Saturday 15 April 2023

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki - A Toxic Japanese Love Story

Naomi is a toxic love story, set in 1920s Japan, and one that is surprisingly relevant today. The novel is a classic of Japanese literature by Junichiro Tanizaki and a perfect snapshot of the Taisho Era.

Serialized between 1924-1925 under the title A Fool’s Love (痴人の愛, Chijin no Ai), the novel is one of Tanizaki’s most famous works, ranking alongside Quicksand (aka Manji) and The Makioka Sisters. Tanizaki began publishing Naomi in the Osaka Asahi, but while it was a hit, many conservative readers objected to its content. Publication ceased, but the story resumed a few months later in Josei, an early Japanese woman’s magazine, where it was concluded.

The novel is written a first-person point of view through the eyes of Joji Kawai, a young office worker or salaryman (サラリーマン, sararīman). Joji falls in love with the titular Naomi when they meet while she is working as a café hostess. Joji is instantly smitten, despite being 28 and her being only 15. Some red flags are already going off, but Joji insists that his intentions are pure. He only wants to bring Naomi up as a “proper lady,” but, if she so desires, to make her his wife when she comes of age. He even goes through the proper channels, asking permission from her parents who live in Asakusa. They’re lower-class people and eventually agree, thinking Naomi will have a better life under Joji’s wing.

Sounds suspicious, especially in our day and age. Joji’s behavior sounds more like predatory child grooming, and our protagonist comes across as a total creep. There are echoes of Humbert Humbert from Lolita, but Joji is a little more sympathetic. Or at least, that’s what Joji would have us believe. Indeed, his fascination with Naomi borders on obsession. He dresses her in fancy Western clothes, bathes her, and even keeps a record of how fast she’s growing. In these early chapters, she’s childish, almost bratty, but is entirely dependent on Joji. However, it’s also shown that although Joji is “in control,” hints of Naomi’s dominance seep out. In particular, she enjoys riding Joji around like a horse, kicking him in the sides to make him trot faster.

The setting of Naomi is also a critical piece of the novel. The Taisho Era is an interesting but neglected period of Japanese history, spanning the years 1912-1926. Sandwiched between the Meiji Era which saw Japan open up to the world and become modernized and the early Showa Era with its militarism, the Taisho Era is a relatively calm time in Japanese history, with a liberal atmosphere. It evokes a certain zeitgeist the Japanese call Taisho Roman (大正浪漫)or Taisho Romance, similar to American nostalgia for the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties. The timeframe begins around 1918 and concludes around 1926, which was then the near future and ironically the last year of the Taisho Era. Current events are not discussed often and even the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is mentioned in passing in the final chapter, but we never see its destructive force wreak havoc on Tokyo.

In the early 1920s, Western bourgeois culture became highly fashionable, even more so than during the Meiji Era, and Joji typifies this new type of Japanese middle class. He's obsessed with the West - its music, movies, and languages, which could be a major reason why he’s smitten with Naomi. Joji frequently compares her to Mary Pickford, an early American silent movie star, given that Naomi has a Western look to her, almost as if she’s mixed race or a hafu. In addition to buying her Western clothes, he pays for her English tutoring lessons, which she isn’t very good at.

No matter, she’s a better dancer, and Joji takes her to a Western dance club called the El Dorado. It’s here that we see Naomi isn’t nearly as demure or innocent as she’s put on. She snidely insults a Japanese woman trying to dance, calling her a “monkey” behind her back. Added to that, Naomi is a hit among foreign men, who ask her to dance. Joji is clearly insecure that his real-life Mary Pickford doll is attracting such unwanted attention.

It's also around this time that we learn Naomi has developed a friendship with a man named Kumagai, who’s younger than Joji, adding to his anxieties. Naomi begins palling around with a group of young men, but it’s clear Kumagai and Naomi are more than just friends. Joji attempts to bring her back into his orbit, renting out a summer home, but to no avail. As the narrator, Joji relates how he clearly understands what Naomi is doing, how she is wrapping him around her finger, but he laments how he’s utterly helpless to stop her. With only a few sweet words, Naomi effortlessly manipulates him, hiding the true extent of her intentions.

When confronted about these many flings behind his back, Naomi leaves Joji, but it’s too much for the salaryman. She eventually reenters his life to claim her possessions, leaving Joji speechless. She’s become the epitome of a moga, decked out in a Western dress, Joji’s Western fetish fantasy made flesh. In a strange scene, she asks him to shave her arms in order to be even more feminine. Joji can’t stand it anymore. Realizing he will never escape her spell, he collapses and begs Naomi to take him back. Naomi mounts him like a horse once again and lists her demands while speaking like a man - some Japanese phrases and words are used only by men, making his domination all the more complete. Joji has no choice but to accept, lest she leaves him again.

Power dynamics are a constant theme of the novel. Traditionally, Japanese women are expected to be subservient and docile, eager to please men. Female domination is seen as partly Western but also reflects a dark neurosis that lay hidden within Japanese culture. Naomi brings these societal fears to the forefront.

In the beginning, Joji is the groomer, completely in control of Naomi, molding her into his ideal moga, although he insists his intentions are pure. By the end, he’s a desperate, pathetic cuckold, content with Naomi sleeping around with Japanese and foreign men, so long as he is able to still be in her life. She smokes Western cigarettes and reads Western magazines like Vogue. Joji successfully transformed Naomi into his Western woman fantasy, and once gaining her independence, devoured him alive. Was this always her intention from the start? Or did she learn the art of manipulation from her manipulator?

The novel is also a breakdown of Taisho Era Japanese society, specifically a skewering of the bourgeoisie with its fascination with Western culture and trinkets. But it shouldn’t be taken as anti-Western or anti-modern. Tanizaki himself loved movies and had a dream that Japanese women would become more like their Western counterparts. However, he viewed cafes with distaste, and his portrayal of Naomi herself is hardly flattering. It’s even more awkward when you learn that Tanizaki based Naomi on his sister-in-law. In short, Joji is not a stand-in for Tanizaki himself.

Regardless, young, modern Japanese of the 1920s welcomed Naomi, seeing it as a reflection of the times. Gender roles were changing all around the world, Japan included. Some referred to “Naomi-ism” for these type of bloodsucking young women, similar to the term "Vamp" in 1920s America. However, the novel’s enduring legacy was introducing the term “modern girl” (モダンガール modan garu) usually shortened to just moga, which is attributed to Naomi. Often compared to American flappers, Japanese mogas were independent young women, who often had jobs, lovers, and dressed in Western style. Their heyday lasted from the 1920s to around the mid-1930s, when militarism took a firm grip on the nation.

There have been four film adaptations of Naomi, from 1949, 1960, 1967, and 1980. But they all take place during the time they were made, reflecting the zeitgeist of postwar Japan. While I do feel that the novel has universal themes that can work in any period, the setting of the Taisho Era adds an extra depth, one that is inextricably tied to its author and creation. Its love story is toxic and might put off some Western readers, but it provides a great insight into some esoteric aspects of Japan that are still relevant today – from the love of idol pop groups to the worship of Western culture – all of which Tanizaki laid bare decades ago.