Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi – Culture Hilarity

“As Japan grows increasingly cosmopolitan, Japanese and foreigners are eagerly mingling with one another; all sorts of new doctrines and philosophies are being introduced; and both men and women are adopting up-to-date Western fashions. No doubt, the times being what they are, the sort of marital relationship that we’ve had, unheard of until now, will begin to turn up on all sides.”

Thus begins 28 year old JoJi’s diary on love, marriage and cultural mingling.  Tanizaki is a master of the traditional Japanese literary style. Simple, flowing and lucid and his slanted insight on how Japan grapples with the advent of western sensibilities is hilariously unsettling.

Today, even westerners look at Japan and are confounded at how Japan has managed to fold in western styles into traditional households in Japan. Superficially.

Naomi, as a novel is engrossing and deals with emotions that are rarely explored today. Sexual jealousy, self effacement, love and fear.  Ultimately, it is a story of infatuations and love.  Of understanding, and sometimes convincing oneself, about why they act a certain inexplicable way.

Marriage has so far provided an unassailable cocoon of private legitimacy to the unmoored male and female. They derive their identity, confidence, purpose and structure from that institution. Tanizaki probes into a marriage, unravels it and lays it bare only to then reconstruct it back emphasizing the fault lines, like with the art of Kintsugi.

The Many Guises of Cultural Upheaval

Women equality is all the vogue in India. The cry for equal treatment of women has moved mainstream. While this has helped bring the conversation into many traditional families and educational structures it has brought its share of attendant “trend surfers” into the limelight. Politicians want to ride the empowerment wave and call for the death penalty of rapists without trial. Economically and politically empowered women push for draconian laws that are unfair to the minority groups of Christians and Muslims and the LGBT community. Everyone of them in turn squabble against each other on matters of personal freedoms like food, festivals and frivolities.

This turmoil is good only when one views them all interconnected. There can be no empowerment without empathy. The idea of women empowerment in recent India is closely associated with western values. But just like with Naomi and JoJi, they see only the apparent. In the west, women empowerment had the context of suffrage movements, decolonizations and civil rights movements which gave a better society for many sections of people, addressing multiple outrages and channeling them all into democratic institutions.

In Naomi, Tanizaki, writes about farcical episodes of how cultural upheavals are interpreted by the common Japanese man and woman. How Naomi and Joji twist it, use it as a spear to pivot and chart their life according to their worldview. Man or woman, there is good, evil and suffering in every one of them. For traditionalists refuge lies in holding onto the known revered past for sanity.

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