Japanese Love

Anthony Thwaite

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) is rightly regarded as one of the handful of 20th-century Japanese novelists whose work has to be seen as of universal and not just Japanese interest. One can, indeed, number them quickly: Tanizaki’s senior, Soseki; his contemporary, Kawabata; his juniors, Endo, Abe and Mishima. This is to leave out too many writers, I know: but the rest can generally be classed under other headings – the pathologically interesting, such as Dazai; the producers of one powerful novel, such as Osaragi (Homecoming) or Ooka (Fires on the Plain); or those who qualify through a sense of potential rather than actual worldwide achievement, such as Oe. The women novelists – Uno, Ariyoshi, ‘Banana’ and many others – have not broken through to an audience outside Japan.

One frequent stereotype concerning Japan is that it is a man’s world, as much as, if not more than, the world of Islam. But a few moments’ thought should begin to correct this. From the 11th century of Lady Murasaki and Sei Shonagon (that is to say, from the birth of the novel as a literary form), women not only had a central place as commentators on the world: they also put men conspicuously in their place. The Tale of Genji is full of cleareyed – even beady-eyed – views of the foibles, follies, vanities and sillinesses of men. Even when one admits that the writings of these ladies of the ancient court were ‘secret’, not fully intended for anything one could call publication, an obvious rejoinder is: so was the fiction of the young Jane Austen.

Tanizaki, in a curious sense, can be seen as a surrogate woman novelist. He sometimes wrote as a woman: to take one example only in The Key, where much of the novel is taken up with the alternating diary of the ostensible novelist’s wife. But that isn’t quite my point. Tanizaki was feminine in his close regard for detail, particularly of dress, and his male characters are at best shadowy and passive, at most times weak and contemptible. It is the women, from the early story ‘The Tattooer’ (1910) to Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962), who really control things.

Tanizaki’s memoir, Childhood Years (Yosho Jidai), first appeared in serial form in the important literary magazine Bungei Shunju in 1955-1956, when Tanizaki was approaching the age of seventy. By then, he was already considered the greatest novelist in Japan. Not only that, but he was seen as a writer who had kept his hands totally clean from an ideological point of view. Throughout the inflamed years of Showa nationalism and the war, he had had nothing to do with the easy options of chauvinism and patriotic noise. He had actually been prevented from publishing his masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters: its first two instalments appeared in periodical form in 1943, in the other great literary magazine, Chuo Koron, but the Army decided that it gave too pre-war a view of things, was too slow-moving, frivolous and gossipy and forbade the editors to proceed. Tanizaki withdrew from the whole conflict, literary and military, and worked in isolation, refusing to publish.

From the beginning, Tanizaki grew up in a world dominated by women. He was the son of an amiable, perpetually failing businessman/shopkeeper, whose family fortune dribbled away in a succession of hopeless ventures in the Shitamachi (‘low city’) area of Tokyo. But Tanizaki’s mother was an altogether more formidable figure. She was small, determined and very beautiful, with a ‘whiteness’ in her beauty which established for the rest of Tanizaki’s life the ideal by which female beauty should be judged. ‘And it was not only her face: the flesh of her thighs was so marvellously white and delicate that many times when we were taking a bath together, I would find myself looking at her body in amazement.’ Tanizaki’s grandmother used to tell him that he suckled at his mother’s breasts until he was six or so – and even now one sees young children in Japan going for comfort to the breast several years beyond the age of weaning in Europe or America. In The Bridge of Dreams (1959), the young man of 18 sucks at his stepmother’s breast.

Such details from the childhood memoirs give a factual basis to the obsessive and morbid eroticism of Tanizaki’s early and late works. His career began with literary devotion to models outside Japan, including Baudelaire, Wilde and most of all, Poe. There is a good deal of self-conscious decadence in early Tanizaki, often involving dominant and cruel women to whom feeble men are in thrall. Then, after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923, Tanizaki moved away from the ruined city of Tokyo and went to live in the Kansai (the Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe area), discovering the interest in the traditional arts – particularly the theatre, and above all Kabuki and the Bunraku puppets – which sustained him for the rest of his life. During this middle period he wrote his finest novels, from Some prefer nettles (1929) to The Makioka Sisters. These mature works are wonderfully confident portraits of high bourgeois life in pre-Second World War Japan – and in them women are not only dominant, it is as if they are the very ears and eyes of the books. Then, in the later stories, the fetishism is at the centre, with the men grovellingly ready to be humiliated by their disdainful females.

Even more than the devotion to his mother, and the importance to him in his childhood of such women as his aunts and the female foreign teachers who mysteriously lived together, the emphatic lesson of the memoirs is Tanizaki’s fond yearning for the past. Certain houses ‘may be inconvenient, as is often said, but they remind me of the old days, and I love them for it’. Of sacred dances at the Shinto shrines he writes, ‘I find myself longing to experience once more the atmosphere of those performances on a long, slow spring day’; of a Kabuki performance seen in his forties, ‘it brought back distant echoes of Danjuro’s performance. At the same time, I seemed to see the figure of my mother leaning close and whispering in my ear the meaning of what was happening on the stage; and I felt a helpless yearning for those days so long and so irretrievably gone.’

But along with this strong sense of what the Japanese call mono no aware, the poignant inevitability of the passing of things, there is an equally strong sense of robustness and reality. Tanizaki is very good on the comic details of schools, schoolboys and schoolmasters, on plays and players, and particularly acute (without in any way being sentimental or tendentious) about his first awakened literary feelings. Tanizaki doesn’t say so, but he was a student literary prodigy, breaking into the most prestigious magazines while he was still at Tokyo University: he never graduated, because the family money ran out, but he had already made his mark in the literary world.

Childhood Years is a most attractive introduction to Tanizaki for those who have never read his fiction: it ought to lead on quite naturally to Some prefer nettles and The Makioka Sisters. By the time he wrote the book he had achieved so much, and stood so clear above the ruck, that he could write with the total ease that comes from self-confidence. And it has none of the heavy-breathing prurience he was to exercise shortly in Diary of a Mad Old Man.

The prolific Saikaku (1642-93) was equally self-confident. The first wholly professional writer in Japanese literary history, he poured out vast quantities of work – at first verse, then prose – at a time when a big new urban audience, keen to read, and new printing techniques, coincided; and the result was a popular bourgeois literature. Such Saikaku selections as Ivan Morris’s Life of an Amorous Woman and G. W. Sargent’s The Japanese Family Storehouse have been known for a long time in the West, and have led Saikaku to be thought of as a sort of Japanese Defoe. Paul Gordon Schalow’s labours in translating and introducing The Great Mirror of Male Love reveal a rather different Saikaku. This book is a collection of 40 short stories ‘depicting homosexual love relations between adult men and adolescent boys in 17th-century Japan’. According to Professor Schalow, ‘Saikaku sought to belittle the connoisseur of female love and thereby entertain a male audience that got reading pleasure from seeing boy love elevated.’ What this seems to amount to is that Saikaku, a thorough professional, opportunistically cashed in on a currently fashionable vogue for both samurai and Buddhist idealised chivalric homoerotic devotion to boys, crossed with a more everyday appetite for rent-boys who were associated with the Kabuki theatre.

The result totally lacks anything that could be called ‘heavy-breathing prurience’: Saikaku’s sexual world is nothing like Tanizaki’s. The most entertaining bits come very early on, in a list headed ‘Which is to be preferred’:

A girl of eleven or twelve scrutinising herself in a mirror, or a boy of the same age cleaning his teeth? Lying rejected next to a courtesan, or conversing intimately with a kabuki boy who is suffering from haemorrhoids?

Caring for a wife with tuberculosis, or keeping a youth who constantly demands spending money? Having lightning strike the room where you are enjoying a boy actor you bought, or being handed a razor by a courtesan you hardly know who asks you to die with her?

And so on, with another 19 such posers. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the collection has to rely for its interest on Professor Schalow’s learned and scrupulous notes, such as that ‘Sumata was a technique of intercrural (between the thighs) copulation that produced the sensation of intercourse without allowing actual penetration. Apparently used only rarely in Japan, it was the preferred method of intercourse between men and boys in Classical Greece.’

Professor Schalow, in his introduction, states: ‘I have entirely avoided using culturally loaded vocabulary such as gay, straight, sodomy, sodomite, pederast, catamite, and heterosexual or homosexual (as states of being). These are all perfectly good words, but they do not seem appropriate in a cross-cultural, historical context because they can be misleading, describing Japanese reality in terms that distort it.’ I have to admit that, in spite of my admiration for much of Saikaku’s work, what Professor Schalow has chosen to call The Great Mirror of Male Love has proved hard going for me. I kept on remembering a fugitive poem by D. J. Enright entitled ‘The Conspectus of Sodomites’, which takes a more charitable view, and in which Enright recalls ‘yet another cocktail party’. The poem ends:

My respects, Saikaku-san –
Your titles alone are better than a tube of aspirin,
your sad and naughty persons quite accountable.
Thanks to you, I stand on fairly solid ground again.