'The Makioka Sisters': An Aberrant Masterpiece

04/02/2015 09:21 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

The Makioka Sisters opens with a scene where two sisters are whispering about yet another prospect of an arranged marriage for the third sister, Yukiko, whose youth is slowly fading.

"The man works in an office, M.B. Chemical Industries, Itani says."

"And is he well off?"

"He makes a hundred seventy or eighty yen a month, possibly two hundred fifty with bonuses."

Written by one of Japan's greatest novelists, Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (1886-1965), The Makioka Sisters is not simply a masterpiece. It also happens to be a particularly aberrant masterpiece because it revolves around arranged marriage -- a subject usually shunned in modern novels. "Arranged marriage" sounds unromantic. Moreover, in English and in other Western languages, the term inevitably evokes certain misgivings. It may not sound as barbaric as "forced marriage," which makes you wince as you picture a bearded man taking a weeping girl-bride against her will. Yet "arranged marriage" still carries the negative connotation of indifference to the wishes of the bride-to-be.

In reading The Makioka Sisters in translation, Western readers may be pleasantly surprised to find how mistaken they have been. First, they will learn that a novel which recounts a string of attempts at arranged marriage can be no less a page-turner than a murder mystery. They will also discover to what ridiculous lengths those involved in the task can go in trying to accommodate the young woman's wishes -- or to ascertain her wishes to begin with. At Yukiko's typically embarrassed and non-committal "um," everyone around her tries frantically to guess her true feelings.

In the novel's last pages, the youngest sister, Taeko, who unlike Yukiko acts on her own and falls in love, ends up marrying a penniless bartender -- the father of her stillborn child -- while Yukiko goes off to wed a baron in great splendor. Closing the book, some Western readers may be left perplexed, wondering how an arranged marriage could ever be given preferential treatment over love. Many, however, will have gained a richer understanding of a matrimonial custom that has existed for thousands of years and will probably be around for a long time to come.

Cultural exchange in modern Japan has been mostly one-sided, from the West to Japan. The Makioka Sisters exemplifies one of those happy instances when, thanks to translation, a work of modern Japanese literature stands to enrich the world view of those in the West. I would submit, moreover, that what made it possible for Tanizaki to write such a novel was not only Japanese culture but the Japanese language itself. Out of the innumerable quirks of the Japanese language, let me just take an example of how the word "love" is used -- or not used -- to illustrate my point.

When Japan opened its doors to the world in 1868, along with technology the country began importing Western arts. Japanese people came into contact for the first time with modern novels -- and, through them, with the notion of romantic love. The theme of love between a man and a woman was part of Japanese literary tradition, to be sure, but never occupied the privileged place it did in the West. Fascinated, Japanese even felt a need to come up with a different word for such an exalted passion, one that would do justice to the newly encountered form of love; they settled on the unfamiliar word "ai" -- which they borrowed from a translation of the New Testament. Novels inhabited by lovelorn men and women soon inundated the literary scene. Yet in real life, arranged marriages remained the norm and romantic love always seemed somehow foreign.

It was after World War II that a drastic change began. Formal arranged marriage became more and more outmoded, and today, people are encouraged to look for their dream partner on their own. Nonetheless, the term "arranged marriage" still carries no negative connotation in Japanese. At the same time, "ai," the equivalent of the word "love" -- that word so common in Western languages and so crucial in harnessing romance -- still has not taken deep root. This was perhaps the inevitable outcome of initially taking the word from the Bible.

Love in the Bible can be generous as in "Love thy neighbor." But it can also demand an absolute commitment to an ideal figure to the exclusion of all others: "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37) In its ultimate display, romantic love may well be an offspring of the latter kind of commitment -- the literary manifestation of a monotheistic fervor that underlies Western languages. To this day, no Japanese reader of a Western novel in translation has any qualms when a character says "I love you," yet the same phrase coming from the mouth of a Japanese character just doesn't sound right. At least, not yet. The sentence sounds too dramatic and self-assertive.

So what would a Japanese boy say to a girl when he wants to say "I love you"? He would in all probability use the verb "suki," whose English equivalent would be the most boring verb imaginable: "like." The verb "love" in Japanese, if ever used in conversation, can usually only be applied to people. Suki can be applied to anything, be it sushi, cats, winter, books or the taste of a madeleine. And when declaring love, having recourse to that mundane and all-encompassing verb somehow suits the Japanese language, which often sounds better when things are left vague.

The Makioka Sisters is set in the years preceding World War II, but it was written during and after the war. Tanizaki knew that Japan would never be the same again. Yet a great writer always knows the persistent power of language. Tanizaki foresaw that a novel that reads like a eulogy of arranged marriage would long remain relevant in Japan. What he probably did not foresee was how his novel would eventually enrich the wider world.

Minae Mizumura is the author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English.