Reading: “The Makioka Sisters” by Junichiro Tanizaki

Book cover The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro tanizaki

“She [Sachiko] was sometimes startled at the thought that she spent more time worrying about her sisters than about her husband and her daughter, but they were like daughters—they were on a level with Etsuko in her affections, and at the same time they were her only friends. Left alone, she was surprised to note that she had no friends worthy of the name. […] Because of her sisters she had not needed friends.”

I love a great (read: bulky) family saga – something to sink your teeth into. Several hundred pages long, we meet illustrious and interesting people, accompany them through parts of their stories, take the time to really get to know them. After finally finishing such a novel, it feels like something’s missing — leaving behind a loved one, a good friend, people we grew accustomed to. This is what reading “The Makioka Sisters” felt like to me.

Having finished the book more than a week ago, I dearly miss them. I’m longing to spend a little more time with them, finding out what will eventually become of Taeko, the youngest, and if Yukiko’s fate is sealed for once. Alas, it will not be and I have to find another fictional family to satisfy my cravings …

Meet the Sisters

There are four Makioka sisters – Tsuruko, the eldest, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko, the youngest – though the book focuses on the stories of the last three, Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko. Taking place in the late 1930s, with international turmoil and war just starting to build up over several years, the sisters oscillate between traditional Japanese customs and growing Western influences that bring changes to a traditional society. One of the main issues of the book is finding a husband for Yukiko, the second youngest sister, who at 30 is still not married. Since both parents are dead, Tatsuo, Tsuruko’s husband, is the head of the family and responsible for finding a suitable husband for Yukiko. Tatsuo and Tsuruko, living in the ‘main’ house in Osaka, in which the younger, unmarried siblings should stay as well until they’re married off, are removed from the main action of the book since Yukiko and Taeko don’t like Tatsuo and prefer to stay with the second eldest, Sachiko, and her husband Teinosuke.

“Sachiko was in the habit of going to Yukiko when she had to talk about Taeko, and to Taeko to talk about Yukiko. She suddenly felt very lonely.”

The book, therefore, focuses on Sachiko and her interactions with her sisters, husband, daughter, maids, friends, and acquaintances of the family. As seen in the quotes at the beginning of this post, most of the time Sachiko is our limited 3rd person narrator. Sachiko, feeling sorry for Yukiko, does her best to find a suitable groom. Even when Yukiko has to leave Sachiko’s and Teinosuke’s home in Ashiya has to join Tsuruko, Tatsuo, and their brood after their move to Tokio, Sachiko is the one receiving marriage proposals for Yukiko – not Tatsuo or the main house, as it would be customary.
Taeko, meanwhile, doesn’t care about tradition and what others may think about her and her family as much as her sisters do, refusing to join the main household and instead staying in Ashiya with Sachiko and her family. She is living a rather independent life, working as an artist, learning how to sew, taking dance lessons, and entertaining more and less appropriate suitors without the knowledge of her family.
While the author focuses on Sachiko, Yukiko, and Taeko, Tsuruko is, as stated before, left aside, not only locally removed from the events of the book but also literally. At times it seems as if the three younger sisters actively conspire against their eldest sibling. Maybe that’s because of her husband, whom they don’t like, maybe it’s because — together with her husband — Tsuruko is the most traditional and conservative of them. Whatever it is, Tsuruko as one of the Makioka sisters acts as a backdrop that represents familial traditions and rules that are increasingly changing thanks to Western (modern?) influences. Since the once-powerful name Makioka still is of significance in Okinawa, one has to act accordingly — at least in the eyes of Tsuruko, Tatsuo, and elder relatives.

While Sachiko is aware of certain misdemeanors — like Yukiko and Taeko not living in the main house or Taeko working and earning money of her own — she tries to find reasonable excuses for it. Understanding her sisters and doing her best to be there for them whenever they need her, she defends Yukiko and Taeko against her husband and anyone else questioning their behavior. This is not always easy, with Yukiko doing her part in not finding a husband and Taeko not caring much about tradition and honoring the old name Makioka.

What’s the story?

This book has 562 pages — can finding husbands and honoring Japanese traditions really take up that much time and space?
Yes — and no. It’s a quiet but nevertheless intriguing book about the small issues a Japanese family is facing during turbulent times of changing values and international upheaval. But it’s so much more. Apart from the dramatic depiction of serious flooding that threatens Taeko’s life, it usually follows a slow-paced, quiet storytelling of familial and personal dramas. These contain miscarriages, sickness, discussions about traditions, and the seemingly endless ‘miais’ Yukiko has to endure to find a prospective suitor.

Nothing much seems to happen — life happens. Lives happen. But these stories, in their quiet multitude, in their detailed descriptions, are so intriguing to follow, so captivating that I had a hard time leaving them. Or rather, I felt left behind.

‘They’ (as so often before, don’t ask me who ‘they’ are) say that a good book is hard to leave. ‘They’ are right. It took me a few days to find an adequate replacement for the dear sisters. If anyone knows other family sagas and stories like “The Makioka Sisters”, please let me know in the comments — thanks!! 🙂

As always, thanks for stopping by, take care, and stay safe 🙂

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