Yasunari Kawabata Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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...

(The entire section is 2172 words.)

Yasunari Kawabata Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata (kah-wah-bah-tah) is probably Japan’s most sophisticated stylist and certainly its most celebrated author in the twentieth century. The son of a physician, Kawabata as a boy acquired the nickname “master of funerals” as a result of losing many near relatives at an early age. His father died when he was two years old, his mother the next year, his grandmother when he was seven years old, his elder sister when he was ten, and his grandfather six years later. He attended various private schools but did not go to college, and in 1921 his first story was published, the style of which was distinctly modernist and would gain for Kawabata entry into the ranks of the Japanese Shinkankakuha (neoperceptionist) school of writing that was then current in Japan. In the same year his fiancée rejected him, a shock that stayed with him for years.

Kawabata experimented and composed works in the modernist vein of the neoperceptionists throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s, although his allegiance to this school was not absolute. In fact, his most well-known novel, The Izu Dancer (which also appeared in an abridged form), was written in a very traditional style. Thoroughly modernist in tone were Asakusa kurenaidan and stories that employed a stream-of-consciousness technique that Kawabata had learned from reading James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in translation. Kawabata had always been a very private person, but by 1933 he had begun to participate more actively in the Japanese literary world and had joined the staffs of a number of literary magazines. He gained national prominence as a novelist with the publication of Snow Country, a novel that marked his return to Japanese tradition and beauty and his renewed interest in the Japanese woman.

After Snow Country he no longer...

(The entire section is 770 words.)

Yasunari Kawabata Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Orphaned at the age of four, Yasunari Kawabata was reared by his grandparents and later by an uncle. Originally attracted by painting, he later decided to follow writing as a career, and at the age of sixteen he published in a little magazine an account of carrying his teacher’s coffin. Two years earlier, he had written reminiscences of his grandfather, which he later published under the title “Jrokusai no nikki” (“Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old”). In 1921, he received his first payment for a literary work, a review, and published in a student literary magazine an account of a memorial day commemoration that drew the favorable attention of a prolific novelist, Kikuchi Kan, a dominating force in Japanese literary circles of the time. The themes of death and loneliness of Kawabata’s mature years appeared early in his career and may have been influenced by the loss of his parents and grandparents. During his youth, he came briefly under the influence of a Japanese avant-garde clique that advocated the adoption of novel Western movements such as Dadaism, Futurism, and Surrealism. These tendencies were wrapped up in the term Shinkankakuha, which embraces neoperceptionism or neosensualism, but Kawabata’s allegiance to this extremely many-sided coterie was only temporary and irresolute. His major work in the experimental mode, “Suish gens” (“Crystal Fantasy”), utilizes the stream-of-consciousness technique.

Kawabata established his...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Yasunari Kawabata Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Yasunari Kawabata’s childhood was dogged by sadness and loneliness. Born the son of a doctor in saka, he was only two years old when his father died and three when his mother died. He went to live with his maternal grandparents but lost his only sibling, a sister, a few years later. When he was only seven, his grandmother died, and he was left virtually alone, at age sixteen, by the death of his grandfather. The latter’s death became the subject of Jrokusai no nikki, a reminiscence of his sorrow-filled childhood and the affection he felt for his grandfather. In primary school, Kawabata was first interested in painting, but as he entered puberty, he became more interested in literature, especially the Buddhist writings...

(The entire section is 970 words.)

Yasunari Kawabata Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Yasunari Kawabata (kah-wah-bah-tah) was born in Osaka, Japan, on June 11, 1899. When Kawabata was two years old, his father died. His mother died the following year, and Kawabata and his sister went to live with his maternal grandparents. Kawabata’s grandmother’s death in 1906 was followed two years later by the death of his sister, his only sibling, leaving him alone with his grandfather. Following his grandfather’s death in 1914, Kawabata moved into a middle-school dormitory in Osaka, where he stayed until moving in with relatives to attend high school in Tokyo.

In 1920, Kawabata entered Tokyo Imperial University to study English literature. In his second year, however, he decided to major in Japanese...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Yasunari Kawabata Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Yasunari Kawabata’s true gift as a writer, the gift recognized and cited by the Nobel Prize Committee, was his appreciation of Japanese traditions and his ability to explore the interrelationships between the past, present, and future through the language and literary traditions of the twentieth century. While similar themes ran through much of Kawabata’s works, each piece of his fiction has its own unique character and style, be it the attention paid to a physical description of a black water lily or a psychological study of human indifference.

(The entire section is 90 words.)