Yasunari Kawabata

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Besides approximately two hundred short stories and fictional vignettes (or short, short stories), Yasunari Kawabata wrote both “serious” novels, which earned for him a Nobel Prize, and “popular” novels, which gained for him financial security. The latter, considered by some critics as vulgarizations, are not included in editions of his complete works. His serious works include juvenile fiction, travel accounts, journalism, letters, reviews, translations, editions, plays, and lectures.

Achievements

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Known throughout the world as the only writer from his country to have received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Yasunari Kawabata was also awarded every major Japanese literary honor, including membership in the Japanese Academy of Arts (1954). In 1972, he was posthumously awarded the First Class Order of the Rising Sun. In his work, Kawabata combines universal themes with literary techniques and conventions typical of Japanese culture. His eminence as a writer of fiction is based on this characteristic of fusing contrary, although not antithetical, elements. He draws upon the East and the West as well as the traditional and the modern, juxtaposes mimetic precision with symbolic evocation, joins the erotic and the spiritual, and fluctuates between dream and reality. In like manner, he cultivated and perfected both long and short genres of fiction and in a sense brought them into conjunction, since many of his long works can be broken down into short, independent elements. His themes embrace both the mundane and the esoteric, his narrative style ranges from the graphic to the lyrical, and his highly original plots and situations touch upon fundamental moral and aesthetic issues of modern life.

Other literary forms

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In world literature, Japan has the oldest tradition of the novel; there is, however, no significant qualitative distinction between the Japanese “novel” and the Japanese “short story.” As a result, Yasunari Kawabata (kah-wah-bah-tah) may be said to have been a writer of short stories as well as novels, but the distinction is Western, arbitrary, and based merely on length. Some of the collections of Kawabata’s works that may be designated as collections of short stories are Jjka (1938), Shiroi mangetsu (1948), Maihime (1951), Bungei tokuhon Kawabata Yasunari (1962), Kgen (1969), Tenohira no shsetsu (1969), Shui yueh (1971), Tenj no ko (1975), and Honehiroi (1975). His first nonfiction work was the autobiographical Jrokusai no nikki (1925; diary of a sixteen-year-old).

Kawabata is also well known as a literary critic. His essays have been published in Bungakuteki jijoden (1934), Rakka ryusui (1966), Bi no sonzai to hakken/The Existence and Discovery of Beauty (1969; bilingual), Utsukushii nihon no watakushi/Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself (1969; bilingual), Isso ikka (1973), and Nihon no bi no kokoro (1973). He also translated into modern Japanese a selection of ancient Japanese stories as Ocho monogatari sh (1956-1958), and he translated the fables of Aesop as Isoppu (1968). His collected works have been published as Kawabata Yasunari zensh (1948-1969).

Achievements

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Yasunari Kawabata has long been recognized as one of Japan’s major novelists, short-story writers, and critics. In 1968 he became the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, after he had received every major Japanese literary award, including the Bungei Konwa Kai Prize (1937) and the Geijutsuin-sho Prize (1952). He also received the Goethe Medal of Frankfurt, Germany (1959), and the Ordre des Arts et Lettres (1960) and Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (1961) of France. In 1954, he was elected to the Japanese Academy of Arts.

Early in his career, Kawabata was instrumental in founding the avant-garde neosensualist movement of the 1920’s and experimented with cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and Futurism. He was also influenced by the stream-of-consciousness techniques of James Joyce and the “automatic writing” of the Surrealists. Later, he abandoned these experiments and reverted to more traditional Japanese forms,...

(This entire section contains 185 words.)

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developing a style that was unique and difficult to translate. His works are sensitive, delicate, and often difficult for readers without a full understanding of Japanese thought and culture; he is recognized internationally as one of Japan’s, and the world’s, greatest twentieth century authors.

Discussion Topics

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What is ironic about the difficulty English-speaking audiences had in understanding the work of Yasunari Kawabata, an avid student of English and American writers?

Consider the validity of Kawabata’s explanation of the “incompleteness” of his stories.

Does Kawabata’s notion of love bear any resemblance to that of Dante?

What does Shimamura learn in the snow country?

Has Kawabata’s ability to explore Japanese traditions influenced Western as well as Japanese readers?

Bibliography

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Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. Concentrates on Kawabata’s detachment from modernity. Contains excellent biographical background and detailed notes but no bibliography.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984. Fifty-nine pages by this eminent critic and translator of Japanese fiction are devoted to Kawabata. Traces many of Kawabata’s themes to his childhood experiences and gives the circumstances of publication and reception of his major works. Keene believes that Kawabata’s main preoccupations were Japanese landscapes, Japanese women, and Japanese art. Contains a bibliography and extensive notation.

Morris, Mark. “Orphans.” The New York Times, October 12, 1997. A review of The Dancing Girl of Izu, discussing the title story and the “palm-of-hand” stories in the collection; generally praises the stories as excellent examples of Kawabata’s early short fiction.

Napier, Susan J. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity. New York: Routledge, 1996. See chapter 3, “Woman Lost: The Dead, Damaged, or Absent Female in Postwar Fantasy,” and especially the separate discussion of “Sleeping with the Dead: Kawabata’s House of Sleeping Beauties and One Arm.”

Palmer, Thom. “The Asymmetrical Garden: Discovering Yasunari Kawabata.” Southwest Review 74 (1989): 390-402. Discusses Kawabata’s small fictions called “palm-of-the-hand stories”; asserts they are stylized, intuitive studies of the tension, mystery, and beauty of being alive in an “ephemeral, unfathomable universe.”

Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979. An excellent critical study, emphasizing nuances of Japanese style and culture. Includes a chronology, a bibliography and explanatory notes.

Starrs, Roy. Soundings in Time: The Fictive Art of Kawabata Yasunari. Richmond, England: Japan Library, 1998. A good study of Kawabata’s fiction.

Swann, Thomas E., and Kinya Tsuruta. Approaches to the Modern Japanese Short Story. Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 1982. Analyzes “The Izu Dancer,” The House of the Sleeping Beauties, and “One Arm.”

Tsuruta, Kinya, and Thomas E. Swann, eds. Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1976. See Makota Ueda’s essay, “The Virgin, the Wife, and the Nun: Kawabata’s Snow Country.”

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. Devoting forty-five pages to Kawabata, this distinguished Japanese scholar emphasizes the elements of positive thought and action, vitality, beauty, and purity in Kawabata’s work. Complemented by a bibliography and an index.

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