I have to write about Mariyan

Lightly literary
4 min readFeb 17, 2022


Well, of course I don’t have to, but I guess I should, because I said I would a few posts ago (here, when I first mentioned Nakajima, and here , where I got to talking about Loti).

Mariyan, in the eponymous novella by Nakajima Atsushi, is a Kanaka woman from Palau, whom the narrator finds appealing because of, but also, I feel, in spite of her “ethnic features,” and in spite of himself. Like with the “Woman in the house with oleanders,” Nakajima’s narrating alter-ego combines an admiration for the islander woman’s “rich features” with something akin to contempt and pity for her “robust physical constitution.”

Mariyan is not particularly proud of her “Kanaka face,” either, and seems to regret not matching closer the “highly civilized standards of beauty” prevailing among the natives, which dictate that the more Westernized or Japanized one is, the better (those of mixed blood are considered good looking — the same trope appeared in “The Woman in the house…” too, remember?) This obsession with better looks as a result of miscegenation is perhaps a pet-peeve of the colonies (de facto or not): we find it, for example, in Tanizaki Jun’ichirō’s Naomi (Chijin no Ai, 1924–25) where in the main character, Jōji, is fascinated by Naomi because she looks a bit like a foreigner, like a mixed-race child (ai no ko, or today’s hāfu). Being “almost the same, but not quite” (what Homi Bhaba calls “colonial mimicry”) is the very reason why he falls for her. It’s interesting to note here that Jōji’s ideal Naomi has to look like Mary Pickford, or Annette Kellerman, or some other American actress, never like a real foreigner he might meet in real life (he is petrified to dance with an actual Russian woman at a party, for instance!)

And here we are, not talking about Mariyan — but perhaps the digression will be forgiven if I alert the reader to the fact that this mediation of the ideal woman via one fiction or another is in fact the standard recipe. Loti doesn’t give us specific titles, but does compare the beautiful court ladies in kimonos to bi-dimensional characters “escaped from between the pages of some old book;” and a great portion of Mariyan’s persona, as Ton-chan, Nakajima’s narrator presents her, is mediated by her reading The Marriage of Loti in Japanese, and his overimposing her on Loti’s Tahitian bride.

Mariyan reads other things too, such as a selection of English poetry translated in Japanese and annotated by Kuriyagawa Hakuson; according to Ton-chan, she “may have been one of the most ardent book readers in town.” And yet, he feels “sad” (itamashii, which can also be translated as “pitiful”) when noticing this: towards the books or towards Mariyan, he is not sure. Ton-chan has the exact same feeling, by his own acceptation, once again, when he sees Mariyan wearing Western clothes and high heels. He observes: “…a pair of big brawny bronze arms capable of wrestling a devil to the ground presented themselves from her short sleeves. Under her column-like legs the heels of the shoes looked as if they were about to break at any moment.” Then, he attempt to self-analyse: “I was never clear whether the sadness was towards the cloud-white dress she wore or towards the woman who wore it.” To Ton-chan, the mismatch between the delicate dress and heels and Mariyan’s “robust physical appearance” and “vivacious” complexion is as itamashii as the women dressed in ball gowns — with “too many hoops in their skirts, or perhaps too too few, or placed too high, or too low…” — assembled at the Rokumeikan were pitiful for Loti. 50 years or so apart, Ton-chan has internalized to a t the European “colonial gaze,” and is using it to reflect on how Mariyan is betraying his expectations of what an islander woman should look like, read, wear, etc.

But at least in Nakajima’s short story Mariyan is given a voice, and she uses it to call The Marriage of Loti “preposterous” — as preposterous as Mr. H’s suggestion that she takes a Japanese husband, to which she replies with a “Hmph” followed by the mysterious “But in the end, you know, a man from Japan, well…”

*The quotations are from Yamazaki Jun’s and Patricia McGahan’s translation (1993), except for the very last one. I wasn’t quite satisfied with their solution to render the Japanese original「でもねえ、内地の男の人はねえ、やっぱりねえ。」as “Well, I suppose, a fellow from Japan.” — even though I can’t say I’m perfectly satisfied with my version, either…

*The image below (let’s call it Tropics) is mine. Do not laugh, I’m just learning to play with colours!

Tropics (by IH/ Lightly Literary)



Lightly literary

Student, teacher, and translator of Japanese literature; wannabe potter(er) and knitter, hiking and skiing aficionada; slave to two cats.