Yasunari Kawabata Kawabata, Yasunari (Vol. 107) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Izu no odoriko [The Izu Dancer and Other Stories] (short stories) 1926
Tenohira no shosetsu [Palm-of-the-Hand Stories] (short stories) 1926
Asakusa kurenaidan [The Red Gang of Asakusa] (novel) 1930
Kinju [Of Birds and Beasts] (short stories) 1935
Yukiguni [Snow Country] (novel) 1937
Aishu [Sorrow] (short stories and essays) 1949
Sembazuru [Thousand Cranes] (novel) 1952
Nemureru bijo [House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories] (short stories) 1953
Suigetsu ["The Moon on the Water"] (short story) 1953
Go sei-gen kidan [The Master of Go] (novel) 1954
Yama no oto [The Sound of the Mountain] (novel) 1954
Mizuumi [The Lake] (novel) 1955
Koto [The Old Capital] (novel) 1962
The Izu Dancer and Others (short stories) 1964
Kata-ude [One Arm] (novel) 1965
Utsukushisa to kanashimi to [Beauty and Sadness] (novel) 1965

Earl Miner (essay date Summer 1957)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Traditions and Individual Talents in Recent Japanese Fiction," in The Hudson Review, Vol. X, No. 2, Summer, 1957, pp. 302-8.

[In the following excerpt, Miner discusses how Tanizaki Junichiro and Kawabata use different aspects of traditional Japanese literature, and how their work differs from the literature of the West.]

There is little of the West in the mature art of the two greatest contemporary Japanese novelists, Tanizaki Junichiro and Kawabata Yasunari…. After periods of experimentation, they have modelled their styles on the two most important Japanese fictional traditions—Tanizaki on the classical monogatari style represented at its greatest...

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William F. Sibley (review date Winter 1969–70)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of House of the Sleeping Beauties, in Pacific Affairs, Vol. XLII, No. 4, Winter, 1969–70, p. 573.

[In the following review, Sibley asserts that the title story of Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties is "one of the finest works of Kawabata's late career."]

There would seem to be a special place in modern Japanese literature for works set "in the autumn of the flesh," as Tanizaki Jun'ichiro once put it, by writers past the prime of life—swan songs (often deliberately premature) steeped in waning sensuality. The title story of this collection is an excellent specimen of the type and one of the finest works of Kawabata's late career. On the recommendation of a friend, "old Eguchi" pays several visits to an establishment where young women lie drugged into oblivion, solely for the discret delectation of a senile clientele. Though proud of his continuing potency, he resists the temptation to break the strict house rules against full possession of the sleeping beauties.

In the course of the five lonely nights that Eguchi passes beside the warm yet less than wholly alive bodies, he drifts from a state of heightened awareness of all the senses in a deep sleep filled with disquieting dreams of women he has known. With the death of his companion on the last night from an overdose of drugs, the illusory air of satiation which the house has so far succeeded in creating is dispelled. All that remains is an impression of inhumanity and impotence. But, up to the final page, illusion is the stuff of which this story is made, both in substance and style. Kawabata's prose, which is translated by Edward Seidensticker with something surpassing mere faithfulness, speaks in sighs and whispers throughout.

While "Of Birds and Beasts" belongs to a much earlier period in Kawabata's career, its central figure is analogously an aging and lonely man. A detailed description of the cold, detached pleasure he has derived from a succession of pet birds and dogs is masterfully interwoven with a fragmentary, and almost equally detached, review of an affair begun some ten years ago. The third selection, "One Arm," is a brief, lyrical excursion into fetishistic fantasy. Unavoidably, it appears rather inconsequential between the two small masterpieces that make up the bulk of this volume.

Melvin Maddocks (essay date October 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Floating World," in The Atlantic, Vol. 230, No. 4, October, 1972, pp. 126-29.

[In the following essay, Maddocks discusses Kawabata's The Master of Go, Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow, and the tradition of Japanese literature.]

There is a fascinatingly mysterious print by Hiroshige called The Cave at Enoshima. At the left, three figures are shown entering the island's grotto, a famous shrine. Dwarfs frozen in awe, they are blind to the enormous white-capped wave that seems to be reaching in after them like a dragon's tongue. A gnarled tree worthy of Samuel Beckett stands watch above the mouth of the cave like a crippled sentry. But the...

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Alan Friedman (review date 22 October 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Master of Go, in The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1972, pp. 4, 24.

[In the following review, Friedman asserts that Kawabata's "The Master of Go may not be a novel, but it is a journalism recollected in tranquility."]

The Chess Match of the Century is over. Bobby Fischer's chair and Boris Spassky's pride have been pulled to pieces and reassembled. But what if The Times, say, had presumed upon Vladimir Nabokov's well-known passion for chess and had managed to persuade our most illustrious novelist to travel to Reykjavik to cover the match? And what if Nabokov had then given us a book, not only analyzing chess...

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Marian Ury (review date 22 October 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Man and the Idea of a Woman," in The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1972, p. 11.

[In the following review, Ury praises the stories in Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.]

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 symbolize for the lover his relationship with his wife, who had cared for the birds and averted her eyes from his affair. Now that she is dead, the husband writes to his former mistress asking her permission to kill the birds and...

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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 23 August 1974)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sweet Dreams," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3781, August 23, 1974, p. 911.

[In the following review, the critic asserts that the stories in Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties are "linked … by the theme of a lonely subject and his peculiar eroticism, and by the interplay of reality and fancy within a lonely mind."]

Of the three stories in this volume, [House of the Sleeping Beauties], "Of Birds and Beasts" was written in the early 1930s, while "One Arm" and the longer, "House of the Sleeping Beauties" are among Kawabata's later works. But there is a firm continuity between the stories, linked as they are by the theme of a lonely...

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Wolfgang Freese and Angela B. Moorjani (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Esoteric and the Trivial: Chess and Go in the Novels of Beckett and Kawabata," in Perspectives on Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, 1980, pp. 37-48.

[In the following excerpt, Freese and Moorjani analyze the symbolism of the Go match in Kawabata's The Master of Go, and assert that the story is a movement toward the Master's death.]

Yasunari Kawabata's The Master of Go, written and rewritten from 1938 until 1954, when it first appeared in book form, is not a novel in the strict sense of narrative fiction. The Japanese form of shosetsu is known to be more flexible than the Western form of the novel. In this case it mixes a chronicle,...

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Joseph H. Bourke (essay date 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tragic Vision in Kawabata's The Master of Go," in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1982, pp. 83-94.

[In the following essay, Bourque analyzes Kawabata's The Master of Go as a modern tragedy.]

At first glance the application of the thoroughly Western dramatic concept of tragedy to an Oriental novel may seem to be critical madness. Both the genres and the traditions are jarringly incongruous: the process may seem a bit like trying to examine a flower with a sword. Yet, unlike most Japanese novels, The Master of Go seems to invite examination from the perspective of Western concepts. At its most accessible...

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Paul Stuewe (review date 26 March 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of House of the Sleeping Beauties, in Books in Canada, Vol. 12, No. 3, March 26, 1983, p. 26.

[In the following excerpt, Stuewe asserts that in House of the Sleeping Beauties, "Kawabata's writing … confronts the most basic contradictions of human life with poise and serenity, and makes high art out of the existential ebb and flow that will ultimately lay us low."]

Bodily decline, and in the case of the story "One Arm," dismemberment, play prominent roles in Yasunari Kawabata's House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories translated into English in 1969 and now available in an attractive paperback edition…. The title novella...

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Kinya Tsuruta (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Twilight Years, East and West: Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain," in Explorations, edited by Makoto Ueda, University Press of America, 1986, pp. 87-99.

[In the following essay, Tsuruta compares and contrasts the journeys undertaken by the aging main characters of Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain.]

If anyone were to think of comparing Hemingway with a Japanese writer, the first name to come to mind would most likely be that of Mishima Yukio. The two writers share a wide area of common ground: an intense concern with masculinity, an obsession...

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Marlene A. Pilarcik (essay date Fall 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dialectics and Change in Kawabata's The Master of Go," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 9-21.

[In the following essay, Pilarcik asserts that Kawabata's "The Master of Go … captures the poignantly beautiful fading of an era as Japan enters the modern age."]

The works of the Nobel Prize winning author, Yasunari Kawabata, 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. The Master of Go, one of Kawabata's most elegiac novels, captures the poignantly beautiful fading of an era as Japan enters...

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Leza Lowitz (review date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Oriental Angst," in The San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. XII, No. 4, Spring, 1988, p. 19.

[In the following review, Lowitz discusses the opposing forces of tradition and modernity in Kawabata's The Old Capital.]

Though Yasunari Kawabata, the only Japanese novelist to receive the Nobel Prize, is best known for the novels Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, readers will find The Old Capital a welcome addition to the English-language works of Japan's great elegiac writer. Written in 1961, The Old Capital was one of the three novels cited by the Nobel Committee, but has only now been translated into English by a doctoral student, J....

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Sidney DeVere Brown (essay date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Yasunari Kawabata (1899–1972): Tradition versus Modernity," in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 375-79.

[In the following essay, DeVere Brown discusses how Kawabata focused on traditional culture in his major works.]

Yasunari Kawabata is Japan's only Nobel laureate in literature. The prize, once monopolized by Western writers, was given to a Japanese for the first time in 1968. Japan had arrived as a modern nation in the economic and political sense, and it had staged the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 superbly. Perhaps the time had come to recognize a great Japanese writer, a hundred years after Japan's entry into the modern world with the...

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Frederick Smock (review date January/February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Small Lanterns," in American Book Review, Vol. 10, No. 6, January/February, 1989, p. 15.

[In the following review, Smock calls Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories one of "those dozen or so volumes necessary to life."]

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...

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James T. Araki (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Kawabata: Achievements of the Nobel Laureate [1969]," in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 209-12.

[In the following essay, Araki traces Kawabata's changing style and notes "a steady progression in the refinement of his technical mastery and a development of the ability to enter deeply into his characters."]

Although Yasunari Kawabata has for years been considered the most distinguished member of the Japanese world of letters, the news of the selection of the sixty-nine-year-old author as the recipient of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature—a surprise to readers throughout much of the world—was initially received with a sense of...

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Paul Anderer (review date November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 4, November 1989, pp. 865-66.

[In the following review, Anderer discusses the style and themes of Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.]

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories gives us an opportunity to redirect attention and critical inquiry toward the beginnings of what we have come to know—chiefly on the evidence of longer and later shosetsu—as Kawabata's style. In this collection of 70 tanagokoro no shosetsu, Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, working independently, have made available not just some fine Kawabata writing but much of his earliest work....

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Sidney DeVere Brown (review date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, p. 197.

[In the following review, DeVere Brown praises the spare style of Kawabata's Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.]

Kawabata's masterpiece, the novel Snow Country, is written in a spare, elliptical style. It seems as abbreviated as a work of literature can possibly be—until one reads the author's "palm-of-the-hand stories," which often tell a story or evoke an image in less than a page. "Gleanings from Snow Country," indeed, presents the highlights of the novel in a series of haiku-like images in five pages. That is much longer than the usual story,...

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Nobuko Miyama Ochner (review date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Old Capital, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXV, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 197-203.

[In the following review, Miyama Ochner analyzes the problems involved in translating Kawabata's work and asserts that J. Martin Holman's translation of Kawabata's The Old Capital "emerges as a generally faithful and competent work."]

There have been many English translations of novels and essays by Yasunari Kawabata (1899–1972), Japan's only recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1968) to date. Seven titles (The Izu Dancer and Other Stories; Snow Country; Master of Go; Thousand Cranes; The Sound of the Mountain; Japan, the Beautiful,...

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Masaki Mori (essay date May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Decoding the Beard: A Dream-Interpretation of Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain," in The Comparatist, Vol. XVIII, May, 1994, pp. 129-49.

[In the following essay, Mori uses dream-interpretation to analyze the dreams of the main character of Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain. He concludes that the analysis "shows at once Kawabata's great interest in Freudian concepts and his adroit use of psychoanalytic motifs in one of his major novels."]

Apart from the Japanese sensibility and literary tradition woven into many of his works, Kawabata Yasunari eagerly absorbed new ideas and techniques from the West during the early stage of his career as a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Baird, James. "Contemporary Japanese Fiction." Sewanee Review 67, No. 3 (Summer 1959): 477-96.

Discusses what Japanese fiction of the 1950s has in common with Western literature focusing on specific authors, including Yasunari Kawabata.

Donahue, Neil H. "Age, Beauty and Apocalypse." Arcadia (1993): 291-306.

Discusses the Japanese dimension of Max Frisch's Der Mensch erscheint in Holozan by comparing it to Kawabata's The Sound of the Mountain.

Dunlop, Lane. "Three Thumbprint Novels from the Japanese of Yasunari...

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