Shape Shifting Fox-Women in Junichiro Tanizaki’s “Naomi”


In his epoch defining novel Naomi (1924), the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki has his protagonist utter this line while gazing at his sleeping love and obsession, the young, beautiful, manipulative “femme fatale” Naomi: “If she were a fox and her true form were this bewitching, then I’d eagerly let myself be enchanted.” This metaphor of the fox is curious, but intentional, as Tanizaki modelled Naomi, and his modern tale of deception, seduction and decadence around identical themes in the medieval shape-shifter myth Tamamo no mae. This essay argues that Tanizaki adapted this ancient tale to Taisho era (1912-1926) in order to comment on the massive transformations that Japanese society experienced under the influence of modernisation and Westernisation. By adapting the themes of transformation and degradation from the traditional Tamamo no mae myth, Tanizaki expresses the ambivalence he felt about this period of change. On the one hand, such transformation could be liberating, in particular for women. But on the other hand, it could be dangerous, as it threatened to undermine the traditional “spirit” of Japan, replacing it with a decadent, non-native and shallow culture of mindless hedonism, a “sure sign” of decay and degradation. This essay will first give a brief synopsis of Tamamo no mae and Naomi. It will then examine the theme of transformation in both these tales and in Taisho society. Finally, it will explore the theme of degradation in the same three cases.

The story of Tamamo no mae takes place in the 12th century court of the retired emperor Toba. One day, a woman with a mysterious background appears at his court, and due to her incomparable beauty, grace and intelligence, she soon becomes the emperor’s favourite courtesan. But the emperor begins to show signs of sickness, and pines away under the influence of an evil spirit. One of the emperor’s loyal Daoist diviners suspects that Tamamo no mae is in fact a demon responsible for his lord’s dissipation and concocts a ruse to uncover her. At a Shinto purification ritual Tamamo no mae is revealed to be a shapeshifting, nine tailed fox demon and escapes to the northeast, the traditional direction from which evil descends. She is later slain on Nasu plain in modern Tochigi prefecture, and the curse on the emperor is lifted. Her body was said to have turned into a giant stone, which emitted toxic fumes, killing all who came too near.

The novel Naomi by Tanizaki, is a modern retelling of Tamamo no mae. Set in Taisho era Tokyo, Naomi traces the moral, physical and mental degradation of a Japanese salaryman due to his obsession with the beautiful yet manipulative young Eurasian looking woman, Naomi. Naomi’s background is also mysterious. Jōji, the main character, discovers her, at age 15, living and working in Asakusa, oddly enough, in the extreme northeast of Tokyo city. He adopts her and attempts to transform her into a modern “lady,” but it is soon clear that she has a will of her own, and an explosive sexuality. Jōji is gradually dragged into the depths of degradation by his love for this “femme fatale,” who cheats on him, manipulates him for his money, and soon comes to completely dominate his life. Turning traditional gender roles on their head, Naomi is both a cautionary tale and a paean to this heady era of transformation, modernisation and Westernisation.

Naomi and the traditional myth Tamamo no mae share the major theme of transformation. Like several Japanese myths, Tamamo no mae is a shape-shifting tale, in which an evil fox spirit transforms into a beautiful courtesan at the palace of the emperor Toba, in order to seduce and cast an evil spell upon him. In Tanizaki’s modern retelling, the character Naomi is often described by the narrator Jōji through the metaphor of animal transformations. Furthermore, much like the Tamamo no mae myth, these transformations are overwhelmingly linked to a feminine power of seduction. In one example, Jōji uses the symbolism of a cat’s eyes to express his inability to resist Naomi’s sensual charms. In another, he describes her sleeping form as like that of a sleeping fox, directly linking Naomi to Tamamo no mae, by acknowledging her fox-like ability for deception, but nonetheless finding this fox imagery deeply alluring. In a further case, Jōji describes Naomi’s explosive sexuality as like a “colt,” that is, as both intimidating and uncontrollable. In each of these examples, the link between the traditional story of Tamamo no mae and Tanizaki’s Naomi is explicit: Naomi’s animal transformation, to wild, untamed fox, colt or cat, symbolises her powerful, almost magical, sexual control over Jōji. Indeed, although he sets out to tame her, to make a “lady” of her, it is Jōji who, in the end is pulled along by Naomi. Much like the relationship between Tamamo no mae and emperor Toba, it is an allure that is both irresistible and perilous.

On a deeper level, Tanizaki uses transformation as a metaphor for the massive changes that Japan was undergoing in this era. In particular, he uses the character of Naomi as a symbol of the cultural and social revolution that Western influence had wrought on Japan. At various points throughout the novel, Naomi is “transformed,” or “transforms” herself, into a Western woman. In the early stages of their relationship, for example, Jōji derives pleasure from dressing Naomi up like American movie stars, such as Mary Pickford, and then photographing her as she mimics their facial expressions, pouts and poses. The final, and ultimate transformation comes toward the end of the novel, when, after a long separation, Naomi returns to Jōji:

“The door flew open with a bang, and a large, black shape like a bear burst into the room from the darkness outside. Whipping off a black garment and tossing it aside, an unfamiliar young Western woman stood there in a pale blue French crepe dress.”

Here, Naomi is no longer recognizable to Jōji. What began with their early games of dress-up and poses, has finally resulted in the complete transformation from Japanese to Western. If we combine this with the idea that animal transformations in traditional myths often symbolise the seductive, magical power that women can have over unsuspecting men, then Naomi’s Western transformation can be seen as symbolic of the desire that the West stirred in the Japanese imagination of this time. Yet Naomi also represents the power of Western allure to disorient the Japanese sense of self, as Jōji is overawed by this “magical” apparition of Naomi as a Western woman.

In traditional Japanese myths involving fox-transformations, foxes serve to undermine the idea that social order is absolute. As we have seen, Tanizaki uses this transformation myth to expose real seismic shifts in Taisho era Japan. We will now turn to some concrete examples of these transformations. One such change was an economic miracle during World War One that advanced the modern middle-class as a major element of the Japanese society, so that by 1921, it constituted 10% of the population. As a result of this middle class’s new disposable wealth, a consumer society took shape, discarding traditional forms of entertainment and consumption, for a Western flavour. Glitzy new department stores such as Mitsukoshi in Ginza appeared, as did modern dance halls, jazz music, and an ideology of leisure, shopping and escape. This new affluence and consumer culture is reflected at various stages in Naomi: in the modern Western style “culture home” that Jōji and Naomi move into, in their trips to movie theatres in Asakusa and to dancehalls in Ginza. Michael Bathgate writes that metamorphosis tales reveal how our so-called fixed categories are less stable than we might like to believe. Thus, we can see how Tanizaki adapts the traditional theme of metamorphosis to portray the zeitgeist of his own era, an era of dizzying cultural flux and the loss of old certainties.

Naomi, as a symbol of this transformation, also had her real world counterpart in the semi-mythical image of the modern girl, or moga. Like Naomi, the moga “…embodied the exhilaration of Japanese modern times…” In other words, she embodied a social and cultural revolution. The moga most closely resemble Naomi in their liberation from traditional norms and roles, their quest for economic independence and sexual freedom. Naomi too refused to be hampered by traditional expectations for a woman to settle down and be a “good wife, wise mother,” and asserted this liberation through casual sex with multiple partners, demanding that Jōji never subject her to a traditional marriage, and above all securing a stable income from him as her benefactor. In this sense, both Naomi and the moga were essentially myths that helped to give the vast, destabilizing and impersonal process of modernization a human face. They became the readable map of this revolution, and the complexities of capitalist transformation, in which people had been liberated from traditional norms and ties. They stood for the exhilarating desires, but also the nagging ambivalence people felt toward this liberation. We shall see from Tanizaki’s own explorations of this transformation, that feelings of ambivalence outweighed the sense of liberation in his imagination. Indeed, Naomi seems more like a symbol of the emasculation of Japanese men and culture by a dominant, unstoppable West.

The shapeshifting fox myth of Tamamo no mae symbolises epochs of change in the social order, but can also indicate more sinister transformations, such as decline and dissolution. As Ian Fergusson argues, Tamamo no mae was depicted as “…one of the most malicious and subversive female figures in Japanese mytho-history.” She slowly poisoned the Emperor Toba through her magical charm and seduction until she was discovered by his loyal retainers and finally slain. This theme of dissipation, in particular of the powerful, was actually a comment on the decline of social order in general. For example, the original Chinese myth, from which Tamamo no mae derives, depicts the downfall of the ancient Yin Dynasty due to the machinations of a beautiful consort. Indeed, the era of emperor Toba’s reign, in which Tamamo no mae is set, was one of epochal decline, as a dispute over the imperial succession involving Toba led directly to a civil war that ended the Heian era. Thus, it is evident that these myths serve to upset our notions that social order is fixed and immutable. They show us how the mighty can be brought low by capricious fate, debased by their own decadence, and the decadence of the times they lived in.

In Naomi, this theme of dissipation at the hands of a succubus femme fatale is also prominent. And much like the Tamamo no mae myth, Tanizaki links this with the decline and decadence of an era. In particular he points to the “dissipating” effect that Western cultural influence had upon Japanese society. In the novel, Jōji’s moral and physical decline at the hands of the “Westernised” Naomi commences soon after they begin cohabiting. She quickly destroys his finances through extravagant living, eating out often and regularly demanding expensive new clothes. In time, her unfaithful ways also undermine his physical and mental health, causing the once upstanding Jōji to skip work regularly. But it is his obsession with Naomi that leads to his ultimate degradation. Finally, no longer able to resist her, he submits to her every whim, even though he knows she is evil at heart. Jōji ends his days, a shell of a man, kowtowing to Naomi’s demands and lacking the confidence to stand up to her. He is degraded to the level of a “lapdog,” while she lives her Western fantasy. Here Tanizaki makes this link between the dissolution of the Japanese cultural “spirit” and Western influence clear. Naomi, a strong-willed, independent, Western looking woman “conquers” the weak-willed Japanese salaryman Jōji. His cultural essence is at last erased as he is forced to live a fully Westernised lifestyle without a will of his own.

As we have seen, the Taisho era was defined by rapid social, cultural and economic change. For some among Japan’s intellectuals and conservatives, this transformation had caused only decadence and decline. There were indeed elements of Taisho Japan that encouraged this feeling. The 1920s were a period of prolonged economic crisis, while the Great Kantō Earthquake brought Tokyo’s economic and social life to a standstill. This was an era of popular democratic and labour agitation, leading to, in 1919 alone, 497 strikes involving 335,000 workers, and in 1925 universal suffrage for all adult men. Furthermore, the era saw an influx of American cultural influence, such as Jazz, movies, dancehalls and fashion, and even the moga phenomenon could be seen as a symbol of this heady transformation. Amidst this dizzying milieu of left-wing progressivism and foreign cultural trends, Intellectuals and traditionalists decried the decay of a Japanese “essence,” of traditional manners, customs and beliefs. Even Natsume Sōseki feared that this hybridization was creating a decadent and hollow civilisation, doomed to failure. Thus, Tanizaki’s Naomi, and in particular the dissipation of its main character Jōji, fits into this spirit of criticism of what many believed was too much change, and too fast. Naomi raises the question of just how much this transformation was undermining Japan’s own unique spirit, sapping away at indigenous vitality, replacing it with a masquerade of modernity.

In conclusion, we can see how Tanizaki artfully used the ancient transformation myth of Tamamo no mae to define the massive social transformation of the Taisho era. Tanizaki adapts this theme of shape-shifting to chart the changing nature of the self, in particular or women’s identity in the 1920s. But he also applies it as a metaphor for wider social changes, such as modernisation and Westernisation. Moreover, the theme of degradation, found in Tamamo no mae, is also borrowed by Tanizaki to express his ambivalence towards these transformations. For Tanizaki, the Taisho era is on the cusp of decline through a decadent and unquestioning adoption of Western culture, and a reckless abandonment of Japanese traditions. But what is his final verdict? Does Tanizaki believe this process can be reversed? In the novel Jōji considers leaving Naomi for good, quitting his life in the decadent capital, rife with Western influence, and returning to his rural home, still steeped in tradition, in the hope of recovering his sense of self. But this never eventuates. Jōji is unable to resist the charms of Naomi and the exciting, but vapid life she leads. He settles down in her shadow, living vicariously the very life he once sought to escape.


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