Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 to 1965).
The Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki was born in Tokyo in 1886. His family was of the prosperous merchant class and owned a printing shop. As a consequence, he had a pampered childhood and, by his own statement in "Yosho Jidai ("The Childhood Years"), he was a rather spoiled child. He was a poor student in his earliest years of school, but later became a star pupil, consistently coming near the top of his class. His family's finances declined dramatically as he grew older until, by the time he started what would correspond to undergraduate college, he was forced to reside in another household as an apprentice.
He was fortunate that his family did their best throughout his youth to further his education and to expose him to high culture. Thus at an early age he acquired an appreciation for literature and the fine arts such as the Kabuki theatre.
He studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He did not, however, complete his degree due to an affair with a maid from the household were he was apprenticed, and due to his inability to pay for his education.
Tanizaki's mind was at this point already directed toward writing fiction.
In 1909 his first work, a one-act play, was published in a literary magazine which he helped found. In his early writing career Tanizaki scorned the merchant class that he had born into and its antiquated culture. He identified much more with the Western influenced culture that was the vogue in Tokyo, even residing in the enclave for foreign residents in Tokyo. This outlook is very strong in his earlier writings. He indulged in a rather wild life during this period and had a brief failed marriage. He continued to live and write in Tokyo until the earthquake struck in 1923.
After moving to the Kyoto-Osaka region his work became more influenced by Japanese history and traditional culture. His writing begin to reflect his abandonment of what he would later regard as the shallow culture of Tokyo, easily swayed by the latest Western ideas to gain favour. Instead his work became influenced by his growing respect for more traditional Japanese culture.
Japan in the 1920s and 1930s (at least in the big cities like Tokyo) seemed dominated by Western forms, in architecture, fashion, films, factories, food, and literature. This period also saw among writers and intellectuals a very serious reflection upon the nature and fate of Japanese culture. In fact, the inundation of non-indigenous forms stimulated this reflection and sometimes led to a cultural retrenchment that sought to salvage and assert that which was "authentically Japanese."
This transition is reflected in his major works of this period including "Chijin No Ai" ("Naomi"}, "Manji" ("Quicksand"), and "Tade kuu Mushi" )"Some Prefer Nettles"). The characters in these novels discover that over-indulgence in what are considered more modern and Western ways will lead to an unhappiness that only a return to traditional Japanese culture may remedy.
Tanizaki had had another short-lived marriage in the mid-1930s and after his second divorce married Matsuko. This marriage turned out to be a good one and lasted until his death. By 1930 he was so well renowned that an edition of his complete works was published.
In 1933 Tanazaki wrote a beautiful little essay entitled "In'ei raisan" (In Praise of Shadows) which can be counted among these attempts to define "Japaneseness" in the face of modern changes inspired by foreign forms. Centered on what he presents as essential Japanese sensibilities, Tanizaki describes an aesthetic of shadows which, according to him, envelopes and embodies pure and authentic Japanese culture.
Perhaps Tanizaki's most famous novel is "Sasame Yuki", written from 1943 to 1948 (translated as "The Makioka Sisters" by Edward G. Siedensticker). This reflects his deep interest in the culture of Osaka following the late 1920's. It is also reflects an interest in the world of his own childhood and s sense of loss. Though born and raised in Tokyo, his own family were wealthy merchants when he was young and later fell into poverty, similiar to the fictional Makioka family.
Set in Osaka just prior to World War II the novel tells the story of four sisters from a patrician family that dwindles in wealth and prestige. The relationships among the four sisters strain and rend as they cope with their family's declining position in society and the changing values of modern Japan. All four of the sisters cannot forget the wealth and prestige that the family enjoyed in their youth. The expensive tastes and arrogance acquired in their youth conflict with their lack of wealth and a society that no longer even remembers the Makioka name. A cold and clear depiction of how the self-interests of adult life can separate the ties among once close siblings.
Tanizaki also presents a study of how individuals responded to the major changes in social mores in Japan (and perhaps most societies) that occurred in the 1940s. At one extreme is the sister Yukiko who still attempts to live in a past era when women were reserved, passive, and led an almost cloistered life. The youngest sister Takeo on the other hand eagerly embraces all of the freedoms and excesses of modern society. A modern woman would completely understand her desire for sexual and financial independence.
In 1949 he received the Imperial Prize in literature. He continued to produce important work, including several translations into contemporary Japanese of the "Genji Monogatari" ("The Tale of Genji"), right up until his death in 1965.