A man just shy of 30 strolls into a cafe and is served by a 14-year-old apprentice waitress. She’s timid and sullen; in the place but not of it. He takes a fancy to her. Why? Hard to say. Maybe it’s her vaguely Western appearance. She looks like silent movie star Mary Pickford.

Stylish stroll: Young 'moga' (modern girls) walk down a street in Tokyo's Ginza district in 1928. | KAGEYAMA KOYO
Stylish stroll: Young ‘moga’ (modern girls) walk down a street in Tokyo’s Ginza district in 1928. | KAGEYAMA KOYO

A plan forms in his mind. He will “take charge of the child and look after her.” He’s lonely and bored. “I longed for a little color and warmth in my life. Indeed, why not build a house, I thought … I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the maid and the bird.”

It’s 1918, the height of the Taisho Era (1912-26) — Japan’s “jazz age.” “Ero-guro-nansensu” reigned — eroticism, grotesquerie, nonsense, a cultural explosion; an intellectual awakening, too. Young people thronged the new European-style cafes, discussing over coffee, wine, whisky and hotto sandouicchi (hot sandwiches) the philosophies, semi-digested, of Marx and “Dekansho” — Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer. The waitresses serving them were a catalytic ingredient in the atmosphere, joining the talk, parrying the repartee, offering or withholding sexual favors as each saw fit.

New people breathed new air with new lungs. Center-stage were the mobo and moga — modern boy and modern girl, respectively. The cafe waitress was the moga par excellence. Novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) fashioned of her an unforgettable fictional character. He named her Naomi. The novel, published serially 1924-25, is called “Chijin no Ai” (“A Fool’s Love”; English title: “Naomi”).

Some maid, some bird. By the time Naomi is through with her “papa” — is it a sad story, or a happy one?

“Papa,” Joji Kawai, is an electrical engineer, a self-declared “country bumpkin,” quite sincere in his disavowal of any predatory motive: “I was a babysitter, a gentle, kindly uncle.” He sends her out for music lessons, English lessons, dance lessons; he buys her clothes, makeup. He means to “give her a good education and bring her up to be a fine, respectable woman.”

Naomi proves an apt pupil. She trills Italian opera, struggles gamely with English, acquires “Western” airs and graces, and quite delights her doting guardian. He says to her, “My darling Naomi, I don’t just love you, I worship you. … You’re a diamond that I found and polished. I’ll buy you anything that’ll make you beautiful.” She too, in her way, is innocent. “I’m a boy,” she says. She lets him bathe her. He gets down on all fours and she rides him like a horse.

The Taisho moga had her 19th-century predecessors. Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909), considered Japan’s first “modern novelist,” drew a proto-moga in his 1887 novel “Ukigumo” (“Floating Clouds”). Her name is Osei. She’s a girl caught between two eras — the dying old and the infant new; caught also between two young men, one representing but unable to live up to the heroism of the samurai past, the other embodying the soulless ambition and crass opportunism — whatever it takes to get ahead — of the crude materialism sweeping the country as it industrializes and “Westernizes.”

The two young men, Bunzo and Noboru, are low-level clerks in the new national bureaucracy. Both are courting Osei — Bunzo seriously, Noboru frivolously. Bunzo is fired in an office staff cut. Noboru survives. His type always does. He fawns, he flatters. “He copied (his chief’s) speech and gestures and even assumed the way he cleared his throat and his manner of sneezing.” To Bunzo’s assertion that even a subordinate should retain a trace of independence he replies, “Unreasonable or not, you can’t go against a superior.” An underling “should just (say) yes and (carry) on with his work, whether the orders made sense or not.”

Poor Bunzo — fish out of water, nurtured on classical wisdom teaching, “Sincerity moves even heaven.” Maybe it does, but on Earth in the Meiji Era (1867-1912) it moves nothing. A jobless, penniless man, a minnow in a sea of sharks, a fool in everyone’s eyes including his own — what chance has he with a girl like Osei, carefully reared for a life of elegant ease and pressured relentlessly by her overbearing mother to “get yourself a successful husband and have him buy you Western clothes or anything else you want”?

Osei rebels, however. In intimate conversation with Bunzo, who admires her devotedness to her mother, she says, “There is something more important to me than my parents.” “Who?” asks Bunjo, on tenterhooks. “Oh,” says Osei, “it’s not a person. It’s truth.”

Futabatei dislikes her. Why, one wonders. He makes light of her noble qualities and calls them superficial. They are halting and fitful, that’s true — incipient rather than mature. She’s only 18. “I’ll never get married,” she vows — but when Noboru “(treated) her like a silly child … she seemed to enjoy it, for all her protests.” We never do learn her fate, but are given every reason to expect her to marry the slimy, climbing Noboru and be satisfied, ultimately sated, with such gifts as the likes of him can confer upon her. She’ll never be a Naomi.

How is one to take Naomi? The male reader hardly knows whether to admire her, scorn her or fear her. Tanizaki’s female readers made “Naomi-ism” a vogue. For them Naomi symbolized fresh air, new freedom, Japan’s belated evolution from demure to brash, women setting the tone and demanding worship as the price of admission into a new erotic world in which men, not women, are the slaves — the willing slaves, if “Papa” Joji is truly representative.

She tantalizes him, bewitches him, betrays him; he throws her out; accustomed to luxury, she seduces him again, strips him of all dignity, makes him proud to sacrifice his self-respect on her altar. “Will you do whatever I say?” she demands. “I will.” “Will you give me as much money as I need?” “I will.” Anything to have her back.

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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