Set in Japan on the eve of World War II, The Makioka Sisters has been described as the greatest Japanese novel of the twentieth century. Not having read many Japanese novels I’m not in a position to agree or disagree with that observation, but it is certainly a compelling and poignant picture of an upper-class Japanese society in decline.
The four Makioka sisters belong to an aristocratic family whose parents are no longer alive. The two eldest, Tsuruko and Sachicko are married and Tsuruko’s husband, Tatsuo, has taken on the Makioka family name and with that responsibility for the unmarried sisters.
Yukiko and Taeko prefer living with Sachicko and her husband in Osaka while the eldest sister and her family make their home in the ‘main house’ in Tokyo, which causes tension at times.
Yukiko, the third daughter, has turned down numerous marriage proposals over the years and the family has acquired a reputation for being too haughty. With the family fortunes in decline and Yukiko now in her early thirties, their expectations are beginning to be more realistic.
‘It was strange that whenever talk came up of a husband for Yukiko, some really insurmountable difficulty always presented itself. Yukiko seemed to be unmarriageable, and Tsuruko found it hard to shrug off as only a superstition the belief that women born in the Year of the Ram had trouble finding husbands.’
The youngest sister, Taeko, is rebellious and modern in her views but has to wait until Yukiko is married before she can entertain the idea of marriage herself. Meanwhile, she doesn’t let that stop her from throwing herself into scandalous situations.
Up until the end of World War II, Japanese men and women were introduced to each via a matchmaker. This could be a relative or a another third party who arranged a ‘miai’ where the two potential spouses met over a formal meal in the company of some family members and the matchmaker. They were also given the opportunity to spend some time conversing on their own.
The two parties investigated each other’s backgrounds using a detective agency to check there were no skeletons in the closets or problems such as insanity or hereditary issues in the family, so the Makioka’s were always afraid that Taeko’s indiscretions might surface and put an end to negotiations.
This book is a quiet and delicate immersion in Japanese culture, from cherry blossom festivals and Kabuki Theatre, to family traditions and cultural beliefs.
The author started writing the story as a series during World War II and the events of The Makioka Sisters take place between 1936 and 1941 as Japan was building up its military presence in the area.
The Makioka family seem to live in a bubble while their culture is disintegrating around them but from time to time hints about what was going on in the outside world break into the story: ‘the national crisis,’ ‘the China Incident,’ and ‘National Spiritual Mobilization,’ for example.
The Osaka sisters became quite close to the Stolz family, a German couple and their three children living next door to them, and when the family returned to Germany, letters were exchanged. They reveal some of what was taking place over there in 1941, the attitude of the people to the war, and the false security they felt about the outcome.
‘As you know, there is a shortage of manpower in Germany, and it is very difficult to find a maid…Once I had time to write letters in the evening. Now I must get out a basket of stockings, all with big and little holes in them. In the old days I would have thrown away worn-out stockings, but now we must economise. We must work together to win through, and each of us must do his part, however small it may be. I understand that life is harder in Japan too…
But we must bear the burden. We are both young nations fighting our way up, and it is not easy to win a place in the sun. And yet I do believe that we will win in the end…When we win our victory and everything is normal again, you can visit Germany.’
This is an unusual and very interesting perspective.
The Makioka Sisters is beautifully written and has stood up well in translation into English while retaining an authentic Japanese flavour.
530 pages; would suit an upper high school student studying Modern History, or Ambleside Online Year 12 if you wanted to include a literary book from an Asian perspective in an Australian curriculum.
Linking to 2019 Back to the Classics: A Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania