PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.2 (Spring 2008)

Caught Between Old and New: The Changing Face of Marriage in Austen and Tanizaki



Aya Satoh


Aya Satoh (email: earned her B.A. in Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writing a thesis on the influence of jazz on the novels of Haruki Murakami and Jack Kerouac.  She has just returned from a research year at the University of Hiroshima and currently lives in New York City.


It might at first seem strange to compare the late eighteenth-century Regency novelist Jane Austen with the Japanese Taisho-period novelist Junichiro Tanizaki—the latter writing across the world from Austen and almost 150 years later, in a culture seemingly as removed in manners as it is in time and space.  Oddly enough, however, these very different cultural settings share certain features:  both are settings in which large-scale wars of expansion threaten the peace of largely undefeated island nations; both are settings in which traditional local values and mores are threatened internally by the changes accompanying modernization and rising individualism.  In England, these changes accompany the growth and power of the merchant class, while in Japan they accompany the rapid Westernization of the decades following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, when Japan openly embraced Western ideals and disavowed many older, traditional beliefs.  In both of these settings, these authors portray family structures that respond, over time, to the growing attractions of individualism and the concomitant cost to family traditions and structure.  The striking resemblances between the plot of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, as well as the tantalizing likelihood that Tanizaki had read Austen, provoke a comparison of these two novels’ approaches to changing mores surrounding marriage and individualism that can give us new insights into the possible reach of Austen’s influence into Asia.


Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters (published serially 1943-1948) are both novels depicting a landed family’s struggles in marrying its numerous daughters.  Because both families are without sons, it is imperative that the daughters marry; neither the Bennets nor the Makiokas are wealthy enough to support their daughters into old age.  The plot of Pride and Prejudice is well known.  Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters tells the story of an old Osaka family whose desire to maintain its social status conflicts with its dwindling wealth. With both parents deceased, the older married sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko, must take charge of the futures of their younger sisters, Yukiko (age thirty) and Taeko (twenty-five).  Painfully shy but stubborn Yukiko must be coaxed and prodded into meeting potential husbands while wild and independent Taeko threatens Yukiko’s chances of making a good match by having scandalous love affairs with working-class men.  The Makiokas’ search for a suitable husband for Yukiko slows as the years pass, reflecting the waning strength of the family name.  When the novel opens, Yukiko is thirty years old and the family fortune is diminishing.  She is introduced to a string of suitors, but the Makiokas “were thralls to the family name, to the fact that they were members of an old and once-important family,” and they balk at the thought of marrying Yukiko to a merchant (Tanizaki 8).  Although it is becoming increasingly less likely that Yukiko will marry a wealthy man from a good family, they still discard suitors who do not fit this mold.  This inflexibility demonstrates the Makiokas’ nostalgia for the past, which in turn keeps them from accepting the validity of the rising merchant class.  After numerous rejections, Yukiko finally marries an old court aristocrat, fulfilling her family’s wish to marry her to a man with a good name.  Taeko, however, ends up disowned after becoming pregnant with a bartender’s child.


            Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), one of Japan’s most prominent modern authors, read a range of Western authors.  He was particularly influenced by Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and Baudelaire, and he even translated The Picture of Dorian Gray into Japanese.  Because of his extensive interest in Western literature, it is highly likely that Tanizaki read Jane Austen, most likely in English, although a Japanese translation of Pride and Prejudice was available in Japan by 1926, about twenty years before The Makioka Sisters was published (Tamura)If he did not read Austen, he had surely heard of her:  Natsume Sōseki, his literary predecessor and arguably the most popular writer of the Meiji era (1868-1912), admired Austen greatly and praised her in his 1907 Bungakuron as well as in numerous other essays.1  It is impossible to say for certain whether Tanizaki was directly influenced by Pride and Prejudice when writing The Makioka Sisters; however, their many similarities make their comparison one worth pursuing.  Because they were written in completely different locations and eras, however, there are numerous differences that must be acknowledged.  Formally arranged marriages (miai) were prevalent in Taisho-era Japan (1912-1926), while in Regency England there was no formal system for creating marriage matches.  Furthermore, the Taisho era was more culturally unstable than Regency England—a time when Western influence was changing the social structure and everyday life of Japan, when modernization was synonymous with Westernization.  This cultural change created a clash between (traditional) Japanese culture and (modern) Western culture, with which many, including Tanizaki and his characters, struggled.


Pride and Prejudice was written between 1796 and 1812, in a period of Napoleonic Wars, when the social order was being altered with the rise of the middle class; The Makioka Sisters was written during World War II, between 1943 and 1948, but is set in Taisho-era Japan, directly after an economic depression, when the aristocracy was losing its power, as indeed it seemed to be in Regency EnglandBecause of this phenomenon, the face of marriage was changing rapidly in both countries, as previously unknown men created their fortunes through trade or business, making them, in financial terms, viable marriage candidates.  Both the Bennets and the Makiokas are old landed families, but their dwindling wealth and power make properly marrying their daughters crucial—at least it seems crucial to members of each family.  In both cases harsh financial possibilities, such as the effects of entailment or bankruptcy, give a darker shadow to the novels.  Although both Elizabeth Bennet and Yukiko Makioka ultimately marry suitable husbands—that is, husbands who satisfy the families’ desires for honor as well as financial assistance—Yukiko does not succeed in marrying for love.  Indeed, marrying for love never seems to be the goal or purpose for marriage in Yukiko’s opinion.  Like her sisters (and Charlotte Lucas), she marries because she must.  Thus, The Makioka Sisters, which Kinya Tsuruta calls “Tanizaki’s elegy for the receding beauty of the past” (252), ends on a more pessimistic note.  Austen presents a hopeful and positive view of social change with her happy ending, while concerned more with virtue and didacticism than Tanizaki.  Meanwhile, Tanizaki’s pessimistic attitude toward individual self-determination and marriage reveals an uneasiness with the changing structure of society and nostalgia for the past, further expressed by his overt concern with the loss of culture that comes with the growing attraction to modernity.


The act of searching for an appropriate marriage partner highlights the particular attributes the Makiokas and the Bennets deem most important for a successful marriage.  Although these attributes vary within each family, there is a strong emphasis on the man’s economic station, as neither family can afford to provide its daughters with a large dowry.  Still, financial motive is not always a concern for the bride-to-be.  For example, Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins’s offer—a marriage that would ensure that Longbourn stay in the family after Mr. Bennet’s death.  This shunning of the financial motive is presented in a positive light, with Mr. Bennet’s telling Elizabeth that “‘I will never see you again if you do [accept Mr. Collins]’ (112).  But disregarding the prudent motive is not always a good thing.  Lydia and Taeko both end up with men their families do not wholly approve of, resulting in Taeko’s dissociation from her family and in Lydia’s coming precariously close to ruining the Bennet name.  Whether financial need is something considered by the bride in question, it is a matter always present in the mind of her family.  


The difference in tonality, however, is great.  Both novels build contrasts between an eldest daughter who is the most conservative in her expectations, a middle daughter who is much more central to the narrative and who desires to satisfy her personal desire for love within traditionally sanctioned marriage, and a youngest daughter, who satisfies her own lust outside of marriage.  The novelistic judgments, however, are quite different.  In the case of Tanizaki’s novel, the rebellious youngest daughter is much more socially and economically successful in satisfying her own desires (though ultimately, not necessarily happier than Lydia Bennet), and the middle daughter who respects both old and new codes much less successful in finding a middle ground that leads to personal happiness.


Although both families consider the prospective husband’s wealth, it is not necessarily their first priority.  Whereas at least Mr. Bennet is chiefly concerned with compatibility, the Makiokas are concerned mainly with the suitor’s status, demonstrating the Makiokas’ unwillingness to accept the changing expectations of marriage, which with the rise of the merchant class, were transforming rapidly.  Though the Bennets are aware of status, they are more concerned with compatibility.  This concern is partly due to the changing nature of what society found acceptable for the basis of a marriage match.  Lawrence Stone notes that in England “after 1780 . . . for the first time in history, romantic love became a respectable motive for marriage among the propertied classes” (284).  Although women were expected—and indeed, found it prudent and to their own advantage—to marry within their social class to a “suitable” match, Regency England saw a loosening of parental control:  “mate selection was determined more by free choice than by parental decision and was based as much on expectations of lasting mutual affection as on calculations of an increase in money, status or power” (Stone 656).  Hence, the condemnation of Lydia’s choice of Wickham has as much to do with her poor judgment in what could determine “lasting mutual affection” as with the potential damage her elopement could cause to the Bennet name.  Mr. Bennet’s reaction to Mr. Darcy’s proposal reflects both the growing control that children had in mate selection and the importance parents placed on their children’s potential happiness.  When Elizabeth asks if Mr. Bennet has any other objection to their engagement besides her disliking him, he answers, “‘We all know him to be a proud, unpleasant sort of man; but this would be nothing if you really liked him’” (376).  Elizabeth’s feelings for Mr. Darcy take precedence over his ten thousand a year and his “unpleasantness” in a way that Yukiko’s feelings never do with her family.


Though Sachiko and Tsuruko would not force Yukiko to marry a man she disliked, for the Makioka sisters, compared to the freedom that the Bennet girls experience, there is much less self-determination in mate selection.  This limitation is partly due to the cultural and temporal differences:  Japanese women in Taisho Japan were not expected to go out on their own and meet men although if they happened to meet a man they thought would make a suitable husband, it was not frowned upon.  Still, in a striking difference from Pride and Prejudice, there is a notable lack of attention to the idea of any kind of preexisting affection in formal marriage arrangements (miai) in the Makioka family.  This disregard is shown in Yukiko’s miai with Mimaki, the man she eventually marries.  Yukiko’s feelings about him are not mentioned until after the engagement is made, and even then the reader is not allowed into her internal thought process:  “It seemed clear, said Sachiko, that Yukiko was not displeased with the man” (Tanizaki 514).  This inattention to love is partly due to the historical and cultural context of marriage in Japan.  Although love marriages were becoming more acceptable, marriage through miai was still prevalent.  The marriages of older sisters Sachiko and Tsuruko, both arranged, are successful, thus presenting a positive view of the family’s deference to the traditional model of marriage and a distrust of a daughter’s ability to determine the best match on her own.


In contrast, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s marriage embodies the growing freedom that children had in choice of marriage partners, as opposed to the older model in which parents were the main actors in setting up an engagement.  Although Elizabeth’s marriage is not untraditional within her social class or within the genre to which Pride and Prejudice belongs, Austen’s novel does portray a section of society that was still firmly set against marriage across social boundaries, no matter how small the distinction.  As Stone points out, “The least free [to marry whom they pleased] were the heirs and heiresses to great fortunes, unless their parents were dead and they had obtained full financial control” (316).  Lady Catherine’s horror at Mr. Darcy’s even considering Elizabeth bespeaks not only how important wealth and prestige are to her but also how little accepted freedom of choice was amongst the highest echelons of society.  “‘You are a gentleman’s daughter.  But who was your mother?  Who are your uncles and aunts?’” says Lady Catherine (356).  The depiction of Lady Catherine as a haughty woman stuck in the old ways immediately invalidates her opinion in the scope of Austen’s novel.  That Lady Catherine’s views of marriage are diametrically opposed to Elizabeth’s own views of marriage further urges the reader to sympathize with Elizabeth and champion marriage across social boundaries.  In a similar vein, although Mr. Bingley is wealthy, his father’s fortune has been earned through trade; therefore, he is not part of the landed elite.  Still, he is “‘just what a young man ought to be,’” and his good breeding and “‘four or five thousand a year’” make him an ideal candidate for marriage (14, 4).  Longbourn and Meryton’s easy acceptance of Mr. Bingley as a marriageable man reflects the growing acceptance of wealth earned through trade.


            In Tanizaki’s novel, the concluding arranged marriage, paradoxically, signals the approaching demise of miai.  Noguchi Takehiko contends that Yukiko’s marriage marks the end of the traditional ways of life:  “The end of the shy and beautiful Yukiko’s maidenhood coincides with the end of the good old times” (28).  Indeed, there is a sense that marriages like Yukiko’s are a dying practice It is not that arranged marriages were necessarily becoming obsolete—because they were not—but rather, as the merchant classes rose and the power of the aristocracy diminished, that a marriage between equal aristocrats was less important.  Sharon Hamilton Nolte notes that the abolition of hereditary restrictions on occupation and residence at the Meiji Restoration of 1868, coupled with the new state sponsorship of industrialization and education, created a “new, largely urban professional and managerial elite” (667).  This new professional and managerial elite were becoming just as accepted socially as the old, titled elite.  Takehiko points out that “Tanizaki was only too aware that by 1948, when he finished the book, titles were almost meaningless” (23).  Hence, Yukiko’s marriage shows the Makioka’s unwillingness to move into the modern era.


            The contrast between Austen’s and Tanizaki’s view of the futures of their respective cultures is highlighted through each family’s youngest daughter.  Both Lydia and Taeko are impetuous young women who damage their families’ reputations through their romantic misadventures.  Lydia Bennet, whose mind is “more vacant than [her] sisters’” (28), is wild and spontaneous with potentially disastrous results.  Although rebellious like Taeko Makioka, her rebelliousness is presented as a result of silliness and stupidity.  Her running away with Wickham has less to do with her dissatisfaction with the structure of marriage than with her desire for attention from her family and her lack of common sense.  Even after the scandal with Wickham, “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless” (315).  Still, Lydia is forgiven by her family and Wickham is welcomed into the Bennet family with varying degrees of warmth, suggesting that faults revealed in a child’s choice in marriage partner were still forgivable.  Because Lydia’s character rather than a coherent set of beliefs as to how she should conduct her life is the cause of her actions, Lydia cannot represent the modern perspective.


The youngest daughter of the Makioka family, however, is motivated by principle and so becomes representative of social change. Individualism, and with it the idea of feminism, flourished as a new idea during the Taisho era, and Taeko is representative of this new Japanese woman who wanted to have control over her own destiny (Nolte 667).  Taeko is determined to marry for love and is happy to support herself financially by working in order to have that freedom.  Unlike Lydia and the other Bennet sisters, Taeko is allowed the possibility of becoming an artisan and businesswoman without being socially outcast.  Although Taeko’s working-class lovers leave her family horrified, for the most part, her family respects her artistic talent, cleverness, and independence.  Her eventual dismissal from the family marks their inability to accept Taeko’s modernity.  But despite Taeko’s rebelliousness, which culminates in an illegitimate pregnancy, she still invokes sympathy from both her sisters and the reader, exemplified in the worry that Taeko’s difficult pregnancy creates in the family.  Taeko’s downfall lies in her modernity rather than in a moral flaw, as is the case with Lydia.  In an examination of marriage in another Tanizaki novel, Naomi, Michiko Suzuki writes that in Japan “love marriage was touted by feminists and liberal thinkers as a desirable union based on love and personal choice.  In their view, love marriage served as a gauge with which to measure national progress in terms of modernization and Westernization” (359).  Taeko is one of these progressive women Her bleak ending, which includes a stillborn child, suggests an inherent distrust of the new ways not only of marriage, but of life in Japan as a whole.  If love marriage serves as a gauge of modernization and Westernization, The Makioka Sisters does not present a favorable view of them, lamenting the past through its contrasting and positive portrayals of Tsuruko and Sachiko’s arranged marriages.  Thus does Tanizaki create a pessimistic view of the future through Taeko’s dismissal from her family.


Austen’s work is much more concerned with individual virtue than Tanizaki’s; Tanizaki focuses his worry on the loss of culture and tradition in Taisho Japan.  Because of her concern with personal virtue, Austen allows much more insight into each character’s internal thought process than Tanizaki, although she too denies this insight at certain points, such as when Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth get engaged.  Austen also offers more direct commentary via the narrator than Tanizaki, for example making it clear that Mrs. Bennet’s character should be disregarded because of her silliness.  Because Tanizaki’s main focus is on larger, societal change, there is less need for an intimate understanding of each character’s internal thought process than on the changes occurring on a larger scale in the society in which the Makiokas live.  These different strategies mark a fundamental difference between the two authors’ intents—Pride and Prejudice offers more of a character study while The Makioka Sisters can be seen more as a microcosm of Japanese society within one family.


The Bennet family and the Makioka family both try to find a balance between old and new, given the changing face of marriage as the rise of the merchant class and their own declining fortunes create difficulties in marrying off their daughters.  The Bennets find their answer in allowing each daughter ultimately to make her own choice based on personal preference—although certainly not without some strong input either for or against her choice.  The Makiokas, however, revert back to tradition and marry Yukiko to a man from an old court family.  Although it is made clear that the Makiokas cannot continue to cling to the past and survive, the example of modernity Taeko offers presents an even less attractive example to both the elder Makiokas and the reader.  Misfortune in Pride and Prejudice is rooted in individual character flaw while in The Makioka Sisters it is a product of the cultural context of a generation.  Tanizaki’s pessimistic vision of the options available for females in Taisho Japan opposes Austen’s optimism that the freedom of personal choice can culminate in personal happiness and satisfaction.  In The Makioka Sisters the frustration with the inability for individual self-determination is great.  Whether a woman marries according to her family’s wishes, like Yukiko, or conducts her love affairs on her own accord, as Taeko does, neither is rewarded with the happiness and satisfaction that Elizabeth or Jane Bennet gain by marrying either Mr. Darcy or Mr. Bingley.





1. In his Shajituhou (Realism), Sōseki quotes the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice at length, praising Austen for her exquisite use of realism, calling her an “expert of realism” (Sōseki 374, my translation).




Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1932. 

Hansen, Serena.  “Rhetorical Dynamics in Jane Austen’s Treatment of Marriage Proposals.”  Persuasions On-Line 21.2 (2000).

Nolte, Sharon Hamilton.  “Individuality in Taishō Japan.”  Journal of Asian Studies 43 (1984): 667-84.

Sōseki, Natsume.  漱石全集 (Sōseki Zenshu).  Vol. 14.  Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1995.

Stone, Lawrence.  The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800.  New York: Harper, 1977.

Suzuki, Michiko.  “Progress and Love Marriage: Rereading Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s Chijin No ai.”  Journal of Japanese Studies 31 (2005): 357-84. 

Takehiko, Noguchi.  “Time in the World of Sasameyuki.”  Trans. Teruko Craig.  Journal of Japanese Studies 3 (1977): 1-36.

Tamura, M.  “A Bibliography of Jane Austen in Japan: Translations and Adaptations 1.”  香川大学教育学部研究報告.第一部 (Kagawa Daigaku Kyouikugakubu Kenkyuuhoukoku. Daiichibu) 120 (2003): 39-52.  18 Aug. 2007

Tanizaki, Junichiro.  The Makioka Sisters.  Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker.  New York: Tuttle, 1957.

Tsuruta, Kinya.  “Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s Pilgrimage and Return.”  Comparative Literature Studies 37 (2000): 239-55. 

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