The plot of your novel Naomi (痴人の愛 Chijin no Ai, lit. A Fool’s Love, transl. Anthony H. Chambers) centers around a man’s destructive erotic obsession for a girl, during Japan’s roaring ’20s. The protagonist, Joji, is an electrical engineer in Tokyo, a well-educated 28-year-old man from a wealthy landlord family. He decides to break away from his traditional Japanese culture, and immerses himself in the Westernized culture embodied in a young girl named Naomi, who possess exotic “Eurasian” looks and a somewhat Western-sounding name. She looks like Mary Pickford, a famous actress of the silent film era, and acts just like a japanese ‘flapper’. Joji instantly falls for the fifteen-year-old Naomi when he sees her for the first time at the Café Diamond in Asakusa, Tokyo‘s amusement district. She comes from a poor family, and is then working as a café hostess. Not long after they met, Joji decides to take her under his wing to educate and forge her into a glamorous Western girl.
Set in Tokyo from the late 1910’s until the middle 1920’s, the story is narrated in the first person by Joji, who tells us the slowly evolvement of his obsession. He moves Naomi into his home, and pays for her English education and Music lessons. However, his plan to foster Western ideals (such as individualism and autonomy) in her backfires dramatically as she gets older. Joji begins the novel being the dominator. However, he is wrong to think he can model her after his wishes. As time progresses and his obsession takes hold, Naomi’s manipulation puts her in a position of power over him. Slowly but steadily, as she loses all inhibitions and becomes more and more sexually aggressive, Joji becomes increasingly ensnared in his relationship with Naomi, and begins to concede to everything she desires. The novel’s Japanese title, “Chijin no Ai,” (“A Fool’s Love”), is a good hint of the nature of the relationship between Jôji and Naomi: a Japanese amour fou.
The novel, written in 1924, can be read as a social satire on a Westernizing Japan. It explores the contradictions of the culture during the Taisho Era (1912-26), also known as Japan’s Jazz Age. The two main characters are very much a product of their times. Joji represents Japan’s obsession, at the time, with modernization. Both uneasy and excited, Joji lusts for what he can never be. On the other hand, Naomi’s lifestyle and character can be read as a depiction of Japan’s rush into modernism in the 20’s, and mirrors the drastic change in the woman’s role in society during the Taisho Era. She can also be read as a criticism on the Western values (or lack of): she is narcissistic, willful, loud, unfaithful, superficial, manipulative, predatory, bad mannered, and yet… also vital, strong, liberated, charming (albeit in a strange way). Naomi is the perfect anti-heroine.
Such as Japan’s fascination with the West, Naomi’s appeal to Joji is an uncomfortable attraction. The novel reflects the perspective of a man shifting between modern and traditional Japan, and the conflicts associated with this period. Such as Joji finds himself dragged further and further into Naomi, Japan found itself more and more dependent on the West. The relationship between Joji and Naomi mirrors the widespread perception that the traditions would eventually be completely engulfed by the West, if Japan – like Joji – placed itself in a somewhat subordinate role. Such as Japan is being seduced by the siren’s song of Western culture, Joji is trapped by his infatuation with Naomi. The character’s sexual obsession with the anti-heroine is a tale of deception – as are all the forms of cultural conquest.
“For me Naomi was the same as a fruit that I’d cultivated myself. I’d labored hard and spared no pains to bring that piece of fruit to its present, magnificent ripeness, and it was only proper that I, the cultivator, should be the one to taste it.”
― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Naomi
“(…) but once you start doubting,it’s hard to know what to believe.”
― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Naomi
About the book
- Vintage, 2001, transl. Anthony H. Chambers, 237 p.
- Original title: 痴人の愛 – Chijin no Ai, lit. A Fool’s Love
- First published in 1924
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- The book was serialized in the Osaka Asahi newspaper, from March to June 1924; then censored and forbidden by the government in June 1924; and, finally, five months later, published and completed in the modern women‘s magazine Josei. Since 1947, publishers have compiled the chapters and published them as a book. Naomi has also been adapted into film several times. The most recent film adaptation was in 1993, by director Toshiki Sato.
- Bellezza over at Dolce Bellezza hosted a Read-Along for this book in June. You can find her review here.