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 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.

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