A Dance with Tradition: The Makioka Sisters

Posted December 9, 2016 by Lory in reviews / 30 Comments

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1943)

makiokasistersI’m not very well-versed in world literature, and when I do read works in translation they tend to be from Europe. But I really want to do something about that, and as I looked for great novels from other continents to broaden my horizons, The Makioka Sisters kept coming up. As I started reading, it struck me as a strange mixture of familiar and foreign; the family of sisters, the marriage-centered plot, the importance placed on family and social class, all invited comparison to the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. But though the story is set in the 1930s, not the 1800s, these Japanese sisters are even more heavily bound by centuries of tradition than Austen’s heroines, who at least are allowed to marry for love.

The central dilemma is simply stated: of the four sisters, the older two are married, the youngest is champing at the bit, but the third sister has been unable to find a husband, and custom dictates that she must marry before her younger sister does. The proud but no longer prosperous Makiokas started out by rejecting candidates as unsuitable, but as Takiko ages she undergoes the humiliation of being the one rejected, and her next-oldest and closest sister, Sachiko, suffers with her. Takiko doesn’t protest the system of arranged marriage (unlike the youngest, Taeko, who is starting to cause scandal and unrest with her unconventional behavior), but stoically goes through the rituals of presentation and withdrawal, approach and retreat, as the years pass.

In spite of the superficial similarities there’s not a trace of Austen’s wit and humor here, or of Trollope’s biting satire, unless I’m missing something that was lost in translation. Instead, we have a narrative painstakingly constructed of small domestic details and everyday routines, with the occasional lyrical passage that evokes the Japanese sense of beauty: the annual cherry blossom pilgrimage, a firefly hunt in the country, a set of poems written to an absent sister. There are some major upheavals, including a devastating flood that really did hit Osaka, but mostly there are just small hopes and disappointments, a round of ordinary concerns that some might find dull, others true-to-life. (It’s telling that we are able almost to forget the impending war, as the characters themselves seem to do, seldom referring to it except in brief comments about “the China problem.”)

The iron-clad tradition of the order of marriage is only one of the customs that define the sisters and their world. There are also lucky days and unlucky years that must be taken into account, funeral observances, subtle variations of dress, makeup and hairstyle, the finer points of arts like calligraphy and dance, and much more. To a western mindset, it feels extremely confining, but is also fascinating in its elaborate attention to rules and rituals. In my ignorance before starting the novel I had assumed the author was a woman — but Tanizaki’s gender doesn’t prevent him from creating a highly convincing and finely observed picture of a very feminine world. By the end, I felt as though I had truly experienced something of what it meant to be a Japanese woman in that time and place.

The contrast between traditional Osaka, where the Makiokas have their roots, and the brash new urban center of Tokyo, where the elder branch of the family has been obliged to relocate, is a major preoccupation for the Japanese that is somewhat lost on the outsider; the translator has to tell us when Osaka dialect is being used, for example, while a native reader would be able to simply experience the difference. One can’t help regretting the inability to appreciate such facets of the original language, but also appreciating how much Tanizaki in translation is able to convey the essence of Japan and its people.

Classics Club List #32
Japanese Literature Challenge
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation

A Dance with Tradition: The Makioka SistersThe Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
Published by Everyman's Library in 1993 (originally 1943)
Format: Hardcover from Library

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30 responses to “A Dance with Tradition: The Makioka Sisters

    • I only heard of it recently — one of those books that gets talked about on multiple blogs and so makes its way into my consciousness. I love that about blogging!

  1. I read and reviewed this back at the beginning of the year. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a quiet book but it was fascinating to learn all the details of life in that time. I have read the comparison to Jane Austen before but I agree with you; while both write about family and marriage The Makioka Sisters is not as witty as Austen’s novels. I did appreciate the look into a culture and community I know little about.

    • I had missed your review somehow — nice to read your thoughts. It was interesting to know that the Japanese suppressed it during the war because it was too “effeminate”! What a comment that is in itself.

  2. It’s interesting when books (or movies) become so focused on detail that the outside world falls away. The traditions are so ancient that it could be the 1700s or the 1930s.
    If you are interested, I recommend a film called “Raise the Red Lantern” set in 1920s China, but could be 300 years earlier. A wealthy lord has several wives and they must learn the subtle constraints of life in his castle. There is also a dark secret, but I won’t ruin it for you!

    • I think I saw “Raise the Red Lantern” when it came out, but I should watch it again. Yes, these enclosed worlds can be so fascinating.

  3. I believe I have heard of this, though I don’t know where. Could it have been made into a film? In any case, your excellent review really makes it sound a totally absorbing examination of a very different way of life.

    • It was made into a Japanese film that’s available from the Criterion Collection. Putting it in my queue — I would love to see the visuals.

  4. I read this a few years ago too! What struck me was how SLOW everything was. It takes days to think about a letter and hours to write it. Everything is like that!

  5. I read this book a few years ago because a good friend recommended it to me. I agree, the Jane Austen comparison isn’t accurate. Not that I have read him, but if one had to make a comparison, I would go with Thomas Hardy because while there are beautiful descriptions of the environs, much of the story is pretty tragic.

    I am not well versed in non-western literature either. In fact, this is still the only book by a Japanese author I have ever read!

    • Hardy is an interesting one to compare. In my recollection his novels are more expansive and dramatic than this one, which is so very domestic. But the tragic elements, and the characters who seem hopelessly constricted by their fate, do seem to give them something in common.

  6. I’ve liked most of the Japanese fiction I’ve read, especially Murakami and Yoshimoto, but I haven’t read this author before. This is a book I’d like to try. It sounds interesting. And I loved your review of it! 🙂

    • I liked A Wild Sheep Chase, but I’ve yet to read any other Murakami. IQ84 was on my list for a while but I gave it up as too huge and intimidating.

      • 1Q84 has been on my list forever and I haven’t read it yet for those same reasons: too big and intimidating. 🙂 But I’m really hoping to give a try this next year. Wish me luck!

  7. This is very insightful commentary.

    I also need to read more non – Western literature.

    I appreciate the comparison to Austen and Trollope. It is interesting to compare different authors as well as different cultures.

  8. I’ve meant to read this book for many years, but I still haven’t gotten to it. It’s interesting that you mention Austen and Trollope in your review, as I can see how all three of these authors write about the times and culture in which they live, with their own distinctive style, of course. Thanks for reviewing it, and leaving me a link to the Japanese Literature Challenge to which I have added your post.

    • With your love for Japanese literature, I think this is a must-read. Hope you get to it soon, and thank you for the challenge that helped push me to read it.

  9. Kat

    Oh, I do want to read this now! I have long meant to read this and have it on my shelf. Japanese lit is so different, and I wish I knew more about the culture.

    • You will learn a lot about Japanese culture and society from this book. What is especially fascinating is to see how it started intersecting with Western culture in that era.

  10. As I write this I am currently on a bullet train from Hakodate to Sendai, one week into a six week Japanese adventure, so this review couldn’t have come at a more apt time! We’ve been learning a great deal about the rigors of Japanese customs and expectations – mostly by blundering right through them despite our best efforts… thankfully there is a prevailing notion that foreigners are foreigners, so we are forgiven a lot!

    • What a wonderful adventure! One of the many aspects of the book I wasn’t able to go into was the presence of foreigners – German, English, and Russian – who befriend the Japanese and gave an interesting counterpoint to their culture.

  11. I love that you are trying to read more non-European classics. This one has an interesting premise, but I’m not sure how it will hold my interest with the small details and routines. This seems like a good leisurely read though – to pick up for a chapter or so before bedtime. Great review!

    • It did take me a long time to read and I got a bit bogged down in the middle. But it picked up again toward the end. I hope you might give it a try!

  12. I love world literature and enjoy a lot Japanese books, but so far I have resisted this one, not sure why. Maybe when I try a second round of 50 classics with the Classic Club! By the way, to help you with World Literature, I highly recommend you read Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers, the fruit of her reading and blogging adventure of reading one book per country. Fascinating

  13. I think this sounds beautiful and found your description of the daily details beautiful to read by itself. I know this sort of story might bore some people, but I’ve been enjoying books that capture daily life in a way that feels real to me.

    • If you can’t take a sloooooow pace, this book is definitely not for you. I’m curious to watch the movie and see how they compressed it into a feature film length. And I would like to read some other Japanese authors too. Hope you can find something to enjoy!