Book #6. Naomi. By Junichiro Tanizaki.

‘Lolita’ meets ‘Pygmalion’ in Roaring 20’s Tokyo


There’s a story behind this book.   It changed hands four times: starting from a friend of a friend in the US, it ended up on my shelf in Korea three years ago. My old chum Michelle, who gave it to me, said it had basically turned into a tradition. The strange tale of Naomi and her befuddled husband Joji could not be unshared – it was too novel, too delightful and outrageous.

Not everyone liked it, according to the personal note left on the cover page. Even Michelle herself hesitated to say it was “great.” So I read Naomi (pronounced “NAH-oh-mee”) with no real expectations. I was caught off guard both by the quietly hilarious main character and Tanizaki’s delightful, frank writing style.  It grew on me like a guilty pleasure pop song. I have now read it twice, and confess I sort of love this book.

28-year-old Kawai Joji is a humble and hardworking engineer who lives a somewhat boring life. All that changes one day when he meets a young girl named Naomi working in a café. Naomi bears a striking resemblance to actress Mary Pickford and from the first moment our cinema-loving antihero is captivated. Joji is the awkward loner type who has no knack for social norms and Naomi is a waif on the fringes of society. The two “outcasts” find refuge from the normal world and move into a whimsical little house together with a garden and courtyard. A few years later they marry.

If it sounds like an idyllic tale frothed with romance, guess again. Joji introduces his story better than any commentator could.

I’m going to try to relate the facts of our relationship as man and wife just as they happened, as honestly and frankly as I can. It’s probably a relationship without precedent… I’m sure my readers will find it instructive, too. As Japan grows increasingly cosmopolitan, Japanese and foreigners are eagerly mingling with one another; all sorts of new doctrines and philosophies are being introduced; and both men and women are adopting up-to-date Western fashions. No doubt, the times being what they are, the sort of marital relationship that we’ve had, unheard of until now, will begin to turn up on all sides.

 Joji is fascinated but intimidated by the west – so is much of 1920’s Japan. His relationship with Naomi often runs parallel to Japan’s relationship with the west. If you can get your head above the outrageous drama of the story you can glean some excellent cultural insight. A good novel, like a good cake always comes in rich layers.

Joji himself is a strange mixture of progressive and patriarchal. He abhors the stuffy conventions of Japanese culture and instead of having a sexual relationship with Naomi right away (she is only fifteen) he agrees to first live with her as “friends.”

However from the beginning is a notion in Joji’s mind that Naomi will ultimately become a trophy:

On the one hand, I was motivated by sympathy for her. On the other, I wanted to introduce some variety into my humdrum monotonous daily existence…Indeed, why not build a house, I thought, even a small one? I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and the scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the bird and the maid.

Together Joji and Naomi move into an eccentric old house, with no servants or guests to bother them. They pass the days “playing” childish games, eating take out food and shopping for cheap kimonos. Naomi calls Joji “Papa” and he gives her baths in the kitchen tub. It’s a rather…unique situation, to say the least.

Joji’s hope and design is to turn Naomi into a “fine, young woman,” one he can show off to others. He invests in English and music lessons for her, at the same time showering her with clothes and presents. But just as you’d expect in the case of a spoiled teenage daughter, Naomi starts to defy Joji’s ambitions for her. She sulks during her English lesson. She complains she doesn’t have enough clothes and she won’t even wash out the rice pot.  So much for replacing the maid and the bird.

Here begins the story’s transition into dark comedy and perhaps one of the most twisted yet compelling looks I have ever had at a male-female relationship in literature. The more Naomi annoys and defies Joji, the more he finds her delightful. To save face he teases her and refuses to take her seriously. In a sobering flashback he confesses his misguided judgment.

It’s often said that “women deceive men.” But from my experience I’d say that it doesn’t start with the woman deceiving the man. Rather, the man, without any prompting rejoices in being deceived; when he falls in love with a woman, everything she says, true or not, sounds adorable to his ears…He has no intention of being misled by her. On the contrary, he laughs to himself that he’s deceiving her.

What Joji doesn’t realize is that Naomi is no kitten. She is in fact, a moga – a Japanese modern girl.

I was delighted to learn that well before World War II Japan experienced its own version of the Roaring Twenties. A moga, a Japanese version of a flapper, was a woman who donned Western clothing and lifestyles. Joji is fascinated by both Naomi and the moga world, but can’t help at times feel that he’s betraying his motherland. He also can’t help but wonder if his colleagues at work are beginning to suspect something’s fishy as his personal life spirals out of control.

When outrageous clothes and movies aren’t enough Naomi drags Joji downtown with her to take dance lessons. In 1920’s Imperial Japan this is not unlike going to a rave party.   Joji meets the enchanting dance instructor who also happens to be a Russian countess in exile and falls further in love with the bohemian way of life (and with Naomi).  He is glad that he has once again caved to stubborn Naomi’s wishes.

However, the Russian countess is not the only new character to make an appearance. Joji soon meets a host of rather unsavory folk, including a macho hotshot named Kumagai, and they all appear to already be well acquainted with Naomi. Joji has an uneasy feeling about it all. But even our humble country bumpkin narrator has no idea just how crazy things are going to get.

It takes a certain amount of talent to make a book about unlikeable people likable. Tanizaki is a master of it – at least he is with this novel.  Joji is unexpectedly lovable as the self-deprecating, “snaggle-toothed” narrator who doesn’t shrink from admitting his blunders. He’s painfully uneducated in the arts and literature, yet he is in love with movies and theater. He doesn’t have many literary references up his sleeve, but when he does, he tries to make them relevant. At one point he compares himself to Marc Anthony being taken in by Cleopatra, based on a cautionary history lesson he remembers in high school.   His endearing humanness is what makes the novel special.

By the end Joji is no closer to realizing or resolving anything than he was what he started off.

 If you think that my account is foolish, please go ahead and laugh. If you think there’s a moral in it, then, please let it serve as a lesson. For myself, it makes no difference what you think of me; I’m in love with Naomi.

While some readers may be irked that Joji can still remain so bemused I actually love this about him – and about the novel. He has no pretense or sermon to give about the things that have happened. He invites the reader instead, to make what they will of his strange plight.

The English poet Sir Philip Sidney once wrote that poetry – and by extension, fiction – “affirms nothing”; therefore “it cannot lie.” Perhaps Tanizaki shares a sentiment similar to Sidney. Somehow there is something quite appealing in a story that just gives the facts and lets you derive your own meaning. Joji may be a stooge in some ways, but he never talks down to his readers.

Whether you want to read Naomi as a commentary on dysfunctional relationships, shifting cultural values, a sensational romp, a history lesson, or a comedy  I doubt if Kawai Joji could care less. And frankly I don’t either. I just know that this is a delightful, hilarious book on many levels that will leave you with someone new to think about each time you read it. Who knows, maybe it’ll even make you want to take dance lessons.

The “Awful Nearness” of Marriage

3 Lessons from Middlemarch and from real life.

“So, how is married life?” This half-sly, yet genuine question I’ve gotten from several people over the past year. After all, it’s only been fourteen months since Yun Ho and I were married. People are curious. I get that.

I try to give an honest but simple response. Usually it goes something like this: “The first six months were good, but definitely with some challenges. After about six months we started to have fewer problems. Now we almost never have problems. Sort of, anyway.”

 It’s not that things are perfect. Actually, neither of us has changed a ton since we first met.

Yun Ho is a concrete and logical thinker, both very introverted and happy-go-lucky. He can easily enjoy an entire day in solitude with a cup of ramen and a webtoon. I am an abstract thinker who thinks too much. My ideal day is spent with a group of close friends at an amusement park, quoting favorite movies while waiting in line for the roller coaster.

The biggest thing that has changed, really, is perspective.

Before we got married Yun and I used to have a lot of civil but intense “discussions”. I often categorized and philosophized about people; he saw people strictly as individuals. I loved reading a book for the beauty of its language but to him words had no aesthetic value. I thought people ought to be well rounded in their education. Yun Ho argued that people should be able to focus on only what they care most about in life.

I’d say it took a few hundred hours for us to truly learn the art of “getting along.” We learned to listen better and consider the other person’s point of view. We stopped feeling threatened. For two stubborn first-born Millennials I would venture to say that’s a tiny miracle. I’m just grateful that we hashed out so much stuff before we got married. Sadly, in my experience, a lot of people wait until after they’re married to really get to know each other – if they ever do at all.

This brings me to a novel I read recently: George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  It’s a novel of many angles, but the one that struck me most is the excruciating, up-close-and-personal look it gives at married life. Eliot’s characters run the gamut of marriage challenges: money troubles, pride, mismatched expectations and bad communication.  Her spot-on observations will make you laugh or wince. Or both.

Here are just three “insights” into marriage and human nature found in Middlemarch that I also found to be true in my own life.

#1: Don’t freak out when hard times come

The heroine of Middlemarch, Dorothea, has a tough time wedded to a much older guy named Edward Casaubon. In the meantime she befriends his younger cousin, Will. When Casaubon dies and Will banishes himself from Middlemarch to avoid a scandal, Dorothea is devastated. Perhaps no one can put it into words better than Eliot:

If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems to be final, simply because it is new. (Ch 55).

 Needless to say, as awful and real as the crisis feels, Dorothea’s despair is premature. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but this isn’t actually the last time she sees Will.   She just thinks it is.

It’s only through time and experience that we realize crappy single events don’t actually doom us to a crappy destiny. Sure, sometimes people and relationships really do die. Sometimes the conflict in a relationship can’t be fixed. But often, it’s not the problem itself – it’s how you handle the problem. It took me a long time to realize this.

When Yun and I first started actually living together it was really tough having disagreements. I had never been “stuck” with anyone before.  If we disagreed on where to keep the garbage I couldn’t tell him “screw your idea,” because it was our home, our garbage, our issue. If one of us was in a bad mood and misunderstood the other person – even if it was about something as silly as planning what to eat on a vacation in Japan – then the other person also went into a bad mood, and the atmosphere spiraled downwards. This led to snarky thoughts, which led to guilt, which in turn led to mild despair. We live in a small two-roomed apartment together on the 14th floor so lack of privacy didn’t exactly help, either.

I had to find outlets. One time I went outside to the nearest playground and sat on the swings. Another time I walked to the park next door, got caught in a downpour, and hid out for an hour under a gazebo.  Sometimes I sat outside next to the elevator and just had a good cry. Some nights I just didn’t get much sleep.

I remember one time we had an argument over Pixar versus Dreamworks animation movies. I can’t remember how exactly it started (except that it had to do with the word “quality”), but I know it ended with him storming off into the other room and I went to bed alone. A half hour later he came back and apologized between sniffles. Now we just laugh about it.

We both saw the best and worst of each other – and ourselves – within those first several weeks of coexistence.  The big take away: don’t freak out when there are unpleasant experiences. Don’t mistake a frustrating incident for a sign that you are “not compatible.” Distance yourself from your emotions just a bit, eat a bag of gummy bears, and take a nap. In the moment it might feel like a crisis – but next week it probably won’t.   Because it’s probably not a crisis.   Especially if you’re an emotional ball of nerves like me.

#2: Expectation is the key

 Rosamond Vincy, one of the main characters in Middlemarch, finds that life is not exactly rosy after she gets married. Her husband doesn’t make as much money as she expects.   When she refuses to give up her expensive lifestyle they start bickering. Exasperated, Rosamond finds herself dreaming about her friend Will Ladislaw:

 He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui.

In other words, Rosamond’s problem is with Rosamond.

I had to face my own struggles with this issue of self-suppression and tolerance – a lot of it before getting married, actually. While Yun and I were dating I actually experienced a lot of anxiety because I felt overwhelmed with making the “big” decision: was it “right”? Was there someone out there “better”? Were we really “compatible”? These questions especially nagged whenever he acted in a way that was “different” from what I had originally envisioned in my spouse. I thought of myself as a tolerant person, but my anxiety revealed I didn’t accept the differences between us as well as I thought.

One of the big turning points came when a very wise and experienced friend – who had been through a horrendous marriage and divorce – told us one evening: “The key to happiness in marriage is expectation.”

That was a new thought to me. Wasn’t happiness in marriage about communication? Wasn’t it about “similar interests” and personality and being able to laugh together and having mutual attraction and all that kind of thing?

It’s not that those things aren’t important. But none of those things are worth a hill of beans if the two people don’t have realistic expectations. You’ve got to be comfortable with some differences, some adjustments, and some awkwardness at times. The awkward times will come, sooner or later. You’ve got to be okay with the fact that he likes Owl City and you’d rather listen to Amy Winehouse. You’ve got to be okay with the fact that he likes those serial sci-fi paperbacks and you prefer “literature.” It doesn’t have to alienate you; you learn to appreciate and respect the other’s tastes and opinions over time, until you can tease each other about it without being defensive.  There’s no “Unreal Better” person out there, which in today’s terms might be referred to as a “soul mate.” Rather, your partner transforms into your soul mate over time as the two of you create history together.

The funny thing is that after Yun and I got married most of the anxiety went away.   It was a relief to have finally made the big decision, but I confess it helped that I married someone who was both kind and patient. And who also had the right kind of expectations.
#3  Take care of your marriage – or you could end up murdering it

 By the end of Middlemarch Rosamond’s marriage to Lydgate is in shambles, and Dorothea is resigned she’ll never see Will again.

The two women end up in a personal conversation. Dorothea, in trying to connect with Rosamond confesses some of her own feelings:

Marriage is so unlike anything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings. Even if we loved someone else better than – than those we were married to, it would be no use….I mean, marriage drinks up all our power in giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear, but it murders our marriage – and then the marriage stays with us like a murder – and everything else is gone. And then our husband – if he loved and trusted us, but we have not helped him, but made a curse in his life…”

What Dorothea doesn’t realize is that her confession actually reflects Rosamond more accurately than it does herself. The “someone else” in question, for both women, is Will Ladislaw. They both like him even though they both married other men. But Casaubon had never loved and trusted Dorothea the way Lydgate had loved and trusted (or at least tried to love and trust) Rosamond. The situation is pure irony. Dorothea is preaching to the choir here.

Speaker aside, the message itself is powerful. In our day and age of fleeting relationships and prenup divorce we might argue that marriage does not “drink up all our power,” – at least not the way it used to. But we can’t deny that when we marry we do make a promise to stick with the other person until the end. So here is the question: do we help the marriage along, or do we murder it?

I think of relationships – including marriage – as organic and living, like a plant. There’s no way around it: you have to water the thing every day or it will die. Rosamond’s marriage to Lydgate is shriveled up and parched. She has unwittingly murdered her own marriage by blaming, despising and ignoring her husband even as he tries to reach out to her.

The phrase that really gets me is, “something awful in the nearness it brings.” I don’t think Dorothea is trying to say marriage is bad because it requires commitment. I think rather she is saying that marriage is no joke. It will change you, for better or for worse, and it will force you to be accountable to another person the way no other relationship can. Either you will save him or you will murder him. There’s no middle ground when you have promised to be together till the end of time.

So far Yun Ho and I have managed to not murder our marriage – or each other. In fact, I’d say we’re making a pretty good pace in the opposite direction. Yet every time I’m not as patient as I should be, or say something peevish I can’t help but wonder if I’ve maybe murdered a tiny fraction of him. Or I’ve murdered a tiny fraction of our relationship. Marriage is a big responsibility.

The great thing about marriage is also the kicker: it requires so much. For it to really bloom you have to give up a lot of personal space, loud music streaming and megalomania. I’m still working on all of those. But in return you get something undeniably better: a best friend and a muse who will help turn you into the best version of you possible without ever judging. Your old life and your old self will die, but you won’t miss them.

For those who have married the wrong person, the “nearness” of marriage truly can be awful – but for those who are more careful (or lucky), it just might be the best thing that’s ever happened to us.