Monday 12 August 2019

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1943 - 1948)

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.

Kabuki Theatre
Embed from Getty Images

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 11 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.

Thursday 1 August 2019

A 14 Year Old's Commonplace Book

It is very helpful to read with a commonplace book or reading-diary, in which to put down any striking thought in your author, or your own impression of the work, or of any part of it; but not summaries of facts. Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer; besides, we never forget the book that we have made extracts from, and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review.

Formation of Character by Charlotte Mason 

I've written about my son's commonplace book (aka 'Reading Diary' or quotations book) here which he started when he was about 15 years of age. Moozle started keeping hers about 18 months ago when she was about 12 and a half.  As I wrote in the post just linked, I wanted these records of their reading to be something they would initiate, but as with many things, I started the ball rolling so to speak and encouraged them to continue. I listed it as part of their weekly schedule but I basically left it up to them to choose what they wanted to record.
Often they'd read something out to me that they found interesting or amusing and I'd sometimes suggest it would be a good thing to record it. This helped them begin a habit of keeping a diary of favourite passages.
Moozle also keeps a record of scriptures and hymn lyrics in a separate notebook but that's just something she keeps as a sort of devotional diary and isn't a part of her regular lesson work.

Some quotations that have found their way into my 14 year old girl’s Common Place Book lately:

‘Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices.’

‘It is a very silly idea that We has in reading a book you must never ‘skip.’ All sensible people skip freely when they come to a chapter which they find is going to be no use to them.’
(Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis)

She liked this one, being a very fast reader! C.S. Lewis features regularly in her commonplace book. Mere Christianity is scheduled in Ambleside Online year 8 but we used another book for that year so we've added it to Year 9.

‘Lady Penelope looked at Lady Binks with as much regard as Balaam may have cast upon his ass when he discovered its capacity for holding an argument with him.’
(St. Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott)

Moozle has read a number of Sir Walter Scott's books this past year. She has a love/hate relationship with his books but didn't mind this one. Redgauntlet was the best in her opinion.

‘What is worth beginning is worth finishing and what is worth doing is worth doing well.’
(Ourselves by Charlotte Mason)

I'm still reading Ourselves aloud to her. it's been a good book for discussion but I wouldn't say she particularly enjoyed it. She doesn't enjoy green vegetables either but they're a part of her 'eating schedule,' regardless.

‘One of the things I learned during my tenure at Washington is that the civics book picture of government in action is totally inaccurate. The idea that our elected officials take part in a careful decision-making process - monitoring events, reviewing options, responsibly selecting policies - has almost no connection with reality. A more accurate image would be that of a runaway train with the throttle stuck wide open - while the passengers and crew are living it up in the dining car.’
( - William Simon, former U.S. secretary, treasury)

The above quotation is from Uncle Eric Talks About Personal, Career, and Financial Security by Richard J. Maybury. I've scheduled this in place of the Richard Maybury book listed in AO Year 9 for Government & Economics because we already had this book & not the other. It's been a good fit for her this year.

‘I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.'

(From ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost, 1874-1963)

We've enjoyed the poetry selections in The Art of Poetry curriculum from Classical Academic Press, as well as the lessons. I reviewed it here.

‘...the painters always followed the full dinner pail. As soon as they got their chance, the musicians did likewise. They tucked their unpolished cantatas and sonatas under their arms. They left their unpaid bills behind them. They took the road that led to the north. For that was where the pot of gold awaited them at the end of the rainbow of their high C’s and their unlimited hope and ambitions. ‘ (The Arts by Hendrick Willem Van Loon)

Mr. Van Loon can be quite sarcastic at times...