Kawabata Yasunari

This is a paper that I delivered at a professional meeting in the middle '70s, then was never published, but still seems to me to be a reasonably functional introduction to Kawabata and three of his most available works of fiction in English translation.


Measured by international reputation, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) is Japan's most distinguished man of letters, her only Nobel Prize winner.  About a dozen of his novels and short stories have been published in English translation, most since 1968, when he won that award, so that American readers have now had some chance to appraise his work.  Critical responses have varied, of course, but the general judgment would seem to be that he is distinctly more remote from an American audience, more enigmatically Oriental, more peculiarly Japanese, than the thematically more available Yukio Mishima, Kobe Abe, or Kenzaburo Oe, for example.  That his spirit lives at a distance is no doubt true, but I would interpret that distance as almost more temporal than spatial, certainly more aesthetic than geographic, more a matter of the distance between lyric and prosaic than between Oriental and Occidental; I believe that Kawabata's fiction is some of the finest lyric of the 20th century, and a medium to a better understanding of some of the best things in our own tradition of lyric poetry--things all but lost in this time and place--if we will but learn to read him on his own terms, for, thematically speaking, he has much in common with the sonneteers of the European Renaissance.

In his Nobel Prize speech (translated by Edward Seidensticker as Japan the Beautiful and Myself), Kawabata definitely does not link himself to European literature; he identifies himself very clearly and very strongly with the Japanese aesthetic tradition, first with the tanka poetry of medieval Zen priests, then with the tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arranging, landscape gardening, ink painting, ceramic art, and, ultimately, the whole range of spiritual values stemming from the Zen Buddhist discipline developed in Japan in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, but informed by the nature imagery of cherry blossoms, maple leaf, autumn moon, and winter snow derived from the fundamental Shinto values and the classical literature of even earlier centuries.  Kawabata obviously saw himself as peculiarly Japanese-- and took great pride in that fact.

The orientation Kawabata affirms depends most, however, not on race, but upon cultivated sensibility, one conditioned to the refinement of experience through the arts, and this might be the essence of the Renaissance spirit in Europe as well, particularly as it finds expression in the sonnet tradition.  The aristocratic and discriminating tendencies of such spiritual cultivation are perhaps uncongenial to our self-consciously democratic century, but they may well become increasingly attractive before the century is over, as values predicated upon the accumulation and consumption of material wealth come to be less and less defensible.  And, in Kawabata's work, this tempering of the spirit involves a theory of love grounded in the principle of sublimation that I also find to be of the essence of the Renaissance sonnet sequences, when--between the composition of Francis Petrarch's 319 sonnets in Italy in the middle of the 14th century and William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets in England at the end of the 16th century--a whole set of Romantic and Neo-Platonic values were developed and carried northeast across Europe through the medium of roughly 300,000 of these 14-line lyrics--as I like to say, the little envelope in which Italy sent the Renaissance to England.

Kawabata is frequently praised for the haiku, or lyric, qualities of his prose style, but I leave the analysis of form and style to those with greater linguistic competence.  I mean, rather, to consider certain thematic parallels between Kawabata's fiction and the Renaissance sonnet-- the male lover-poet as central character, the definition and idealization of the mistress as medium to spiritual experience, the significance of the principle of unrequited love, and the effects of the sublimation of love in refining the experience--in three of Kawabata's best known works of fiction, one early, one mid-career, one late--The Izu Dancer, Snow Country, and The Sound of the Mountain.

The Izu Dancer is an early short story, published in 1925, when Kawabata was twenty-six.  It is a gentle love story, essentially a fictionalizing of his own experience with a young girl in a traveling company of dancers--but the elements are all there.

The autobiographical element, the projection of the poet-lover, is already distanced and refined.  The young narrator presented in the opening paragraph is nineteen, dressed in student uniform, on a summer vacation walking tour of the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo.  The very first sentence, "A shower swept toward me from the foot of the mountain, touching the cedar forests white, as the road began to wind up into the pass," established his sensitive and poetic spirit, and everything in the story reinforces that impression, particularly everything in his relationship to the young dancer, the meetings with whom he is already mildly obsessed with anticipating.  He very obviously idealizes her beauty and grace, in classical patterns, seeing her facial features and hair style as resembling those "in the pictures one sees of ancient beauties," and judging her to be "perhaps sixteen," though, as he learns relatively early in the story, in a passage we will consider in a moment, she is only thirteen.  Kawabata was quite conscious that, as an author, he had idealized the experience.  Makoto Ueda summarizes what Kawabata had had to say on this point (in an essay written years later) in Modern Japanese Writers:

   . . . the real entertainers were far less charming.  The dancer's elder brother and his wife suffered from malignant tumors, apparently caused by venereal disease.  The brother often changed his bandages at the public bath, right before Kawabata's eyes.  The dancer's mother looked as if she never bathed at all.  The dancer herself had a disproportionately small nose. *
That was Nature, but, as though he were consciously following Sir Philip Sidney's advice, Kawabata idealized it--not the mother and brother particularly, beyond ignoring their gross blemishes, but the young dancer.  What could be more natural, we might conclude, than for a young man to fall in love, and, ignoring all else, project an idealized conception of his mistress.  We don't have to go to the sonnet sequences to find that pattern, for it is all around us.  And part of the undeniable charm of The Izu Dancer comes from that natural quality; the reader very easily identifies with the young narrator and shares his experience.  But to sustain the ideal, abstracted and refined from experience, it must remain an unrequited love, as Kawabata already knew.  So far as the little dancer is concerned, the love is neither returned nor rejected, for she is still merely a child.  It is not her emotional experience that concerns us, any more than it is the emotional experience of the mistress in a sonnet sequence.  She is mediating object.  The lover informs the female figure with values which he can worship from a certain distance, and he dare not lose that distance.  The actual experience at the public bath must have been threatening to the idealist-lover, but as it appears in the story it is quite revealing for the whole process we are considering.  It is there that the narrator sees his love in her naked innocence, and his reaction is fascinating.  He has spent the previous night alone in his room at the inn, first listening to the noise of the party at which the dancers were entertaining, then wondering, in the following silence, who was spending the night with the little dancer, agonizing to be with her himself.  In the morning the brother visits him at the inn and they are to go together to bathe.  The public bath is just across the river.  The brother points:  "Look.  They've come for a bath, over there across the river.  Damned if they haven't seen us.  Look at them laugh." . . .
 One small figure ran out into the sunlight and stood for a moment at the edge of the platform calling something to us, arms raised as though for a plunge into the river.  It was the little dancer.  I looked at her, at the young legs, at the sculptured white body, and suddenly a draught of fresh water seemed to wash over my heart.  I laughed happily.  She was a child, a mere child, a child who could run out naked into the sun and stand there on her tiptoes in her delight at seeing a friend.  I laughed on, a soft, happy laugh.  It was as though a layer of dust had been cleared from my head.  And I laughed on and on.  It was because of her too rich hair that she had seemed older, and because she was dressed like a girl of fifteen or sixteen.  I had made an extraordinary mistake indeed.
The ending of The Izu Dancer is much admired, as the young man goes on his way carrying with him the memory of the young dancer, the idea of her that he has generated and that he will continue to hold in his imagination.  He expects to meet her again, but will not, will be left with the memory.  Since the girl is only thirteen, there is what might be characterized as a "Lolita" quality to the whole experience, as the young man honors and cherishes the naked innocence, the promise of womanhood as yet in potentia, the idealization of virginal purity, the bud just before its blossoming.  It is a story of young love, and Kawabata has been there.  But, in larger terms that will remain more constant in Kawabata's work, the lover's idealization of the mistress is the thing to note.

So we have these elements: the lover as protagonist, the idealized woman as the object of his love, the love unrequited, and the carrying away of spiritual values associated with the love to be recollected in aesthetic tranquility.  The pattern is simple, but it is complete.

In Snow Country things are more complicated.  We have the lover as protagonist, and though no longer quite so young or naive, he is still an idealist, is very careful to cultivate his sensibility.  And he very clearly uses the women to generate aesthetic experience.  But in this case there are two women, who serve this purpose in very different ways.  It is a classic case of dichotomizing the function, in fact.  The famous passage near the beginning of the novel, where Shimamura contemplates the face of a woman in the train window is indeed a kind of metaphor for the whole transaction.  Shimamura could look directly at the woman, but he does not; he looks at her reflection in the window, and that provides the aesthetic distance, gives him an ideal beauty to contemplate.

This woman is Yoko, whom he has not yet met, which is the way he prefers it; it allows him to contemplate the idea of her beauty without its accidents.  But he is making the trip to see another woman (though he is married, so has a third woman at home in Tokyo).  He is not carrying a clear image of the woman he is going to see in his memory, but he does carry a sense memory of the experience of her in quite physical terms.  Kawabata remarked on having actually known Komako, but having invented Yoko.  Komako has the reality of life, is a fully developed character, an attractive young woman becoming a Snow Country geisha, with the expectations of gradual disintegration that that implies.  Shimamura will have to give her up as her reality insists upon itself too strongly--as he does at the end of the novel.

Here it is not a case, as it is at the end of The Izu Dancer, of carrying away an idealized memory, but of accepting that the medium cannot sustain the idea.  For one thing, the love has not remained sufficiently unrequited.  Yoko is the really interesting woman in this novel in terms of our thesis, for she remains remote, remains a memory of a face in the train window, is never closer to the protagonist than the little dancer of the earlier story was, and, particularly in the ending, is handled very mysteriously.  Komako has a love for her, too, and, as Seidensticker says in the introduction to his translation, part of their affinity is that twice they have loved the same man.  But the real clue to Shimamura's temperament is in the story of his shift in interest from the Japanese dance to the Western ballet, a form of dance that he can come to know only from books and pictures, and has insisted upon keeping an experience of the imagination, an idealized experience.  He is no longer able to do that with Komako.  He does see her cheeks in the mirror and engages in abstracting the idea of her beauty.  But she brings him back to earth, and requites his love--as Yoko does not.  Komako had the reality and immediacy of the Japanese dance, is too well known; Yoko, like the Western ballet, is to be imagined, to be conjured with.

One of the problems with Snow Country is that the lover, the protagonist, Shimamura, is not a very sympathetic character.  He has the capacity to idealize experience, all right, using it for aesthetic sublimation to a rather highly cultivated degree.  But he lacks the human warmth that the boy in The Izu Dancer had.  That boy had clearly come to love the dancer, had idealized her as young lovers are supposed to do, but had loved the girl in the idea.  The reader, identifying with him, idealizing the girl just as he does, loves her too--without ever seeing her, of course--and that is the way that literature works.  But love is experienced in the girl; this is a kind of sublimation, and it is grounded in unrequited love, but it keeps the origin as object.  Shimamura, on the other hand, purposely does not let the object get too great a hold on him.  He has learned to keep it at a distance in order to generate the kind of experience he is seeking, and the reader is likely to see this as inhuman, callous, cynical, is likely to sympathize with Komako.

No doubt both characters are autobiographical projections; Kawabata certainly must have seen himself in Shimamura.  And part of the power of the novel lies, I believe, in the fact that the reader, too, sees himself in Shimamura, and does not like what he sees, though there is much to be said for Shimamura's sublimating capacities and the cultivated sensibility they sustain.  In a sense, it is the eternal problem of the artist--the problem of using other people to the ends of art.  Many artists have struggled with the sense of isolation from their fellows that this has led to, the sense of guilt at having used those closest to them as "objects" in this idealizing process, from which to generate the imaginative experience their very art depends upon.  Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness is the story of an author who had used his experience with a girl he had loved as the subject for a novel and had become famous as a result.  But what kind of relationship is possible afterward between the user and the used?

That problem is real enough.  When a man, artist or not, tries to transcend mundane reality by idealizing his experience, as the artist must do almost by definition, he in one sense dehumanizes himself.  But part of the problem with Shimamura is that he is not really an artist.  He is a dilettante, and, as such, he is particularly vulnerable to the charge of selfishly using others--in this case Komako in particular.  The famous passage involving his shift from calling her a "good girl" to calling her a "good woman" might seem to turn on a reduction of the exploitation from the imaginative to the material, without any change in the principle, the man who is capable of one being capable of the other, and the fact that this is to some degree despicable feeds back.  Kawabata is struggling with some of the effects of the cultivated sensibility of the artist, who trains himself to keep the love he has generated unrequited, who sublimates it to his artistic purpose, which may be destructive of the source.  In Shimamura he faces some of the negative characteristics of sublimation.

Both Kawabata and William Butler Yeats, who in his "Sailing to Byzantium" theme is sailing the same waters, were drawn into frustrating affairs with young girls in their old age, and should have known better from reading their own pages.  They both became rather pathetic in this, great idealizers made fools of by the flesh.  Not that an old man cannot use a young girl, but here it becomes critically important that the experience be sublimated--as everyone knows--that the old man learn to drink tea from an empty cup.  Kawabata is a particularly interesting case as he pursues this problem into his fiction.  He examines the perversity of the use of the material medium in The House of the Sleeping Beauties, where the old man spends the night with a young girl who has been drugged.  Yet even here the principle of sublimation is central, for the old man uses the sleeping girls to provoke memory.  But he too, like Shimamura, is an unsympathetic character, largely because he is willing to reduce the woman to object in this fashion.

Kawabata brings us back full circle in his greatest novel,The Sound of the Mountain, however, in which he gives us another protagonist who is a very sympathetic character.  Shingo, like the young man in The Izu Dancer, is a lover, but he is an old lover.  He has never loved his wife, or either of his children, so that it is possible the experience in the middle of his life had much in common with that of Shimamura, though there is no suggestion of condescension in the aesthetic sensibility he has cultivated, no real sense of conscious conditioning.  But the sensibility is there.  He had loved when he was young, and, calling those memories of the woman, his wife's long-since-dead sister, back provides him with an active imaginative experience.  But he now has another woman as medium, right there in the present, living in the same house--his daughter-in-law--who is not appreciated by her own husband.  She shares Shingo's aesthetic experience, which is the beauty of the book.  An old man and a young woman develop a love for one another through their recognition of kinship in their love for the same things in nature.  They share, in a special Japanese sense, a cultivated sensibility for aesthetic appreciation of the nuances of beauty that sets them apart from the other members of the household.

The love is unrequited in the physical sense, which is no doubt as it should be with an old man and a young woman.  But the relationship does provide a nucleus around which Shingo can accumulate the experience of a lifetime.  As he mixes memory and dream with the more immediate experience of the young woman he sees before him, Shingo even has some dreams in which a latent lust for this young woman is an element--one of the nicest, most perceptive, touches in the novel--but he carefully suppresses this, if for no other reason to preserve the sublimated experience that is the more sublime.  The love is requited, rather, in spiritual kinship, a meeting in the aesthetic that has overtones, in terms of Japanese Shinto, of a meeting in the religious, and that I think is best understood as a meeting in the literary.  (Do you dare meet the author in whose work you have found a soulmate, or is disillusionment inevitable?)  The old man, Shingo, is a very attractive character, in good part because he does clearly love his daughter-in-law, that real woman, who is providing him with this experience because of that love.  He is willing to give of himself to her, to share experience with her, to make sacrifices for her.  They have a communion.  But there is also the fact that this frame of mind is most appropriate to that old man.  When love can no longer be sustained in physical terms, can no longer be requited so, what should he look for?

What has a negative quality, an alienating quality, in Shimamura, becomes a positive quality in Shingo.  He finds a level of spiritual experience that exalts his old age, informs it with beauty and compassion--finds an order of love still very much available to him that he has known in those earlier manifestations was a higher order of love, if he could just sustain it, by sublimating the experience.  There is a tradition in the East of the old man retiring, not out of the important activities of life, but into them--into the religious life.  Today the life of aesthetic experience would seem to offer the best model.  No doubt Heaven is ultimately the best, but, since it is currently so imaginatively remote, the best interim spiritual orientation would seem to lie in training in aesthetic experience, to learn to drink tea from an empty cup, to develop a taste for plain rice, for getting high on water.  It is the function of the poet to idealize experience, to open imaginative opportunities, to assist us in sublimating.

Kawabata is one of the great authors of the century, certainly, and the spokesman for the best thing Japan has to offer at the end of it, a tradition of sublimation of experience, taking the frustration of matter and so dealing with it imaginatively, so idealizing it, that it--or rather the experience of it-- becomes sublime.  In his Nobel Prize speech Kawabata made definite and strong connection with the Zen tradition of emptiness.  I personally like that formulation, that the best thing an old man can learn to do is to drink tea from an empty cup.  That is exactly what the unrequited lover learns to do.  He carries the memory of the dancer away with him, to savor as she goes on to bloom into a woman, and her bud-like quality is lost.  He idealizes the dance and cherishes his idea the way Eugene O'Neill did the idea of the play he had staged in his imagination.  He mixes memory, dream, and reality, and loves reality in terms of the value given it by dream.  He does not need to bring the product of his idealization back to make contact with reality for the highest order of experience (an Aristotelian notion), and what a fortunate thing it is to find communion of spirit, to share that aesthetic experience with a daughter-in-law--or someone.

    * I've evidently lost the page of footnotes from the end of this paper, but all the references but one are to Edward G. Seidensticker's translations of four of Kawabata's works, and I have re-located this one that is not, from: Makoto Ueda's Modern Japanese Writers (Stanford University Press: Stanford, California, 1976), p. 185.  I recommend this book highly, for, among the eight Japanese writers of fiction it deals with, it includes the four I have already introduced--and it certainly helped shape my ideas on all of them twenty-some years ago (when it was a new book).