J-Lit Giants: 4 – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

It’s time to praise another of those J-Lit Giants, and I’m especially happy to introduce today’s writer.  He’s a man who straddles both sides of the Kanto-Kansai divide and a writer who, while unwilling to write conventional endings, is very interested in what his characters get up to in the bedroom…

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, born in 1886, is one of the most popular and well-known modern Japanese writers.  He was born in Tokyo and spent most of his young adult life writing for newspapers and magazines, with moderate success.  At this time he had a great interest in all things western, even moving to Yokohama, where there were more foreigners than in Tokyo.

However, it wasn’t until he moved to Kyoto, after the 1923 earthquake in the Tokyo region, that his writing became more widely noticed.  His move to the Kansai region brought about a rediscovery of traditional Japanese culture, and this translated into a different style of writing, one in which his characters attempt to return to their cultural roots.  This was a way for Tanizaki to work through his own feelings about the way modern Japan was developing.

Anyone who has read works by Tanizaki will probably agree though that another theme which pervades his work is eroticism – put more bluntly, sex.  Many of his more famous works are relatively explicit and utterly compelling.  Again, there is more than a hint of the writer’s own life in these tangled relationships (although his novels are definitely fiction…).  Tanizaki repeatedly attempts to examine the conflict between the need to keep up a show for outsiders while a marriage is falling apart, often because of differing sexual needs.


Tanizaki’s work can be quite accessible, but at the same time a little unfamiliar.  Perhaps more so than usual, his works seldom have a conventional ending, leaving the (western) reader stranded and confused.  He believed that if he described his characters well enough, there was no need to spoon-feed the readers with an ending.  This is writing for those who are prepared to draw their own conclusions 🙂

My three Tanizaki books to start with are:

1) Quicksand – This is a fast-paced psychological, erotic novel, one which twists and turns, amazing the reader both with its unexpectedly risqué storyline and its continual developments.  New readers will enjoy a slightly stronger emphasis on plot than can be the case with Tanizaki.

2) Some Prefer Nettles – The writer’s twin obsessions of relationships and the Kanto-Kansai divide are both present here in a short psychological work, detailing the disintegration of a marriage.  This is a work which definitely falls into the ambiguous-ending category 😉

3) The Makioka Sisters – Generally regarded as Tanizaki’s classic, The Makioka Sisters is a fairly long novel for J-Lit, running to close to 500 pages.  It follows three sisters living in Osaka as they attempt to balance their family responsibilities with their own wishes and a changing society.

Does this sound like your kind of writer?  If so, why not give him a try soon?  I’m sure that some of you out there will be able to recommend several other Tanizaki works to start with too.  Comments in the usual place, please 🙂


About Tony

Championing the wonders of fiction in translation... ...but quietly (the kids are asleep...).
This entry was posted in J-Lit Giants. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to J-Lit Giants: 4 – Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

  1. Bellezza says:

    I have been wanting to read Some Prefer Nettles and The Makioka Sisters for quite some time. Your post high listing their author only strengthened that desire; also, I'm intrigued about his writing of eroticism. The Japanese seem to do that, as well as create an aura of darkness or mystery, especially well. I've been doing a very poor job of reading in this genre both for your challenge and my own. Part if it is that school consumes me (such a different job than it ever was) and my emotions are also caught up in sending my son off to the military on Monday. However, I'm sure I'll continue to read Japanese literature long after January ends. Thanks for these great posts, Tony.


  2. Tony says:

    Bellezza – No worries 😉 Hopefully you'll be able to get back to it once things quieten down for you. I'd definitely recommend Tanizaki, and any of the three above would be good reading 🙂


  3. A great writer, another book worth reading is “The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi” which is a perfect reflection of his style & obviously everyone reading him must find space in their life for In Praise of Shadows his nonfiction piece of Japanese culture & aesthetics.


  4. Tony says:

    Gary – 'In Praise of Shadows' is one that I'll be getting to at some point – in fact, as there aren't too many in English I haven't already got… 😉


  5. JoV says:

    If I were to read another Tanizaki, I would read Makioka Sisters. I thought Quicksand was too duplicitous!


  6. Ally says:

    I haven't read any book by Tanizaki, but today Haruli Murakami turns 64, so I am having a lovely day reading “Kafka on the shore” 🙂 maybe we should do this next year, have the 12th of January dedicated to his work 🙂


  7. Tony says:

    Jo – That's what makes it so good 🙂

    I need to reread 'The Makioka Sisters' – I definitely didn't appreciate it as much as I should have done first time around.


  8. Tony says:

    Ally – I only became aware of that today, but that's a good idea. Nice to see people are already thinking about next year less than two weeks into this year's event 😉


  9. Ally says:

    Ok, that is Haruki :)) As for my addictions, I can be pretty obsessed :))


  10. mel u says:

    I love the work of Tanizaki-One of his most erotic works is Naomi-


  11. Tony says:

    Mel – That's not one I've tried, but I'm sure I'll get to it at some point 🙂


  12. Ally says:

    I just realized that I read “The Key” and did not enjoy it very much, it was quite frustrating… My, I guess I am getting older, forgetting what books I have read 🙂


  13. Tony says:

    Ally – Of all the Tanizaki I've read, that was my least favourite – a pale imitation of some of his other works.


  14. mee says:

    I've read Tanizaki's the Key and liked it, makes me want to read more of his works. Interesting that you mentioned above that it's a pale imitation of his better works. I guess I could see why, because the Key is such a short book. I have Quicksand on my shelf, and hope to get to that this year, possibly no time this January though :(.


  15. Tony says:

    Mee – I read 'The Key' after 'Quicksand', and it was a little too similar in its themes (and not as absorbing). I'd definitely recommend getting around to 'Quicksand' when you can 🙂


  16. tanabata says:

    I love The Makioka Sisters but it's the only Tanizaki story I've read so far and I really need to read more. I do have a few already on my shelf so hopefully it will be sooner than later.


  17. Tony says:

    Tanabata – Time to dust them off them 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.