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.)