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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2172

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Article abstract: Kawabata was the first Japanese writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Considered to be among the most Japanese of Japanese writers, he served as a critic and as a mentor for other writers as well.

Early Life

Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka, Japan, on June 11, 1899. His father, a physician, was interested in Chinese poetry, and Kawabata himself was at first more drawn to painting than to literature in his youth. In middle school, however, he decided to be a writer and had some pieces published in magazines and local newspapers while still a schoolboy. Entering Tokyo Imperial University in 1920, Kawabata first was enrolled in the English literature department and then moved to the Department of Japanese Literature; he was graduated in 1924.

Some doubt remains regarding the date of Kawabata’s first work, an account of twelve days in May, 1914, a short time before the death of his grandfather. The piece, Jurukosai no nikki (diary of a sixteen-year-old), was published in 1925, at which time Kawabata wrote an afterword describing his discovery of the diary that he had kept eleven years before. Some scholars cite stylistic evidence to argue that it was written much later. This dispute over the dates of composition of Kawabata’s first work may be of interest to the general reader as a memorable foreshadowing of the way Kawabata composed so many of his pieces, many of which were published serially, some of which were continually revised, and still more never completed.

The aspect of Kawabata’s early years most significant to understanding his fiction is the tragic loss of so many members of his family: When he was two years old, his father died; a year later, his mother died. The maternal grandmother who took him in died when Kawabata was seven, and two years later, his only sister died. By the time he was nine, Kawabata only had a grandfather left.

Later in life, Kawabata was cast into the position of mourner several times as well, penning eulogies for his close friends. Critics note as well the romantic loss that may have indelibly marked Kawabata’s youth. When he was about twenty years old, Kawabata was jilted by the young girl he had hoped to marry. This early loss of love may account for Kawabata’s pessimistic attitudes toward love and happiness, which are so eloquently evoked in his writing.

Life’s Work

The sad events in Kawabata’s personal life did not, fortunately, mirror his professional life. Rather, with his very first published story, Shokonsai ikkei (1921; a scene of the memorial service for the war dead), Kawabata attracted the attention of a powerful literary figure, Kikuchi Kan, who introduced him to other writers. One of these, Riichi Yokomitsu, was a lifelong friend and among the twenty writers who founded a literary magazine, Bungei jidai (literary age), which became the center of a short-lived but influential literary group called the Shinkankaku-ha (Neo-Perceptionist or Neo-Sensationist group). Initially, Kawabata made his name as a literary theorist and critic by vigorously espousing the goals of this movement. Modeled on European modernists, this group of writers sought to break away from established ways of expression and valued new ways of recording what could be perceived through the senses. Newness was valued for itself, a goal that naturally tended to result in manneristic writing.

Even Kawabata’s doomed love affair served him professionally. Heartbroken by his failed engagement, Kawabata joined a group of itinerant entertainers while on a walking tour of the Izu Peninsula in 1918 and, in 1922, wrote an account of his travels. Though he never published that work, he used it as the basis for one of his earliest successes, Izu no odoriko (1926; The Izu Dancer, 1955). Ironically enough, this brief story of the narrator’s attraction to a dancer and his subsequent loss of desire when he discovers that she is but a child is not particularly distinguished by any new modes of expression at all. So popular was this tale of unfulfilled adolescent love that it was filmed as early as 1933 and several times subsequently.

The Izu Dancer is important to understanding Kawabata’s later works, for it introduces the motif of attraction to young, virginal women, which some critics have found central to Kawabata’s fiction. In the much later work, Nemureru bijo (1960-1961; “The House of the Sleeping Beauties,” in The House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, 1969), this motif appears again in the much more perverse story of an impotent old man who frequents a house of assignation to sleep next to drugged, naked young girls. A recurring theme in Kawabata then is that love is unattainable, even if physically consummated, resulting in what critics see as nihilism in his work.

Throughout his life, Kawabata wrote very short stories which he referred to as “stories that fit into the palm of one’s hand.” These 146 stories, written intermittently from 1921 to 1972, were for Kawabata the essence of his art. They show his “preference for the miniature and for the half-spoken wisp of a plot.” The publishing history of his acknowledged masterpiece Yukiguni (1935-1937, 1947; Snow Country, 1957) illustrates much about Kawabata’s modus operandi. The genesis of the novel was a short piece published in a literary magazine in 1935; thereafter, over twelve years, other portions were published as separate pieces. Kawabata gathered the distinct portions and revised and published them to prize-winning acclaim in 1937; even then he added two more chapters in 1939 and 1940, revised them, and then finished it again in 1947.

The inevitably episodic quality of the work is not only a result of the serial approach to novel writing so common among Japanese writers but a key to the worldview in Kawabata’s work. Indeed, it is one of the major aspects of his works that is identifiably Japanese. One obstacle for Western readers of Japanese novels is the de-emphasis, or, perhaps more accurately, lack of concern for plot or even individual character in Japanese literature. The closest equivalent in Western terms might be to distinguish the lyrically poetic from the novelistic mind-set. Sembazuru (1952; Thousand Cranes, 1958), another of Kawabata’s better-known works, is even more illustrative of this mind-set. Its extremely short paragraphs remind the reader to approach it as a series of perceptions, rather than looking for meaning in a sustained narrative structure. The semblance of a plot concerns Kikuji, an orphaned young man, who is caught up with three women. Two of them were his father’s mistresses; the third is the daughter of one of the mistresses. There is a strong suggestion that there are intrigues among the three women to win the male character, but, since the point of view is his and since he, like other male figures in Kawabata’s fiction, tends to be a remote, detached figure, it is never clear exactly what actions are actually occurring. Rather, the reader is treated to suggestive ruminations about the significance of antique tea bowls and minute observations, such as the pattern of a thousand cranes on a young woman’s scarf, that apparently lead nowhere but are the essence of the novel.

Kawabata’s sad childhood may, as some critics have argued, account for the detached quality of his work. It comes as a surprise, therefore, to note that Kawabata was not the total recluse in his private life that his fiction might suggest. Even after he decided to stop writing as a critic, Kawabata engaged in public activity in sporadic fits. In the 1930’s, he was on the staff of several magazines and was selected by government authorities to be part of a group officially designated to revitalize Japanese literature. He supported younger writers, and one of his novels, Meijin (1942-1954; The Master of Go, 1972), for example, is even based on a series of actual matches between the master of the game at the time and a young challenger in 1938. During World War II, Kawabata continued to write, mainly about his childhood, but those years, so troubling to Japan’s pride, increased the scope of his recollections of the past to include a renewed interest in his country’s past as well. Japan’s defeat affected him as deeply as the rest of his countrymen; he expressed his concern for preserving his heritage by collecting traditional Japanese art, particularly from the eighteenth century. After the war, he became the president of the Japanese PEN Club and in that capacity traveled all over the world and met other writers. The Nobel Prize in 1968 only increased his public exposure.

Toward the end of his life, Kawabata was still performing his childhood role as chief mourner at funerals. Particularly affecting for him was the suicide in 1970 of Yukio Mishima, a writer whom he had championed several years earlier. As late as 1971, Kawabata was active publicly, campaigning for an unsuccessful political candidate. When, on April 16, 1972, he left his house, went to his office, and killed himself by inhaling gas, this productive writer left no note and no explanations. The reasons for his suicide remain a mystery.

Summary

Yasunari Kawabata started many more projects than he ever finished. It is all the more remarkable then that he produced so steadily and for so wide a public. It is very difficult to classify Kawabata’s output into the conventional categories of lowbrow, middlebrow, or highbrow fiction, because he published in popular magazines throughout his career. In the 1930’s, when there was much debate about the renaissance of literature in Japan, Kawabata declared that such a revitalization could only occur in “works that are at once of pure literature and aimed at a mass audience.” One of his own longest works, Tokyo no hito (1955; Tokyo people), was published serially more than five hundred times and, like some of his other pieces, made into a film.

The ultimately nihilistic nature of Kawabata’s point of view may have been one reason that he was not overly protective of his literary reputation. Or perhaps like so many writers, he published where he could for the most money. He himself believed that he could only write when pushed to a deadline, and perhaps writing serially for periodicals was the only way he could write. Whatever the reason, his writing reached beyond literary circles to the reading public. His countrymen were delighted but surprised when a Japanese writer so difficult for the Japanese to comprehend was appreciated by foreigners, but Kawabata was perhaps appropriately selected for such international renown. Although, like many twentieth century Japanese writers, Kawabata was drawn to Western literature and learned from its major practitioners, he, like many of his contemporaries, believed himself first and foremost a Japanese writer. His Nobel Prize speech emphasized his appreciation of Japanese culture. It is no easier to say of Kawabata than it is of any great writer what is typical of his culture or uniquely his own vision. Fortunately, the legacy of his written words, his distinctive appreciation of the subtleties and fragility of love and beauty, speaks to all thoughtful readers.

Bibliography

Keene, Donald. “Kawabata Yasunari.” In Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, Fiction. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. One of the most comprehensive books on modern Japanese literature. The critical/biographical approach provides an excellent extended introduction to Kawabata and his work. Includes notes, an index, and a selected bibliography.

Kimball, Arthur G. “The Last Extremity.” In Crisis in Identity and Contemporary Japanese Novels. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1972. Author approaches several major writers thematically, from a Western point of view. Includes notes, a bibliography, and a syllabus for a suggested reading course.

Miyoshi, Masao. “The Margins of Life.” In Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Specific discussions of Snow Country and Yama no oto (1949-1954; The Sound of the Mountain, 1970). Preface provides an excellent discussion of some differences between Japanese and Western novels. Includes notes and an index.

Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. “Kawabata Yasunari.” In The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979. Extensive discussions intended for the general reader. The list of works available in English and the partial chronology at the end of each section are particularly helpful. Includes a general bibliography and an index.

Rimer, J. Thomas. “Kawabata Yasunari: Eastern Approaches.” In Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. Extended discussion of Snow Country. The introduction offers an interesting discussion of structural principles in Japanese narrative fiction. Includes appendices, a bibliography, and an index.

Tsuruta, Kinya, and Thomas E. Swann, eds. “Kawabata Yasunari.” In Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1976. Intended for undergraduates, this collection of essays on fifteen Japanese novels devotes three essays to Kawabata’s best-known works. Includes a preface and notes on contributors.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “The Eternal Womanhood: Tanizaki Jun’ichiro and Kawabata Yasunari.” In The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1978. A brief critical/biographical approach comparing the two writers. Includes notes, a bibliography, and an index.