In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His works combined the beauty of old Japan with modernist trends, and his prose blended realism with surrealistic visions. Kawabata’s books have been described as “melancholy lyricism” and often explore the place of sex within culture, and within individual lives. Over the course of his life, Kawabata wrote many novels and more than a hundred two or three page stories. He called these his “tanagokoro no shosetsu” (palm-of-the-hand stories), and said that they expressed the essence of his art. An example of one of these stories is Ki-no Ue (Up in the Tree, 1962). Here, the main characters, a girl and a boy named Michiko and Keisuke, both fourth graders, share a secret. Keisuke tells Michiko that his parents quarrel, and his father has another woman. He once climbed a tree in the garden so that his mother couldn’t take him and go back to her parents’ house. Since then he has been up in that tree a lot.
“The “secret” of their being up in the tree had continued for almost two years now. Where the thick trunk branched out near the top, the two could sit comfortably. Michiko, straddling one branch, leaned back against another. There were days when little birds came and days when the wind sang through the pine needles. Although they weren’t that high off the ground, these two little lovers felt as if they were in a completely different world, far away from the earth.” (from ‘Up in the Tree’)
Yasunari Kawabata was born into a prosperous family in Osaka, Japan. His father, Eikichi Kawabata, was a prominent physician, who died of tuberculosis when Yasunari was just two. He was orphaned by the death of his mother at age three, his grandmother died when he was seven, and his only sister when he was nine. The family deaths deprived Kawabata of a normal childhood, and he often said that he learned loneliness and rootlessness early. Later in life the author described himself as a child “without home or family.” Some critics feel that these early traumas form the background for the sense of loss and regret which permeate his writing.
After losing his grandfather in 1915, Kawabata moved to a middle-school dormitory. He began studying literature at Tokyo Imperial University in 1920, graduating in 1924. Kawabata and a group of young writers founded the journal Bungei Jidai “The Artistic Age.” With this journal, they advocated for a literary movement called Shinkankaku (Neo-Sensualism), which opposed the then dominant “realistic” school of writing. Kawabata was interested in European avant-garde literature, and also wrote the film script for Kinugasa Teinosuke’s expressionist movie, Kuritta Ippeji (A Page of Madness, 1926).
Kawabata gained his first critical success with the novella Izu-no Odoriko (The Izu Dancer, 1925). The autobiographical work recounted his youthful infatuation with a fourteen-year-old dancer, whose legs streched “up like a paulownia sapling”. The story ends with their separation. Young women also appear prominently in other Kawabata’s works, such as Nemureru Bijo (Sleeping Beauty, 1961) and the short novel Tanpopo (Dandelion, published posthumously).
The fragmented novel Asakusa Kurenaidan (The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, 1929-1930), was set in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, famous for its geisha houses, dancers, bars, prostitutes, and theaters. The novel was serialized in the Asashi Shimbun newspaper, bringing modernist, experimental fiction to a wider audience within Japan. Kawabata was married in 1931, and afterward settled in the ancient samurai capital of Kamakura, southwest of Tokyo, spending the winters in Zushi. During World War II, Kawabata traveled in Manchuria, and studied Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji), an eleventh-century Japanese novel.
Soon after the war, Kawabata published his most famous novel, Yukiguni (The Snow Country, 1948), the story of a middle-aged aesthete, Shimamura, and an aging geisha, Komako. Their sporadic affair is conducted intermittently in an isolated location; a hot spring resort west of the central mountains, where winters are dark, long and silent. Shimamura thinks to himself , “After all, these fingers keep a vivid memory of the woman I am going to see,” when he travels to the snow country by train. It takes him to another place, away from the ballet book he is writing, away from his mundane life. But this far-off destination gives him only a temporary home, a reflection of something else when night transforms the coach’s window into a mirror. Geisha is a performance artist and Shimamura doesn’t know, whether her affection is really genuine. Komako bites his finger; she is not a reflection, created according to Shimamura’s aesthetic vision, she is a physical being. Kawabata later mentioned that he modeled her after a real character. Yukiguni has been filmed several times, Shiro Toyoda version from 1957, starring Kishi Keiko as Komako and Ryo Ikebe as Shimamura, is considered the most successful.
“In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.” (From The Snow Country)
Considered by some critics to be Kawabata’s best work, Yama-no Oto (The Sound of the Mountains, 1954), depicts a family crisis in a series of linked episodes. The protagonist, Shingo, represents the traditional Japanese values of in human relationships and nature. He is concerned about the marital crises of his two children. Scenes from this hero’s daily life are interwoven with poetic descriptions of nature, dreams, and recollections. This work earned Kawabata the literary prize of the Japanese Academy. Kawabata combined refined Japanese aesthetics with psychological narrative and eroticism. In his early fiction Kawabata experimented with surrealistic techniques, but in his later writings, his naturalistic style became more impressionistic.
Senbazuru (A Thousand Cranes, 1952), used the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a background to a story based on the classical work Genji Monogatari (The Tale of Genji). In Utsukushisa-to Kanashimi-to (Beauty and Sadness, 1965), Kawabata told of the reunion of an elderly man and a woman artist, and the revenge of the artist’s young protégée. In this tale, as in other works of his later life, Kawabata’s approach is open-ended; more is implied, left to the imagination of the readers, than is made explicit.
One of his lesser known novels in the west, Meijin (The Master of Go, 1972), was a fictionalized account of an actual 1938 Go match between an old champion and a young challenger. Go is Japan’s ancient game of strategy and a Go match is concerned with the game itself, and with respect for tradition and ancient rites. Kawabata’s retelling of the match (which he covered as a reporter for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun), reflects the tension between old traditions and new pragmatism. In the story, the players are isolated during parts of the match, and and finally, when the players emerge from isolation, the tradition of Go itself has lost. Kawabata considered this his finest piece of writing, although it is stark and spare compared to his other works. Many critics consider this work to be Kawabata’s commentary on the Japanese culture and World War II.
As he grew older, Kawabata became famous as a writer around the world. In the 1960s, before receiving the Nobel Prize, Kawabata made a tour in the United States, lecturing in universities. In the late 1960s Kawabata campaigned for conservative political candidates in Japan and, with Yukio Mishima and other writers, signed an address condemning the Cultural Revolution in China. He was also president of the Japanese PEN club and active in helping aspiring writers. Kawabata condemned suicide in his Nobel acceptance speech, perhaps remembering several of his fellow writers who had died by their own hands. However, Kawabata had long suffered from poor health, and on April 16, 1972, two years after Mishima’s suicide, Kawabata committed suicide at his home in Zushi by gassing himself. He left no note.
For further reading: Accomplices of Silence by M. Miyoshi (1974); Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, eds. by K. Tsuruta and T.E. Swann (1976); Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature by M. Ueda (1976); Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Tradition by J. Rimer (1978); Life, Death and Age in Modern Japanese Fiction, ed. by R. Tsukimura (1978); The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by Y. Hisaaki (1978); Reading against Culture by David Pollack (1992); The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima by Gwenn Boardman Petersen (1993); Three Modern Novelists by V.C. Gessel (1993); The War in Kawabata Yasunari’s ‘Snow Country’ by Miho Matsugu (2006) – Films based on Kawabata’s stories: Kurutta ippeiji, dir. by Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926; Otome-gokoro sannin shimai, dir. by Mikio Naruse, 1935; Yama no oto, dir. by Mikio Naruse, 1954; Kawa no aru shitamachi no hanasi, dir. by Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1955; Yukiguni, dir. by Shiro Toyoda, 1957; Onna no mizuumi, dir. by Yoshishige Yoshida, 1965; Utsukushisa ta kanashimi to, dir. by Masahiro Shinoda, 1965; 1980, Koto, dir. by Kon Ichikawa, 1980 – Special thanks to Mr. Long Shiren for his help with this website.
* JUROKUSAI NO NIKKI, 1925
* IZU-NO ODORIKO, 1926 – The Izu Sancer / Dancing Girl of Izu and other stories (translated by J. Martin Holman) – films: 1954, dir. by Yoshitaro Nomura, starring Hibari Misora, Akira Ishihama, Azusa Yumi, Akihiko Katayama; 1963, dir. by Katsumi Nishikawa, starring Sayuri Yoshinaga, Hideki Takahashi, Eiji Go,Mitsuo Hamada; 1967, dir. by Hideo Onchi, starring Yôko Naito, Toshio Kurosawa, Tatsuyoshi Ehara, Nobuko Otowa; 1974, dir. by Katsumi Nishikawa, starring Momoe Yamaguchi, Tomokazu Miura
* KANJO SOSHOKU, 1926
* ASAKUSA KURENAIDAN, 1930 – The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa (trans. by Alisa Freedman)
* KIN JU, 1933 – Of Birds and Beasts
* HANA NO WARUTSU, 1940
* JUROKUSAI NO NIKKI, 1948
* YUKIGUNI, 1948 – Snow Country (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker) – Lumen maa (suom. Yrjö Kivimies) – films: 1957, dir. by Shiro Toyoda, starring Ryo Ikebe, Keiko Kishi, Daisuke Kato, Akira Kubo; 1965, dir. by Hideo Ôba, starring Mineko Bandai, Kakuko Chino, Takanobu Hozumi, Kaneko Iwasaki
* HOKURO NO TEGAMI, 1950
* MEIJIN, 1951-54 – The Master of Go (trans. by Edward G. Seidensticker)
* SENBARAZU, 1949-52 – Thousand Cranes (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker) – Tuhat kurkea (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner) – films: 1953, dir. by Kozaburo Yoshimura, starring Michiyo Kogure, Nobuko Otowa, Haruko Sugimura, Masayuki Mori; 1969, dir. by Yasuzo Masumura, starring Ayako Wakao, Machiko Kyô, Mikijiro Hira, Eiko Azusa
* HI MO STUKI MO, 1953 – film 1969, dir. by Noboru Nakamura, starring Shima Iwashita, Koji Ishizaka, Masayuki Mori, Jin Nakayama
* YAMA-NO OTO, 1949-54 – The Sound of the Mountain (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker) – Vuoren jyly (suom. Eeva-Liisa Maner) – film 1954, dir. by Mikio Naruse, starring Setsuko Hara, Sô Yamamura,Ken Uehara, Yôko Sugi
* MIZUUMI, 1954 – The Lake (translated by Reiko Tsukimura)- film 1970, dir. by Yoshishige Yoshida, starring Mariko Okada, Shinsuke Ashida, Shigeru Tsuyuguchi
* TOKYO NO HITO, 1955
* NIJI IKUTABI, 1955
* ONNA DE ARU KOTO, 1957
* FUJI NO HATSUYUKI, 1958 – First Snow on Fuji (translated by Michael Emmerich)
* KAZE NO ARU MICHI, 1959
* NEMURERU BIJO, 1961 – House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories (trans. by Edward Seidensticker) – films: 1968, dir. by Kozaburo Yoshimura, starring Takahiro Tamura, Yoshiko Kayama, Taiji Tonoyama, Sanae Nakahara; 1995, dir. by Hiroto Yokoyama, starring Yoshio Harada, Yuka Ônishi, Kazuko Yoshiyuki; 2006, dir. by Vadim Glowna, starring Vadim Glowna, Angela Winkler, Maximilian Schell, Biro Ünel, Mona Glass
* KOTO, 1961-62 – The Old Capital (trans. by J. Martin Holman) – Kioto (suom. Eeva-Liisa Manner) – films: 1963, dir. by Noboru Nakamura, starring Shima Iwashita, Hiroyuki Nagato, Seiji Miyaguchi, Teruo Yoshida, Tamotsu Hayakawa; 1980, dir. by Kon Ichikawa, starring Momoe Yamaguchi, Tomokazu Miura, Keiko Kishi
* KAWA NO ARU SHITAMACHI NO HANASHI, 1962
* KATAUDE, 1964 – One Arm
* UTSUKUSHISA TO KANASHIMI TO, 1965 – Beauty and Sadness (trans. by Howard Hibbett) – films: 1965, dir. by Masahiro Shinoda, starring Kaoru Yachigusa, Mariko Kaga, Sô Yamamura, Kei Yamamoto; 1985, dir. by Joy Fleury, starring Charlotte Rampling, Myriem Roussel, Andrzej Zulawski, Béatrice Agenin
* RAKKA RYUSUI, 1966
* GEKKA NO MON, 1967
* UTSUKUSHII NIHON NO WATAKUSHI, 1969 – Japan the Beautiful and Myself (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker)
* BI NO SONZAI HAKKEN, 1969 – The Existence and Discovery of Beauty
* TENOHIRA NO SHOSETSU, 1971 – Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (trans. by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman) – Kämmenenkokoisia tarinoita (suom. Kai Nieminen)
* The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, 1998 (trans. by Donald Keene)