Tag Archives: Japan

A Classic Japanese Writer, Republished in English



Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) falls into the same modern Japanese canon as Natsume Soseki and later writers ranging from Kenzaburo Oe to both Murakamis. An English translation of his novella “A Cat, A Man and Two Women” and two short stories has just been republished. It’s not a particularly exciting occasion, as I’ll explain later, but is still of interest.

Shozo, the hapless husband of the title novella, absolutely loves his cat. Other than his devotion for the tortoiseshell Lily, most of his character can be defined by absence. He lacks a vocation. He lacks will. He lacks love—real love, not just domestic familiarity—for his wife Fukuoka, just as he lacked it for his last one, Shinako.

When Shinako writes asking for Lily, Shozo grudgingly sends her over at the insistence of his Fukuoka. The household—Shozo, Fukuoka, and his mother—speculate over his ex’s motives and adjust to life without Lily, which is not terribly different from life with her.

Other than that, not much happens. Tanizaki retraces Shozo’s aimless or follows his characters’ thought processes in minute detail. Here, Shozo ponders his ex-wife’s intentions:

Was that it? Was Shinako planning to lure him back, with Lily as the bait? If Shozo was found wandering in the vicinity of her house, did Shinako think she could somehow grab hold of him and win him back with her feminine wiles? The very thought filled Shozo with resentment at his ex-wife’s cunning; at the same time, he felt all the more worried about Lily being used as a tool in such a plot. His only hope was that Lily might escape from Shinako’s house in Rokko on the Hankyu line and come back home, as she had from Amagasaki some years before.

Much of “A Cat” runs in this vein, and the result can be soporific. Blocky paragraph after blocky paragraph, Tanizaki catalogs thoughts instead of telling a story.

It doesn’t help that we don’t learn much about these characters other than the types they fall into. Shozo is the ineffectual man, and the women in his life are scheming, jealous manipulators. Petty domestic dramas can rise to the level of literature, and often have, of course, but only when they’re populated with something more than caricatures.

Toward the end of the novella, when Shozo runs to his ex-wife’s house to try to get a glimpse of that beloved cat, some pathos breaks through the two-dimensional characters and workaday prose. We see, that, underneath the comedy of henpecked Shozo, there’s a deep sadness: “Yes, it was true—Shinako and Lily were both to be pitied. But wasn’t he to be pitied even more? He, who had no home to call his own?”

The two short stories in this book also explore thwarted male ambition. “The Little Kingdom” follows Kajima, a poor schoolteacher, as he marvels at the power of a new pupil to control his peers, only to find that that power may have grown out of hand. In “Professor Raddo,” a reporter performs a frustrating interview with a laconic professor, only to meet him years alter and get asked to perform an odd favor.

These pieces, published in their native tongue between 1918 and 1936, say surprisingly little about the changes taking place in Japan during the first half of the twentieth century. (This translation was originally published in 1990.) Nor do they offer many memorable moments, the exception being the end of “The Little Kingdom,” which translator Paul McCarthy in his introduction calls a “double twist”. I am sorry that this classic leaves me with so little.

A Cat, A Man and Two Women by Junichiro Tanizaki. Translated by Paul McCarthy. Published August 27th by New Directions. 180 pages. $14.95


Hai: An Essay

I sat across from my grandmother—Ah-chan in Japanese—at the table in the middle of her dining room. My family’s summer visit had drawn to a close; in a few hours my mother, sister and I would be on a plane heading back to San Francisco. I listened to Ah-chan’s parting lessons while helping myself to tea and stale rice crackers. (She buys crackers in plastic packages and puts them in tins from Harrods of London, which are handsome but not airtight.) In her house across the road from a rice paddy, we were far away from Tokyo, that grotesque metropolis of neon and concrete and secondhand smoke, though it was barely an hour away by train.

Ah-chan told me, as expected, to study hard and be good to my mother, because it’s hard to raise a family in a nation that’s not your own. I don’t remember the context of her next edict.

“Don’t marry a man,” she told me. “It may be okay in America, but you are Japanese.”

Hai,” I responded.

No word in my first-grade Japanese vocabulary has been as versatile at hai, an assertive, respectful greeting and acknowledgement. It can stand in for more substantive speech in a range of situations. Your teacher asks if you’ve been listening to her—hai. A clerk thanks you for your business—hai. Your grandmother, sitting across several decades and the Pacific Ocean, tells you that her love, while strong, is conditional—hai.

“And don’t marry a dark girl,” Ah-chan added, “because then the babies will come out black.” For black she used makurokeh, not just black but the blackness of a street urchin who’s fallen down a chimney.


Ah-chan didn’t attend my parents’ wedding. My mother is Japanese, my father is a white American, and their union so displeased her that she didn’t care to see it formalized. I didn’t know this until my late teens, when my mother told me, because Ah-chan’s hostility never extended to her half-blood grandson. She’d spoil me with snacks and toy cars during my summer visits, and call throughout the year to promise more and say she loved me.

I remember only one time when I saw my father and Ah-chan together. They were in the dining room, and my father towered over Ah-chan, his body too tall for the Japanese doorways and ceilings. Ah-chan was smiling, but in retrospect this becomes something done out of obligation, as for a school portrait.

I can’t help but love her, though. She was forced to work in an aircraft factory as a teenager (“the boys got in thinking, ‘I’m going to die,’”), briefly taught elementary school in the wake of the Second World War, supported her devoutly Christian husband’s evangelizing while hesitating to get baptized herself, raised three daughters, and never quite found a life of her own after her husband died. I’ve only been around to witness the last chapter, but in my mother’s childhood memories I’m shown a woman who made skillful use of time and money, who welcomed guests from around the world through my grandfather’s church, and who listened as much as she talked.

Now that I’m older and have started to regard fatherhood as a distant aspiration rather than a joke or nightmare, I’ve come to understand Ah-chan’s reservations—though boycotting your own daughter’s wedding is still hard to forgive. Interracial marriages, and the children they create, inevitably dilute the cultures of the parents. I’m less Japanese than my mother is. I barely know the alphabets, recoil from pickled vegetables at breakfast, and have a comparatively lax sense of propriety. My children, in turn, will be even less Japanese than I am. Mixed-race children may be the embodiment of a better, less racist America, but we’re also the embodiment of cultural dissolution.

Which is not, of course, to say that our parents did anything wrong. I recall an interviewee in a Studs Terkel oral history saying that she was completely against interracial marriage because the children come out all confused. Well, yes. All children come out confused. The confusion of mixed-race children is different in degree, not category, from that of children whose parents differ in strictness or class backgrounds or aspirations for their offspring. Race, as America’s been realizing over the past decades, is one difference among many, not the barrier between species that prejudice and pseudoscience made it out to be.

The American ideal isn’t a melting pot, in which different cultures are poured into a homogenous stew, but a mosaic, in which different pieces of culture are laid next to one another. After generations of intermarriage, those pieces grow smaller and more scattered but remain distinct. In other words, I’m an American, but still have Japanese characteristics, and will do my damnedest to pass them on, so time doesn’t pluck those pieces from the mosaic and toss them into obscurity.

I still picture Ah-chan in the dining room, reading, watching TV, and receiving an occasional visitor, setting out those crackers that would still be crisp if only she didn’t care so much about appearances. I may not be able to speak with her again—I don’t know if I ever could—but I’d like to see her at least one more time, to assure her that there’ll still be a bit of Japanese in her American descendants several generations down, even if it only reveals itself in a hint of shamefaced humility or a family saying like hai.

“Crisis Without End: The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Catastrophe” edited by Helen Caldicott

Throughout these articles, drawn from a 2013 symposium organized by the editor, scientists and activists repeat key points with passion and rigor:

1) “Considering the risk of losing half our land and evacuating half our population,” writes Naoto Kan, Prime Minister of Japan during the March 2011 disasters, “my conclusion is that not having nuclear power plants is the safest energy policy.” Kan’s fellow contributors add that the risks of a meltdown, as well as the difficulty of storing nuclear waste, make the technology unsafe.

2) Official reports—whether from governments or international bodies—should be treated with skepticism. Though official estimates of the risks of radioactive fallout after the Fukushima meltdowns assumed that radiation would be evenly distributed throughout the body, research conducted after Chernobyl showed radiation concentrating in certain areas of the body such as the thyroid, thereby increasing risk.

3) Scientists and other experts should “not just…write doctoral papers but…speak out and speak to the layperson.” Honest, open communication between scientists, the public and the government can help ensure that policy is motivated by scientific as well as political concerns.

These articles occasionally lapse into moralizing—“The scientific community should understand that the main threat to research is lack of critical thinking”—but, for the most part, represent the ideal combination of scholarship and activism. They don’t feign objectivity (and shouldn’t), but argue their points with evidence rather than anecdotes or righteous indignation. The data within them is worth a look by proponents of nuclear power.

Such proponents include current Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, who’s called on his government to restart nuclear power plants shut down after March 2011. Last month, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Agency approved the restarting of a two-reactor power plant in Kyushu.

–Published in October by the New Press