Yasunari Kawabata Kawabata, Yasunari - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Kawabata, Yasunari 1899-1972

Japanese novelist, short story and novella writer, critic, and essayist.

Kawabata was an internationally acclaimed fiction writer who was the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in literature. His works are noted for their blending of a modern sensibility with an allusive, highly nuanced style derived from traditional literature. Kawabata strove, in both his short and long fiction, to create exquisitely detailed images that resonate with meanings that remain unexpressed. Describing the effect of reading Kawabata's work, Thom Palmer observed that his stories "comprise a variety of levels and potentials. There are gradations of meaning, innumerable approaches at interpretation, a sophisticated array of doors and windows through which one can access the text. With Kawabata, one may locate, or perhaps even experience, a subtle epiphany, feel a little throb of excitement from the tale or its telling, but it's a highly subjective, intuitive occurrence."

Biographical Information

Born in Osaka in 1899, Kawabata was orphaned at an early age; his father died when he was two, and his mother died the following year. Biographers point out that the young Kawabata suffered several other losses and earned the sobriquet "Master of Funerals" for the number of ceremonies he attended in his youth, including those of his grandparents, with whom he lived after his parents died, and that of his only sister. Kawabata began his literary activities while still in his teens. In 1914 he wrote his earliest known story, "Jūrokusai no Nikki" ("Diary of a Sixteen-Year Old"), recording his impressions at the time of his grandfather's death. He attended Tokyo Imperial University and obtained a degree in Japanese literature in 1924. As a young man Kawabata was interested in Western literature and artistic movements. Proficient in English, he read James Joyce's Ulysses in its original language and was strongly influenced for a time by stream-of-consciousness techniques. In 1924 Kawabata joined with Riichi Yokomitsu and other young writers to found the literary journal Bungei Jidai (The Age of Literary Arts), the mouthpiece of the Shinkankaku-ha (The Neo-Sensualist or New Perceptionist) movement. Kawabata and other members of this short-lived but influential movement experimented with cubism, dadaism, futurism, and surrealism in an effort to capture the pure feelings and sensations of life. Although Kawabata's active participation in such movements is generally regarded as exploratory and temporary, he maintained an interest in modern literary currents throughout his life. During his career Kawabata won a number of Japanese literary awards and honors, as well as the German Goethe Medal (1959), the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (1961), and the Nobel Prize (1968). He also served as author-in-residence at the University of Hawaii in 1969. Kawabata took his own life in 1972; he left no note, and the reasons for his suicide are unknown.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Best known as a novelist, Kawabata nevertheless wrote short stories throughout his career, and he himself suggested that the essence of his art lay in his short pieces. In English, his short fiction is principally represented by two collections: House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories (translated by Edward Seidensticker in 1969) and Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman in 1988). The former contains, in addition to the title work "Nemureru Bijo," the stories "Kata Ude" ("One Arm") and "Kinjū" ("Of Birds and Beasts"). The latter features just over half of the estimated 146 very brief pieces that Kawabata called tanagokoro no shōsetsu ("stories that fit into the palm of the hand"). Sometimes little more than a page in length, these highly condensed, allusive stories range in tone from the humorous to the poignant. In form, they may consist of the evocation of a single image or mood, or may possess more complex structures. His last, "Gleanings from Snow Mountain," written just prior to his death, distills his full-length novel Yukiguni (Snow Country) into a story of some nine pages. "Izu no Odoriko" ("The Izu Dancer"), one of Kawabata's first literary successes, was also published in an English translation by Seidensticker in the anthology of Japanese fiction The Izu Dancer and Other Stories (1964).

Critical Reception

Although novels make up the largest part of Kawabata's output, critics generally consider the economy and precision of his short fiction more reflective of his artistry. Many have pointed out that Kawabata's longer works are often structured as a series of brief suggestive scenes of the sort that typically constitute his stories. As Holman observed in his introduction to Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, the very short story "appears to have been Kawabata's basic unit of composition from which his longer works were built, after the manner of linked-verse poetry, in which discrete verses are joined to form a longer poem." Masao Miyoshi also detected a similarity between Kawabata's method and the writing of poetry when he compared the author's technique in "The Izu Dancer" to that of haiku poems: Kawabata, he noted, "instead of explaining the characters' thoughts and feelings, merely suggests them by mentioning objects which . . . are certain to reverberate with tangible, if not identifiable emotions." Critics commonly praise Kawabata's images for their vivid clarity and their power to evoke universal human fears of loneliness, loss of love, and death. Yukio Mishima, for example, likened the intensity Kawabata creates in "House of the Sleeping Beauties" to being trapped on an airless submarine: "While in the grip of this story," he stated, "the reader sweats and grows dizzy, and knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death." Gwenn Boardman Petersen found sadness and longing recurring concerns for the author, and Arthur G. Kimball judged Kawabata's treatment of such themes the source of the timeless quality of his works.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

"Izu no Odoriko" ["The Izu Dancer"] 1926

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories 1969

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories 1988

Other Major Works

Yukiguni [Snow Country] (novel) 1937

Sembazuru [Thousand Cranes] (novel) 1952

Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain] (novel) 1954

Go sei-gen kidan [The Master of Go] (novel) 1954

Mizuumi [The Lake] (novel) 1955

Onna de aru koto [To Be a Woman] (novel) 1956-58

Utsukushisa to kanashimi to [Beauty and Sadness] (novel) 1965

Utsukushii nihon no watakushi [Japan the Beautiful and Myself] (Nobel Prize lecture) 1969

Kawabata Yasunari Zenshu. 35 vols, (collected works) 1980-83

Thomas Fitzsimmons (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of House of the Sleeping Beauties, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. 52, No. 24, June 14, 1969, pp. 34-5.

[Fitzsimmons is an American poet, educator, and critic with a special interest in Japanese culture. In the following highly favorable assessment of 'House of the Sleeping Beauties, he perceives a theme unifying the three stories in the volume: the "lasting and lucid vision of one aspect of human fear."]

Are you afraid of people? Of individuals in all their howling singularity? Do you carry somewhere deep inside you a primitive awareness that other human beings are the most baffling, complex, unpredictable phenomena you will ever...

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Yukio Mishima (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, Kodansha International, 1969, pp. 7-10.

[Mishima is considered one of the most important modern Japanese writers. Both prolific and versatile, he wrote dozens of novels, dramas, short stories, essays and screenplays. His works often reflect his adherence to traditional Japanese values, a dedication which was ultimately demonstrated in his ritual suicide in 1970. In the essay below, he extols the interwoven themes and precise scenic detail in the title story of the collection House of the Sleeping Beauties.]

There would seem to be,...

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Arthur G. Kimball (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Last Extremity: Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties, " in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 1, 1970, pp. 19-30.

[In the essay below, Kimball closely scrutinizes the imagery in "House of the Sleeping Beauties, " detecting numerous pairs of opposing or contradictory images in the story.]

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Yasunari Kawabata refers to his essay, "Eyes in Their Last Extremity." The title comes from the suicide note of the famous short story writer, Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927). As his remarks show, Kawabata has pondered the question of suicide and rejects it as an unenlightened act. But the phrase which...

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Mervyn Brock (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of House of the Sleeping Beauties, in Japan Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, July-September, 1971, pp. 351-54.

[In the following excerpt, Brock is harshly critical of the pieces in House of the Sleeping Beauties; he finds the title story, for example, "so dull that it requires positive effort to struggle through its sargasso sea of lifeless anatomical detail, to read page after page of its repetitive variations on a basically obnoxious theme. " ]

Kawabata Yasunari was born in Osaka on June 11th 1899. He lost both parents in his second year, his grandmother in his eighth and his grandfather in his sixteenth: losses from which he has, perhaps,...

(The entire section is 1423 words.)

Masao Miyoshi (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Margins of life," in Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel University of California Press, 1974, pp. 95-121.

[In the excerpt below, Masao examines Kawabata's early experimentation with European avant-garde aesthetics in several short stories. The critic finds "The Izu Dancer, " however, a tradition-based piece that provides an "alternative to the eccentric internationalism of [Kawabata's] 'modernist9stories."]

Early in his career Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972) was a member of the Neo-Perceptionist school (Shin Kankaku Ha). The existence of this group, as a part of Japanese literary history, is not so interesting or...

(The entire section is 1699 words.)

Gwenn Boardman Petersen (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kawabata Yasunari," in The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima, The University Press of Hawaii, 1979, pp. 121-200.

[In the excerpt below, Petersen details the imagery and allusive language of "House of the Sleeping Beauties. "]

Dancing figures—expressions of loneliness or focusing a sense of loss—move through Onsen-yado (A Hotspring Inn, 1929) as through Snow Country, through Niji (The Rainbow, 1934), through Hana no Warutsu (Flower Waltz, 1936), and even through Funa Yūjo (Boat Prostitute), a play that had its premier at Tokyo's Kabuki-za in October 1970. Written originally for dance master...

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Katsuhiko Takeda (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Biblical Influence upon Yasunari Kawabata," in Neohelicon, Vol. X, No. 1, 1983, pp. 95-103.

[In the essay below, Takeda identifies Western literary influences on numerous Kawabata short stories.]

Yasunari Kawabata, who died in 1972, was a towering figure in the Japanese literary world. But the number of his readers in the West was always rather limited and his literary fame there alternated between eminence and eclipse until after he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968.

His literary works are often considered to be genuinely traditional, but if we read them carefully, we come to the realization that they contain modern elements....

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Donald Keene (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kawabata Yasunari," in Dawn to the West, Japanese literature of the Modern Era: Fiction, Vol 1, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 786-845.

[Keene is an American scholar and critic who has produced a number of translations and studies of Japanese literature. The following excerpt is taken from his discussion of Kawabata in the fiction volume of his acclaimed two-part literary history of contemporary Japanese letters. Here he surveys Kawabata's early short fiction, particularly "The Izu Dancer, "placing it in the context of the author's life and artistic development]

Kawabata's first work was probably "Jūrokusai no Nikki" ("Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old")....

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Douglas Seibold (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A World Distilled: The Short Fiction of Japan's Nobel laureate," in Chicago TribuneBooks, August 21, 1988, p. 7.

[In the laudatory review below, Seibold admires the polish and precision of the pieces in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.]

Born in 1899, the same year as Hemingway and Borges, Yasunari Kawabata was venerated in his native Japan, and his writing attracted as much attention from the West as that of any of his compatriots since lady Murasaki. His career climaxed in 1968 with his being awarded the Nobel Prize, and to this date he is the only Far Eastern writer to be so honored.

The translators and publishers of Palm-of-the-Hand...

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Marian Ury (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Man and the Idea of a Woman," in The New York Times Book Review, August 21, 1988, p. 11.

[In the following favorable evaluation of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, Ury notes that each of the pieces in the volume is "less a story in the usual sense than a node of storytelling, where sounds, textures, tastes, colors, trajectories and intimations are gathered, ready to expand over an invisible canvas. " ]

A woman, breaking with her married lover, gives him a pair of canaries as a memento of their affair. The birds, which initially had been placed in the same cage by the bird seller through chance and are now unable to survive without each other, come to...

(The entire section is 940 words.)

Frederick Smock (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Small lanterns," in The American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 6, January, 1989, p. 15.

[In the following review, Smock praises the concision and the highly evocative quality of the pieces in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.]

Somewhere in my future is a small, simple apartment, maybe a couple of rooms near the sea somewhere, with high windows and a fireplace. On the mantel over the fireplace is a small stack of books, the only books in the place, those dozen or so volumes necessary to life. One of those books is Yasunari Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.

These very short stories, which span his writing life, are the distillation of a beautiful...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

Thom Palmer (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Asymmetrical Garden: Discovering Yasunari Kawabata," in Southwest Review, Vol. 74, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 390-402.

[In the following essay, Palmer examines Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories in an attempt to demonstrate that the form the author employed in these pieces was much more congenial to his talents than the novel form.]

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Concerning this unprecedented citation, Professor Donald Keene, in his gargantuan work of scholarship (Dawn To The West, 1984), writes: "The Japanese public was naturally delighted to learn of the award, though...

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Martin lebowitz (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mysterious East," in The Virginia Quarterly review, Vol. 67, No. 4, Autumn, 1991, pp. 778-79.

[In the essay below, lebowitz maintains that the compression of detail in the stories in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories is reflective of aspects of both primitivism and sophistication in Japanese culture.]

If, as historians have noted, giantism is an aspect of decadence, miniaturization—emblematic of love, tenacity, and control—expresses the mystique or teleology of a humane society. These stories [in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories] are rarely more than four pages in length. The particularity and concreteness of the Japanese mentality reflect a sort...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Anderer, Paul. review of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. The Journal of Asian Studies 48, No. 4 (November 1989): 865-66.

Admires the "sense of warmth and fragility" that "offsets the cool formalism of Kawabata's spare and rigorous method" in the stories in this volume.

Brown, Sidney DeVere. "Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972): Tradition versus Modernity." World literature Today 62, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 375-79.

Retrospective survey that attempts to "put Kawabata in the context of his times and reconstruct those times . . . from the fragments about the world around the writers and artists, the dilettantes and lovely traditional...

(The entire section is 361 words.)