Who is Junichiro Tanizaki?

Mary McMahon

Junichiro Tanizaki is a Japanese novelist who lived from 1886 to 1965. He is one of Japan's most famous authors, and his work is widely read all over the world. Junichiro Tanizaki is well known for his experimental writing style paired with very traditionally formatted Japanese narrative. His work is characterized by very strange and often tormented characters who struggle with the clash between Westernization and traditional Japanese values, much like Junichiro Tanizaki himself. Many of his novels are also frankly erotic, although the eroticism tends to take a nontraditional and sometimes non-consensual form. Several of Tanizaki's books were later adapted into films as well.

Junichiro Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, the capital of Japan.
Junichiro Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, the capital of Japan.

Junichiro Tanizaki was born into a wealthy merchant family in Tokyo, and in his early years, he was fascinated by Westernization and modernism, living for some time in a Western style house in Yokohama, a very bohemian section of Tokyo, with his wife and child. Junichiro Tanizaki also briefly attended Tokyo University, leaving in 1910 with his fees unpaid. There is some debate over Tanizaki's nonpayment of his University fees, with some biographers arguing that he chose not to pay them as a personal protest, and others suggesting that he was not financially able to continue his studies. Tanizaki published several short stories during his time in Yokohama, including The Tattooer, which hints at the unique macabre style that Junichiro Tanizaki would later develop.

The life of Junichiro Tanizaki took a radical turn with the Kanto earthquake in 1923. His home in Yokohama was leveled, and he ended up leaving his wife and child and moving to Kyoto, traditionally a very old fashioned city that placed a high value on Japanese culture before Westernization. Junichiro Tanizaki himself began to change, and he fed his interest in Japanese history and culture, leading to the production of some of the finest Japanese novels of the 20th century.

Naomi (1924), Tanizaki's first novel from this period, is the story of a very traditionally raised engineer who falls in love with a young Japanese woman who has embraced modern culture. He continued the theme of clashes between traditionalism and modernism in Some Prefer Nettles (1929), a novel exploring the conflict between East and West. Junichiro Tanizaki wrote a number of books about this struggle between values, and they are all characterized by sad, strange characters who leave the reader with an oddly uncomfortable feeling.

Junichiro Tanizaki was also influenced by the years leading to the Second World War, turning away from modern Japanese militarism and looking back to other eras. The Secret History of the Lord Musashi (1935) and The Makioka Sisters (1948) both stem from Tanizaki's interest in Japanese history and culture. Both books were heavily researched and reflect a love and respect for previous eras in Japanese history, and the people who inhabit these stories seem more vivid and alive than Tanizaki's heavily Westernized characters.

As Junichiro Tanizaki neared the end of his life, his nostalgia and frustration with the turn away from traditional Japanese values colored much of his work. He played with themes of fabrication and fable telling, implying that modern Japanese culture was built more upon fiction than reality, in brutal novels such as The Key (1956) and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961).

The work of Junichiro Tanizaki is haunting and compelling, and also brilliantly written. His craft as a storyteller makes him a beloved author, even if his books often state difficult truths and criticisms of the culture they were written in. The legacy of Junichiro Tanizaki lies in his unflinching look at the rapid changes Japan went through in the 20th century, as well his meditations on history and traditional values.

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