Characters Discussed

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Toshio Oki

Toshio Oki, a fifty-four-year-old novelist. He is a sentimental man, in the ascetic and reserved manner of the Japanese aesthetic. When Toshio was thirty years old and newly married, he had an affair with a fifteen-year-old girl. He later fictionalized this affair, and the resulting book became his best, most acclaimed, and most enduring novel. He sets the present-time action of the novel going with an impulsive action: He arranges to meet his former mistress and to listen with her to the tolling of temple bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Instead of resulting in the hoped-for insight and perspective, the meeting brings more involvement; Toshio finds himself starting a romance, parallel to his first affair, with his former mistress’s young protegée, meeting the same dilemmas and making the same flawed choices.

Otoko Ueno

Otoko Ueno, a traditional Japanese painter who, at the age of fifteen, was Toshio’s mistress. A reflective woman, she spends much of her time reminiscing, musing about her life and the poignant, never-to-be-spoken feelings that became the subjects of her paintings. Although she has a firmly established career and a new lover, her affair with Toshio, their love, the stillborn baby they conceived, and her eventual mental breakdown and hospitalization are still the foremost events in her life. Otoko wonders whether she should attribute the hold that the affair has over her to the power of art rather than to an enduring grand passion. Toshio’s novel, although idealized, has kept their affair alive in the memory of the public. Otoko herself has forged an attachment to her lost baby by working on an idealized portrait, a picture of a child she never saw. Although she had been Toshio’s saucy young lover, the main mark of her character is reflection. She is largely passive as her unreserved young companion undertakes to complete the story of Toshio and Otoko’s affair.

Keiko Sakami

Keiko Sakami, Otoko’s student, companion, and lover. She is young, full of passionate energy, and without reserve, even ruthless, in her actions. She is beautiful, reminding many of the young Otoko. Although she asserts that she hates men, she has no reservations about using her powers of seduction against them. To Otoko’s horror, she announces her plan to avenge Otoko on Toshio and his family. It may be that the revenge is directed as much against Otoko as for her benefit. Although she does cause Toshio some trouble with his wife, she does nothing against him that she might not have done had she merely wanted to be his lover. Later, however, she seduces his shy son, Taichiro. Knowing that he cannot swim, she entices him into a motorboat. She survives an apparent accident, and he dies by drowning.


Fumiko, Toshio’s wife. Formerly an office typist, she is now established in the life and sentiments of an Oriental wife and mother. Newly married and in her early childbearing years when Toshio started his affair, she reacted sometimes with jealous rage and sometimes with displays of tragedy. In one of the latter, she had endangered the health of her baby, the young Taichiro. When she read Toshio’s novel about the affair, she suffered a miscarriage. Still later, she became reconciled to the affair, even saying that she should have given Toshio his freedom. In the present time of the novel, Fumiko’s rage and tragic pathos have muted, and she and Toshio have made a kind of peace over the affair. It is neither forgotten nor an open rift between them.


Taichiro, Toshio’s son, a university professor specializing in traditional Japanese literature. Shy and scholarly, and still living with his parents, he has not, despite his advanced position, become fully his own man. He is a committed antiquarian, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Japanese history and literature, subjects he is afraid may die from inattention. He is taken aback by Keiko’s ignorance of her own heritage; nevertheless, he is easy prey for her seduction. In her company, he makes progress toward adulthood. As she leads him to take steps away from his family, however, she is only accomplishing her plan of revenge and arranging his seemingly accidental death.

The Characters

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The central figures of Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness are Fumiko, Otoko, and Keiko, three women who suffer and cause one another to suffer because of their involvement with Oki and his son Taichiro. In marked contrast to the masculine perspective articulated in Kawabata’s treatment of love in other novels, there is something surprisingly like a feminist viewpoint at work in this book. Of the three women, the most conventional is Fumiko. Devoted to family and home, she is the stereotypical middle-class housewife, and she struggles to control her feelings about her husband’s infidelity by committing herself even more to her role of wife and mother. As her husband’s typist, Fumiko sees it as a duty to prepare a neatly typed copy of A Girl of Sixteen for Oki’s publisher, even though the book makes it clear to her that her husband continues to love Otoko. At the end of Beauty and Sadness, Fumiko must live with her awareness that Oki’s passion for Otoko is as strong as ever. For her, the incursion of Keiko into the lives of her husband and son merely confirms the emotional pain she feels.

By contrast, Otoko manages to find a degree of emotional tranquillity because circumstances allow her to develop an insight into her own feelings and a degree of control, denied to Fumiko, over her own behavior. The significant difference between the two women is that subsequent to her hospitalization Otoko becomes an artist and finds that she is able to channel her emotions into her painting. Largely unconscious of what she is doing, until Keiko joins her as a student, Otoko then develops the ability to recognize the self-deception in her work. She sees that even a portrait of her own mother is largely an idealized picture of herself as victim, and as her relationship with Keiko becomes overtly sexual, Otoko recognizes that in her treatment of Keiko she is repeating Oki’s unconscious manipulation of her younger self. As she plans to paint Keiko in the guise of a Buddhist saint, a design stressing the girl’s androgyny, Otoko uses her art to seek moral insight.

Kawabata leaves unresolved the question of whether Keiko is more than a projection of Otoko’s subconscious desire for revenge on Oki. Keiko’s volatile emotions are clear enough, even before Oki and his son come back into Otoko’s life; so is her devotion to her teacher. There is a level on which she represents the elemental passions which Otoko and Fumiko control and fail to acknowledge, and it is tempting to see the three as the Freudian id, superego, and ego. Such a reading, however, would obscure the specific Buddhist context in which Kawabata places all three women, with the implication that Keiko is a tortured soul striving to achieve spiritual transcendence. She tells Taichiro, having brought him to the hotel at Lake Biwa and gone to bed with him for the first (and only) time, that she feels reborn. Kawabata deliberately leaves unclear whether Keiko’s words refer to her emotions after intercourse or to her satisfaction in bringing Taichiro to the point of sacrifice.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, 1984.

Lippit, Noriko Mizuta. Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature, 1980.

Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima, 1979.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, 1976.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, 1978.

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