealous about their female partners or covertly arranging new liaisons for them, and have only read one Kawabata novel, Snow Country).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray



Some Prefer Nettles (Tanizaki)


Like Tanizaki Junichrio, Kaname, the passive protagonist of his novel Tade kuu Mushi* (Some Prefer Nettles, 1928) was rediscovering the beauties of traditional Japanese culture (especially puppet theater) and waiting to shed a wife who does not excite, or even interest him. Hardly anything happens in the novel (though Tanizaki had been clashing in print with Akutagawa Ryûnosuke as an advocate for plot being necessary in fiction along with mood).

Kaname, the stand-in for the author, has gone through a period of fascination with the modern West and ignoring Japanese tradition(s), is not even certain that he wants her to leave (Tanizaki did not shed his first wife for another two years.) Kaname comes to realize he wants a doll rather than a “modern” wife with a mind of her own. As he is retreating from modernization (to seeking the most patriarchal kinds of domination), Misako is continuing on the road to the modern West Kaname increasingly doubts.

His son and his father-in-law learn of the planned divorce. The son doesn’t react; the father-in-law tries to force Misako to end the affair her husband has condoned and return to her wifely duties, starting with fidelity. Her father also guides Kaname’s burgeoning interest in traditional Japanese art forms, especially puppet theater.

I wouldn’t say that any character, including Kaname, “develops.” He drifts, while everyone remains true to type (and probably he is just a less familiar type, who “in an excess of pain at being unable to love her as a husband should, had only nursed a prayer, almost a dream, that someone might come along to give the luckless woman what he himself could not” (p. 100). For the older generation, in contrast, “ his father-in-law recalls that “sometimes for five years at a stretch I never went near her [his wife]. But she just assumed that was the way things were, and there was no problem” (p. 188)). I consider the novel an interesting cultural document and don’t find the near stasis boring. It was published closer to the Tokugawa shogunate than to the present, and more of the old ways have eroded (or were bombed during the war).


The ambivalence to the Modern Woman (ca. the 1920s) and quest for the Eternal Feminine, Nippon-brand (eien josei) continues from Chijin No Ai (Naomi). Kaname is not as masochistic as Joji in that 1924 novel and does not exhibit the recurrent foot fetishism in Tanizaki’s male idealizers of the Eternal Feminine.

At the beginning he is trying to find the “dirty” parts of Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights, which is “Western” in the sense of being from west of Japan, but in Burton’s hands is Western orientalism. In that sense A Thousand and One Nights is, I guess, part of English culture. The topsy-turvy Occidentalism is also evident in the prostitute who calls herself Louise and purports to be Turkish, but is half-Russian and half-Korean (a hybrid).

Misako agrees (way in advance!) with Takemitsu’s characterization of his own music as having no bass line: “Japanese music was simple and one-threaded.” (p. 35)

* The title translates more directly as “Insects that eat Tade.” Tade is a bitter vegetable. Though I’m not sure whether it is traditional Japan or the modern West that is tade, the title clearly indicates that tastes differ, and not only for insects in choosing what to eat, but for men in what to venerate.


Tanizaki’s breakout success: Naomi


Tanizaki Junichiro’s breakthrough (to popularity in Japan) novel Chijin no Ai (A Fool’s Love , though Naomi is the current English title) was originally serialized in 1924-25. Imperial censors interrupted the serialization. What concerned them about the story is not what most American readers now will find unsettling. That they were concerned about the portrayal of western-style (cheek-to-cheek) dancing seems quite quaint.

What will make many American readers now queasy about the book is the quasi-incestuousness of the primary relationship portrayed. The book begins in 1918 with Joji, a salaryman in his late 20s, who is going to inherit land when his mother dies, finding a fifteen-year-old waitress whose name sounds like the Western name of Naomi. Her family (mother and brother) are less-than-successful parts of “the floating world” that caters to the pleasures of men like Joji.

The family has no objection to Naomi going to serve as a live-in maid to an unmarried man. She is a sort of living doll for him to play with. He dresses her up and pays for her piano and English lessons. As the bud he carefully selected blossoms, he bathes her and becomes, um, shall we say “intimate” with her delicate feet. They secretly marry, and Joji indulges Naomi’s increasingly expensive demands for clothes (which she never washes; she also orders food, being unwilling even to boil rice). Most fatefully, he also agrees to accompany her to dancing classes (the teacher is Russian; I’m surprised that her “European” prestige is not compromised by the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905 or the collapse of the old regime in 1918).

Through her classes, Naomi meets a number of young men of her own age and, we eventually learn, becomes intimate with them in more conventional — that is to say, genital — ways. Joji is very slow to realize that many bees are pollinating the flower he has so carefully grown. He blows up, expels her from their playhouse, and realizes he cannot live without his slatternly, promiscuous wife. “Bad breeding will out” is his interpretation — very much in the tradition of naturalism and eugenics of the turn of the last century.

Apparently, Naomi was a model of the “modern girl” moga for many Japanese. She was certainly free of domestic responsibilities and indulged by her husband. It would be hard to argue that she is any more self-indulgent than Joji is (pampered by his trusting mother). He is far from being a model of maturity or good sense, either. His pleasures may be less vulgar than hers, but such fetishism following upon what could be argued is heterosexual pederasty is not inspiring. He is not a monster of perversity, just a somewhat affluent man able to wallow in a masochistic relationship with a shallow, greedy younger woman who looked like Mary Pickford and acted out a flapper version of “free love.

From the fascination with the nymphet’s name on, there are many similarities to Nabokov’s Lolita, written more than three decades later. Especially given the recurrence in later Tanizaki work of the masochism and foot-fetishism (and attempts to mold younger, poorer women, most notably in Some Prefer Nettles, as well as his earlier story “The tattoo artist” and slightly later story “Professor Rado” from A Cat, a Man, and Two Women), I am less sure that Tanizaki’s intent was comic/satiric than I am that Nabokov was pursuing that. Naomi is older when she catches Joji’s eye than Lolita is when she catches Humbert Humbert’s. And Joji is younger than Humbert Humbert. Moreover, fifteen was not as young in Japan between the world wars as it is in post-WWII American conception. Naomi had a job in the floating world; she was not a schoolgirl.

Intercourse with Lolita and Naomi seems less important than ownership and connoisseurship for Humbert and Joji. Both men fail miserably at owning their young beloveds. Both appear ridiculous in the excess of their fascination with the young women. Lolita and Naomi have simpler pleasures and do not take Humbert and Joji nearly as seriously as the men take themselves and their passion.

In the current climate of panic about “child abuse,” some will be eager to cast Lolita and Naomi as victims. Suspicion about the reliability of the older male narrators is certainly justified, but Nabokov and Tanizaki portray the male lovers as more innocent than what appear to be healthier as well as younger “partners” with simpler tastes, including sexual partners nearer their own age. Naomi is certainly “spoiled” as a conventional Japanese housewife and mother, but being one was not in her pre-Joji fate. She does not seem to me to have been harmed by the perverse devotions of the man who more or less bought her, and there is no doubt that she ends up dominating him. Only his total surrender keeps her around at all. Joji certainly does not destroy Naomi. It might be argued that she does not destroy him, but his pampering and ogling her destroys his career, burns through his inheritance, and destroys his self-esteem. (Some other Tanizaki connoisures of women are even more completely destroyed by what they portray as femmes fatales, for instance, Mitsuko in Quicksand),

The text is leanly written, though it provokes wondering about the reliability of its narrator. The style is not at all florid, even if the subject matter is flowering! Tanizaki was a great prose master.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

(The photo of Tanizaki dates from 1913)

Dazai’s “Almanac of Pain,” et al.

A political memoir from Dazai Osamu! I find it hard to comprehend the kind of young communist he could have been, and “Almanac of Pain” could serve as the title for his collected work. It is hard to imagine how it can be a story either, lacking plot, and other characters. It is not lacking for aphorisms, however. Nor is it lacking humor (self-deprecating humor, of course).

I thought he was challenging (in advance) Keene’s claim for him as a social historian of defeated Japan: “I am a writer of the marketplace. What I speak bout remains within the purview of the history of the one little individual called ‘me’” [and various other names!], but he turns to make a claim similar to what I think Keene meant (exemplification of the spirit of the time, not documentation of details of typical behavior or attitude): “but in later ages when the time comes to investigate our current of thought, it may be that these personal fragmentary descriptions of our [!] lives that we are always writing will be more reliable than the writings of so-called historians” (in “An almanac of pain,” [1946] Lyons tr., p. 263).

A statement of the leitmotif of strong women and a weak Dazai follows, as he notes the women in the family long outlive their husbands, and that sons-in-law had to keep marrying in (the previous three generations).


I read Blue Bamboo, with more Dazai stories, mostly reworkings from the war years. Along with translator Ralph McCarthy, I wish that he had written more Irie family serial stories. I prefer Dazai frivolity to self-laceration. I wish that love conquered all and that we all lived happily ever after.


Dazai says something that recalled Mislosz’s statement about the domesticity of European “scenery” in contrast to the inhuman scale of western North America:“Scenery is something that has been gazed at and described by people through a long passage of years, that has been, as it were, tasted by human eyes, softened and tamed by human beings.” (from Return to Tsugaru (1944), p. 331). In contrast “this seacoast at the northernmost end of Honshu was nothing at all like scenery. It totally rejected human existence” and is “simply frightening… This was the dead end of Honshu” (p. 332). This seems to be the Taiwanese conception, too. Sun-Moon Lake or the dawn above the clouds from Ali-Shan—or the Golden Gate Bridge… In “100 views of Mt. Fuji,” Dazai sought an unhackneyed experience of the most famous site in Japan, though he eventually came to appreciate what everyone else does. There seems to me some load of reverence in the way people from Taiwan and from Indonesia (and elsewhere, but these are the two I’ve experienced most recently) use “famous” for a professor or a school: as if the judgment was supernatural, not a product of the repetition of people’s words.

Dazai stories (Lyons)


I prefer Dazai’s stories to his novels. They are less bleak, a lot more playful, and wittier (I prefer frivolity: dancing on the edge of the volcano instead of fretting about it; or in his own words, “a grim determination in the artist hinders his performance”, 1945, p. 204). I still don’t see imagination in the grand creating ex nihilo sense, but plenty of it at the level of making old stories and his own experiences interesting to readers. I especially enjoyed “Taking the wen away,” one of the four stories from Otogi Zôshi and “The mound of the monkey’s grave” an elaboration of a Saikaku’s tale. There’s plenty of destructive pride even in characters that are not autobiographical (shishôsetsuka).



I agree with James O’Brien (or Phyllis Lyons, whom he may be paraphrasing in his introduction to the Cornell selected stories, The Saga of Dazai Osamu) that Dazai created a “permeable self” that “invites reader participation (especially with the writer obtrudes from folk tales he was recasting!)—in laughing at and grieving with the tears of the clown, who knows that people often come to undeserved grief “(p. 206). Dazai wanted to be the Japanese Raymond Radiguet (brash), but he more closely resembled the pathos of  Paul Verlaine—as Dazai himself recognized.



I also ran down Donald Keene’s 1956 anthology Modern Japanese Literature to read “Villon’s wife” (‘Villon no Tsuma,” 1947). Like The Setting Sun, it has a strong female survivor (and a weak, dissolute male, the standard “Osamu” character, here “Otani”) who drinks excessively, runs up debts, and has affairs with other women. Rape barely registers. She has other problems, including caring for their retarded son, but by the end is making money of (The fifteenth-century Parisian vagabond poet in the story title is only a analogy or a prototype, based on misinformation or misinterpretation of François Villon by Dazai.) Dazai has her saying that it is alright to be a monster, “along as we can stay alive.” (It’s all wrong, but it’s all right?)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray