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Enryo-sasshi and ‘The Makioka Sisters’: The power and limits of vague communication

In David Sedaris’ 2018 essay collection “Calypso,” the humorist writes of how his father would simply walk away from conversations he was no longer interested in continuing. Sedaris notes that rather than feeling hurt, his reaction as a boy was excitement: “We can get away with that? Really? Yippee!” And Sedaris himself puts the practice to good use when guests of his partner Hugh visit.

When I read the essay recently, his reaction reminded me of how I felt years ago when I first encountered Junichiro Tanizaki’s novel “Sasameyuki” in its wonderful translation as “The Makioka Sisters” by Edward Seidensticker. The way Yukiko, one of the four sisters, behaves similarly provoked a feeling of “She can get away with that? Really?” There was no “Yippee!” but I did indeed feel intrigued exasperation in reading Yukiko’s interactions with the other characters. Tanizaki’s novel is a fascinating portrayal of a particularly Japanese communicative dysfunction as a plot device.

While Sedaris’ father literally walks away, Yukiko communicatively withdraws throughout the novel. As most lovers of Japanese literature know, much of the action of “The Makioka Sisters,” which takes place between 1936 and 1941, concerns finding a husband for Yukiko, who is 30 at the start of the novel and for whom accomplishing this objective has become more difficult due to circumstances beyond her control. Accordingly, there are several omiai matchmaking meetings over the months and years. When her sister Sachiko broaches her about likely candidates, Yukiko is exceedingly unforthcoming.

Here is what she says, or rather, what she doesn’t say, in each instance: “As usual, she said almost nothing”; “Instead, she persisted in giving vague answers that could be taken to mean anything”; “She would not give me a clear answer”; “Yukiko did not answer” (three times in different parts of the novel); “Yukiko said nothing” (occurring twice); “Again Yukiko was silent”; “As usual, Yukiko did not really say yes or no”; “Yukiko gave her usual vague answer.” At other times, Yukiko merely nods, says “Oh,” or replies “Yes.” How maddening!

Yukiko’s reticence obliges those around her to surmise her feelings, in the Japanese communicative style often referred to as “enryo-sasshi” in which the onus is on others to figure out what someone’s reticence signifies. All well and good, but they are thwarted in this as well by Yukiko often looking down at the floor and speaking almost inaudibly. The family assumes that Yukiko does wish to marry, yet even this is ambiguous. She “seems strangely unconcerned” and “quite indifferent” when things don’t go well. Is this how she really feels or a way of maintaining her dignity? The other characters appear unsure. They feel sympathy for Yukiko, but the indistinct, inarticulate dithering is nevertheless annoying. At one omiai, the narrator remarks, “…as always she made no attempt to exploit openings others gave her.” On another occasion, her sister Taeko observes, “She could be just a little more helpful.” This is clearly not the kind of seamless enryo-sasshi that cultural articles often describe.

In discussing this convey-barely-anything-but-people-will-figure-it-out mode, it can often seem as if all Japanese people are happy enough with this way of communicating, but Sachiko, in particular, finds it vexing. When Yukiko objects to the maid O-haru’s blather, Sachiko thinks, “It was of course a nuisance to have a gossip like O-haru, but it could be just as trying to have someone who never spoke enough.” In a famous scene when Yukiko scarcely manages to hold a half-hearted telephone conversation with a man named Hashidera, who had seemed quite promising until the fateful call, Sachiko cannot help but feel anger and resentment at Yukiko’s refusal to behave normally.

People outside the family find it even more difficult to tolerate Yukiko’s manner. Hashidera interprets her behavior as disdain for him, and Mrs. Niu, who set up the omiai, confronts Sachiko, saying, “Such aloofness was no longer permitted to a princess even, or to the daughter of a noble family, and what precisely did Sachiko think her sister was?”

Tanizaki goes even further, suggesting that Yukiko’s behavior is not something beyond her control. Through her failure to speak up, she allows negotiations for one omiai to proceed to a point at which backing out is improper. It is later made plain her aim was to embarrass her brother-in-law Tatsuo, because the go-between was an executive at the bank where he worked. No one likes Tatsuo, nevertheless such actions make Yukiko’s motivations even murkier. And yet this reticent woman is also shown to be a wonderful aunt to Sachiko’s daughter as well as someone who can speak up as necessary regarding her wayward sister Taeko.

In the end, Yukiko’s communicative sabotage harms herself more than anyone, but despite the frustration she provokes, no one can fail to feel sympathy for her at the novel’s end. “The Makioka Sisters” shows the limits of enryo-sasshi in its execution and effects. To my earlier self, who first thought, “She can get away with that? Really?” Tanizaki’s enigmatic response appears to be, “Well, yes and no.”