The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book One

I never expected to be so enchanted with The Makioka Sisters. Every year, it seems, someone participating in the Japanese Literature Challenge either reads it, or mentions it, and yet I have not begun it until this year. Surely this is one of the ways that blogging enriches our reading: by sharing what we have read with one another.

In Book One we are introduced to the four sisters, and I must confess that at first I had some trouble keeping them straight. There is the eldest, Tsuruko, who manages the family’s main house in Osaka since their father’s death. Sachiko is the second eldest, a married woman with a daughter named Etsuko, with whom the two youngest sisters prefer to live in Ashiya. The third daughter is Yukiko, the one who must marry before her younger sister, Taeko can marry. However, it is proving to be quite a difficulty to find Yukiko a husband. Already, by the close of Book I, two suitors have been dismissed; the first, for having a mother with dementia (does insanity run in the family?), the second for being too old.

I enjoy the mood Tanizaki creates, reminding me of the quiet elegance in Japan which I so adore, and in which my American self so sorely stood out. (Even though I tried to be subdued.) Consider this passage about the sisters viewing the cherry blossoms, for which they have specially dressed:

And so, coming back from the western suburbs on the afternoon of the second day, and picking that moment of regret when the spring sun was about to set, they would pause, a little tired under the trailing branches, and look fondly at each tree – on around the lake, by the approach to a bridge, by a bend in the path, under the eaves of the gallery. And, until the cherries came the following year, they could close their eyes and see again the color and line of a trailing branch.

“…picking that moment of regret when the spring sun was about to set…” I love that phrase! It even reminds me of Guerlain’s perfume, L’Heure Bleu, describing the moment of a Parisian day when dusk is beginning at “the blue hour.” There is so much atmosphere, in my mind, that Tanizaki is able to convey.

I felt, while I was reading, no small amount of frustration with Yukiko. At first, I figured she was just being demure. She would cast her eyes down, and remain silent, during the attempts at her marriage arrangements. But, at the end of Book I, I had a sense that she was getting exactly what she wants. Does she even want to be married? Perhaps she is happy with her life as it is, being favored aunt of Etsuko, living comfortably with her sisters who seem to take care of her emotionally and physically.

“She keeps quiet and has everything her way,” said Sachiko. “Wait and see how she manages her husband.” (p. 150)

Are you as taken by the novel as I am? By the nuances of daily life, by the overly polite conversations between Itani, the hair-dresser/marriage arranger, and the Makioka sisters? Are you sensing a downfall imminent for them all? I am curious as to how your reading is going, and I wonder if you have felt any of the things I mentioned here, or have questions of your own?

Until March 17, then, when we talk about Book II.

24 thoughts on “The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book One

  1. I absolutely agree with your sentiments about this novel so far, Meredith! I was rather intimidated by its size initially, but I was so quickly and unexpectedly immersed in Tanizaki’s world. Even when he describes the most uneventful and ordinary of events, it’s such a delight to read. Maybe it’s the translation, but I also felt that this novel resembled many Western classics in tone and ambience, which I haven’t really felt for any other Japanese classic I’ve read so far. Thank you for organising this readalong, as I don’t think I would’ve picked it up so soon otherwise! (I’ll probably post my thoughts after I finish the novel, but I’m looking forward to those weekly discussions all the same)

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    • How sweet of you to join in, Akylina, and even better that you are enjoying this novel! I have long heard of it, but never read it, and I must say I agree with your comparison to some Western classics. (At one point, it even reminded me of Buddenbrooks, by Mann, in that it is a family story, and a family that perhaps could be perceive as being in decline). Thank you for participating, again, and I lo forward to what your thoughts may be as we progress.🇯🇵🥰

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  2. Hi Meredith. Thanks to a recommendation from Michael Orthofer at his blog The Complete Review over a year ago I discovered your Japanese Reading Challenge and have been following you ever since. I love the Japanese, and I think it’s great that you’ve been running this challenge every year. I took up the Makioka Sisters in earnest when I saw that you made it a Read-along for this month, so if you don’t mind, I’d like to add to the talk?

    Like yourself, initially, I couldn’t keep all the names straight. But once I sorted out all the personalities, with their attractions and peculiarities, wow, what an outstanding Book One…

    I’m actually not that frustrated with Yukiko. In fact, I find her highly sympathetic. It definitely seems like she’s the soul of this book, and I find it fascinating that Tanizaki has made her the focus of the family fortunes (judging from Book One alone, at least). The two older sisters have the great responsibility of carrying on the family legacy through the main and branch houses. The oldest Tsuruko seems more willing to be the matriarch of her own family, encouraging her husband’s ambitions at the bank, rather than keep the Makiokas tied to the Osaka tradition. Sachiko is beautiful, talented, yet she entirely lacks leadership abilities – even with her own daughter. Taeko, the youngest, is freest among the four sisters from responsibility – and accordingly, is the most free-spirited in attitude and vision.

    That leaves us dear Yukiko. In one of the earliest chapters, she was described as the strongest of the sisters. But her sense of deference toward the family legacy makes her seem passive, indecisive, the source of all the family troubles. In Chapter 6, Sachiko is described as being the father’s favorite. It sounds like she never wanted the responsibility. “She was in fact quite undependable… The center of her father’s attention when the Makioka family had been at its most prosperous, she even now had something of the spoiled child about her.” Meanwhile, Yukiko “had never been seriously ill.” And yet her life – who she will marry – has been placed in the hands of her two older sisters who aren’t really in the position to make judgments, as they continue to make bad choices for her throughout Book One.

    I think it’s significant that when asked about the marriage proposals, especially when they fail, Yukiko remains silent. That tells me she respects the family tradition, but has strong opinions she keeps to herself in order not to disrupt the very thing that holds them all together. A very classic Japanese response. Use one’s intelligence and wait things out instead of yelling and screaming and going to extremes.

    What confuses me – does it confuse you? – is what exactly is the Makioka legacy? Did their father’s business dissolve when he died? Are the sisters in charge of the business, but others are running it for them? It sounds like the legacy is held only in property now, but I don’t know. That would answer a lot, I think. If they’re only holding onto property now, it’s probably that they’re all dying to go their own way. I hope the later books can answer this question for us.

    Apologies if this post was too long, but I don’t have a blog of my own. Thanks for inspiring this read.

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    • Stephen, welcome! I am so glad that you are participating in this read-along, and that you have written a most excellent, insightful, thoughtful comment. One of your sentences (“But her sense of deference toward the family legacy makes her seem passive, indecisive, the source of all the family troubles.”) is perhaps precisely why I get frustrated with her. And yet, I can see passivity and indecision in my own life, especially when I was younger as I would do anything to hold our family together. I guess I wish she could find her voice, or at least not be run over, and yet the more I think about it, the more I see she is where she wants to be. She actually “says” a lot by keeping silent. Also, that seems to be a very traditional Japanese way: silent and demure. It certainly has its honorable points.

      As to the legacy, from what I can tell, in losing both of their parents, the sisters are struggling not only to keep the financial position strong, they want to keep the family name as one held in high esteem. This says a lot about pride, I think, more than money. They have rejected several suitors because the men are not “quality” enough, and then what happens when the suitors dry up?

      Please do not feel that your comment/post was too long. If only we could all be sitting around the table together, chatting comfortably about this novel. It is slow, to be sure, but I enjoyed it so very much. (I have finished it because my attentions were pulled to the Booker International Prize for which I am reading in a shadow jury with several other bloggers; the short list is announced April 2, so we have 13 books to finish before then!😳) I really look forward to continuing the discussion here, and in the other four posts I have scheduled. (One for each book, and one for the conclusion.) Thank you for participating.

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  3. I failed in my first attempt to read this several years ago–too much drama in life at the time. Now I am thoroughly enjoying it. I, too, had trouble keeping the sisters straight–I keep flipping back to the list at the front. I’m glad you are hosting this read-along for it is getting me to read a book I have put off and am now somewhat in love with!

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    • I am glad to know that I was not the only one flipping back and forth to keep the sisters straight. And to think I have had no trouble with lengthy Russian tomes in the past! It is wonderful that you are thoroughly enjoying it now. Isn’t it true that the right book has to come at the right time; if there is upheaval in our personal lives, or hectic feelings, that is not the time to read a slow book. As I said to Stephen above, I am so glad that you are joining in with us and giving this a chance. How wonderful it will be to continue talking about together through March.

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  4. I think much of the confusion is just that I am not familiar with Japanese names. I notice so many times Japanese characters have names like “Kako” (much like Indian men are often “Vikram”–the “make sense” phonetically to mono-lingual Americans! I do like that this is an older book and so it DOES have that list. Too often today, family trees, maps, etc that made huge books so enjoyable to me in the past, have been left out apprently to try to keep costs down. I’d pay more to have them.

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    • I understand that this novel is quite a time commitment, not easily done for many people. Thank you for reading the post(s), and I do hope you may find time for it at some time in the future. I found it a lovely, lovely Japanese novel. And, you did such justice to The Pillow Book! 🙂

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  5. ‘Are you as taken by the novel as I am?’
    In a word: yes! Thank you so much for the encouragement to read it, I am really enjoying the story so far.
    I especially like Sachiko and Teinosuke’s relationship, loved them writing lines together on the same page at different times, and how he feels about the sisters, as when he writes about them viewing the cherry blossoms together. Then they all sit down to write some more poetry to Yukiko when she’s away at the other house. If only there was more communal poetry writing in day to day Japanese life…
    I’m fascinated by the marriage arrangements, as my partner’s grandparents had something similar – they were introduced by someone who knew them and thought they would make a good match, and they did! I think some people wish this system still existed to take the uncertainty out of dating but it really makes such demands of the brothers-in-law being responsible for the younger sisters in place of their father. I also thought poor Sachiko had a weight on her shoulders, as she ends up rushing around when she’s very sick because she doesn’t want to let the matchmaker down.
    I loved the foreign neighbours and the Russians, there was a line about Katharina being so ‘gentle and ladylike in her manner’ that it’s easy for her to be friendly with Japanese women, which made me wonder if I’m meeting the required standard of decorum!
    Most of all I loved the way that they are all to different degrees caught between the modern and traditional aspects of Japanese life and navigating that in their own ways. Taeko is almost completely modern, she seems to be anticipating what must be coming better than the others by trying to be self-sufficient and make clothes instead of dolls. But then she also studies and performs the traditional dance that is seen as a bit old-fashioned compared to the Tokyo ways.
    The Tokyo v Osaka rivalry made me chuckle as that seems to be a constant, Sachiko dropping her Osaka accent in ‘company’ or Tsuruko feeling bereft at having to go and live in Shibuya away from the main house, all raised a smile.
    I am sorry I have written an epic comment as well, but it is wonderful to enjoy reading something and share it with others who are doing the same. Thanks again for hosting the read-along and looking forward to Books II and III.

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    • I am so glad you like it, too! I was also struck by the letter writing, the beauty of the sisters each thinking of the perfect verse and writing it down in brush lettering. I saw the beautiful brush stores while in Tokyo (brushes for everything! Cleaning, and make up and calligraphy; I bought one for my face, and a nail brush for my dad, but now I wish I had bought one for lettering/painting). Writing letters by hand is a forgotten art, one which I cherish deeply. I was one of the few teachers who even taught cursive, and the letters I have from my grandparents/parents/husband are deeply cherished for me. Wow! I surely got off topic of the sisters here! Sorry…

      I have great respect for the arranged marriages. I can understand perfectly why your grandparents were so happy being together; the ‘friend’ who knew them was probably able to see them so objectively and know that they were well suited. Several Indian parents of children I taught had arranged marriages, and they were so happy. And, look at Americans: completely unable, so often, to stay together for even a decade.

      The weight Sachiko has on her shoulder only seems to become more burdensome as the novel progresses. I was quite surprised that she and her husband accepted so much responsibility for her younger sister.

      As for a ‘gentle and ladylike’ manner, I know I failed that personally while in Japan! I tried so hard to be quiet, to be demure, but sometimes the Italian part of my nature comes out in a laugh which is much too loud. I am sure you are much better than I was!

      It is wonderful to read about the culture then, the traditional clothes/kimonos, and dances, and cherry blossom viewing, and even back to the letter writing we first mentioned. I just loved this book, and I am so glad you are sharing it with me.

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  6. “Are you as taken by the novel as I am?” In a word, no.
    It is so slow … Been reading all weekend, and have only made it page 100. I will finish part 1, but then I’m going to read something else. Will pick up part two next weekend. Hopefully something will change.

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    • Lizzy, I am sorry it is not working for you. Sometimes, a slow book is just not what we need. I know that usually, after I finish all the Booker International Prize long listed books, I need a “piece of trash” in terms of a lighter novel which requires little contemplation. Please do not feel obligated, of course, to continue. This may not be the right time to read it. I know my mother found it quite slow, but she came to enjoy it. If it doesn’t pick up for you, perhaps another time it will.

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  7. Pingback: The Makioka Sisters Read-along for March | Dolce Bellezza

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