The Makioka Sisters
is a historical novel by Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki. Originally published as a series between 1943 and 1948, it chronicles the lives of different members of the elite Makioka family, who live in Osaka, Japan. The plot takes place in the prewar years between 1936 and 1941, pivoting on the family’s attempt to find someone for Yukiko to marry. This pursuit is couched in the gradual decline of much of the upper class as the specter of World War II draws near.
The novel is divided into three books, though there is no temporal or thematic delineation. Book 1 introduces the Makiokas who, by the 1930s, dwell in the shadow of their former prestige. Most of them live in Osaka at their family’s historic estate; this includes Tsuruko, the eldest of four sisters, Tatsuo, her husband, and their six children. In the nearby suburb Ashiya, the middle sister, Sachiko, lives with her husband, Teinosuke. The two remaining, youngest sisters, Taeko and Yukiko, live alone, migrating between the family homes. Out of pride, the Makiokas had previously rejected a number of potential suitors for Yukiko, but now are beginning to grow desperate. Itani, the owner of a local beauty parlor, suggests Segoshi. The family requests an interview with him but eventually, declines after learning that his mother has a potentially hereditary form of dementia.
The next marriage prospect is Nomura, recommended by Sachiko’s former classmate, Mrs. Jimba. Though he is a widow and looks older than his age, Sachiko interviews him. Meanwhile, Tatsuo’s employer sends him to Tokyo for work. The family decides to send Taeko and Yukiko along. Yukiko ends up strongly disliking Tokyo. Reluctantly, the family sets up a marriage interview between her and Nomura. The meeting is postponed abruptly when Sachiko announces a miscarriage. When the two potential suitors finally meet, Yukiko rejects Nomura, put off by a Buddhist shrine in his house where he prays for his dead wife.
The second book introduces Itakura, a photographer who takes pictures of Taeko’s doll collection. Around the time they meet, a flash flood devastates the area. Itakura saves Taeko from a particularly impacted area, leading to a blossoming romance. When Sachiko finds out, she condemns her for settling for a man of low status. In defiance, Taeko redoubles her efforts to marry him and study fashion in France. She goes to Tokyo to ask her family for funding but has to return to the Osaka when Itakura gets sick. Itakura dies of gangrene after receiving surgical treatment for an ear infection. Taeko is devastated, but Sachiko is relieved.
The third book begins in June 1941. Tatsuo’s sister tells Sachiko about yet another potential suitor, Sawazaki, who comes from an elite family in Nagoya. The sisters journey to Ogaki to visit Tatsuo’s sister, allowing Yukiko to meet the man. Sachiko strongly dislikes Sawazaki, and he feels similarly about her. The Makiokas reel from their first ever marriage rejection. Taeko gets back together with Okubata, leading Tsuruko to deliver her an ultimatum. She refuses to leave him, resulting in her disinheritance. Itani finds a new suitor for Yukiko named Hashidera. Their meeting does not go over well. Afterward, Sachiko hears that Taeko is very sick. She is diagnosed with anthrax and moves into a hospital, where she eventually gets better.
Sachiko learns that Taeko has been living with funding from Okubata ever since her ejection from the family. Allegedly, she has also begun a relationship with a bartender, Miyoshi. Enraged, Sachiko intends to force Okubata and Taeko to marry. When she recovers, Sachiko and Yukiko try to force Taeko to move to Manchuria to follow Okubata. She despairs, leading Okubata to cancel his moving plans. Just before Itani moves to the United States, she proposes a final suitor for Yukiko: a viscount’s bastard son, Mimaki. The sisters meet him in Tokyo, where Taeko reveals that she is carrying Miyoshi’s baby. The birth is arranged in secret, a fact that Okubata uses to extort money from Teinosuke to pay for his help for Taeko. Taeko suffers a miscarriage and she goes to live with Miyoshi.
At the novel’s end, Yukiko morosely anticipates her marriage to Mimaki. The Makioka family, which routinely rejects any recourse to empathy or self-understanding, ultimately flounders in its inability to learn from the past. The Makioka Sisters
thus richly portrays the gradual social ruin of a family that has long lost its elite status.