The Story of Japanese Writer Junichirou Tanizaki

More often than not, writers have certain topics that they prefer delving on more than others. For example, Koizumi Yakumo had a penchant for writing about Japanese mythology and yokai – which are mysterious, supernatural entities. Others wrote about feminism and even pushed for the literary criticism movement. In Japanese modern literature, one man stands out for his works on erotica, sexuality, and destructive obsessions embedded in the storylines and personas. That man is Junichirou (or Junichiro) Tanizaki. 

By Unknown - Japanese book "Showa Literature Series: Vol.31 (February 1954 issue)" published by Kadokawa Shoten., Public Domain,

Junichiro Tanizaki In A Nutshell

Tanizaki’s native name was “谷崎 潤一郎”. He was born on July 24, 1886, in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo, Japan. He was recognized as a prolific and crucial writer of his time.  He wrote in many genres, including fiction, silent film screenplays, essays, and stories of drama. In 1964, he was nominated to be on the Nobel Prize in Literature shortlist, among 6 other writers. He passed away the very next year, on July 30, 1965, at the ripe old age of 79. 

The First Years of Junichiro Tanizaki

Japan’s economic system used to run in classes, and the Merchant class Tanizaki was born into had quite enough wealth to sustain him initially. They lived in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi area, as his grandfather had founded a printing press there, which was being run by his uncle at that time. While his family had enough money to give him everything he wanted and needed as a child, which he would talk about in his book in 1956 titled “Yosho Jidai” or Childhood Years. 

Financial Difficulty, Education

Sadly, a major earthquake (the 1894 Meiji Tokyo Earthquake) destroyed his residence, which caused Tanizaki to develop a fear for it for the rest of his life. The older he got, the more financial woes his family received, until he moved in with another family and worked as their household tutor. 

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Though his family’s savings were dwindling as the years went on, he had saved enough for him to study at Tokyo First Middle School. It was in this school that he befriended Isamu Yoshii, who would also grow up to become a playwright and “tanka” poet. Whatever money he had left could not sustain his further education, as he began studies in the Literature Department of Tokyo Imperial University when he was 22 but had to quit when he was 25, as he could no longer afford it. 

Glimpses of a Writer

Tanizaki was also 22 when he started getting into writing. The first piece he ever wrote was a stage play that lasted for only 1 act, and this piece would be posted for everyone to see in a literary magazine co-founded by Tanizaki. The story that got Tanizaki semi-famous would be the one he would publish the next year, in 1910, called “The Tattooer”, or “Shisei”. The story of The Tattooer begins with a beautiful lady who gets a tattoo of a large spider on her body by a tattoo artist. Strange things start to happen after, as the tattoo adds to her beauty, and she becomes almost powerful in a demonic sense, displaying acts of sadistic and masochistic erotica. 

This kind of archetype of a female would be a consistent theme among the first written works of Tanizaki. Other tales that were similar to having a femme fatale such as the tattooed lady would be “Kirin”, published in 1910, “The Children” (Shonen” in Japanese) and “The Secret” (English of “Himitsu”), both published in 1911, and lastly, “Devil” which was out in 1912. He would even go on to publish autobiographical works, entitled “Oni no men” and “Shindo”, both in the Taisho period, in the year 1916.

By Unknown - 神奈川近代文学館, Public Domain,

Marriage to His First Wife

When Tanizaki was 29 years old, he married a woman named Chiyoko. They had a daughter, named “Ayuko”, pictured above, who was born one year later. Tanizaki’s marriage with Chiyoko did not last, as both parties were not happy – but they were honest about it. In fact, Tanizaki even urged Chiyoko to date Haruo Sato; a friend of Tanizaki’s, who was also a writer. Tanizaki would perhaps draw inspiration from his unconventional marital problems bearing down on him to create more of his works, such as “Because I Love Her” (“Aiesureba koso”) which was a stage play in 1921, and “Between Men and the Gods” (“Kami to hito no aida”), a novel in 1924. 

While it’s plausible that many events, characters, and plots may have been lifted or inspired from his real-life experiences, compared to other writers of his era, Tanizaki adds a lesser amount of information from his autobiography to his work. 

International Exposure

Tanizaki was always a fan of modernity and western culture. He was open to exploring, so at 32, Tanizaki began to explore the world, as he ventured to China, Korea, and Manchuria. He went back home and settled in 1922, but this time moving to Yokohama from his old residence at Odawara. Yokohama was famous for being the region of many resident expats, whose culture appealed to Tanizaki. He loved it so much that he turned unconventional – practically Bohemian. For instance, - instead of residing in a traditional Japanese home, he lived in a western-style house for a short bit and talked about his experience with western ways in his works. 

It was also during this period that he wrote scripts for Taikatsu film studio, which at that time, was producing silent movies. There was a movement at that time that called for making more avant-garde movies called the “Pure Film Movement”, and Tanizaki filly supported this. Tanizaki combined both worlds of silent cinema with lust or erotica, such as “A Serpent’s Lust”, which was released in 1923. This would inspire part of another masterpiece called “Ugetsu Monogatari”, written by Mizoguchi Kenji in 1953.

Finding Success in Kyoto

Although Tanizaki was producing a lot of work and gaining a reputation for writing excellently, (albeit about sexual themes) another major earthquake struck the region where he lived in, again, completely wrecking his Yokohama residence. Luckily for Tanizuki, he wasn’t home – he was in Hakone, riding a bus. This earthquake would be known as the “Great Kanto Earthquake” and would be famous for destroying many old and prominent buildings around Tokyo.

Losing such historical buildings triggered an emotional response in Tanizaki, diverting his interests in what used to be modern concepts, lifestyle, art and living from his youth, to traditional Japanese culture and art. Most fascinated by culture in the Kansai region, he moved to Kyoto in 1923. It was only after this period that he achieved his first milestone of success with “Chijin no ai”, otherwise known as “Naomi” which was published around 1924 to 1925. Sexual obsession and class exploration, as well as cultural identity,  were all a part of this tragicomic of a novel. 

More Novels

Tanizaki wrote many more novels at this period, having traveled to China and meeting Chinese Author Guo Moruo. By 1928, Tanizaki moved to Kobe, and started on his next novel, “Manji” or “Quicksand”, which touched on Lesbianism, and was published in 1928-1929. The next book he wrote was “Tade kuu mushi”, or in English, “Some Prefer Nettles”, which depicts a character much like Tanizaki; a man who grew up in Tokyo but moved to Osaka, learning about himself as he deals with Japan’s newfound ingestion of western modernization in mix with its own culture. 

Tanizaki continued to delve into topics that he loved and expressed them in narratives that he – for lack of a better word – was obsessed with. Other books he wrote include “Yoshinokuzu” or “Arrowroot”, published in 1931, next was “Ashikari”, or “The Reed Cutter”, in 1932, and “Shunkinshi”, or “A Portrait of Shunkin”, released in 1933. 

The Second World War Begins

In 1942, Tanizaki moved to the city of Atami in Shizuoka. It was at this point that Tanizaki began translating classics, for being understood in modern Japanese. Because he had a newfound love for Japanese Literature, he was constantly producing translated pieces such as the ancient classic “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, originally penned way back in the Heian period. 

He also wrote what would be deemed his masterpiece – a novel called “Sasameyuki” – which can be translated to “A Light Snowfall” but was instead titled in English as “The Makioka Sisters”, dated 1943 until 1948. In between writing this novel, he moved back to Kyoto in the year 1946.

The Masterpiece, “The Makioka Sisters” 

The Makioka Sisters was written about four sisters who belonged to a very rich family in Osaka, with their father as a merchant. Just as this book was written in the thick of the war, it meticulously details personalities of each character as they must adjust their way of life as the war would strip their quality of life. Unlike his other novels where personas struggle with finding their identity at the dawn of westernization, each sister in the story was said to have lived amongst European company in their neighborhood quite comfortably, without any crises when it came to which culture to follow. 

After finishing the novel, Tanizaki went to have it serialized, however, the monthly Japanese literary magazine named “Chukokoron” had editors who controlled whether something got serialized. When they saw that it portrayed sentiments of hardship because of the war and was not at all related to positive war spirit, had the serialization halted to preserve paper for more supposedly beneficial causes. 

After the Second World War

Not even a world war could stop Tanizaki from writing and surely was well-recognized for it. He won two prestigious awards in 1949; the first, the coveted Asahi Prize, and second, the Order of Culture, which was bequeathed to him by the Japanese government. 15 years later the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters chose to let him be an honorary member, making him the first Japanese man to have been granted such. In 1950, he became a “Person of Cultural Merit”, another recognition given by the Japanese government. 

Honors aside, Tanizaki again played out a sentiment that was always expressed in his work, that of a son who wants to be close to his mother. This novel is called “Shosho Shigemoto no haha”, or in English, “Captain Shigemoto’s Mother”, and was dated from 1949 until 1950. As Tanizaki got older, he still wrote a lot about sexuality, but this time, in old age, which is also what Captain Sigemoto’s Mother tackled.

The psychological novel “The Key”, written in 1956, and known in Japanese as “Kagi”, illustrates to the reader how older people deal with the shifts that age brings to their sex lives. In the novel, an older professor who no longer feels the desire for sex as much as he used to, sets up his wife to cheat on him with another man – which conversely, ends up turning him on.

By 三人日 [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Death and Remembrance of Tanizaki

Ailments plagued Tanizaki during the last decade of his life. His right hand became paralyzed in 1958 and then suffered from Angina Pectoris 2 years later. With the town of Yugarawa in Kanagawa being the final area, he would move to, he passed away on July 30, 1965, from a heart attack. 

Tanizaki Junichirou the Anime Character in Bungou Stray Dogs

Bungo (sometimes spelled as Bungou) Stray Dogs is a manga drawn in anime style. Its author is Kafka Asagirl, and it features the main character, Nakajima Atsushi, who is part of an agency called the Armed Detective Company, as well as Dazai Osamu, an evil “demonic” member of the Port Mafia Guerrilla Squad. This manga usually uses names of prominent writers back in earlier periods, so it’s no surprise that Tanizaki Junichirou is a character here as well. 

The version of him depicted here has blond hair, while he stands on a slim, slightly lanky build. He has the ability of “Light Snow”, which covers the chosen area in snow. He is also the older brother of Naomi, another character in the series.