Thursday, July 15, 2010

'The Makioka Sisters' Book One - Discussion (JLit Read-along)


Welcome to the Japanese Literature Read-along discussion of Book One of The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki. In the Vintage paperback, Book One takes us from the beginning up to page 150. 

About the author
Junichiro TanizakiJunichiro Tanizaki was born in Tokyo in 1886. He began his literary career in 1909, which was followed by the publication of several stories, and a brief career in Japanese silent cinema. His reputation grew when he moved to Kyoto after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. Most of his well-known books, at least in the West, came from this time. He was awarded the Order of Culture by the Japanese government in 1949 and in 1964 was elected to honorary membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the first Japanese writer to be so honoured.  He is considered "one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature, and perhaps the most popular Japanese novelist after Natsume Sōseki."  He died in 1965 at the age of 79.

*Factual information and image courtesy of Wikipedia

About the book
The Makioka SistersThe Makioka Sisters, was originally published serially from 1943-1948 as 細雪 (Sasameyuki), which literally means "light snow".
From the back cover:
In Osaka in the years immediately before World War II, four aristocratic women try to preserve a way of life that is vanishing.  As told by Junichiro Tanizaki, the story of the Makioka sisters forms what is arguably the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century, a poignant yet unsparing portrait of a family - and an entire society - sliding into the abyss of modernity.

Tsuruko, the eldest sister, clings obstinately to the prestige of her family name even as her husband prepares to move their household to Tokyo, where that name means nothing.  Sachiko compromises valiantly to secure the future of her younger sisters.  The unmarried Yukiko is a hostage to her family's exacting standards, while the spirited Taeko rebels by flinging herself into scandalous romantic alliances.  Filled with vignettes of upper-class Japanese life and capturing both the decorum and the heartache of the protagonists, The Makioka Sisters is a classic of international literature.
Vocabulary and Cultural Context
These links provide further explanation or illustration of some of the cultural or other references that I thought might enhance your reading of the book.  (Click on the links for more information.  Page numbers refer to the Vintage International paperback, ISBN: 0679761640)

"I almost forgot." She looked up. "I feel a little shot on 'B.' Would you tell Yukiko, please?"
Beri-beri was in the air of this Kobe-Osaka district, and every year from summer into autumn the whole family - Sachiko and her husband and sisters and Etsuko, who had just started school - came down with it. The vitamin injection had become a family institution. They no longer went to a doctor, but instead kept a supply of concentrated vitamins on hand and ministered to each other with complete unconcern. (p. 5)

Beri-beri is caused by a lack of thiamine, B1, and was very common in Asia, where polished white rice was, and still is, the everyday staple food.

tatami mats
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Taeko had at first had a six-mat Japanese room, but recently she had moved into larger quarters... (p. 16)

The mat refers to the traditional woven straw tatami mats typically used as flooring. Japanese rooms are still measured in mats, or the unit of "jo" (one "jo" equals one mat), regardless if they actually have tatami flooring or not. So, for example, when we were looking at apartments last year, all the listings would describe each room by "jo" and the total "jo" even though it's quite common now for modern apartments and houses to have just one tatami room.
"Jo" conversion chart

In addition to the complications we have already described, however, yet another fact operated to Yukiko's disadvantage: she had been born in a bad year. In Tokyo the Year of the Horse is sometimes unlucky for women. In Osaka, on the other hand, it is the Year of the Ram that keeps a girl from finding a husband. Especially in the old Osaka merchant class, men fear taking a bride born in the Year of the Ram. (p. 18)

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

"We had koto lessons when we were children, and lately I've been thinking I would like to learn again. Sometimes I take the koto out to see what I still remember. My youngest sister has started taking dancing lessons, you know, and I have any number of chances to hear the koto." (p. 45)

Teinosuke had laughed when, on their honeymoon in the Hakone mountains south of Tokyo, he asked Sachiko what her favorite fish was and learned that is was the sea bream. The sea bream was far too ordinary a fish to have for a favorite. Sachiko said, however, that the sea bream, both in appearance and in taste, was the most Japanese of all fist, and that a Japanese who did not like sea bream was simply not a Japanese. (p. 85)
(Click the link for pictures and Japanese-style cooking suggestions for sea bream.)

Teinosuke preferred not to be too deeply involved in domestic problems, and particularly with regard to Etsuko's upbringing he was of the view that matters might best be left to his wife. Lately, however, with the outbreak of the China Incident, he had become conscious of the need to train strong, reliant women, women able to support the man behind the gun. (p. 118)

A hina doll display for the Doll Festival
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Etsuko was back from school. The long-awaited telegram was brought in as her mother and O-haru were helping arrange her festival dolls.
It was the practice in Osaka to celebrate the Doll Festival in April, a month later than in Tokyo, but this year they were bringing the dolls out a month ahead of time. They had heard some four or five days earlier that Yukiko would be coming. (p. 126)

"It is amazing how quickly children take to the language of a place. I noticed even when I was in Tokyo last November. They had been there no more than two or three months, and they all had the most beautiful Tokyo accents. The younger they were the better the accents."
"I suppose Tsuruko is too old to learn," said Sachiko.
"Much too old. And besides, she has no intention of learning. All the passengers on the bus turn and stare when she breaks out with her Osaka accent, but she never seems to mind. She lets them stare. And sometimes someone says, 'That Osaka accent isn't bad at all.'" (p. 129)

Discussion Questions
The questions below are simply a guide to get the discussion going. Feel free to pick and choose, and answer those ones that interest you. Plus if you have any other questions or thoughts on the book, please don't hesitate to bring them up. For anyone who hasn't yet read the book, please be warned that the questions and comments may contain spoilers, so please proceed at your own risk!

What do you think of the story so far?
How about the translation?  Does it read smoothly?
Are the characters believable?  Could you relate to any of them in any way?  Who is your favourite character so far?  
Do you have a favourite scene or passage from Book One?
How do you feel about arranged marriage? Were you surprised at how thoroughly both families were investigated during the negotiations?
What did you think of the miai (o-miai) that took place? And the formality of the proceedings? 
Was there anything (else) that surprised you?  
What do you think Tanizaki is saying about the move toward Westernization in Japan at the time the story is set, prior to WWII?
Is the setting important?  Did you feel you were experiencing the time and place in which the book was set?
Are you looking forward to reading Book Two?  Where do you think the story will go from here?
[Your question here]

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, whether you're reading along with us or have read the book previously.  If you have completed the book though, please be considerate to those who haven't regarding spoilers for Book Two and Three.

Also, just a reminder that we'll be looking at Book Two of The Makioka Sisters on August 15th. Please refer to the Japanese Literature Read-along page for additional information, and please feel free to email me if you have any questions.

The Makioka Sisters has been reviewed by:
chasing bawa
Rebecca Reads
Shelf Life
The Reading Life
In Spring it is the Dawn (I first read it in 2007, this is my earlier review.)
If you've also reviewed this book, let me know and I'll link to it here.


The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission.  For more information please visit my About Page. 


  1. So, of course I'm running behind and haven't finished Book 1 yet but once I have I shall check back. I appreciate the comprehensive background, overview and Japanese-English dictionary.

  2. Claire - No worries, I read most of Book One yesterday before posting. It's quite a quick read, or at least I find it so. I hope you enjoy it and I look forward to hearing your thoughts when you get a chance.

  3. This is a re-read for me and I only read it for the first time about 3 years ago, but I'm enjoying it just as much as I did the first time around. Even though I remember the general storyline, I've forgotten many of the little details and it's such fun to read about these sisters again. In some ways not a whole lot happens but I love all the descriptions and details. I think Tanizaki did a great job describing the relationships and various personalities of the characters to paint a realistic portrait of this family. And I so want to go back to Kyoto! Perhaps in spring to see the cherry blossoms at Heian Jingu. :)

  4. I'm a few pages behind. But I'll get back to this. Looks like a comprehensive background.

  5. What a beautiful job of reviewing Book One! I think Tanizaki did a wonderful job of portraying the social and familial pressures influencing the sisters, as well as the struggle between traditional and western values.

  6. Hi, Inspringthedawn, this is Owl.
    SPOILERS in this comment!

    As you said, story is very realistic.
    I like details very much.

    Sachiko wishes Yukiko's husbands-to-be
    not necessarily handsome but at least
    looks "not so old". Sachiko would be
    ashamed if the bridesgroom looks
    too old looking at the wedding
    in front of other relatives
    because she is arranging marriage for Yukiko.
    Sachiko's feeling is so "everyday life"
    and "realistic".
    I am reading this book in Japanese,
    so, I do not know if my English is good
    enough to portray this part.

    Nothing much happens
    in this story and not necessarily
    a happy ending like Jane Austen's
    story. But every time I reread this
    story, I have a feeling that
    "I know them"

    You seems to feel the same way
    about the sisters, so I think,
    although this story is very Japanese,
    in a way, but has something universal.

    Here is a little episode showing its
    I read Haruki Murakami was recommended
    this book by a publisher in US.
    Murakami said that he has already read
    this book, and the publisher said
    "oh yes you are Japanese and this book
    is originally written in Japapanese, I forgot about that"

  7. Done with Book One! Here are my replies on selected discussion questions. But first, thanks for organizing such a splendid, beautiful read.

    Story: Reading Makioka, I can’t help but compare this novel to Chekhov’s brilliant play, The Three Sisters. Both are dominated by female characters. And I’m becoming convinced that the two works share the same theme.

    Translation: I don’t read Japanese but Edward G. Seidensticker’s prose versions are quite straightforward. I’ve read previously his version of Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles and a few stories by Mishima. It’s amazing how he was able to supply different styles for the two writers. In Makioka, I’m assuming that the rough edges and abrupt transitions in the writing can be attributed to the idiosyncratic style of the book.

    Characters: Just one-third into the book and I feel Tanizaki already introduced rounded portraits of the four sisters. He imbues each character with signature quirks that makes them recognizable and interesting. My favorite is Yukiko even if she appears to be passive the whole time. The story’s conflicts revolve around her and every character’s actions seem to be a reaction to her predicament.

    Favorite scene: The farewell scene at the train when the “main house” left Osaka for Tokyo is very moving, with a whole retinue of society who still revere the Makioka name bidding them good bye.

    Arranged marriages and the miai: Really surprising how the finer points of arranging marriage are portrayed in the book. On the one hand, I can see the logic of why these things must be done (to find a really good match), but then the way personal feelings and privacy are given short shrift are really rude.

    Other observations: I’m surprised that a husband may drop his surname and adopt that of his wife for the prestige of the wife’s family name. Does this still happen even today?

    The first part of Makioka is already an eye-opener, in terms of presenting a bygone era whose values have since changed, and yet the temperaments of characters, their desires and what motivates them, are still not far from that of the modern person's. I look forward to the Book Two.

  8. Oh thanks for the little factoids! I know so little about Japan.

    I can't really comment because I've finished the book and can't remember where each section ended! I'll comment on the last post about the book...

  9. This book is on my TBR. I am bookmarking this post to refer back to when I finally get the chance to read it. Thanks for all of the information.

  10. :(( Not joining in this time even though I had bought the book just for this occasion!

    I needed a change of palate because I got stuck in The Pillow Book and some other (Dutch) non-fiction book about Japan, and my reading pace had decreased to less than zero.

    So. No chance of catching up in time but thanks to you all I will read the book eventually! And I hope to join in for next read-along and/or book group read :)


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