Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎, 1886-1965) was a Japanese novelist who made his literary debut in 1910. He was an adherent of the romantic movement in Japanese literature, which had emerged in reaction to Japanese naturalism, then at the height of its influence. In his later period, he explored his sexual conflicts, seeking to discover how a man could find spiritual salvation from carnal desires.

The Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 marked a critical turning point in Tanizaki's career. At that time, he moved from the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Tōkyō and Yokohama to the more traditional Kansai area. The intense contact with the pure form of Japanese culture he encountered in Kyōto significantly inspired his writings of that period. During World War II, Tanizaki reflected on his creative powers, expressing an appreciation of traditional Japanese concepts of beauty in his stories, thus carrying on the classical literary tradition of the Heian Period. The war itself played almost no role in his works.

Tanizaki's early stories already display a tendency towards masochism and a preoccupation with women, whether in their protective role as nurturing mothers or as purely sensual creatures. Some of these stories like Kirin (1910), Shōnen (1910, "The Children"), Hōkan (1911), and Akuma (1912, "Devil") combined eroticism with a fear of female power and the unending and confusing temptation they pose to men.

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki was born in Nihonbashi in Tōkyō in the early Meiji Period represented an extraordinary blend of old Edo traditions and new Western influences. Hailing from a wealthy merchant family, Tanizaki grew up in an atmosphere of urban sophistication that contributed to his sensual approach to life. His short story Shisei (1910, 刺青 "The Tattooer") was received with great enthusiasm by Nagai Kafū (永井荷風, 1879-1959), another urbane author from Tokyo whose Amerika Monogatari (1908, "American Stories") deeply impressed the young Tanizaki. The success of Shisei started his literary career. In this short story, a tattoo artist inscribes a spider, a symbol of evil, onto the flesh of an attractive young woman, turning her beauty into a compelling, demonic power to which the artist succumbs, prostrating himself before her. Erotic yearnings, masochism, and the confusing mingling of female beauty and lurking evil are elements of Tanizaki's Taisho-era stories.

His first - and unhappy - marriage in 1915 and the "Odawara episode", a triangular relationship between Tanizaki, his wife Chiyoko and the writer Satō Haruo (佐藤春夫), had significant psychological effects on him. The fact that he had encouraged the affair between his wife and Satō seems to point to his masochist tendencies. In Aisureba koso (1921, 愛すればこそ "Because I Love Her") and Kami to Hito no aida (1924, "Between Men and the Gods") Tanizaki expresses his conviction that true happiness can only be achieved out of the struggle of two men for the love of one woman. Chijin no ai (1924/25, "A Fool's Love") touches upon the same theme, only against the backdrop of the rapid modernisation of Taishō society. The writing of this book was interrupted by the Great Tōkyō Earthquake. As his house in Yokohama had been destroyed, he moved to Kyōto .

Two transitional works followed: one about lesbianism, said to be inspired by the "feminine charms" of the Kansai dialect (Manji, 1928-30 卍, "Quicksand"), and Tade kū mushi (1928-29, 蓼喰ふ蟲 "Some Prefer Nettles"), depicting the obliteration of what Tanizaki deemed the "superficial culture of Tokyo" by more potent, more traditional strains. His return to classical literature and conventional storytelling techniques began with Yoshinokuzu (1931, "The Arrowroot of Yoshino"), a study of maternal love. While still married to Furukawa Tomiko, his second wife, Tanizaki became involved with Morita Matsuko, who was also married to someone else. The effects of his relationship with Matsuko, who eventually became his third and last wife, appeared in many of his later works. Matsuko hailed from an old Ōsaka family on the verge of financial ruin. Of a highly cultured background, Matsuko seemed to trigger in Tanizaki the suffering so requisite to his masochistic side. Inspired by Matsuko, Tanizaki began to write a series of his best works in rapid succession.

Mōmoku Monogatari (1931, 盲目物語 "A Blind Man's Tale"), Ashikari (1932, 蘆刈 "The Reed Cutter") and Bushukō Hiwa (1935, 武州公秘話 "The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi") were his major works during this period, stories of men who find their ultimate happiness in absolute devotion to women who are either haughty or pure and unapproachable. The male protagonists all readily submit to their objects of adoration and seem not to be crushed even in the face of humiliation. Instead, their subjugation appears to help them surpass their sorry state, elevating them to a new, almost religious realm of existence.

In 1939, Tanizaki embarked on rendering the entire Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) into modem Japanese. The novel Sasameyuki (細雪 "The Makioka Sisters"), which Tanizaki started in 1942, was probably prompted by the affinity he felt with the splendid but sorrowing court ladies in the Genji Monogatari. For the background material of Sasameyuki, he turned to his own family and to that of his third wife, Matsuko. His novel is a requiem to an era bygone, depicted in the decline of the once proud and prosperous family. The protagonist, Teinosuke, is portrayed as an average and placid family man with the usual masochistic impulses so often found in Tanizaki's male characters, which are held tightly in check. Sasameyuki is not merely the story of Teinosuke but also a leisurely, detailed study of the daily lives of the four sisters who surround him and to one of whom he is married. The novel also describes contemporary social trends and captures the spirit of a particular culture at a specific moment in time.

The graceful heroine Yukiko, whose marriage is delayed by a strange combination of circumstances, is distinguished for her pitifulness and beauty. The serialisation of Sasameyuki began in 1943 but was immediately halted by the military authorities. Tanizaki nevertheless continued working on the manuscript amid the devastation of World War II, completing it in 1948.

In the postwar years, Tanizaki suffered from high blood pressure but continued to write actively. Shōshō Shigemoto no haha (1949/50, 少将滋幹の母 "The Mother of Captain Shigemoto") represents another aspect in Tanizaki's treatment of the femme fatale. It can be viewed as an apotheosis of his other works expanding on the theme of love between mother and son. The concluding scene, in which mother and son are reunited, is one of the most beautiful in modern Japanese literature.

Around that time, another theme, the problem of sexuality in old age, surfaced and developed in Kagi (1956, "The Key"), a graphic psychological study chronicling in a diary form the sexual struggle between an ageing professor and his wife. To stimulate his waning sexual desire, the protagonist persuades his wife to commit adultery, while she, though pretending to meet his demands submissively, actually deceives him. Once again, Tanizaki focuses on the masochistic paradox of being unable to find true happiness except by living through sheer hell.

In his subsequent work, Yume no ukihashi (1960, 夢浮橋 "The Bridge of Dreams"), he returns to his quest for redemption from sexuality. Nevertheless, it was only with one of his last novels, Fūten rōjin nikki (1961/62, "Diary of a Mad Old Man"), that Tanizaki combined his former themes of the femme fatale and the mother-figure, with that of love between mother and son to bring his protagonist toward a resolution that allows him a final, troubled salvation. In this work, the "evil woman", resembling the heroine in Chijin no ai, is the aged protagonist's daughter-in-law. The old man carries on a flirtation with this woman and becomes fascinated by her feet, for him, the alluring essence of a woman. These feet bring back memories of his beloved mother. He requests that he be buried beneath a Buddhist gravestone inscribed with a faithful tracing of his daughter-in-law's feet after his death. Of course, the bizarre and absurd nature of the old man's desires makes this novel's narrative animated. But aside from his memorable descriptions of the old man's absorption in his daughter-in-law and her feet, Tanizaki, through the old man, seems to have made peace at last with his lifelong sexual yearnings. An imprint of the daughter-in-law's perfect feet on the gravestone will remain above the old man forever. In death, the old man finds salvation in the wise acceptance of his ineradicable human perversities.

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki was designated a "Person of Cultural Merit" (文化功労者 Bunka kōrōsha) by the Japanese government in 1952. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature six times (1958-64). In 1964, he was elected to honorary membership in the American Academy and the Institute of Arts and Letters, the first Japanese writer to be so honoured. He died 30 July 1965 of heart and kidney failure in Yugawara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Major works:

  • The Tattooer (1910, 刺青 Shisei)
  • Fumiko's Legs (1919, 富美子の足 Fumiko no ashi)
  • Aguri (1822, 青い花 Aoi hana)
  • Naomi (1924, aka A Fool's Love; 痴人の愛 Chijin no Ai)
  • Quicksand (1928-30, 卍 Manji)
  • Some Prefer Nettles (1929, 蓼喰う蟲 Tade kū mushi)
  • Arrowroot (1931, 吉野葛 Yoshino kuzu)
  • The Reed Cutter (1932, 蘆刈 Ashikari)
  • In Praise of Shadows (1933, 陰翳礼讃 In'ei Raisan: an essay on aesthetics)
  • The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935, 武州公秘話 Bushukō Hiwa)
  • A Cat, A Man, and Two Women (1936, 猫と庄造と二人の女 Neko to Shōzō to Futari no Onna)
  • The Makioka Sisters (1943-48, 細雪 Sasameyuki)
  • Captain Shigemoto's Mother (1949, 少将滋幹の母 Shōshō Shigemoto no haha)
  • The Key (1956, 鍵 Kagi)
  • Childhood Years: A Memoir (1957, 幼少時代 Yōshō Jidai)
  • Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961, 瘋癲老人日記 Fūten Rōjin Nikki)


  • Gessel, Van C., Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Kodansha Biographies 1993
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005


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