Chijin no ai (A fool’s love; translated into English as Naomi) is written during the heyday of autobiographical confessions. The novel integrates Tanizaki’s two major concerns: the masochistic idolization of the femme fatale and the exoticism of the West. These two concerns became Tanizaki’s preoccupations since the beginning of his career as a novelist. Chijin no ai seriously questions the absolute authority and exoticism of the West, the attraction to masochism and abnormal sexuality. The author explores in allegorical form the social and cultural conditions of modern Japan.
The main protagonist of the novel, Kawai J?ji, has attraction to “modern, fashionable” (haikara) trends that reflects contemporary urban life in Japan in the 1920’s. J?ji is in fact described as a typical middle-class urban “salary man.” He graduated from the Higher Technical School and spends his free time going to the movies to see Western films and lounging with friends in cafes. I cafe he first met Naomi, his future wife, who reminded him of Mary Pickford. Critical of traditional Japanese marriages and the restrictions of conservative “family life,” J?ji has a “fairly advanced and modern” (haikara) (Silverberg p. 245) vision of marriage and moves with his wife Naomi into a “cheaply built Western-style house – what is now called a ‘modern culture dwelling’” – situated on the outskirts of Tokyo. J?ji “becomes obsessed by the body and costuming of his child-bride… he is overwhelmed by her sexuality, and both confused and enticed by her constantly shifting persona, which challenges fixed notions of gender and culture” (Silverberg p. 245).
The novel began publication in March 1924, more than a year after the Great Kant? Earthquake that accrued on September 1, 1923 and destroyed most of downtown area of Tokyo (Silverberg p. 240). The widespread industrialization during World War I considerably expanded the city. There lived educated middle class, including female professionals including teachers, nurses, typists, and pink-collar workers (Silverberg p. 247).
According to Nolte and Hastings (1991) “peasant women had always been hardworking and had contributed to household income through work outside the home” (p. 171). After the earthquake, the whole urban basic structure, in particular the transportation system and housing, was fundamentally modernized and americanized. The newly expanded middle class adopted modern ways. The leisure time of this Americanized class was directed toward mass consumption of new cultural goods. Younger readers were evidently attracted to Naomi as a vivid representative of the free modern girl not bound by traditional sexual and social roles. Naomi became the woman who violated all the traditional rules and social constraints.
J?ji’s relationship with Naomi illustrates the new socio-cultural reality and the sexual fantasies of the Japanese in the early 1920’s. The novel also depicts contemporary sociopolitical conditions as well as the collective cultural fantasies, presenting them in a funny, ironical manner. The following conversation occurs between J?ji and Naomi:
“. . . I’ll buy anything that’ll make you beautiful. I’ll give you my whole salary.” “That’s all right, you don’t need to. My English and music lessons are more important.”
“Oh, yes, yes. I’m going to buy you a piano soon. You’ll be such a lady, you won’t even be ashamed to mix with Westerners.”
The author often uses phrases like “mix with Westerners” and “like a Westerner.” Clearly she was also pleased. (pp. 42, 36)
Even while I was indulging her this way, I hadn’t abandoned my original desire, which was to give her a good education and bring her up as a fine, respectable woman. I didn’t have a clear idea of what ‘respectable’ and ‘fine’ meant, but I must have been thinking of something vague and simplistic like ‘a modern, sophisticated woman whom I wouldn’t be ashamed to present in any company.’ Was ‘making Naomi a fine woman’ compatible with ‘cherishing her like a doll’? It seems ridiculous now, but I was so befuddled by my love for her that I couldn’t see such an obvious inconsistency. (pp. 48, 40)
J?ji’s desire to give his wife “a good education and bring her up as a fine, respectable woman” is equivalent to his desire to change (westernize) Naomi both physically and intellectually so that she can transform into a “modern, sophisticated” wife, the “full equal of a Western woman.” This idea also gives pleasure to Naomi. This westernization causes the figure of the “new woman” to appear or rather, the modern Japanese man’s strong desire for a modern “new woman.”
Naomi whom J?ji tries to change into a “modern,” “respectable” woman, becomes a poor version of the prototype of the modern “new woman.” The novel parodies, if not derides by means of satire, the contemporary socio-cultural phenomenon of the modern woman and modern man, whose “freedom” and “emancipation” are illustrated as nothing more than the cheap products of the modern consumer society (Silverberg p. 247). When J?ji expresses willingness to “buy anything that will make her beautiful,” Naomi replies that “English and music lessons are more important” for her than dresses and shoes. Although she distinguishes between intellectuality and materiality, “intellectuality,” represented by the cultural material wealth of “English and music lessons,” is scarcely distinguishable from the stylish clothes that beautified Naomi’s body.
Soon, J?ji realized that his wife was completely lacking in the intellectual and spiritual qualities that would make her like a “sublime Western lady.” Naomi’s body beauty, however, became far beyond J?ji’s expectations at the beginning and came to resemble that of a Western woman. Naomi starts to have carefree relationships with fashionable male college students that were called at this time as mobo (Silverberg p. 239) – with whom she visits repeatedly dance halls. From rumors J?ji finds out that Naomi has started “free” friendships not only with these college students but with many other men as well. By describing the materiality and futility of modern women and modern men, the novel returns back, by contrast, to the “spirituality” and “depth” of the earlier socio-cultural figures of the new woman and the modern man, where man sought woman as his spiritual companion. Silverberg indicates that “Naomi’s bold transgressions across gender and culture boundaries identify her as a Modern Girl” (p. 245). The modern girl is depicted in the novel as a degraded version of the new woman. The modern girl’s materialistic and intellectual culture becomes a mass-produced copy of the new woman’s spiritual cultivation. The modernist transformation represented by the modern girl turns out to be a false reproduction of the real Western modernity generated to by the new woman vision (Silverberg p. 247).
J?ji’s ineffective education of Naomi paradoxically results in transforming her into a real Fatal Woman. Naomi ultimately becomes an uncontrollable, wild animal-like promiscuous woman, whom J?ji ejects from their house. When Naomi returns, seemingly having nowhere else to go, J?ji really takes her for a Western woman. J?ji’s affection to Naomi and the West is depicted as fetishistic in the regard that it takes for present and real what is non-existent and imaginary. Indeed, J?ji calls Naomi “a rare, precious doll” and ‘an ornament”. One of J?ji’s pleasures consists of keeping a photograph album recording Naomi development that he entitles “Naomi Grows Up.” J?ji’s description of how he is looking through the album of his wife shows the significance that these pictures hold for him:
As I went on turning the pages of the diary, there were more photographs of every description. Gradually they came to dwell on minute details, and there were enlargements of certain parts: the shape of her nose; the shape of her eyes; the shape of her lips; the shape of a finger; the curve of her arm, her shoulder, her back, or her leg; her wrist; ankle; elbow; knee; even the sole of her foot – all treated as if they were parts of a Greek statue or a Buddhist image in Nara. (p. 176)
In the novel Naomi, Tanizaki describes the consequences of modernization and how young J?ji is torn apart by those consequences. Such problems on the level of the individual can be further understood as a reflection of the social and cultural problems within the Japanese society, with the start of Japan’s new relationship to the West. The narrator of Tanizaki’s Naomi, describing his disastrous “modern” marriage, feels that “as Japan grows increasingly cosmopolitan [kokusaiteki], Japanese and foreigners are eagerly mingling [k?sai suru] 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” (p. 17). J?ji’s first-person confession in the novel is a depiction of the socio-cultural and political conditions of modern Japan, exposing the absurd but intense nature of the narrator’s unconscious and mad infatuation with the West. In the novel, J?ji discloses what this “West” means for the Japanese that is closely related to the quest from a radiant modern Western woman.
Nolte and Hastings. The Meiji State’s Policy Toward Women
Silverberg, Miriam. The Modern Girl as Militant
Tanizaki Jun’ichir?. Naomi. Trans. Anthony Chambers. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985.