Modern History of Japan
November 15, 2012
Naomi and the Changing Face of Japan
Naomi, as a character, is representative of several social trends that became Japan’s popular culture in the 1920’s but really found their first footholds in the later Tokugawa period and early Meiji era as Western influence began to permeate the Japanese consciousness. This permeation would culminate in a figure called the modan garu, Japan’s Modern Girl. Naomi, being a parody of this female characterization of the 20’s is exaggerated in her characteristics to an extreme, as is the narrator of the novel, Joji—who is similar to the humorous and effeminate haikara predecessor and the modan garu’s male equivalent, the mobo1. What Naomi represents is the new version of sexuality and sexual culture which were taking precedence as well as the movement out of the home that women embarked on at the time. She is also a representative of the new consumer culture which dominated the rapidly modernized and increasingly westernized Japanese population, especially those who occupied the urban centers of the country as denoted by the cityscape the novel is set in. Most of all, Naomi is the reaction to all of these new social developments and her portrayal as a grasping, lustful, manipulative, and lazy seductress asserts a subtle form of Japanese identity by painting a portrait of what the author saw as the opposite.
In terms of Naomi’s representation as a female aspect of modernization, it might first be easier to put her in context by comparing her to older versions of expected gender identity for women. Naomi was born, had she been a real person, after the government sanctioned the law establishing compulsory schooling for both genders, which was instated in 1873. 2 This means Naomi would have been born into a Japan that permitted all women to have, to a certain extent, education—allowing them to be as literate as any man and, therefore, on a closer level of intellectual equality. The education was, however, expected to be put towards raising a proper, Japanese family rather than for the pursuit of scholarly inquiry. This was shortly after a period which had popularized the image and idea of ryōsai kenbo, “Good Wife, Wise Mother,”3 which sought to fit women into Japan’s society in a motherly and patriotic capacity that the government saw as not only the most appropriate for the feminine half of the population but also the most beneficial for the country. Of course, the government was ignoring the fact that women in the lower economic classes of society were already in opposition to this picture, as many of them would go to work in factories and form the basis of the newly modernized economy. The character herself is radically different from this picture of filial perfection and domestic bliss. One exchange between Naomi and Joji goes like this: “I’m not your maid, you know. If I do the laundry, my fingers’ll get fat and I won’t be able to play the piano.”4 This, as unflattering as it might be, is a picture of the modern woman during the 1920’s in Japan. Naomi was a working girl who operated outside of the domestic sphere by holding a job, rather than marrying and having children, and even when she entrenched herself within a household and became a wife she neither sought to become pregnant nor transformed into a cook, maid, or seamstress for Joji. She is a wife tempered by the phenomena of modan garu, a woman with income and an education that is cultured but divorced from the image of a housewife. Tanizaki’s characterization of her as a purely negative figure and influence on the weak-willed and lustful Joji is a rejection of the idea of women as the emerging Modern Girl but also a recognition of the change in female cultural expectations and gender identity which were prevalent at the time. Joji might have aspired for Naomi to become his Western version of a Good Wife but her thorough evasion of such a plan turns her instead into a cosmopolitan figure of the 1920’s who is fully realized in her separation from the home and family.
As a personification of consumerism Naomi is easily relatable. Her insatiable appetite covers almost everything: food, clothing, Western culture, and sex. Key to her personality is the aspect of excess which manifests itself in her literal and figurative consumption of goods both Western and Japanese in origin. Tanizaki did not write Naomi as only desiring Western foods and products—she insists on being fed Japanese style cuisine and bought traditional clothing as well, it is the sheer volume of these demands which make her appalling. If we see Naomi as a consumer we can see her obsessed with buying into everything, or at least having Joji do it for her. Even her promiscuity with Caucasian men can be seen as her fixation on Western products and culture, which she not only buys with cash but with the sacrifice of her reputation as well. The narrator’s decline and Naomi’s decay are directly in line with two things: Westernization and a consumer lifestyle. The character gorges on a feast of cultural and material products, distancing herself from traditional Japanese customs or social mores of the previous era. Again, by demonstrating the ultimately destructive effects of these habits Tanizaki was emphasizing a Japanese identity which was not tainted by foreign influence or subsistent on mass consumerism.
The last aspect of Naomi I’m going to discuss is her sexuality, more importantly what she symbolizes as a sexual figure in the context of Modern Girl and the evolution of women in Japan at the time her novel takes place. As Silverberg pointed out in her article on the Modern Girl, as a male writer making observations about her clothing and sensual body—something constantly referred to in Joji’s storytelling—Tanizaki is actually talking about her sexuality which “was to underscore her promiscuity”5. Naomi is blatantly sexualized by her husband, whose initial interest in her is only in her similar physical appearance to his ideal woman, Mary Pickford. She only grows more sexual as the novel goes on, evolving from merely an objectified beauty to one that is actively seductive and wanton. Interestingly, she cultivates a stronger and stronger influence over Joji as she ages and matures. Indeed, he comes to the conclusion himself: “I believe that when Antony was conquered by Cleopatra, it happened in this way: little by little he was stripped of his resistance and became ensnared. […] And when that happens, there’s no way to overcome her sense of superiority. This leads to undreamed-of misfortunes” (emphasis added).6 The fact that Tanizaki posits a sense of “superiority” with the loss of Joji’s control in the relationship, because of his inability to resist Naomi’s physical allure, is just another reaction to the loosening of societal standards that became part of the 1920’s norm. The author saw an unnatural and improper development of feminine authority through the male gaze and bodily fixation—hence why Naomi is not only a maid at a café but also apparently descended from a line of women who have made a living selling their bodies in order to accentuate her place as a user of men through physical consummation, if not outright painting her as a prostitute. Her hair, dress, and openness of her licentious behavior are all markers of the Modern Girl and, in a sense, the women of the period. That is not to say, of course, that Japanese women who lived in cities were faithfully represented in Naomi, only that she is a parodied aspect of them and subject to an amplification of their existing facets. In addition, in comparison to Good Wife, Good Mother which has already been discussed, Naomi as the Modern Girl is an absolute antithesis in terms of sexual conduct. She is contrary to the endorsed image of woman that had proceeded before and in her rebellion she frees the conventional female image from its household place and reasserts it as an independent figure outside of the male realm of authority.
By creating a character like Naomi and making her the central focal point of his novel, Tanizaki is setting the reader up with his version of the Modern Girl. It’s not a serious figure, the pathetic and humorous nature of its narrator as well as the outrageousness of Naomi’s descent into decadence preclude our acceptance as readers to see the story as realistic. Despite this, it does highlight the new cultural and gender roles that women were playing in Japan. These women were no longer expected to stay in the home, or if they were they eschewed this traditional portrait of womanhood in order to pursue their own single lives. In doing so they embraced modernity: they became liberated sexually, they began to play a role in the economy as mass consumers as they had never been before, and they popularized the consumption of foreign culture by adopting Western dress and food and media. Western beauty became prevalent, even an obsession if we can put any truth to Joji’s passion for transforming a sullen, vaguely Eurasian girl into his version of Mary Pickford. Naomi is a literary avatar of sorts to this mounting series of changes women had adopted by the 1920’s as Japan developed as a modern state. Tanizaki’s treatment of her, which is comically ugly in its portraiture, hearkens to the idea of a time and woman before the infection of Westernization had completely altered the face of Japan and, more importantly, its men and women.
Hastings, Sally Ann and Sharon H. Nolte. “The Meiji State’s Policy Toward Women, 1890- 1910.”
Silverberg, Miriam “The Modern Girl as Militant.”
Tanizaki, Junichirō. Naomi. Trans. Anthony H. Chambers. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.