The Maids by Junichiro Tanizaki

The Maids is Tanizaki’s last novel and is a kind of sequel to his most popular work, The Makioka Sisters. Instead of concerning ourselves primarily with the “upstairs” householders as in The Makioka Sisters, in The Maids, the history of the family is told as an account of the maids it has hired from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, a turbulent and troubled period in Japanese history. The story is elegiac, funny, partly weird, strange-seeming at times to a Western reader…and nostalgic, since the tale is semi-autobiographical…the head of the family, writer Raikichi, seeming like a stand-in for Tanizaki himself.

There’s almost an insider feeling to The Maids of “non-Japanese people need not read this” but if you took that attitude you’d be missing some great characters. Many of the maids ended up being “just like family” to Raikichi and his wife Sanko, but maybe that’s Tanizaki looking at the hired help through patriarchal glasses. Let’s face it, it can’t have been all that wonderful to be a maid. And by the 1960’s in this narrative, many prospective maids are finding better jobs in factories and offices.

It was traditional for the employer to provide their maids with new names. One new maid declines to be renamed and is considered “willful”. It’s said that the renaming is out of respect for the maid’s family. The practice is abandoned later. But many maids in this story are almost always known by their “professional” names.

When I say “maid” you mustn’t assume the western model of such a position. Attractive maids may accompany their employer as paid companions…for a walk in the garden, a trip to town or to a restaurant. But when Raikichi takes a favorite maid to downtown Tokyo to visit an old friend, she waits in the car until he concludes his visit.

The early chapters are difficult going for a westerner. There’s lots of talk of regional differences and Japanese dialects that clash with Tokyo speech. A glossary is introduced at one point that introduces different words with the same meaning, contrasting “standard” Japanese with the vernacular speech of a different region, Kagoshima, where many of the maids in this story come from. Pity the translator that must put this over for an English-speaking reader since neither the standard expression or the corresponding vernacular is comprehensible. A Japanese reader wouldn’t have that problem and might be amused by the regional speech differences. That’s almost totally lost for an English-speaking reader. It’s like you understand there’s a joke but can’t figure out what it is.

Reading The Maids is like eavesdropping on an intimate Japanese conversation. But the adroit English reader can view this as a benefit. Here’s a great writer taking a loving look at his own people, their recent history, their customs and family life and the great richness of their varying regional identities. It’s also an antidote to the fascist, militarized Japan of the 30’s and 40’s, which is kept far away in this narrative. It’s a gentile tale with Raikichi and Sanko moving between the multiple homes they own in different districts of Japan and employing, it seems, numerous maids, accommodating themselves to all their idiosyncrasies and personal problems.

The latter half of the book is peak Tanizaki in autumnal mode. Here are most of the maids’ stories. I decided to laugh and cry over the lesbian maids who are caught making love in their mistress’s bed. That venerable matron is so shocked that she orders the bed and the bed coverings thrown out the window to be burned by the gardener the same day and insists the box spring of the bed be sold the same day also. But my respect for Tanizaki went up a notch when he portrayed the maids as unrepentant. They’re sorry they were caught, that’s all. And by the time their mistress orders them thrown out of the house, they’ve already packed their bags. It’s the 1950’s. Tanizaki portrays the situation as shocking, but I don’t think he is shocked.

Then there’s the neighborhood stud, Mitsuo, who impresses his numerous girlfriends by pulling down his pants and letting them take a look. The most selfish and unpopular of Raikichi’s maids, Gin, will have none of it and is determined to maneuver him to the altar. Her campaign over her rivals is one of the highlights of the book. Then there’s hardscrabble but snobbish Yuri, who lands her dream job as maid companion to a movie star and ends up alienating everyone on the set by acting as if she is entitled to the same star treatment as her boss gets.

These stories are priceless and the final pages glow like the most beautiful of sunsets as a gathering of alumni maids, their families and children treat an aging Raikichi/Tanizaki as a beloved grandfather. I understand and sympathize with Raikichi’s love for his extended family.

But I couldn’t help thinking: No one should be that servile. And the master is not entitled to say that his servants loved him.