Issue 121 |
Fall 2013

The Breeze in the Ink Painting: A Look2 Essay on Kawabata Yasunari

It always seems wrong to me that Kawabata Yasunari’s strange and wonderful fiction is left out of the ongoing conversation about the future of the novel. The debate in the U.S. is often framed in terms of fiction vs. nonfiction (David Shields, Sheila Heti), or realistic vs. metafiction (Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Milan Kundera, and many others), but the Japanese Kawabata—who won the Nobel Prize in 1968 and died in 1972—comes at the problem from a different angle. His psychologically acute novels are written something like short stories, with the short story’s emphasis on imagery and perception as the conduits of meaning. The result is realistic fiction relatively free of the cumbersome stage mechanics that we typically associate with realism. Swift, nimble, and intuitive, Kawabata’s work has the power to surprise and discomfort.

Kawabata’s realism focuses on the private, rather than the social and the political. Although he lived through some of the most tumultuous years in Japanese history, including the Pacific War and the U.S. Occupation, those events reverberate only faintly in his fiction, which keeps a tight focus on the interior lives of his characters. The typical Kawabata protagonist exists at a remove from other people, both yearning for and frightened of direct emotional connection. He is an observer, an aesthete, and an intellectual, suffocating under protective layers of irony and self-loathing, which inevitably masquerade as self-regard. Kawabata called them “orphans.”



Kawabata was an orphan himself. Born in 1899 to a prosperous family living in Osaka, he lost both parents by the age of four, went to live with his paternal grandparents, and then lost both of them by the time he was sixteen. He entered Tokyo Imperial University in 1917 and was soon active in avant-garde artistic circles, participating in a literary movement, the New Perceptionists, that espoused a jumbled, secondhand version of Modernism, gleaned from Western sources.

The importance of this early affiliation for the development of Kawabata’s work was twofold. First, it was an art-for-art’s-sake stance at a time when “proletarian” writers practicing politically engaged fiction dominated the Japanese literary scene. Second, the movement’s interest in capturing the physical world through a fresh, inventive use of language pointed Kawabata back toward classical Japanese writing, particularly the haiku tradition, with its focus on the image. The related form of haikai-no-renga, or linked verse, with its long, associative chains of images, gave him the hint he needed: the typical Kawabata novel is a series of short, intense scenes, largely free of authorial explanation and separated by white space. These scenes move back and forth through time in response to the shifting emotions of his protagonist, describing what ultimately feels more like a psychological journey than a plot in the usual sense.

The fiction that results is shot through with paradoxes. It deemphasizes plot, but nevertheless feels taut. The writing is spare, but also lyrical, full of exact renderings of the physical world and sensory experience. Kawabata’s quiet, watchful protagonists do little, but are nevertheless intensely present. Their chilly sensibilities permeate the narrative voice, but the books themselves turn that emotional absence into its opposite: a hunger for feeling.

In “The Izu Dancer” (Izu no odoriko), a long story written in 1926 when Kawabata was just twenty-seven, his themes and style converge with complete success for the first time. A college student, backpacking in the country during a school vacation, falls in with a band of itinerant performers and gets a glimpse of what human connection might feel like. In particular, he experiences a tentative, mixed-up infatuation with the dancer of the title, moved both by her innocence and her vulnerability. The entertainers are vagabonds, walking from inn to inn with their instruments on their backs, and the dancer, who is just fourteen, performs for tips in front of drunken parties of male vacationers. She and the narrator make an affecting pair: the dancer at the social, and the narrator at the emotional, margins of life, bound for a brief interlude through mutual need. The story is suffused with the fleeting quality of human affections—what traditional Japanese aesthetics calls mono-no-aware: “the sadness of things.”

Told in a deceptively simple first-person narration, the story’s tone is softer, its narrative stance less unsettling, than Kawabata’s later work. It made him famous, and it is easy to imagine a lesser artist working within its parameters for the rest of his career, writing restrained, lyrical stories about the possibilities and limits of love. But Kawabata continued to grow in subversive directions. The novel Snow Country (Yukiguni), published in pieces from 1935 to 1937, with a new ending added in 1947, takes a similar situation and turns it into something dark and ironic that resists easy epiphany.

Snow Country’s protagonist is Shimamura, a wealthy middle-aged dilettante who resembles a “superfluous man” out of nineteenth-century Russian literature—pretending to be amused by his own uselessness while secretly frightened by his emotional emptiness. The dilemma is deftly summed up in Shimamura’s whimsical, self-mocking career writing about the ballet, something he does despite having never actually seen one (this is prewar Japan, after all, still largely isolated from the West).

At the opening of the story it is winter, and Shimamura has returned to a hot-spring resort in the mountains north of Tokyo—snow country—in search of Komako, a woman with whom he had a brief affair during his last visit. But rather than falling in love, as he half hopes, he spends his time watching her in a distanced, aestheticized way, nervously registering her effect on him.

Komako is as open as Shimamura is closed, as desperate to connect as he is frightened to feel. In his absence, she has sold herself as a geisha to pay the medical bills for her music teacher’s son, who is dying. That act of self-sacrifice has trapped her in the village, with no prospect but “going quietly to seed in the mountains,” serving as a glorified call girl for the male vacationers who pass through. Utterly alone, she lives in the attic of a farmhouse where silkworm cocoons were once stored, reading by candlelight for glimpses of the outside world she will never be a part of. In a series of notebooks she writes the plots of everything she reads, all the characters and their connections, but nothing of her own thoughts or opinions. She is only twenty.

The reader hopes that Shimamura will rescue her, or that they will rescue each other, even as time passes and the possibility becomes more and more remote:

He had stayed so long that one might wonder whether he had forgotten his wife and children. He stayed not because he could not leave Komako nor because he did not want to. He had simply fallen into the habit of waiting for those frequent visits. And the more continuous the assault became, the more he began to wonder what was lacking in him, what kept him from living as completely. He stood gazing at his own coldness, so to speak. He could not understand how she had so lost herself. All of Komako came to him, but it seemed that nothing went out from him to her. He heard in his chest, like snow piling up, the sound of Komako, an echo beating against empty walls.

And then comes one of those great Kawabata moments, when the act of perception becomes plot:

The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto teakettle, skillfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines. He could make out two pine breezes, as a matter of fact, a near one and a far one. Just beyond the far breeze he heard faintly the tinkling of a bell. He put his ear to the kettle and listened. Far away, where the bell tinkled on, he suddenly saw Komako’s feet, tripping in time with the bell. He drew back. The time had come to leave.

As a reader, I always find myself rebelling against the quiet ease with which Shimamura makes his choice, even as I feel, somehow, implicated in his callousness. And of course, that is the beauty of Kawabata’s decision to make Shimamura his point-of-view character, rather than the brave and passionate Komako. The result is something powerful: a chilly, cerebral story about the inability to love that is also an argument for the importance of love.

There seems to have been an actual holiday trip to Izu behind “The Izu Dancer,” and a real hot-spring resort (Yuzawa in Niigata prefecture), and a real onsen geisha at the heart of Snow Country. Literary pilgrims travel to both places nowadays, where they are met by plaques and statues. But the relationship between life and fiction is complex in the case of such a deeply imaginative writer. “Shimamura is not me,” Kawabata wrote in an afterword to a later edition of the novel. “I am more Komako than Shimamura.” The reader has no choice but to believe the truth of this assertion, given how vibrantly Komako inhabits the page, even as other autobiographical statements stress Kawabata’s affinity with Shimamura:

I have the feeling that I have never taken a woman’s hand in mine with romantic intentions. Some women may accuse me of lying, but it is my impression that this is not a mere figure of speech. And it is not only women that I have never taken by the hand. I wonder if it isn’t true of life itself, as far as I’m concerned.

Kawabata is, in fact, fully present in both characters; much of the novel’s strange force comes from the way it leaves us suspended between these two sides of him, with the tension between Komako and Shimamura, emotional need and psychological distance, fundamentally unresolved. This approach feels thoroughly modernist to the Western reader—think of the way Nabokov balances Kinbote and Shade in Pale Fire. But it is also natural to the haiku tradition on which Kawabata drew. Haiku poets create a poem by placing two images side by side, making them resonate together through the white space, free of authorial comment. The traditional term for this effect is yugen, or mystery, a wonderfully deep, historically layered concept that invites endless elaboration, but in practice means two things: eschewing interpretation in favor of physical detail and image, and avoiding direct statement in favor of suggestion and subtext.

Both techniques are crucial to Kawabata’s art, but the importance of yugen is still larger, tied up with the idea of silence, or wordlessness, and the Buddhist concept of emptiness, or the insubstantial nature of phenomenon. “Truth is in the discarding of words,” Kawabata writes in his 1968 Nobel essay, “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself,” and while this may seem like an odd tack for a writer to take, it actually places him within the mainstream of traditional Japanese poetics. He follows the remark with a poem by Ikkyu, a Zen monk of the fourteenth century:

And what is it, the heart?
It is the sound of the pine breeze in the ink painting

The poem presents a densely packed paradox: the heart, the direct, intuitive grasp of the world’s meaning, is nothing but the sound of the wind in the pine—even though the pine itself is nothing but an illusion, and therefore, by necessity, silent, without meaning. It is a lovely statement on the conundrum of consciousness, but it also puts one in mind of that scene in Snow Country with Shimamura in his room at the inn, listening to the steam in a teakettle imitate the wind in the pines as he decides that his affair with Komako is over. Kawabata may have revered Ikkyu, but he was also thoroughly modern, willing to shift the angle of vision and complicate the conclusion.



After finishing the bulk of Snow Country in 1937, Kawabata’s output of fiction slowed. Working as a reporter, he covered the championship match that would become the basis of his novel The Master of Go, but didn’t start work on the book till 1942, and didn’t finish it till 1954. The extent to which this was an effect of the war years is hard to tell: his essays and magazine pieces got by the censors with minimal problems, and he was generally embraced by the authorities, joining a government-sponsored writers’ organization dominated by right-wing cultural figures. But it’s also true that he never succumbed to the aggressive chauvinism of his fellow members. For the most part, he stayed aloof from both politics and the disastrous events of the time, writing about the subjects that had always interested him. As he himself recalled in 1948:

I am one of the Japanese who was affected least and suffered least because of the war…I did not experience any great inconvenience because of the war in either my artistic or my private life. And it goes without saying that I was never caught up in a surge of what is called divine possession to become a fanatical believer in or blind worshiper of Japan. I have always grieved for the Japanese with my own grief: that is all.

After the war, the idea of defeat as a threat to traditional Japanese culture was the link that connected him to the much younger novelist Mishima Yukio, whose career he helped foster in the postwar years. The two men were opposites as personalities and as writers: Mishima was an extrovert who liked celebrity, and his fiction is loaded with the kind of polemic and theorizing that Kawabata avoided in his own work. But they shared a vision of Japan’s defeat as a crisis of meaning, and they both loathed the consumerist culture that was taking over the country.

Kawabata’s sense of cultural crisis led him to take on a more public role after the war, becoming president of the Japanese chapter of PEN, and helping to found a publishing house. Nevertheless, there is no real break between his pre- and postwar fiction; it remains focused on the delicate exploration of self and eros, walled off from politics and recent history. A Thousand Cranes (Senbazuru), completed in 1949 and set in the rarefied world of the tea ceremony, traces a complicated love triangle between a young man, Kikuji, and his dead father’s mistress and the mistress’ daughter. The atmosphere is precisely observed and yet dreamy; people seem to overlap in a sort of double and triple exposure, and motives become wonderfully mixed, combining love and anger, hurt and longing over two generations. Kikuji’s erotic obsession with his father’s mistress, Mrs. Ota, hides a bewildered and bittersweet longing for his father, as well as anger over the pain his father caused his mother, who has also recently died. And while his attraction to Mrs. Ota’s daughter, Fumiko, starts as a desire to break free from the past, it quickly circles back and becomes something darker and more ambivalent.

Throughout, Kawabata deftly mirrors the complex overlap between characters through the objects that surround them: the ancient, highly pedigreed ceramics used in the tea ceremony. After Mrs. Ota’s death, when Fumiko brings Kikuji the Shino tea bowl that her mother used on trips with his father, he notices a spot of red coloring on the rim:

Where her mother’s lipstick had sunk in?

There was a red-black in the crackle too.

The color of faded lipstick, the color of wilted red-rose, the color of old, dried blood—Kikuji began to feel queasy.

Later, after they begin their own affair, Fumiko also gives him the Karatsu bowl used by his father when he was with Mrs. Ota. The bowl is “greenish with a touch of saffron and a touch too of carmine,” and when they place it beside her mother’s Shino, the effect is both eerie and seductive: “Seeing his father and Fumiko’s mother in the bowls, Kikuji felt that they had raised two beautiful ghosts and placed them side by side.” The reader also perceives what Kikuji cannot: that his relationship with Fumiko will never escape the shadow of the past because, on some level, he does not want it to. When Fumiko finally makes a bid for freedom by smashing the Shino, it is Kikuji who goes into the garden in search of the pieces.

The Western reader thinks of Freud at such moments, and it is true that Kawabata is a master of unexamined motives and the ways they shape both perception and choice. But the underlying worldview is Buddhist, not Freudian. The individual in Kawabata is a collection of shifting memories and intersecting longings, rather than a sharply defined entity with an independent existence. The boundaries between past and present, self and others, dream and reality, are always in flux in Kawabata’s world. This gives A Thousand Cranes an eerie power that is different in feel from most Western novels devoted to the erotics of memory.

The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no oto), published in pieces between 1949 and 1954, benefits from this same approach to character, though it moves the action from the rarefied world of the tea ceremony to the more prosaic one of the suburban commuter.

Ogata Shingo is a well-to-do businessman who rides the train each day from his home in leafy Kamakura to his office in Tokyo. He’s in his mid-sixties and starting to note the effects of old age—in particular, he’s having problems with his memory—when one morning, before dawn, he hears a sort of low, indefinable roar coming from the mountain slope behind his house. This muted roar, what Shingo describes to himself as “the sound of the mountain,” functions in the novel as a precursor of mortality, but also an expression of the world’s elemental power, a vitality that transcends the limits of the individual, even as it finds expression through the individual’s erotic longings.

The novel’s foreground is devoted to Shingo’s realization that he must let go of the memory of his wife Yasuko’s sister, who died young, many years earlier, and whom he secretly loved. Small events at home or at the office circle around into memory, and memories trigger still older memories, which then circle back to the present. But the narrative always remains taut, driven by a quiet sense of urgency that derives from mortality itself—the sound of the mountain.

Typical of Kawabata’s method is Shingo’s recollection of his wedding: at the moment that he and his wife, Yasuko, are exchanging the ritual cups of sake, he notices a chestnut fall from a tree in the garden and is struck by how no one else seems to have seen it (a measure of his emotional remove from the ceremony, perhaps). He goes out to look for the chestnut later, thinking to show it to Yasuko, but finds himself unable to bring it up, constrained by the presence of his new brother-in-law, Yasuko’s sister’s widower, and all he represents:

The brother-in-law was a handsome man who quite outshone the bride. It seemed to Shingo that there was a peculiar radiance in his part of the room.

To Yasuko, her sister and brother-in-law were inhabitants of a dream world. In marrying her, Shingo had tacitly descended to her own lower rank.

He felt as if her brother-in-law were coldly looking down on the wedding from an elevation.

And the blank left by his failure to speak of so small a thing as the falling chestnut probably stayed on in their marriage.

The novel does its work through an associative chain of complex, layered moments like the one above; plot is relegated to the background. The tone is hopeful, in a bittersweet, autumnal way: whatever errors of omission Shingo may have been guilty of in the past, he finds his voice at key moments in the present, and we can feel his life shifting ever so gently into a new balance based on acceptance—his ability to listen to the sound of the mountain.



Kawabata seems not to have found the measure of peace he gave to Shingo: he committed suicide in 1972, at the age of 73. Because no note was found, speculation has varied. He was deeply affected by Mishima’s very public suicide two years before, and claimed to have nightmares about him; he had health problems; he was not publishing; he was overwhelmed by his public role as an international spokesman for Japanese art and culture. But the story is inevitably more complicated; his Nobel essay, written four years before his death, already couples the idea of suicide to the artist’s task, quoting with apparent approval the acclaimed writer and suicide Akutagawa Ryunosuke:

I am living in a world of morbid nerves, clear and cold as ice…I do not know when I will summon up the resolve to kill myself. But nature is for me more beautiful than it has ever been before. I have no doubt that you will laugh at the contradiction, for here I love nature even when I am contemplating suicide. But nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity.

Kawabata then goes on to mention a friend of his, a painter who also thought of killing himself: “He seems to have said over and over that there is no art superior to death, that to die is to live.” The connections here are familiar: imminent death and heightened sensitivity, silence as a form of meaning that transcends words. At the end of his life, Kawabata seems to have arrived at the extreme pole of yugen, where complete silence is the only complete art.

And yet Kawabata’s work is, in fact, too rich to reduce to an aphorism on art and death. House of the Sleeping Beauties (Nemureru bijo), written in 1961, can perhaps illuminate the complexity of the situation, especially when placed next to The Sound of the Mountain. Both novels explore issues of mortality, but while the earlier book reaches for a sense of peace, steeped in mono-no-aware, Sleeping Beauties feels like something else again: a cry of primal rage.

The novel is almost Beckettian in its simplicity: the elderly Eguchi has been introduced to a sort of sexless fetish house in which rich old men pay to sleep beside beautiful young women in a chaste embrace. The women have been drugged, so there is no fear of their waking, and the men are free to gaze at their naked bodies in complete privacy, and then to take the tranquilizers that have been provided by the house and sleep next to them. Not sex, but a deep, restorative sleep is the point (an especially interesting detail, given that Kawabata himself was addicted to sleeping pills during this period).

The entire novel takes place within the confines of this house over a series of visits in which Eguchi watches a woman—always a different woman—shift and dream beside him. The women are described in precise, evocative detail until they become numinous presences inside the darkened bedroom: distinct in their personalities, brimming with the vitality of life, and yet dead to the world. They are, of course, empty mirrors for Eguchi’s erotic longings, but they are also aggressively present, in the way that a cliff or a river is present, and they push back against his desire for imaginative control, insinuating the essential truth of his powerlessness. The experience of lying beside them is thus both seductive and maddening.

Much of the novel takes place in Eguchi’s memory, and thus resembles The Sound of the Mountain in its richly associative construction. Once again, we get the shape of a life through a man’s memories of women. But there is a difference: Eguchi’s view of the sexes is darker and colder than Shingo’s, tinged with something that verges on the predatory, and his sense of isolation and personal emptiness is that much greater. The real connection is to Snow Country: Eguchi is Shimamura in old age, once again taking refuge in erotic connoisseurship, and Kawabata is playing the same sort of double game, forcing us to see out of the eyes of an emotionally closed narrator, drowning in his own egotism and terrified of dying alone. The crucial difference is that there is no Komako this time, making the counterargument on behalf of human connection. The end result is horror rather than sorrow. Mishima, an astute critic, likened the book to “a submarine in which people are trapped and the air is gradually disappearing.”

Sleeping Beauties is an uncompromising novel, and it must have taken the author to the limit of his psychological endurance. I’m reminded of his Nobel essay once again, where he quotes the poet-monk Ikkyu: “It is easy to enter the realm of the Buddhas; it is hard to enter the realm of demons.” Kawabata continues:

Much drawn to these words, I frequently make use of them when asked for a specimen of my calligraphy. They can be read in any number of ways, as difficult as one chooses…For the artist searching for truth, goodness and beauty, the desire and the fear aroused by “The demon realm is hard to enter,” becomes like a prayer—with the inevitability of fate, either apparent on the surface of things, or hidden behind. There can be no realm of the Buddhas without the realm of demons. And the realm of demons is the realm that is difficult to enter.

In this realm, the artist takes all the deepest risks, going where he is afraid to go. “Not for the weak of heart,” says Kawabata, and his own work testifies to his fearlessness in exploring both realms.

While Kawabata’s legacy in Japan is assured, his readership in the U.S. seems to be limited to a niche audience of Japanese fiction lovers, despite the availability of good English translations (Kawabata’s exquisite prose is dimmed in translation, but not erased). That situation will not readily change, given the American reader’s general reluctance to embrace foreign writers. But in this moment of uncertainty about the future of the novel, Kawabata’s ability to write powerful realistic fiction without the cumbersome trappings of realism—haiku fiction—gives him a new kind of relevance. So does his brave exploration of the erotics of perception, meaning, memory, and silence. My hope is that globalization has made us more willing to listen to voices from outside, and that his audience expands to include everyone interested in the expressive possibilities of the novel.


Robert Anthony Siegel’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Tin House, The Oxford American, Tablet, The Los Angeles Times Online, Story, The Harvard Review, Pushcart Prize 2012, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, All Will Be Revealed (MacAdam/Cage, 2007), and All the Money in the World (Random House, 1997). He will be a Fulbright Fellow at Tunghai University in Taiwan from the fall of 2013.