Branko Milanović – Marriage and Society in Ante-Bellum Japan

A great weekend read, getting away from COVID, Trump, and the markets and edging back towards a reality gone by.

Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest  book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”

Cross-posted from Branko’s blog

File:Osaka Station circa 1930.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

Osaka Station circa 1930

Junichiro Tanizaki wrote the trilogy “The Makioka Sisters” during the World War II. I read it twice. Once, probably more than ten years ago; and  now during the pandemic. It is one of world classics. It is a story of an affluent commercial Osaka-Kobe family that is getting slightly less affluent. The entire plot revolves around the marriages of two youngest (out of four) sisters. It is not a book where much happens. In reality, almost nothing of note happens. Even whether the sisters ultimately get married or not is of little importance. It is not Jane Austen.

It is masterfully written. By the middle of the book, the characters are so well drawn that the reader feels to have known them throughout his life. The leisurely style of writing, full of inner discussions of what motivates even the minutest of the action of the heroines, is never boring. You learn about psychology as you learn about the social milieu of Japan in the late 1930s. Given that this is the world that will never come back and that Tanizaki knew that at the time of writing, the book has an elegiac, and somewhat nostalgic, feel. We are witnessing the last stirrings of the world that was forever gone.

But, as an economist would, let me review three areas—not literature—as revealed in the book that I found most interesting: gender relations, social distance between classes, and “Westernization” of Japan.

I will begin with the last one. It is often said that Tanizaki was conflicted about the “Westernization” of Japan. (That theme appears in his hauntingly beautiful “Some prefer nettles”.) I think that an excessive focus on the so-called “Westernization” makes us not realize that what we observe in the book (and probably in real life) was a process of modernization. Osaka of the late 1930s is a recognizably modern city: subway, inter-city trains with sleeping cars, taxis, Japanese, Chinese, German, French restaurants, theaters, commercial district, rich bourgeoisie living in individual homes outside the city center. I see all of this as “modernization”. We would regard it as such in Rome and Barcelona; why not in Osaka? Yes, there is kabuki and no theaters (to which the family often goes), but so there is opera and zarzuela in Naples and Madrid. We do not contrast opera to American movies in South Europe to call it “Westernization”. Why should we contrast traditional Japanese theater to American films in Osaka?

Thus, modernization and development, even if they are far from the topic of the book, are everywhere. They are everywhere in the background because the family members (most of the book deals with the lives of the four sisters, in particular Sachiko, the second eldest) spend most of their time in theaters, travel and various eateries.

How about the treatment of women? The book is indeed about women, their lives, and it is mostly through their eyes that we see Osaka and Japan. Marriages are arranged, whereas in Europe in the 1930s they were not, or much less openly so. In affluent Japanese families, the match-making was formalized even if less elaborate than many people might expect. The families would meet, while previously agreeing whether it is an official match-making meal (miai) or not, and they would chat, drink, and depending on the mood and preferences get along or not. Money and social status play a big role; but so would women’s preferences (and men’s obviously). In the book, one of the sisters refuses several promising parties. So women are not forced into marriages. But it is a delicate balancing act: you cannot permanently reject suitors that are arranged by your solicitous family without looking ungrateful or inconsiderate; you cannot forever postpone your marriage without jeopardizing the marriage prospects of your younger sister (the sisters are supposed to marry in order, by age). Thus, you might eventually say “yes” even when you feel more like “maybe”.

Does love get into the picture? Not at all. Actually, I think that the word “love” is hardly at all used in a book whose sole topic is two marriages. It is rather the similarity of values, tempers, and social class between the prospective spouses that counts, the sturdier bases for a successful marriage, not the conventionally defined love. The French historian Paul Veyne, when explaining Roman attitude to marriage compared it to modern Japan’s: “For Romans, like for today’s Japanese, love belonged to the domain of minor satisfactions and objects of gentle teasing; it was kept out of the domain of serious matters, to which belonged matrimonial and family affairs” (my translation).

Finally, the social distance. Since the family is well-off it employs several maids. They are essentially part of the households, privy to many of family secrets and the distance is surely much less than in the 19th century English novels where servants are hardly heard or seen (by the 1930s, perhaps that the social distances in England had become much less, but I do not know the English literature of that time to be able to tell). It seems that the social distance too was modern, broadly at the same level as in continental Europe, probably less than among the equally affluent families in the more aristocratic settings of pre-World War Russia and Germany. But the Makiokas were, we need to remember, a commercially-enriched family, not aristocracy.

I spent some time, after placing Elizabeth Bennet and Anna Karenina in their respective income distributions in my The Haves and the Have-nots, scouring other works of fiction in different countries to find numeric evidence of incomes and prices. Tanizaki provides very few of those; in the book of 600 pages, there are about a dozen references to wages or costs. So it is not a great source for those who would like to exactly locate the family within the income distribution of Japan before the war.

And the war? It appears from time to time, as it would appear to a family that really does not care about social and political events: as a distant thunder. We learn of the “Chinese incident”, the need to dress more modestly during the national emergency, of a job posting offered in Manchukuo, of Herr Hitler’s desire to prevent the outbreak of war in Europe (through a letter of a German family), and then of the beginning of a distant European war. That’s where the book stops.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Branko Milanović

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