The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Final Discussion

Hopefully, by now, all of us who set out to read this book have finished, for there are so many intriguing things to discuss. I am setting forth some questions that occurred to me as I read, to which I do not readily have a clear answer. I would relish an opinion from you should you care to respond to any, or all, of them listed below. Let us begin…

…(the family’s) habit of leaving everything to others led to a reputation of haughtiness. (p. 404)

Do you think the Makioka family is haughty? Or, is their concern for their sister’s future simply careful?

Do you think the sisters support, or hinder, one another?

What could the dark spot above Yukiko’s eye, which sometimes is evident and other times not, represent?

Is Yukiko’s reluctance to give direct answers to the marriage arrangements which have been made for her merely shyness? Or, is there another reason she is so reluctant to enter marriage?

To which of the sisters do you most closely identify?

I do not wish to leave my answers here. Instead, I would far rather read your opinions and respond to them in the comments section below. And, may I thank you each one, for the opportunity of reading this classic piece of literature together. I relished each page and comment.

The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Three

By the very end of Book II, Itakura has died; we know, at the very least that Taeko will not end up with him. But, the focus has already shifted back to Yukiko, and we see yet another attempt at finding a suitor for her as Book III opens.

It is around this theme, finding a suitable husband for Yukiko, that the whole novel has revolved. Within this context, we see the closeness of the sisters, and their disappointments. We see the trouble Taeko brings, and although she is much loved, surely she cannot be an easy sister to manage.

In Book III, Taeko becomes deathly ill with an intestinal catarrh, or dysentery, or could it even be gonorrhea? She stays with Okubata, even though she does not love him, and while visiting her sister there, Sachiko discovers what the two have been doing for money. It seems that Taeko and Okubata have had no qualms about stealing jewels from his family’s store, and selling them not only for daily expenses, but for great luxuries.

Eventually Taeko does overcome this illness, though I feared she may not, and attention returns to Yukiko’s future. A suitor is found once more, and through more polite machinations than I can even begin to describe, arrangements are made for her marriage. It seems a very well grounded one, but before the wedding can take place, two unsettling things happen.

The first is that Taeko has been found to be with child. She is sent off with the maid, O-haru, to live in secret. Has she no thought of what this situation could do to hamper Yukiko’s marriage arrangements still in the making? Then, worst of all, the baby dies at birth due to the doctor’s unintentional negligence. Taeko returns to live with the baby’s father, ironically leaving the home before Yukiko does, after all.

And Yukiko? This quiet, extremely shy sister finally agrees to the wedding, which we the reader never see. We are left with the knowledge that she has diarrhea, and no joy about the arrival of her wedding kimonos. Instead, she sighs, and responds to her sisters’ questions with a verse:

On clothes I’ve wasted

Another good day.

Weddings, I find,

are not always gay.

There is so much to think about within the pages of this novel. I do not have a sister, let alone three, and I have not experienced the dynamics of their relationship personally. But, I am most intrigued by the strength of one, the selfishness of another, and the emotional reservedness of a third. Let us discuss these things in a week, as we wrap up the read-along, giving time, I hope, for all who were reading to complete the novel.


The Makioka Sisters Read-along: Book Two

a066bc10-6f18-4f66-b701-678b2eeff1aeBook Two begins with the awareness that Okubata’s favor is resting lightly on Taeko’s heart. Whereas once they had tried to elope together, and created a scandal which even the newspaper picked up, now their relationship seems significantly cooled, at least on Taeko’s part. She tells her sisters that she wishes to learn sewing, to study in France, and thus have the skills required to support herself if necessary. This does not sit well with the oldest sister and her husband, living in the main house now in Tokyo; they feel that Taeko is being too “modern”. Why does she need a job?

Also, early in Book II, there comes a description of a most terrifying flood, which I read about with great trepidation. I was fearful for Etsuko away at school, Taeko away from home at her sewing class, and Teinsuke out searching for them while his wife, Sachiko, waits for news at home. But, who should be instrumental in saving Taeko? None other than the photographer Itakura, and surely it is more than mere coincidence that caused him to pass by the building she was in as the flood waters rose.

Yukiko’s story, involving the search to find her a suitable husband, is not as dominant in Book II. Instead, the focus is on Taeko, who has not had the advantages her elder sisters had while their father was alive. Neither does Taeko seem to act appropriately: she does not sit with her legs folded under her; she does not pour the tea, as the youngest sister ought; she searches out a career, and yearns to go to Paris. Most concerning of all, to her elder sisters, is her desire to pursue marriage with Itakura. Her former lover, Okubata, has acted deceitfully in the teahouse with the geisha, and one dancer who has even born a child. Surely he can not be considered a worthy candidate for marriage? Yet, the older sisters esteem him more highly than Itakura because he has a good job and refined clothes (which he did not want to muddy while in the flood).

It is interesting to me how much is built around appearance. Of course, The Makioka Sisters was first published in 1936, and much in the world has changed since then. But, the Japanese lead a very cultured life, one which is steeped in tradition and respect. They are refined and almost delicate physically, especially in comparison to those from other countries. Consider this description of their friend Katharina’s German friend:

One knew immediately that he was a German, she (Taeko) said: he was tall and strongly built, not so much handsome as rugged. (p.290)

This friendship of Katharina’s, and Etsuko’s friendship with the Stolz’s children (who once were their neighbors) is intriguing. We are on the brink of WWII, and I wonder if Tanizaki will bring these relationships with German people into his plot…

Are you enjoying it so far? Do you have any predictions? Will a husband ever be found for Yukiko? Will Taeko continue in her defiant ways? I am completely caught up in the world which Tanizaki is creating for us, and I am filled with curiosity about the Makioka family and their place in Japan.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 and the Booker International Prize 2020

The first duty of the Memory Police was to enforce the disappearances.
(p. 14)

How ironic that the very next book I pick up after The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree should also be about terror. Force. Loss.

Things disappear, like emeralds and perfume bottles, ferry boats and families. People who are able to still remember are taken away by the Memory Police, never to be seen again. And so, some of them go into hiding.

Though the cold weather had not yet set in, they each wore several layers of shirts, an overcoat each, and mufflers and scarves wrapped around their necks. They held bags and suitcases that were obviously stuffed full. It seemed they had been trying to bring with them as many useful items as they were able to carry. (p. 21)

I am reminded of reading The Diary of a Young Girl, and Anne Frank’s description of wearing as many clothes as they could before they went into hiding. Although The Memory Police is a work of fiction, it closely resembles the power of a government gone wrong to me.

The island is run by men who are determined to see things disappear. (p. 25)

While it is never quite clear exactly why things disappear from the people, or where it is that these things go, what is made evident is the fear and the loss in their aftermath. One of the patterns that I kept noticing is how Ogawa drew a connection between “memory” and “heart.”

Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them. (p. 109)

Maybe there’s a place out there where people whose hearts aren’t empty can keep on living. (p. 117)

The music continue to play, before the disappearance and after. It plays on faithfully, as long as the key is wound. That’s its role, now and forever. The only thing that’s different is the hearts of those who once heard it. (p. 147)

‘There, behind your heartbeat, have you stored up all my lost memories?’ I thought this to myself, cheek pressed against R.’s chest. (p. 158)

I will be thinking about this novel for a long time, considering the impact of loss on our lives; the impact of loss on our hearts. Ogawa raises so many questions, I think, more than she gives us answers. Where do the things which have disappeared go? Do we eventually become accustomed to what we have lost, and not experience the pain as acutely as we did at first? What are we, if we have no memories? And, ultimately, isn’t loss inevitable?

In a beautifully written book, I am struck by this thought towards the end: “But I suppose the order of the disappearances made no real difference – if in the end everything disappeared anyway.” (p. 271)

There is no avoiding loss. There is only deciding on how it is that we will handle our memories.

About the author: Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope: All-Story. Her works include The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas; The Housekeeper and the Professor; Hotel Iris; and Revenge. She lives in Tokyo.

The Memory Police was translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

Find a fascinating review of this book from Tom at Wuthering Expections.


The Makioka Sisters Read-along for March

Here is my edition of The Makioka Sisters by Juni’chiro Tanizaki, lying in wait on my piano with a few origami doves I folded years ago. March does not begin until Sunday, but as some of you are as anxious to begin as I, let us lay out a few thoughts on how to proceed.

First of all, please read at the pace you wish. It is terribly difficult for me to lay down a book, pick up another, and return to the first. When I lose momentum, I lose who the characters are, and I’m apt to ask myself, “Exactly what has happened again?” So, I will probably read it in one go.

However, Tanizaki has nicely laid out The Makioka Sisters in three ‘Books’. I thought it would be helpful to discuss them as we go, and so I will put up a post for each of the three ‘Books’ in March as follows:

March 10: Discussion on Book I

March 17: Discussion on Book II

March 24: Discussion on Book III

March 31: Discussion of The Makioka Sisters overall.

Please feel free to join in any of these discussions, or post thoughts and/or favorite parts on your blogs or social media at any time during the month of March. Let’s use #MakiokaSistersRead2020 on Twitter or Instagram, if you choose to do so. I hope you are ready to join in reading this book which has been thought of as one of the most important Japanese novels to be published.

This is the story of the extinction of the once rich and haughty sisters of a great family through pride and over-refinement, and a re-creation of the sumptuous, pleasure-filled upper-class life of Osaka just before the war. Tsuruko, the oldest sister, uncompromising, unadaptable, worn down by money doubles and a large family, is forced to move to the competitive world of Tokyo where the Makioka name means nothing. The second sister, Sachiko, is a woman of rare kindness and good sense, who tries her best to hold the family together and to preserve the wonderful life they knew as children. The central theme of the book is finding a husband for Yukio, the third sisters. She has all the accomplishments of an elegant Japanese lady, yet she finds the strength to refuse a long line of suitors. Taeko, the youngest sister, is a modern girl who tries to break away from her family and to establish herself in a career. She has series of love affairs, bears a child, and ends up as the wife of a bartender. The Makioka Sisters is at once a work of art and a unique record of a period and a district.

Juni’chiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), widely considered one of Japan’s finest modern writers, was born in the heart of Tokyo. He studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University. After the earthquake of 1923, he moved to the more cultured Kyoto-Osaka region, the setting for The Makioka Sisters. His most important novels and stories, many reflecting his taste for sexual perversity, his eye for social comedy, and his bitter humor, were written after his move. He received the Imperial Prize for Literature in 1949.

~Tuttle Publishing

Sunday Salon: a Japanese literature treasure trove edition

I have been waiting for the mailman most impatiently this week. Finally, yesterday, he delivered all that I’ve been anticipating (except Samantha, the tabby).

First, there is The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita. With over one million copies sold, it is the winner of the Japan Booksellers’ Award, “selected by bookshop staff as the book they most wanted to hand-sell.”

Set in small-town Japan, this warm and mystical story is for the lucky few who have found their calling – and for the rest of us who are still looking. It shows that the search for the purpose in life is a winding path – one filled with treacherous doubts and, for those who persevere, astonishing revelations. (Inside cover)

Then, there is The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue sent to me by Pushkin Press for review. It is called “A tragedy in three letters: the masterpiece of one of Japan’s greatest writers.”

Born in 1907, Yasushi Inoue worked as a journalist and literary editor for many years, only beginning his prolific career as an author in 1949 with Bullfight. He went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories, both historical and contemporary, his work making him one of Japan’s major literary figures. In 1976 Inoue was presented with the Order of Culture, the highest honour granted for artistic merit in Japan. He died in 1991.

Finally, I received the Red Circle Minis from Red Circle Press. I first read about them in an article from The Japan Times as books to look for in 2020, and indeed, they are most special.

Red Circle Minis is a series of short captivating books by Japan’s finest contemporary writers that brings the narratives and voices of Japan together as never before. Each book is a first edition written specifically for the series and is being published in English first. (Red Circle)

Look for reviews of each of these books during the next few weeks, and of course, a give-away or two, as we progress through the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

Malice by Keigo Higashino

I’d had my eye on him ever since his books started hitting the shelves. Half of me was proud that my childhood friend had made it, while the other half was envious of his success. We’d often talked about becoming writers when we were kids. We both loved books and were constantly recommending our favorites to each other, reading and swapping them when we were finished. Hidaka turned me on to Sherlock Holmes and Arsene Lupin. In return, I gave him Jules Verne. (p. 146)

Several fellow bloggers on Twitter have mentioned that Malice is one of their favorite books by Keigo Higashino. While my personal favorite of his, so far, is Naoko, I have thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle within Malice.

The story revolves around a famous author, Kunihiko Hidaka, who is found brutally murdered in his apartment the night before he is to move to Vancouver. His best friend, Osamu Nonoguchi, is interviewed with surprising revelations.

Keigo Higashino takes us back to elementary school, in fact, to the very prejudices we are brought up with as children. Through a series of interviews and analysis from police detective Kyochiro Kaga, a former classmate of Osama Nonuguchi’s, we come to the startling truth. It is a revelation of the power of malice, long coddled in a child’s heart.

About the author: Keigo Higashino is the bestselling and most widely read novelist in Japan, as well as several other Asian countries, with hundred of millions of his books sold worldwide. His work has been adapted for dozens of television series and films in several countries and languages. He won the Naoki Prize for The Devotion of Suspect X, the first novel featuring his character Detective Galileo, and the English translation was a finalist for the Edgar Award for the Best Novel and the Barry Award. He lives in Tokyo, Japan.

An Artist of The Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

There was a pause, then my father said: ‘Tell me, Masuji, have you any idea what kind of a world artists inhabit?’

I remained silent, looking at the floor before me,.

’Artists’, my father’s voice continued, ‘live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak-willed and depraved.” (p. 46)

Well, that is not a very auspicious beginning for Masuji Ono, the artist of the floating world. From the very beginning he is advised not to become an artist by his father, who is fearful that there is no honor in it.

Honor is one of the many themes that Kazuo Ishiguro explores in An Artist of The Floating World. Masuji’s daughter, Setsuko, advises her father to be careful with his youngest daughter’s marriage negotiations. (Her first prospect was withdrawn on the pretext that their family was somehow inferior to Ono’s.)

‘You must forgive me, Father…I merely wished to see that it is perhaps wise if Father would take certain precautionary steps. To ensure misunderstandings do not arise. After all, Noriko is almost twenty-six now. We cannot afford many more disappointments such as last year’s. (p. 50)

And so, he visits old acquaintances and friends, trying to bridge misunderstandings. Resentments. Bitterness from the past. It is the kind of writing which makes me, at this time of my life, also look back and consider what I have done. What I haven’t done.

I must say I find it hard to understand how any man who values his self-respect would wish for long to avoid responsibility for his past deeds; it may not always be an easy thing, but there is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them. (p. 124-5)

Mori-san, who is the the teacher of Masuji and others, devoted his time and wealth to his students, with the goal of changing the “identity of painting as practiced in our city.” They explored the “floating world” – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings.”

Surely the world is made up of more than dancing, singing, drinking, and story-telling, especially in the late forties after World War II. Mori-san confronts Ono one evening, about the paintings his pupil has produced which portray a far more serious theme, such as the one with three prominent politicians, and three poverty-stricken boys who had become soldiers, holding bayoneted rifles.

What is an artist’s responsibility? Is it to portray a world of beauty and light, or one of violent darkness? Ono says,

‘I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But now I feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world. (p. 179-80)

Within the exploration of art, and an artist’s role, we see Masuji Ono with his charming grandson, Ichiro, and his rather bossy, dismissive daughters. We see his colleagues, and his teachers, and the woman who opened a tea-house long before their city became consumed by restaurants. For me, the novel is as much a portrait of Japanese culture as it is a portrayal of art.

I loved it.

About the Author: Kazuo Ishiguro was born in NAgasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain in 1960. His first novel, A Pale View of Hills, won the Winifred Holtby Prize of the Royal Society of Literature and has been translated into thirteen languages. An Artist of the Floating World was short-listed for the Booker Prize and won the 19816 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; it has been translated into fourteen languages.

The Dancing Girl of Izu by Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

On the road, a traveling companion; and in the world, kindness.

~an old Japanese saying

I first heard of this short story from Masa, our travel guide, when I was visiting the Izu Peninsula in Japan two years ago. He asked if I had ever read it, as it was one of his favorites, but I told him I had not.

Just now I have finished this lovely, gentle story by Yasunari Kawabata. It tells of a twenty year old student from Tokyo as he briefly follows itinerant entertainers who perform for people in tea houses. He has noticed the beauty of the dancing girl and cannot bring himself to leave her, or her family, until he runs out of money to travel and must return to Tokyo.

There is no consummation of their relationship; there is not even an embrace, let alone a kiss. But, her hair brushes his shoulder as they play a game with stones called “Five-in-a-row.” She asks him to read her “The Story of The Lord of Mito.“

I picked up the book, with a certain expectation in my heart. Just as I hoped, the dancing girl scooted over beside me. Once I began reading, she brought her face close enough to touch my shoulder, her expression serious. Her eyes sparkled as she gazed at my forehead without blinking. It seemed to be her habit when she was being read to.

She asks him to take her to a silent movie when they come to town, but when he does, her mother forbids her to go.

They have nothing between them but a strong connection, a great affection particularly on his part. He finds something within the traveling group, within the dancing girl herself, which provides some comfort to his spirit. It isn’t until the end of the story that we find out why.

Twenty years old, I had embarked on this trip to Izu heavy with resentment that my personality had been permanently warped by my orphan’s complex and that I would never be able to overcome a stifling melancholy. So I was inexpressibly grateful to find that I looked like a nice person as the world defines the word.

I read this beautiful, melancholic short story (first published in 1926) for free by downloading it from Internet Archive, which proves to be a wonderful resource for borrowing literature. It is perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13, and the first short story I’ve read for the Deal Me In Challenge.

On The Bus in The Rain, a novella by Haruka Kimura

Across the aisle and diagonally to my right, my exact double is sitting in a one-seater. No… technically, he’s me as a high schooler. Reflexively and vigorously, I rub at my eyes, and it sure isn’t hay-fever season.

While on the bus in the pouring rain, our narrator notices his seventeen year old self sitting to his right. Should he get up and tell his younger self that everything will be all right, at least until he reaches the age of twenty-seven? And, wouldn’t he like to know his future self at the age of thirty-seven?

This novella is an introspective look at who we were, who we are, whom we might become.

I know that I constantly examine who I was, and often wish that I could have told my younger self information that I only know now that I am older. But, would I really tell myself what would happen? What I should do? I have learned from making the choices I did, they have formed who I am today.

What would be gained by talking to my future self? Do I want to know the joys, or sorrows, of what will happen in the next ten years? Perhaps it is best to get off the bus without saying a word, to face each year with fresh innocence. Perhaps it is best that we don’t know all that we will choose, or all the events that will make us who we are, in advance.

“On the Bus in the Rain (雨の日のバスで)” won a Kobe Shinbun (newspaper) literary contest in July, 2019. You can read this novella yourself by clicking here.