A while back, my brother gave me a book to read. I think I had been lamenting the state of my love life at the time and probably making disparaging remarks about the fairer sex. At any rate, into my hands he thrust  a small paperback with the picture of a, to me, not very attractive lady on the front. Inside the cover, he had placed a note, written on some torn notebook paper, which said, “Read this and learn the ways of women!” True to form, I placed the book on my shelf and promptly set about forgetting to read it. That is, until last week, when discovering this foreign book in my possession and the strange note inside, I decided to finally read Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi.

A little background first. Tanizaki is one of the biggest authors in modern Japanese history, second really only to Natsume Souseki in popularity. He, like all of the major Japanese authors of the 20th center, wrote during the end of the Meiji era and the coming of Western culture into the isolationist island nation. Tanizaki’s major focus was how these new fangled concepts from America and England like dancing, women’s sexual liberation, along with his own culture being obsessed with novelty played out in clashing with the homogeneous society that was Japan during that time. A lot of his work found itself in hot water with said society with its candid treatment of sexuality and fetishism with several papers pulls their serialization of his works; Naomi among them.

Naomi is a novel told in the style of a man writing to his readers about his past. It tells the story of this gentleman, Jouji, and the progression of his relationship with a young woman, the titular character. Jouji is a white-collar worker, strong of will and culture, who gets caught up in the Western craze that is sweeping across Japan in the 1920s. One day, while taking his coffee, he sees a young waitress who looks a lot like Mary Pickford, a well-known Canadian actress of the time. A woman of such exotic features plays right into his desire to embrace the fad. After a short bit of wooing, he manages to marry her despite their age difference (she 16 and he 32), hiding this fact by telling those who might frown upon them that she is his maid. Jouji lavishes gifts of fanciful clothes and western food on Naomi along with music, dancing and English lessons, trying to turn her into the perfect Western wife in typical Genji fashion. Soon though, the tables start to turn and their relationship roles being to reverse until it is she and not Jouji who becomes the dominate partner. In short, hedonism rears its ugly head and their marriage suffers for it.

Supposedly Naomi is an Asian version of this. I don’t see it.

The novel is presented, at least in the forward, as a comedy and I suppose in some sense, it is. Jouji ends up representing Tanizaki’s archetypal Japanese man at the time: a well-rounded, cultured, but not too rich gentleman who is curious about this other culture that is seeping into the country from without. His obsession with Naomi, from the typical reader at the time, had to have been humorous. How could anyone fall for someone so crass, so bombastic as that low-bred woman Naomi? How could he keep himself enamored with her after all the terrible things she puts him through? Surely, the Japanese of the time had to have snickered at the misfortune wrought by his own hands. Jouji repeatedly admits that he knows he is making terrible life choices and bad moral judgements, but the moment he thinks about Naomi, especially the thought of her feet, he shoves all that aside and makes the base decisions that lead to his domination.

On the other hand, for me personally, I had to think of the book as more of a tragedy. Jouji continuously puts Naomi before all else: work, fun, family, even his sanity. However, no matter what, she plays him like a fiddle. Throughout the book, Naomi manipulates him and torments him through teasing, lying, and straight up adultery only to look down her nose at him each time he discovers her machinations. He does lead himself into his own destruction, yes, but to see this woman act in such a selfish and self-serving manner to her own husband is sickening.

All that aside, the book offers great insights into how the West was viewed by the Japanese coming off the end of the Meiji era: taken in with curiosity while simultaneously shunned as some sort of great moral pestilence. Dancing, in particular, was met with enthusiasm by the young crowd that Naomi hangs out with, but it is described as vulgar, crass, and entirely materialistic. Tanizaki goes to far to equate it with prostitution later in the book. A few foreigners make an appearance in Naomi. A Russian woman, Jouji and Naomi’s dance teacher, is described glowingly by Jouji as a kind of goddess on earth that he felt unworthy being near. An American man is described as a debaucher, a drunk, and  a swindler. By the end of the novel, foreigners are likened as a string of unwanted, and unneeded scoundrels coming into Japan and destroying any kind of cultural chastity it might have–and Japan was drunk with the passion.

Just look at all this hooliganism!

There is one more observation I’d like to make here. It pertains to the archetype of Naomi and that of the “Modern Girl” as she and her kind were called. While reading this book and witnessing the interaction between Naomi and Jouji, I couldn’t help feeling I had seen this type of thing before. And in fact, I had, in anime. As my friends know, I despise the character type of the tsundere, yet here it was in a book from almost a hundred years ago. Granted, that we find out at the end of the book, that Naomi is all tsuntsun and not a drop of dere to be found, but for most of the book she plays that character. If you are unfamiliar with “tsuntsun” or “deredere”, they are Japanese terms for women who are “cold and menacing” and “lovey-dovey” respectively. The combination of the two can lead to a few varying types of character: a girl who denies her loving emotions and converts them into anger and abuse (Love Hina), a girl who continuously pushes someone away because she’s unsure of her feelings(Toradora), and the girl who torments the one she loves because it makes her like him more (Dokoro-chan). Naomi (from Jouji’s perspective) is the latter most version. She torments him, but only because she loves him and he puts up with it because it allows him to fulfill his desire of being near her. A lot could be said on the tsundere character type and the abnormal submission of a character’s manhood to that woman without a reciprocal bond, but that’s not my intention here. I just find it very interesting that this tsundere character type may have had its genesis in the 1920s and has made a resurgence as perhaps a kind of “post-Modern Girl”.

Could Naomi be Dokoro-chan’s great-grandmother?

If you have any interest in Japanese literature, especially modern, I really think you should read Naomi. It has so much to offer from the cultural commentary to the intriguing and heartrending way a man sacrifices his personhood to the woman he loves which doesn’t always work out in his favor. You may be wondering to yourself if my brother’s note held any truth to it. If this book is to be believed, all women are, as a wise sage once put it, filthy, lying whores.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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