Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成 Kawabata Yasunari) (June 14, 1899 – April 16, 1972) was a Japanese novelist whose spare, lyrical and subtly shaded prose made him the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. His works, which have enjoyed broad and lasting appeal, are still widely read internationally.
Kawabata combined ancient Japanese literary tradition with modern language in his lyrical works. The formlessness which characterizes much of his writing reflects the fluid composition of renga, Japanese linked verse of the fifteenth century. During his life, Kawabata wrote more than one hundred “palm of the hand” stories, usually two or three pages long, which he said expressed the essence of his art. His best-known novel, Yukiguni (1948; Snow Country), is the story of a middle-aged esthete, Shimamura, and a forlorn country geisha, Komako, set in an isolated hot spring resort west of the central mountain range, where the winters are long, dark and silent.
Kawabata was born June 14, 1899, in Osaka, Japan, into a prosperous and cultured family. His father, Kawabata Eikichi, a prominent physician, died of tuberculosis when Kawabata was just two years old. After his father’s death, his mother moved with Kawabata to her parent’s home, where she also died the following year. When he was seven years old and entered elementary school, his grandmother died. An older sister who had been taken in by an aunt, and whom he had met only once after the death of their parents, died when he was ten, and his grandfather died in 1914, when he was fifteen. He later described himself as a “child without a home.”
Having lost all his immediate family, he moved in with his his mother’s relatives of his mother. In January 1916, he moved into a boarding house near the junior high school (comparable to a modern high school) to which he had formerly commuted by train. After graduating from junior high school in March 1917, just before his eighteenth birthday, he moved to Tokyo, hoping to pass the entrance exams of the Dai-ichi Koto-gakko' (Number One High School), which was under the direction of Tokyo Imperial University. He passed the exam that same year and entered the humanities faculty as an English major. In July 1920, Kawabata graduated from the high school and entered Tokyo Imperial University the same month. In 1921, he published his first short story, "Shokonsai Ikkei" ("A Scene from a Seance") in the first edition of “Shin-shicho” (New Tide of Thought). The story impressed the famous writer, Kikuchi Kan, founder of the monthly magazine Bungei Shunju (文藝春秋), who invited Kawabata to join his coterie.
During university, he changed his major to Japanese literature and wrote a graduation thesis entitled, "A short history of Japanese novels." He graduated in March, 1924. In October of 1924 Kawabata, Kataoka Teppei, Yokomitsu Riichi and a number of other young writers started a new literary journal Bungei Jidai (The Artistic Age). This journal was a reaction to the entrenched old school of Japanese literature, specifically the Naturalist school, and at the same time stood in opposition to "worker's literature" or Socialist/Communist schools. It was an "art for art's sake" movement, influenced by European Cubism, Expressionism, Dada and other modernist styles. The term "Shinkankakuha," (Neo- Perceptionism) which Kawabata and Yokomitsu used to describe their philosophy, has often been mistakenly translated into English as "Neo-Impressionism." However, Shinkankakuha was not meant to be an updated or restored version of Impressionism; it focused on offering "new impressions," or, more accurately, "new sensations" in the writing of literature. (Okubo Takaki (2004), Kawabata Yasunari—Utsukushi Nihon no Watashi. Minerva Shobo)
Kawabata gained his first public attention in 1926 with the novella “Izu no odoriko” (The Izu Dancer), published in “Bungei Jidai” (The Artistic Age). The autobiographical work recounted his youthful infatuation with a fourteen-year-old dancer, whose legs stretched “up like a paulownia sapling.” The story explored the dawning eroticism of young love and ended with a separation. Most of his subsequent works explored similar themes. In the same year Kawabata married. In addition to writing fiction, he was employed as a reporter, most notably by the Mainichi Shimbun of Osaka and Tokyo. Although he refused to participate in the militaristic fervor accompanying World War II, he was also unimpressed with the political reforms in Japan afterwards. Along with the deaths of his family while he was young, the war was one of the most important influences on his work.
The novel Snow Country, was begun in 1934 and first published in installments from 1935 through 1947. Snow Country is a stark tale of a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha, and takes place in a remote hot-spring town somewhere north of the mountainous region of Japan. It established Kawabata as one of Japan's foremost authors and became an instant classic.
After the end of World War II, Kawabata said that from then on he would only be able to write elegies. Kawabata's success continued with novels such as Thousand Cranes (a story of ill-fated love); The Sound of the Mountain; The House of Sleeping Beauties; Beauty and Sadness; and The Old Capital.
The book which he himself considered his finest work, The Master of Go (1951) is a severe contrast with his other works. It is a semi-fictional recounting of a major Go (Asian board game resembling chess) match in 1938, on which Kawabata had actually reported for the Mainichi newspaper chain. It was the last game of the master Honinbo Shūsai's career; he lost to his younger challenger and died a little over a year later. Although the novel is moving as an apparent retelling of a climactic struggle, some readers consider it a symbolic parallel to the defeat of Japan in World War II.
As the president of Japanese P.E.N. for many years after the war (1948-1965), Kawabata was a driving force behind the translation of Japanese literature into English and other Western languages.
Kawabata became the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, for his three novels Snow Country, The Old Capital and Thousand Cranes.
Kawabata committed suicide in 1972 by gassing himself. Many have suggested that his suicide may have been caused by poor health, a possible illicit love affair, or the shock of the suicide of his friend Yukio Mishima in 1970. Unlike Mishima, Kawabata left no note, and his motives remain unclear.
Snow Country (雪国 Yukiguni) was Kawabata’s first full-length novel. It became an instant classic and established Kawabata as one of Japan's foremost authors. The name "Yukiguni" ("Snow Country") comes from the location of the story. Shimamura arrives in a train coming through a long tunnel under the border mountains between Gunma (Kozuke no kuni) and Niigata (Echigo no kuni) Prefectures. Sitting at the foot of mountains, on the north side, this region receives a huge amount of snow in winter because of the northern winds coming across the Sea of Japan. The winds pick up moisture over the sea and deposit it as snow against the mountains, snow which reaches four to five meters in depth and sometimes isolates the towns and villages in the region. The lonely atmosphere suggested by the title infuses the book.
The novel began as a single short story published in a literary journal in January 1935, and the next section appeared in another journal in the same month. Kawabata continued writing about the characters afterwards, with parts of the novel ultimately appearing in five different journals before he published the first book in 1937, as an integration of the seven pieces with a newly written conclusion. After a break of three years, Kawabata started re-working the novel, adding new chapters, and published them in two journals in 1940 and 1941. He re-wrote the last two sections into a single piece and published in a journal in 1946, and another additional section in 1947. Finally, in 1948, the novel reached its final form as an integration of the nine sections.
Snow Country is a stark tale of a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha that takes place in the remote hot spring (onsen) town of Yuzawa (although Kawabata himself didn't mention the name of the town in the novel).
The hot springs of the region were home to inns that were visited by men traveling alone and in groups, who paid for female companionship. The geisha of the hot springs did not enjoy that same social status as their more artistically-trained sisters in Kyoto and Tokyo and were usually little more than prostitutes, whose brief careers inevitably ended in a downward spiral. The choice of one of these women as the heroine adds to the atmosphere of the book.
The liaison between the geisha Komako and the male protagonist, a wealthy loner who is a self-appointed expert on Western ballet, is doomed to failure, and the nature of that failure and the parts played in it by other characters form the theme of the book.
Edward G. Seidensticker, the noted scholar of Japanese literature whose English translation of the novel was published in 1957, described the work as "perhaps Kawabata's masterpiece." According to him, the novel reminds one of haiku, both for its many delicate contrapuntal touches and its use of brief scenes to tell a larger story. As Shimamura (the protagonist) begins to understand his place in the universe, the idea of "mono no aware" (the sorrow which results from the passage of things; see Motoori Norinaga) is also quite apparent.
Snow Country was one of the three novels cited by the Nobel Committee in awarding Yasunari Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, along with The Old Capital and Thousand Cranes. Kawabata returned to Snow Country again near the end of his life. A few months before his death in 1972, he wrote an abbreviated version of the work, which he titled "Gleanings from Snow Country," that shortened the novel to a few sparse pages, a length that placed it among his “palm-of-the-hand” stories, a form to which Kawabata devoted peculiar attention for more than fifty years. An English translation of Gleanings from Snow Country was published in 1988 by J. Martin Holman in the collection Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.
"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, describing a scene in a train when the night turns the train window into a mirror)
The Dancing Girl of Izu, (Japanese: 伊豆の踊り子, Izu no Odoriko) published in 1927, was the first work of literature by Kawabata to achieve great popular and critical acclaim. The short story was first translated into English by Edward Seidensticker and published in an abridged form in The Atlantic Monthly in 1952. A complete English translation of the story was made by J. Martin Holman and appeared in a collection of Kawabata's early literature published as The Dancing Girl of Izu and Other Stories. The story has been filmed several times in Japan, including one version starring Momoe Yamaguchi.
All links retrieved June 6, 2014.
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