Yasunari Kawabata

Roy Anthony Starrs (University of Otago)
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Kawabata Yasunari (to give his name in its usual Japanese order, family name first) was one of the major Japanese novelists of the twentieth century, and the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1968). His career spanned about fifty years, from the early 1920s until the early 1970s, and during this period – a time of tumultuous political upheaval and radical cultural change in the history of modern Japan – he produced novels considered exemplary for the unique way they blend traditional Japanese aesthetics with the latest Western modernist techniques. Although often described as an apolitical aesthete, Kawabata was actually a kind of “gentle” cultural nationalist and political conservative who nostalgically mourned the passing of traditional Japan and strove to represent its ancient cultural values, and the dangers confronting them, in his own work. Nonetheless, his cultural nationalism and traditionalism did not prevent him from learning as much as he could from Western literary and artistic practices, most notably from the experimental writing and painting of early 20th century European modernists such as Joyce, Proust, the German expressionists and the French surrealists.

Kawabata was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1899. His family were relatively wealthy “village aristocrats”, but Kawabata’s childhood was haunted by death and financial insecurity: his father, a medical doctor, died when Yasunari was only aged one, and his mother died a year later. Despite this early “orphanage” and the poverty that resulted, the intellectually brilliant youth was able to attend Japan’s top university, the Imperial University of Tokyo (now Tokyo University), where he majored first in English and then in Japanese literature.

Throughout the more than half century of his active creative life, Kawabata was a very prolific writer, and his work includes many of the major genres of modern Japanese fiction: autobiographical stories, surrealistic prose poems, experimental psychological novellas, more traditional domestic novels, and even, on a less exalted level, popular romantic fiction written strictly for money and published in women’s weekly magazines. To some extent, each of these genres may be associated with a different phase of Kawabata’s career, which itself may be roughly divided into five major stages:

From about 1914 to 1926 was a period of “self-discovery” when Kawabata, like many writers before him, grew to self-awareness as both a man and an artist through the writing of autobiographical sketches and stories. These early stories belong to the genre known in Japan as shishōsetsu (literally, “I-story”), which for most of the twentieth century was actually the mainstream genre of “serious” (as opposed to “popular”) fiction. The self-portrait that emerges from these autobiographical stories is of a highly sensitive, precociously talented, but profoundly lonely young man who, by the age of fourteen, had suffered the death of all his close relatives: his parents, his grandparents, and his only sibling, a sister. The young Kawabata referred to himself as a “master of funerals” because he had to attend so many of them. In one of his earliest works, Jūrokusai no nikki [The Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old, 1925], he describes in harrowing detail how he had to nurse his grandfather through his final illness. In another autobiographical sketch, “Kotsu hiroi” [“Gathering Ashes,” 1926], he describes how, as the last surviving relative, he was obliged to attend his grandfather’s cremation and, following Japanese custom, pick his charred white bones up with chopsticks and deposit them in an urn – a sobering lesson in mortality for a fourteen-year-old!

The lasting psychological effects of this death-shrouded, ghost-haunted childhood can be felt in all of Kawabata’s work, right down to the ghostly, death-obsessed works he wrote in old age. Japanese critics also make much of his so-called “orphan psychology” which they see as having engendered in him a lifelong sense of alienation, of being an outsider in a society that is particularly hard on outsiders. In more positive terms, both the aestheticism and the mysticism that pervade Kawabata’s work can be seen as healthy spiritual responses to his painful sense of isolation. His early search for ways to transcend loneliness and death led him to the earnest study of various kinds of religious and occult literature, Western as well as Eastern. The monistic/mystical doctrine of the oneness of all things seemed to offer his best hope. As he observed in his “Essay on Expressionist Cognition”, written the same year the Diary was published: “To save the human being from personal death, it seems that the best way is to blur into vagueness the boundaries between one individual and another, and between the human being and all other objects in the physical world.” As a literary program this implied a new form of “subjectivism” in which subject/object dichotomies would be dissolved; the writer would write of a lily, for instance, not as if it existed separately from him but as if he and the lily were one. A traditional Western novelist, of course, trying to present an “objective” view of human society, did everything in his power to individualize his various characters, so that the “boundaries” between them were as well-defined as possible. But, as Kawabata himself already recognized, his “new program” actually put him in touch with the contemporary European avant-garde, the Dadaists, surrealists, expressionists and other experimental artists of the 1920s, who were also, by the kind of strange coincidence that almost persuades one of the reality of the Zeitgeist, proclaiming a new “subjectivism” based on a monist philosophy. More pertinently perhaps, it also put him in close touch with the “inward-turning” of the novel that had been in progress in the West since about the turn of the century. And, finally, it put him in touch with his native literary and religious traditions, because much of what the young Kawabata was expounding in this and other “avant-garde” manifestoes was close in spirit to the contemplative practices of Zen and its related arts. And, though none of Kawabata’s later works discuss the monist world view as openly as does, say, his short story of 1932, “Jojōka” [“Lyric Poem”], still one may sense its presence everywhere, as a distant ideal if not as an immediately attainable reality.

This earliest period culminated in his first masterpiece, Izu no odoriko [The Dancing Girl of Izu, 1926], which firmly established his position as an important up-and-coming writer of the 1920s, and was in this sense his “debut work”. This story paradoxically illustrates another positive effect of Kawabata’s “alienation”: his readiness, even eagerness, to form intimate friendships with people of much lower social status, thus crossing the extremely rigid class barriers of prewar Japan. The story recounts how, while on a walking tour of the beautiful Izu Peninsula, he fell in with a group of gypsy-like traveling performers and shared their life on the road for several days. Although such “vagabonds” were ranked at the very bottom of Japanese society, and were traditionally classified as outcasts and even “non-humans” (hinin), Kawabata describes how elated he felt to be accepted within their group, almost like a family member, and in one famous scene he expresses great joy when he overhears their casual remark that he is a “good person”. His apparent “overreaction” has been taken as an indication of how desperately lonely this young “orphan” was.

From about the mid-1920’s to the mid-1930’s Kawabata embarked on what we might call his “experimental” period. Under the influence of the European modernism that, by a fortunate coincidence, was flourishing exactly at this time, the young writer ventured far beyond the traditional style and themes of his early “lyrical” autobiographical writings. Although the creative products of this period were of varying success – inevitably, given the risks attendant upon experimentation – Kawabata grew enormously as an artist from his encounter with European modernism and learned much that would prove to be of lasting value to him. In the work perhaps most representative of this period, the novella Suishō gensō [Crystal Fantasies, 1931], for instance, he makes use of Freudian psychology and a Joycean stream-of-consciousness technique to provide a striking psychological portrait of a “new breed” of modern, educated and alienated Japanese housewife. By adopting the woman’s point of view, he is able to offer a convincing “inside view” of her thoughts and fantasies, her sexual frustrations, her feelings of loathing for her husband – her whole “mental landscape”. Coming just five years after his romantic, naively lyrical story, The Dancing Girl of Izu, it seems a work of remarkable depth and sophistication, and clearly shows how much and how quickly Kawabata had grown.

Interestingly enough, however, he did not continue in this experimental, modernist direction. During his next phase, from the mid-1930’s to the mid-1940’s, which could be described as his “early maturity”, he returned to a style that was to some extent traditional but, at the same time, considerably enriched by what he had learned from his modernist experiments. The representative work of this period is his first great “haiku novel”, Yukiguni [Snow Country, 1935-47]. With its “aesthetics of ma” – that is, its use of narrative gaps or pauses – and its extensive deployment of juxtaposition on all its levels, from single images to entire scenes, the novel is structured like a haiku poem, albeit on a much grander scale. But, since Kawabata had also learned new techniques of juxtaposition from his readings of Western modernist poetry and fiction, Snow Country provides an excellent example of how he integrated modernist and traditional styles and techniques to create a powerful new mode of expressing his own distinctive worldview. In terms of theme and character, the novel also offers, in its protagonist, the dilettante playboy Shimamura, Kawabata’s most convincing portrait of a sexually exploitative, narcissistic male – a common enough figure in his fiction, but one that is made so convincing here mainly because of the powerful, vivacious presence of his suffering female partner, the “hotspring resort geisha”, Komako.

The fourth phase of Kawabata’s career, resumed after the brief hiatus in his writing caused by the Second World War, consists of the great flowering of his art which occurred in the immediate postwar period. This may be described as his period of “late maturity”, in which his haiku novel achieved a new level of significance and perfection with works such as Senbazuru [Thousand Cranes, 1950], Meijin [The Master of Go, 1954], and, above all, Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain, 1954]. The works of this period are pervaded by a mood of gentle, elegiac melancholy, reminiscent of the Buddhist mono no aware (a feeling of pathos inspired by the transient nature of the world) that pervades so much of traditional Japanese literature. For Kawabata at this time the mood seems to have been caused both by his country’s defeat in 1945 and the threat this posed to the survival of the Japanese cultural tradition, and also by the fact that he himself was beginning to sense the encroachment of old age (although he was still only in his late forties). But, of course, the novels of this period are not just symbolic expressions of Kawabata’s elegiac mood; they are also deeply nuanced psychological studies of particular human beings. Thousand Cranes, for instance, uses a style of ambiguity, of continuous questioning of reality, to reflect the state of mind of its protagonist, a man who enters into a relationship with his dead father’s mistress and is thus troubled, as Kawabata males often are, by the guilt of incest. The Master of Go is an exemplary study of the psychology of an artist – in this case a master player of go, a game more complex than chess – a man so devoted to his art that he loses “the better part of reality”. And The Sound of the Mountain provides a masterful portrait of an aging man forced by the approach of death to confront all the failures and frustrations of his life – especially those resulting from his unsatisfactory relations with his wife and children. This quiet, beautiful study of human frailty and mortality is the culminating masterpiece of Kawabata’s career, and one of the great novels not only of Japanese but of twentieth-century world literature.

The fifth and final stage of Kawabata’s career, which could be justly termed his “post-maturity”, was in several senses a period of decline. From the late 1950’s onwards he wrote relatively little and the deterioration in his physical and psychological health led ultimately to his tragic suicide in 1972. But this period of his “decadence” was nonetheless marked by an appropriately dark florescence, in the form of two remarkable “flowers of evil”: Nemureru bijo [Sleeping Beauties, 1961] and “Kataude” [“One Arm,” 1964]. The first depicts a brothel in which impotent old men pay to sleep for the night beside beautiful young women who, being drugged, are unable to awake. The second story is even more bizarre: a lonely man borrows a girl’s arm for the night, attaches it to his own body, and experiences a state of mystical ecstasy as his blood is “purified” by hers. These two studies in the dehumanization of sex at the service of male narcissism are as masterful in their style and fictional technique as anything Kawabata ever wrote.

At the same time that Kawabata’s career seems to divide naturally into these five distinct phases, one can also identify some major areas of continuity and development throughout its entire span. Principal among them are the continuities and developments in his major themes. Perhaps like most writers, Kawabata was preoccupied with basically the same questions from the beginning to the end of his career – although, of course, there were some significant changes in the way he formulated those questions and in the answers he found for them. Contrary to those Japanese critics who fault Kawabata for lack of seriousness or depth, for contenting himself with the play of surfaces – and for an amoral, dehumanizing worldview which makes no distinction between, say, the beauty of women and of objects of art – an analysis of his major themes shows him to have been preoccupied with important psychological, philosophical and even moral issues. On the moral and psychological level, for instance, the main questions he explores derive from his view of the problems endemic to relations between men and women: for example, male narcissism, eroticism and aestheticism, which all lead to the dehumanization and exploitation of women, even to the extreme we might describe as “the male as vampire” – a theme which became increasingly important in late Kawabata.

A more particular set of questions arises from Kawabata’s interest in and exploration of the nature and fate of the artist, the aesthete, the passive man of sensitivity, more an observer of life than an active participant in it. These questions clearly have an autobiographical relevance: it is obviously no coincidence that the central protagonist of most of Kawabata’s major works is a man of this type and of about the same age as Kawabata when he wrote the work. If we follow the progress of this “Kawabata hero” from an early work like The Dancing Girl of Izu to a late work like Sleeping Beauties, we may construct a kind of “metanarrative” out of the entire oeuvre, the life-story of the Kawabata hero from his lyrical and innocent if troubled youth to a bitter and despairing old age tinged by more than a hint of evil. Along the way we may follow the course of his relations with women and the self-discoveries and spiritual struggles which result from these. There is thus a continuing correspondence and interaction between Kawabata’s life and work – if not always with literal equivalences then at least symbolically.

In Japan, Kawabata has been regarded as one of the major writers of his generation since the 1920s: novels such as The Dancing Girl of Izu and Snow Country achieved iconic status as “modern classics” almost as soon as they were published, and popular film versions have been made of them regularly since the 1930s. In the West, his works finally became widely known in the 1950s as part of the postwar “boom” in Japanese high-cultural products (a more highbrow version of the present-day boom in Japanese pop-cultural products), which embraced novelists such as Tanizaki and Mishima as well as Kawabata, film directors such as Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi, and also Zen Buddhism and related Zen arts such as calligraphy and ink painting. His reputation reached a high point, of course, with the award of the Nobel Prize in 1968, followed by the American National Book Award for Edward Seidensticker’s translation of The Sound of the Mountain in 1970. Today he is recognized by literary “connoisseurs” as one of the most important and unique writers of twentieth-century world literature – as confirmed, for instance, by Jason Cowley’s feature article on him in The New Statesman in 2006.

The Japanese themselves were generally surprised by the Nobel committee’s choice, not because they thought Kawabata unworthy of the prize but because they thought he was too “Japanese” for Western readers to appreciate. But, of course, it could be argued that it is exactly the “Japanese” quality of Kawabata’s writing that appeals so much to Western readers. Far better an intriguing sense of profound cultural difference than a tiresome sense that the Japanese writer had nothing new to offer – or, worse yet, that he was merely a clone of some Western original like Kafka or Camus (as seemed the case with a number of other postwar Japanese writers). This should not be taken to mean, however, that Kawabata merely pandered to Western “Orientalism”, a romantic and condescending perception of Asia as exotic, quaint, and fundamentally alien. Although, on the surface, some of Kawabata’s favorite imagery seems to belong stereotypically to Japanese aesthetic tradition (cherry blossoms, geisha, Mount Fuji, etc.), at a deeper level he deals with complex and difficult contemporary themes and writes in a style and fictional mode that, as we have seen, owed as much to the early twentieth-century international avant-garde as to traditional Japanese aesthetics. In this sense Kawabata remained true to the principle of fueki ry ūkō expounded by the haiku master Bashō in the seventeenth century, an aesthetic credo which could be liberally translated as: “Be grounded in the past, but go freely with the flow of the present.”

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Citation: Starrs, Roy Anthony. "Yasunari Kawabata". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 November 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12091, accessed 11 December 2023.]

12091 Yasunari Kawabata 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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