Yasunari Kawabata 1899–1972
Japanese short story writer, novelist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Kawabata's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 5, 9, and 18.
During his career, critics had difficulty classifying Kawabata because he developed a unique style combining elements of traditional and modern literature. International audiences, including the Nobel Prize Committee, thought of Kawabata as representing traditional Japanese literature. This view often confused Japanese audiences, who considered Kawabata a modernist. He was involved in the development of new literary styles and movements in Japan, but tradition did play a role in his style and themes.
Kawabata was born in Osaka in 1899. His early life was filled with loss. His father died when he was two years old, his mother when he was three, his sister when he was nine, and his grandfather when he was 16. He spent most of his childhood living in school dormitories. Family life is very important in Japanese culture, and the loneliness and alienation that characterized his youth infused his later fiction. Kawabata attended the elite First Higher School from 1917 to 1920 and received a degree from the English Literature Department of Tokyo Imperial University in 1920; in 1924 he received a degree from the Japanese Literature Department. As a young writer in 1924, Kawabata worked with other writers to create the Bungei jidai, or Literary Era, in opposition to the proletarian literature popular at the time. They were known as "Neoperceptionists," and they were concerned with the aesthetics of literature. Their work focused on diction, lyricism, and rhythm. While involved in this literary movement, Kawabata was better known as a critic than as a writer himself. In 1926 he gained attention for his fiction with the publication of his short story "The Izu Dancer" in a literary monthly. He went on to write short stories and several novels which earned him an international reputation. He became a member of the Art Academy of Japan in 1953, and in 1957 was appointed chairman of the P.E.N. Club of Japan. Kawabata received the Goethe Medal in 1959 in Frankfurt and in 1961 was awarded Japan's highest recognition for a man of letters, the Order of Culture. He went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. He committed suicide in April of 1972, leaving no note or explanation.
Kawabata's fiction combines elements of modern and traditional literature. In addition to remaining true to traditional forms, Kawabata often focused on retaining traditional culture in the face of the modern world as the subject of his fiction. He presented and defended such traditional Japanese forms as the tea ceremony in Sembazuru (Thousand Cranes; 1952), the game of Go in Go sei-gen kidan (The Master of Go; 1954), and folk art in Koto (The Old Capital; 1962). Kawabata wrote in a style similar to traditional Japanese haiku poetry, known as renga, or linked poetry. His work is filled with imagery and symbolism. Kawabata never wrote about political turmoil, but instead focused on personal and spiritual crises. His major themes included loneliness, alienation, the meaninglessness and fleeting nature of human passion, aging, and death. The Master of Go is an example of Kawabata's theme of tradition versus modernization, using the traditional Japanese game of Go. The Master represents tradition and views Go as an art form. The young challenger Otaké represents the modern rational approach to Go. In the end the Master is overcome by modern rationalism. Nemureru bijo (House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories; 1953) is a collection of short stories depicting the changing effects of eroticism on the aging male. Yama no oto (Sound of the Mountain; 1954) looks at the Japanese extended family and Japanese business. The novel's main theme is the effects of aging on the protagonist, who believes he hears the mountains signalling his imminent death. The Old Capital traces the struggle of Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital, as the city attempts to retain its identity in the face of industrialization. Twin sisters who have been separated at birth represent the dichotomy of tradition vs. modernization, city vs. country, and folk art vs. mass production. Typical of Japanese literature, there are no clear-cut good or evil forces in Kawabata's fiction. He leaves matters unresolved, and his endings are ambiguous. Kawabata's fiction relies on his readers and their imagination to decide the fate of his characters.
Some reviewers have pointed out the difference in characterization found in Japanese literature as opposed to Western literature. They assert that Kawabata's characterization is not fully fleshed out and sometimes falls into symbolism. Many critics also assert that there is a vagueness to Kawabata's writing style. In discussing Kawabata's lyricism and appeal, Marlene A. Pilarcik states his works "are noted for their delicate, wistful beauty and haunting lyricism. They express the essence of the Japanese soul, but also draw on the universality of human experience." Critics often comment on the complicated relationship between Kawabata's writing style, modernism, and traditional Japanese poetry. James T. Araki states, "The general reader in Japan has probably regarded Kawabata as a modernist rather than a traditionalist, for his stories are often difficult to apprehend fully, owing to the rich, allusive imagery, a suggestive quality that requires a matured sensibility of the reader, an elliptical sentence style, and a mode of story progression that often relies on linking through imagery rather than through contextual or sentence logic—a technique of the traditional renga or 'linked verse.'" Beyond the style question, one of the most widely discussed issues relating to Kawabata's work was his relationship to the traditional and modern worlds. Sidney DeVere Brown explained it this way: "The modern world provides merely a dim, mostly unseen context in his novels for the admirable people and culture rooted in Old Japan."