This week we’re taking a look at a novella by legendary Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886 – 1965). A successful writer during his era, his writing marked a (sometimes uncomfortable) cultural shift for Japan as the nation merged its ancient traditions with a new identity over the 20th century.
Some Prefer Nettles (蓼喰ふ蟲, – Tade kū mushi ) was published in 1929 and is, by all accounts, a semi-autobiographical piece of writing. The translation from Japanese is more like “Each to his own” but Some Prefer Nettles was chosen for a Western audience making it (unfortunately) another confused situation when it comes to Japanese translations. Some Prefer Nettles isn’t the title Tanizaki gave the book, but the literal translation is “water pepper-eating bugs” which probably wouldn’t get the thing shifting off shelves any time soon.
Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles
Evidently this is why these translations exist so morons such as ourselves don’t have to go through awkward explanatory paragraphs. Anyway, with that done and over with we can take a proper look at this brief, contemplative, and revealing novella which can be viewed as an overview at a nation undergoing something of a societal upheaval.
Some Prefer Nettles has a simple plot which looks at the marriage of Kaname and Misako. Everything’s falling apart and divorce appears inevitable as Misako is having an affair, something which Kaname has even approved of. Unfortunately their young son doesn’t know anything about these shenanigans, and the couple are dithering and prolonging the whole situation to try and save public face.
Feeling somewhat lost, they spend time at the bunraku (a traditional Japanese puppet theatre) which Misako’s father runs. At this stage in life the older gentleman, a Japanese traditionalist, engages with the couple in an attempt to get them to stay together (divorce being particularly humiliating in the East) and ignore the encroaching influences of hedonistic Western nations.
Tanizaki’s novella deals calmly with a subtly chilling conflict between ancient and modern ideals. As a result, it’s essentially a record of a time when real technological and societal advances were forcing traditional Japanese values to clash with an emerging new world. Not everyone was happy about it, but with each passing generation we must wave goodbye to certain longstanding values. Indeed, blud. Indeed.
A Historical Document
For Japan, social upheaval continued over the subsequent decades and was documented further by great authors such as Yukio Mishima (The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea) and Kenzaburō Ōe (A Personal Matter) over the course of WWII and into a new era of technological development and liberal, advanced economic shifts across most of the world.
Whilst we believe many traditional values are fantastic and should be kept firmly in place (good manners, respect for one’s elders, eating with your mouth closed, not shouting into your smartphone on public transport forcing everyone else to listen to your pointless conversation), history has shown social change is inevitable and can primarily be seen as a positive advance.
Some baulk at progressivism (if you ever dare read a site such as Return of Kings, for instance, prepare yourself for a hilarious, if depressing, display of abject stupidity) and view it as the harbinger of doom – either this or scatter-brained adherence to new-fangled fads. Yet the course of history has displayed societal change to be inevitable, and over the last 50 years in particular it’s brought with it a greater morality and major advances in human equality. What exactly, dear readers, is wrong with that? Innit.