This book is said by many to be the most important Japanese novel of the 20th Century. What makes it especially interesting for the psychology of fiction is that whereas the modernist movement in the West, led by such people as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, focused on inwardness, on what is going on beneath the surface, in this novel the focus is almost entirely on relationships. It's not without interiority, but most of the action is about events and concerns of everyday life, what to eat, what one should wear, whether or not to say this to that person. These matters are presented by the narrator and discussed among the characters in terms of how each would think about them in relation to the others. We might contrast the book with Virginia Woolf's To the lighthouse which, similarly, is about events of ordinary life. But in Woolf's book, the focus is on the interior world of Mrs Ramsay.
The Makioka sisters has three main themes. One is the depiction of the second sister, Sachiko. She is competent, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about her sisters. She is married to a decent man with literary interests, and she is modelled, evidently, on the author's third wife. The second theme is the search for a husband for Yukiko, the somewhat passive third sister. Here the Western reader is introduced to a series of customs that are unfamiliar, but which can find near and more distant translations into Western counterparts. The third theme is the behaviour of the youngest sister Taeko. She is the most Westernized of the sisters, and this theme includes her having affairs that cause great dismay to the rest of the family.
Tanizaki is especially good at immersing us in family life. In this, rather than cultural distinctiveness, he seems to have achieved a remarkable universality: just exactly the mixture of commitment and critical commentary, just precisely the ambivalence of concern and knowing better than others what those others should do, with which we are all familiar. Part of the skill of the novel is that the entry into the Makioka family that Tanizaki offers is very gradual. It is as if you, the reader, had been adopted. You join the family and get to know its members little by little through their actions, deliberate and inadvertent, through how they talk, through their ways of relating.
Junichiro Tanizaki (1943-1948). The Makioka sisters (E. Seidensticker, Trans.). New York: Vintage (currrent edition 1957).
Virginia Woolf (1927). To the lighthouse. London: Hogarth.