On September 1, 1923, just seconds before 11:58 in the morning, the first shocks of what
became known as the Great Kanto Earthquake (in Japanese, Kanto daishinsai) began to be felt
in the southern part of the eastern plain of Japan encompassing the cities of Tokyo,
Kawasaki, and Yokohama and the surrounding region. The largest shock measured 8.2 on the
Richter scale; within the first three days of the disaster, more than seventeen hundred shocks
large and small were felt. As a result of the quakes and collateral damage, in Tokyo alone a
thirty-square mile area of intensely urban and industrial land lay devastated; in Tokyo,
densely-packed, largely wood construction, residential areas lay burning from hundreds of
fires that sprang up from the charcoal and gas cooking appliances in use for preparing lunch.
The wisdom of centuries told city dwellers to rush to open public areas for some shelter away
from buildings. But the fires were too many and too large; in the environs of a then-closed
military clothing depot, over forty thousand people burned to death together in the fire storm
that passed over. The natural refuge closest to central Tokyo was the Tamagawa River
floodplain, more than ten miles away. Some of those who escaped wore, for the remaining
decades of their lives, scars from the straw sandals that had burned off their feet as they fled.
Well over 100,000 were not so lucky as to escape. (A number of statistics from Ogasawara,
Haruno, Living with Natural Disasters: Narratives of the Great Kanto and Great Hanshin
Earthquakes, Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1999.)
Phyllis I. Lyons
The Chicago Literary Club
January 7, 2002
Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, later canonized as one of the grandest old men of Japanese letters of the
twentieth century, was caught up in the disaster. He was thirty-seven years old at the time,
and already well known for his inventive and provocative fictions. When the Osaka office of
a national newspaper learned several days later that he had managed to make it to refuge in
this city over three hundred miles to the southwest, they asked him for a first-person account
of what he had experienced. Remember, in 1923 there was of course no television, and not
even radio in Japan. Railway and road transportation and most communications west of the
mountains ringing the Kanto plain had been utterly disrupted; to the east of the mountains
was vast devastation. Eyewitnesses provided not just local color; they were in many cases
original news sources.
As was the custom among writers in Japan in those days, Tanizaki had been taking a working
vacation at the hotsprings resort of Hakone in the mountains about sixty miles from Tokyo,
far from the distractions of the big cities. His wife and daughter had left him a few days
earlier, to return to Yokohama and get the little girl started in school for the year. If they
were even alive, they were out of communication and unreachable. It took Tanizaki two days
to make it over the mountains on foot, and then west to the Osaka area. It was there that he
wrote his article for the newspaper. He then returned to Yokohama by boat (the roads being
impassable), found his family safe, and returned with them by boat to temporary refuge in
Kobe and then in Kyoto. This in part is what he had to report:
....We were on the mountain road about two and a half miles past Ashinoy=FB when the
earthquake hit. The van was full, with about half the passengers being Westerners; and the
first thing that happened is that the Westerners starting screaming, "Let us off! Let us off!"
But on the left side was the high cliff wall of the mountain, with big boulders rumbling down
on us, and on the right was the deep valley. The soft dirt of the single-lane road on which
we were passing was crumbling at the edge, and the road was disappearing right before our
eyes. The driver said that it was too dangerous to stop there, and he was going to
continue on as best he could until he reached some safer place. He drove on another hundred
and twenty yards or so, through the fierce heaving, with the road collapsing at our side.
When I think about it now, it's amazing we didn't plunge into the valley; but the driver was
thinking straight. A huge rock came plunging down right after we passed, and then he found
a flat spot carved out of the cliff wall and stopped the car. We all tumbled out and huddled
together, Japanese and Westerners alike. Some old people couldn't stand because of the
shaking, and some of them lay flat on the ground. I waited for the three or four big rolling
shocks to stop, and then tried to walk back to the hotel, but the road had crumbled away ....
but by finding my way along little back trails, I finally made it back to the hotel in
Kowakudani. When I got there, I found that the branch police department building had
collapsed like a matchbox and fallen into the valley. Of a number of other buildings, only
their exterior shells remained, and they looked as if they too would collapse at any moment.
("Shuki," Osaka Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 1923)
It's an interesting historical vignette, long ago and far away, but why should you care? Why
should the connection between a distant earthquake and a Japanese writer now already dead
for decades, be of interest to a group of Chicagoans, a number of whom may not even have
heard of him? Well, because Tanizaki Jun'ichiro is one of those world authors that every
person of culture should know, and because the place of the Great Kanto Earthquake in his
life is a central mystery. That is, it is a central fact known by everyone who knows anything
about Tanizaki, and because it is so well known, few people even realize it is still a mystery.
I, however, have been fascinated for some time by both over-determination and missing
pieces in the explanations.
Tanizaki never won the Nobel Prize, but he very well might have, had he lived a few years
longer. By the time of his death in 1965, he was already the first Japanese writer to have
been granted honorary membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was
being mentioned for the Nobel. His work has been translated into at least seventeen
European languages; most of his novels are available in English translation, and over a dozen
of his short stories. Of the twenty-two of his novels that have been made into movies in
Japan, a good number of them are available here with English subtitling.
So who is this guy, and what about the earthquake? To look into Tanizaki's life and work is
to enter into the emotional life of an entire people. Generalization is a dangerous practice, and
gross generalization is clearly illegitimate. But I will propose to you that in the life and work
of Tanizaki we can see kinds of templates or working models for important aspects of the
entire affective experience of the Japanese people themselves in the century from the
mid-1800s to mid-1900s. At the same time, his mind, his imagination were so individually
idiosyncratic and yet archetypally grand, that he offers us windows into the deepest reaches of
our own secret dream worlds. He is fun, or unsettling, to read; he also courageously, or
perhaps maliciously, and certainly manipulatively, invites us to go with him into realms of
the human spirit where many fear to tread.
To read Tanizaki in the aggregate is to get a sense of the sometimes rapturously admiring,
often adversarial, strain still present in Japanese culture between "tradition" and
"modernization." These terms are so much over-used and so often ill-defined that they can
achieve the status of meaningless platitudes. Nevertheless, I will invoke them as convenient
shorthand, and tell you what I mean by them. In order for you to glimpse why modernization
and Westernization are such loaded terms in Japan, why Tanizaki and his fellow countrymen
have such ambivalence about tradition, let me give you a bit of the history of Japan's relations
with the rest of the world.
In the mid-1500s, Western technology, philosophy and politics first appeared in Japan
through the initially accidental, soon determinedly intrusive, efforts of European sailors,
missionaries and merchants. After a century or so, the rulers of Japan-that is, the shoguns,
not the emperors-kept much of the military and technological information they had gained,
but threw out the brawling cultural invaders , and slammed shut the doors for almost two
hundred and fifty years. That is, they forbade all foreigners ingress, and all Japanese egress,
even to the extent of limiting the size of sea-going vessels to keep seamen close to the shores
of the home islands. They brutally erased all traces of the foreign religion, Christianity, and
kept knowledge of the outside world (which the government continued to monitor from afar)
a tight monopoly of a few scholars. What information they continued to gather came from a
tiny enclave of Protestant Dutch merchants (who owed no allegiance to the Roman Pope and
were willing to leave religion out of their endeavors). These purveyors of the "Dutch
learning" were allowed a trading post on a government-guarded, artificial island built out into
the bay of a town on the farthest side of the farthest island of Kyushu, remote from Edo and
Kyoto, the centers of power -the town of Nagasaki. Of course that artificial island no longer
exists in the bay, having been destroyed when the twentieth century made its impact in
August of 1945.
In the more than two centuries that Japan was on its own, its culture exploded vibrantly in
every direction. Industry, science, economic philosophy, the arts (literary, visual and
performing), transportation, banking-you name it, Japan was unwittingly building the
infrastructure for a radical transformation when its doors were forced open by the Hero of the
Great Lakes, Commodore Matthew Perry, in 1853. So tiny and useless for natural resources,
Japan had been allowed to pursue its own interests, while the rest of Asia, and Africa, were
being carved up and ancient cultures being dismembered by the European explorers who
found those other lands more worth their while. Now in the 1850s Japan was forced to look
outward, and it saw two kinds of people: the colonizers and the colonized, overclass and
underclass. A choice had to be made by Japan, or it would be made for Japan by the West.
In 1868, a new government (the shogunate dismantled, power "restored" to the emperor) with
a newly-named capital-Edo became Tokyo-made a no-brainer decision: it would join the
overclasses. The internal energy of two hundred years of internal expansion carried Japan on
the wave called "modernization" to achieve its goals. The catch-phrase "Revere the Emperor
and expel the barbarians" (sonno joi) turned to "Civilization and enlightenment" (bunmei
kaika) when it was seen that the barbarians were unexpellable. "Getting ahead!" (risshin
shusse) became the watchword for individual and nation alike. Military might was one of the
keys to national self-determination. Within thirty years, a bunch of samurai wearing skirts
and ponytails and waving swords was transformed into a modern fighting army, beating China
in 1895 in the Sino-Japanese War, and Russia in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese War. The
model for survival presented by the Western powers-industrialization and military
expansionism-alas became the pattern for Japan's defensive experience of the "modern"
Tanizaki was born in 1886, not even twenty years into the new, modern nation. He was
born into an old-fashioned merchant-class family in the old, "downtown" (shitamachi) part of
Edo, then only incompletely transformed into the modern Tokyo (and later to be largely
destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake and World War II aerial bombing). Among the
comple= x of opinions, experiences, tastes and predilections we call the "personality," h e
identified himself prominently as an Edokko, a "son of Edo." Much of his writing draws
vitality from the imaginative evocation of a world half-remembered, half-recreated. That is,
Edo was already gone in his childhood, but it was not forgotten-nor is it forgotten today.
Call it nostalgia or fetish, it occupied real space in his imaginative worlds. As much as
anyone of his day, he was caught up in the excitement of the present and new: he received
an elite education; read the latest fiction, philosophy and psychology arriving from Europe;
lived among foreigners in Yokohama, and learned to dance and entertain among them; wrote
scripts for the fledgling film industry. Even in old age, he kept track of fashions, and Chanel
and swimming pools show up in one of his last novels, The Diary of a Mad Old Man.
But so do kabuki and Buddha's Footprint gravestones. The new and the old, real and
imagined, history and fantasy. Such is the material of Tanizaki's world, and his work.
Tradition: the texture of life, the material culture, and the systems of beliefs of the samurai
and merchants of the Edo past; and before that, the world of the ancient Kyoto aristocrats,
epitomized in the eleventh-century classic, The Tale of Genji In its external
manifestations, tradition appears in Tanizaki's work as a fascination with clothing, language,
smells, attitudes, the interpenetrating of history and the present in the arts and human life.
But there is more. Edo-in both its presence and absence-is a major icon in both Tanizaki's
writing and Japanese national life itself: part of what we might call 'the civil religion of
being Japanese.' The celebration and practice of this secular religion is where the individual
writer's experience intersects with that of his society since the 1860s-that is, since the arrival
What do I mean by 'the civil religion of being Japanese'? By analogy to the construction,
"nation-state," Japan since its opening to the rest of the world in the mid-nineteenth century
often seems to be a "nation-village." From suspicion and fear of outsiders, to practice and
protection of folkways specific to the village, Japan for good and ill has often acted as if the
word "unique" applied to Japan alone. For good: from preservation of distinctive artistic
forms and artists as "national treasures," to delight in inviting foreigners to be
participant-observers in local folkways (as it were, allowing them to observe practices that are
otherwise identified as "Japanese-only"), to annual observances of ancient familial rites,
modern Japan still exhibits the communal life of an agricultural village, scholars both
domestic and international argue. Many Japanese will tell you Japan is not a religious
country, and yet few countries have so many national holidays that have the aura of religious
practice about them, and that are modern echoes of religious festivals. We of course have
some ourselves: Thanksgiving, for example. They have many. The now secular Japanese
emperor has two annual ritual obligations he performs for the nation: on the grounds of the
Imperial Palace in Tokyo (once the shogun's palace), there is a rice field that he must plant
with rice seedlings in the spring, and harvest in the fall. The vernal and autumnal equinoxes
are national holidays. In the megalopolis of Tokyo, in early summer the subways are dotted
with folks carrying pots of morning glories. You can buy them at any flower store, but the
temple festival in Iriya is still the proper place to find them, and what would summer be
without a pot of morning glories?
In farming areas in late summer, you can see little toy horses made of cucumbers and
eggplants and straw standing at country crossroads, there to carry the souls of the dead back
to visit their families for the bon festival; but you can also find vegetable and straw horses
for sale at greengrocers in the heart of the metropolis. Obon is celebrated in big cities
according to the international, solar calendar, in the middle of July. But in August
city-dwellers leave the cities and go back to home villages for ura-bon, or lunar calendar bon,
even if they haven't actually lived in the village for generations. Every neighborhood in even
the largest cities has its own local shrine festivals. No one believes, but everyone goes.
(Wherever Japanese gather, the festival is enacted. In Chicago, obon is celebrated in July at
the Midwest Buddhist Temple; they call it the Ginza Festival. Around the same time, in
Arlington Heights, the bon festival is held in the Mitsuwa supermarket parking lot; Japanese
from as far away as Indiana and Iowa come to join us locals for food, game stalls and the
traditional group folk dancing known as bon-odori. Oh, and the Chicago Botanic Gardens
holds a celebration as well.)
And New Year? Back in Japan, it is like Christmas and Easter rolled into one, the biggest
civil religious ceremonies of the year, Shinto and Buddhist together. Special foods eaten at
special times: for example, toshikoshi-soba, or "year-crossing soba noodles" if you're home at
midnight. Noodles are long; may your life be long, as we cross into the new year. Millions
are not at home. It's the only time the Tokyo area trains run all night so you can visit shrines
and temples throughout the region. Millions go to the Shinto Meiji Shrine and the Buddhist
Asakusa Kannon Temple for hatsumode, the first shrine visit of the New Year (even if they
may never go again in the rest of the year). They go in kimono, or casual slacks and golf
shirts, or with green spiky hair, leather pants, chains and piercings. They bow silently and
offer private prayers, alone in the midst of the crowd; or they laugh raucously and throw their
coins like projectiles at the police, shielded and in riot garb, keeping order at the offering
boxes-but they go. The most modern and mercantile of world economies closes down for the
first three days of the New Year (even if they do celebrate in on January first, instead of the
February of more "traditional" Asian cultures). The only people who work are the postmen,
who have been collecting your New Year's cards at the post office, to be delivered all at once
on New Year's morning.
On the rooftop gardens of large metropolitan department stores, where the little playlands for
children offer simple rides and entertainments, somewhere off to the side, inconspicuous, you
will find a little Inari shrine; every day someone provides offerings of a fresh bowl of rice
and water. No one believes in the fox god; but why would a merchandiser not attend to the
god of prosperous business? Just before the construction-helmeted CEOs and bigwig
politicos dig their golden shovels into the earth to break ground for yet another sleek
sixty-story earthquake -proof super skyscraper, the white-garbed Shinto priest steps forward to
wave his paper wand, to notify and appease the gods of the earth who are about to be
disturbed. Why take chances? Before an election, the politicians call in the media to be
photographed amidst much laughter and merriment blacking in one of the blank eyes of a
large papiermache roly-poly doll-Daruma, a folk toy that is a representation of Bodhi
Dharma, the progenitor of Zen Buddhism. When the election is successful, the other eye will
be filled in. We never see what happens to all the other one-eyed Darumas.
No one prays before meals; but everyone says, "Itadakimasu" (I'm humbly receiving [this
food]). On going out of the house you say, "Itte mairimasu" (or more casually,
"itte-kimasu"-I'm going and coming back), and the person seeing you off says, "Itte-rasshai"
(Go well). On returning, you say, "Tadaima" (I'm here); they reply, "Okaeri-nasai"
(You're back). Little conventional negotiations of everyday life; but everyone says them, and
they're always the same, like the magic words of a religious incantation.
Now, you can point out that every society has its ways. But it is hard to find another modern
society in the world where such a large number of people think of themselves as
monocultural, all participating in the same closed social rites and practices, even as they live
the lives of modern cosmopolites. And, we might observe, even as "single culture, all us
Japanese together" is increasingly a fiction (and, scholars of culture will say, always was).
There is, of course, an underside. There is the nationalism that manifested itself in a belief
that Japan was a country with divine authority and a divine mission, a belief not dead despite
the catastrophe of World War II. A domestic fascination with the samurai "sword-soul" of
Japan. Feelings about racial purity, attitudes about "racial mongrelization." Conflation of
citizenship with birth to Japanese parents. Aggressive or defensive extension to Japan's place
in the family of nations of an indigenous social group structuring, based on "insider/outsider"
(uchi/soto) distinctions: seen domestically, Japan as the only "insiders;" externally, Japan as
the eternal "outsiders." No non-Japanese can ever really learn to speak Japanese, it is
thought; those who come close achieve the status of media stars, as delightful as dancing
bears. Very little patience with Japanese-Americans learning Japanese for the first time.
Caucasians are encouraged with cheerful kindness; Japanese-Americans ought to be doing
better, because it's "in the blood."
Do all Japanese feel these things, good and ill? No, of course not, and your own experience
will tell you that some of these are exaggerations and generalizations, perhaps gross ones.
But your own experience will also tell you that I am pointing at something palpably real.
Writers, like prophets, are people with special sensitivities to their environments. And
Tanizaki was one of those who read his own society with both wit and urgency. One of the
secrets of the power of his writing is that, while seeming to deal with exoticisms, perversities
and aesthetic fictions, he reaches deeply into very basic-indeed, atavistic-needs and comforts
felt by his countrymen. And yet when we read him , we realize that he is reading all human
beings, too. He has his finger on our very most primitive pulses, which he feels through the
most elegant and extravagant of fleshly coverings.
How then do these considerations-the tension between tradition and modernity--appear in
Tanizaki 's writing? There is one part of his oeuvre that is openly celebratory of the
premodern history and culture of Japan and its traces in the modern world: a translation and
multiple revisions of The Tale of Genji from eleventh-century Japanese into
something approximating the modern language; Childhood Years, a memoir of his
upbringing in early post-Edo Tokyo; numerous essays on traditional arts and artists;
essay-like character studies of the personalities of the cities he loved and the people in them
(Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto). But it is in his creative fiction that we see the wisest and most
subtly crafted explorations of the dynamic blending of issues of tradition and modernity in the
soul of one man and his view of his sociey's soul. And so I now will give you a brief index
to the best of his writing, available in English translation, seen through the prism of issues of
tradition and modernity.
Tanizaki had a very long and rich career. He first drew startled and admiring attention from
educated readers in 1910 with a short story entitled "The Tattoo" (contained in a collection of
translations, Seven Japanese Tales). It is set in premodern Edo, with the protagonist a
master practitioner of the traditional art form of full-body tattooing a topic almost exotic to
modernizing intellectuals at the turn of the century, even though the art still exists today
(albeit mostly among gangsters and other non-intellectual young men). This tattoer has
searched for years for the perfect canvas for his artistic expression: the beautiful body of an
innocent young woman. He finds her; he seduces her psychologically into letting him "paint"
a special design he has created; he drugs her so she will not be in pain as he works; and in
the hours-long process of working the design on her back, his own energy is drained. She
emerges filled with power-the power of a cruel dominatrix. I won't tell you what the design
is, but the transformed young woman's words give a hint: "And you, master, will be my first
victim!" In this early story, Tanizaki blended exoticized tradition with a modern sensibility
informed by the latest psychological insights into human character.
It caused a sensation, and the young unknown writer was unknown no more. Qualities of the
writing, identified by an important contemporary critic, remained characteristic of much of
Tanizaki's writing for the entire fifty-five years of his career: a "total urbanity and sense of
place;" a "perfection of literary style;" and a "mystical elegance born of physical fear." The
model of the beautiful, cruel woman and groveling man became a masterplot in his writing;
more ambiguous was who was sadist, who masochist. What soon became clear is the wit and
irony that informed his artistic vision, turning many potentially dismal and destructive
narratives into joyous satires and celebrations of imaginative creativity.
In 1924, recently moved to Kyoto, Tanizaki wrote a novel looking back at pre-earthquake
modern Tokyo from a distance. Naomi (or in a literal translation of the Japanese title,
"the love of a fool") is the first-person narration of a bored young engineer who spices up
his life by taking on as his mistress a sullen, unschooled, fifteen-year-old caf=E9 hostess. His
deal: if she will put herself into his hands, he will provide everything for her life and
pleasure. He is true to his word, giving her a "modern" house to live in, English lessons,
beautiful Western clothing, piano lessons, dancing lessons-and she provides the delicious
entertainment in his life. By the end of the novel, however, she has turned the tables on him:
in order for her to stay with him (and he must have her stay, or he will die), he has to accept
that she has the freedom to choose any other lovers she wants, even Western men.
Naomi both parodies the latest of up-to-date fashions, and implicitly metaphorizes the
spiritual costs to a nation of its infatuation with things Western-a seduction he himself
In the late 1920s after living in the Kansai for several years, Tanizaki wrote simultaneously
three novels that in a sense shadow the author's own move from Tokyo to the new world of
old Japan. Black and White (untranslated) is a mystery-thriller narrated in the
first-person , taking place in Tokyo and Yokohama. It concerns a novelist who writes a story
about the murder of a man; the victim in his story is modeled with thin disguise on a fellow
writer-acquaintance of the narrator. The writer paranoically becomes terrified that if
something were to happen to the other writer, he would be suspect. And so he prepares an
alibi for a crime that is only hypothetical. When that writer does indeed turn up murdered,
the narrator is of course suspected. We know he is not guilty, because he has intimately
involved us readers in his elaborate alibi: he was locked away for days at the time of the
murder in an ecstatic sado-masochistic sex experience with a mysterious bondage mistress.
Now he needs his alibi; and the woman, who never told him her real name and conducted
him to her hideaway blindfolded and at night, has disappeared. This novel, written years after
he left Tokyo, offers a last view of the modern Tokyo of the 1920s that Tanizaki had known
before the earthquake, and shows a man under great psychological stress.
The next novel, Some Prefer Nettles, takes place in the Osaka area, and it involves
the drift toward divorce of a modern husband and wife, Tokyo expatriates living in Kansai.
A favorite among Japanese readers, it does a masterful exploration of what "Japanese
tradition" means to a man approaching middle age, as Kaname finds himself pulled from his
modern wife and toward his father-in-law's young mistress who is being trained to look and
act like an Edo woman. Kaname's vision of "tradition" emerges as he finds himself pulled
back to memories of his nineteenth-century mother. The intermingling of mother, tradition
and sex produces a wonderfully atmospheric story with deeply ironic implications, as
"tradition" comes to include deep psychological as well as material attachments.
The transition to Kansai (the Kyoto-Osaka region) is complete in the third novel,
Quicksand, which presents Kansai people in and around Osaka. In fact, in the writing
of it Tanizaki went as far as to hire a couple of young college-educated local women as
research assistants to literally "translate" the standard Tokyo dialect he wrote into the speech
patterns of upper-class Kansai women. In other words, the suburban Osaka woman narrator
speaks in language clearly distinguished from that of the Tokyo man to whom she tells her
story. (You cannot tell that from the translation, but it is part of the "buzz" Japanese readers
get in reading it.) It is a sly and satirical account of a wild menage a quatre: a
married woman, her husband, the younger woman with whom she and then he fall in love,
and the blackmailing boyfriend of the younger woman.
Now in the 1930s Tanizaki begins to write those stories that critics describe directly as his
"return to tradition." They take place in Kyoto or Osaka, or the ancient mountain sites that
dot the Kansai region; or they are set in the very ancient past, in Kansai (the west) or Kanto
(the eastlands, before Edo). "The Reed Cutter," "Arrowroot," "A Portrait of Shunkin," "The
Blind Man's Tale," "The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi"- stories evocative of
traditional images, but told in a manner and stance that only a modern man could produce.
Tanizaki's creative energy for larger works in the later 1930s and 1940s went mostly into
projects like translating The Tale of Genji, perhaps because the atmosphere of wartime Japan
offered him little inspiration. Censorship curtailed a number of his projects. The elegant and
nostalgic novel drawn on his wife's upper-class family before the war, The Makioka
Sisters, begun in 1942, was stopped by the authorities partway through serialization for
being too "decadent" (read: luxury-loving). It was not published in full until after the end of
By 1950, Tanizaki was in his sixties, and he and Japan had been through a lot. "Tradition" as
atmosphere seemed to lose its attraction for him. The Key, a 1956 novel set in contemporary
Kyoto, is present-focused. It is the story of an aging professor with flagging sexual energies
who stimulates himself by drugging his wife and taking nude Polaroid photos of her; he
involves his graduate student, the age of his daughter, in his activities. Did the wife actually
have sex with the student? Did they bring about the professor's death? Is she actually a good
woman, or a depraved opportunist? The puzzle is raveled and unraveled through two diaries,
husband's and wife's, that each keeps secret from the other; but both know that the other has
found his or her diary and is reading it.
"The Bridge of Dreams" in 1958 was the first work Tanizaki had to dictate to a secretary, as
he had lost effective functioning of his writing hand through a stroke-the first of several that
would eventually bring his life to a close in 1965. It is in a sense a recapitulation of many of
Tanizaki's life-long themes and settings, a story of a young man, Tadasu, whose father
conspires to confuse in his mind memories of his first mother who died when he was a child,
and replace them with the second mother who comes to live with them. When the boy is
nineteen years old, the mother bears a child, and the father falls ill. As the father dies, he
asks the son to take care of his "mother." But-given the relationship that both father and
mother have encouraged between step-mother and step-son-we readers with a chill come to
question who is really the father of this new child. The story, set in the 1910s to 1930s,
beautifully evokes the aesthetic elegance of The Tale of Genji (from which the title of
the story comes), and also its incestuous atmosphere; but the sensibility is sly and modern,
toying with the reading audience in a distinctively Tanizakian way.
The last of the novels to be translated is Diary of a Mad Old Man, from 1963. Here
Tanizaki comes home in a kind of all-encompassing completion to his life and his work.
Himself in his late seventies, ill, partially paralyzed, and having already suffered several
strokes, Tanizaki writes the story of a sick old man trying to stay alive in the present, and yet
losing himself in memories of his post-Edo youth. It is a kind of tour de force, a
triumph of the will: a man laughing in the face of death. Literally, that is. The old man
needs sexual excitement to stay alive; but any excitement will push his dangerously high
blood pressure and bring on a fatal stroke. He is a tyrannical patriarch; he is also a
masochistic foot-fetishist. Much of the novel concerns his manipulations to get his
thoroughly modern daughter-in-law to give him access to her feet, and the price she demands
of him. The crisis comes when he gets her to let him ink her feet to produce the pattern for
the "Buddha's Footprint" stone he wants placed over his grave. Here is the comic torment
this tombstone will represent to him:
after I die, which won't be long from now, she'll find herself thinking: That crazy old man is
lying under these beautiful feet of mine, at this very moment I'm trampling on the buried
bones of the poor old fellow. No doubt it will give her a certain pleasurable thrill, though I
dare say the feeling of revulsion will be stronger....In this life I have been blindly in love with
Satsuko, but after death, supposing I bear any malice toward her, I shall have no other means
of revenge....Although it stands to reason that the will dies with the body....say that part of
my will survives within her will. When she treads on my grave and feels as if she's
trampling on that doting old man's bones, my spirit will still be alive, feeling the whole
weight of her body, feeling pain, feeling the fine-grained velvety smoothness of the soles of
her feet. Even after I'm dead I'll be aware of that. I can't believe I won't. In the same way,
Satsuko will be aware of the presence of my spirit, joyfully enduring her weight. Perhaps
she may even hear my charred bones rattling together, chuckling, moaning, creaking....she
would hear my bones wailing under the stone. Between sobs I would scream: "It hurts! It
hurts! ....Even though it hurts, I'm happy-I've never been happier.... Trample harder! Harder!"
(after Howard Hibbett, Diary of a Mad Old Man)
The mad old writer survived another two years, and continued to write until he died of heart
failure a few weeks before his eightieth birthday, having throughout his life chronicled the
modernity and evoked the tradition of his society.
Well, that's interesting; but what about the earthquake? Oh yes, the earthquake! Well, you
see, when Tanizaki and his family took refuge in the Kansai area after the Kanto Great
Earthquake, it was to be for a short time, until Tokyo began functioning again. Unlike tens
of thousands of other Tokyoites, however, Tanizaki did not return-for the next quarter of a
century. In Kansai, he lived with, then divorced, his first wife. Then he married and
divorced a second wife. And then he married his third wife, with whom he continued to live
for the remaining thirty years of his life. They remained in the Kyoto-Osaka area, and
Tanizaki only visited Tokyo from then on. Only in the late years of his life did he ever come
back to live near and in Tokyo. For all practical purposes, this Edokko, this "son of Edo,"
abandoned his homeland and lived in self-chosen exile for the rest of his life. Why, has been
one of the big questions of Japanese literary study, a question that has been answered in
various ways, to varying degrees of satisfaction. I have not been satisfied, and that's where
the earthquake comes in.
Answers draw first on some of Tanizaki's early post-quake writing. In "Thinking of Tokyo"
(Tokyo o omou, untranslated; 1934) he describes an initial feeling of relief that the messy
hybrid old-and-new Tokyo was now gone, and something clean could be built anew in its
place. Then depression hit him-the old Edo was truly gone, and all that was left was a
soulless bastardized space of mediocrity. But when he looked around himself in his
temporary shelter in Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Ashiya, what he saw was remains of the old that
felt more familiar to him than the gradually transformed and radically destroyed Tokyo he
had just left. Present-day Kansai was to him (so the argument goes) more like the post-Edo
he had grown up in than 1920s Tokyo did. So in a way, moving to Kansai came to seem
serendipitously like moving home. Then as the years passed and he began to explore older
Japanese culture in this culturally ancient place, when he got to know more of the people, and
found the one woman he had been seeking for his whole life, his commitment to the region
was solidified. Things take time; he had to divorce and marry and divorce again before she
was finally freed by divorce from her own husband for the two of them to be together. She
was from an old Osaka family; Tanizaki wrote an elegant homage to pre-World War II Osaka
society in the novel, The Makioka Sisters, openly known to reflect the world of the third Mrs.
Tanizaki and her sisters. His stories from the early 1930s on come to have a more
"traditional" feel to them, and in 1935 he began his great project of translating The Tale
of Genji. Starting out a refugee, he became an adopted son of his wife's homeland.
Funny thing, though: it seems that she had often talked of wanting to move to Tokyo; and
when Tanizaki died, Mrs. Tanizaki did just that and spent the remaining twenty-six years of
her life there in Tokyo. So she was not the reason Tanizaki stayed in Kansai, as so many
scholars suggest. He stayed-or rather, left Tokyo-because he wanted to. But why?
In the conventional story, the earthquake is incidental-enormously disruptive, but only an
accidental event that got Tanizaki to Kansai, where he happily found his "true" path in more
traditional surroundings. Once it had served that purpose, it was finished. But hidden in the
record of his writings is a trace that suggests to me that the earthquake itself was a far more
seminal force in the development of Tanizaki's world. Its effects had begun to be felt long
before 1923; and its aftershocks continued, perhaps for the rest of his life, but certainly for
more than a decade afterward. Here is how he describes an earlier earthquake he had
experienced at the age of eight:
It must have been when he was in second grade of elementary school. At two in the
afternoon, he had just come home from school. He was eating a snow cone, when suddenly
the earth began a terrific shaking. A big earthquake! He realized it instantly, and doesn't
know how he managed to get out of the house; but he raced outside and crouched down in
the center of the main street intersection....As he huddled in the road, trembling and feeling
barely alive, he watched this amazing natural calamity as if he were in a [horrible] dream....
Somehow this earthquake did not feel as if the earth was shaking-it was that it was rising,
swooping up, and dropping down in great swells like the waves in the ocean....He was on a
level street, and around three hundred yards off in a straight line into the distance ran
Ningyocho Street....i= t seemed to stand straight up, like the arm of a crane, and no sooner
did it reach toward the heavens, than it began to sink down deeply, and he got a bird's-eye
view of Ningyocho Street, as if he were at the summit of a st= eep hill looking down at the
valley far below. Oh, how strong it was, how terrible! This great earth, where humans have
from time immemorial relied on its firm platform for vital existence, where they have
constructed glorious histories, on which they have anchored their many hopes for the future
and have confidently carried on their activities-how unstable, how fragile it is!....He and his
bare-footed mother clung to each other right there in the center of the intersection....Later he
realized that he must have had his writing brush in his hand, because there was a dark stain
on the breast of his mother's white apron.... ("Byojaku no genso [Sickbed Fantasies],
This earthquake took place in 1894 when Tanizaki was eight; before that, he writes
elsewhere, he remembered the even larger earthquake of 1891, when he was five. By the
time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Tanizaki had already written repeatedly about
earthquakes in over half a dozen stories. The 1923 earthquake was only the latest in what we
can see was already a hidden obsession. It is "earthquakes," and not the Great Kanto
Earthquake= , that was important in Tanizaki's life; and accordingly, the story of his move to
Kansai, and its effect on his writing, is more richly complex than has been recognized so far.
To find out the rest of the story, you will have to read the book I am currently writing. But
trust me: earthquakes are central to it!
Phyllis I. Lyons
Chicago Literary Club
January 7, 2002
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