Episode 482 – Japan, the Beautiful, the Ambiguous, Part 1

This week, we’re taking a look at the first of two Nobel laureates in literature from Japan: Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata didn’t believe his work–focused on what he saw as a distinctly Japanese context–would translate out of the country. So what is it about his style that developed such a following?


Boardman, Gwenn R. “Kawabata Yasunari: A Critical Introduction.” Journal of Modern Literature 2, No 1 (Sept, 1971).

Brown, Sidney DeVere. “Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972): Tradition versus Modernity.” World Literature Today 62, no 3 (Summer, 1988).

Matson, Gary James. “The Early Works of Kawabata Yasunari.” MA Thesis, University of British Columbia, Dept of Asian Studies, 1982

Cornyetz, Nina. “Fascist Aesthetics and the Politics of Representation in Kawabata Yasunari,” in Tansman, Alan (Ed). The Culture of Japanese Fascism. 

Sibley, William F. “Naturalism in Japanese Literature.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 28 (1968).

The 1968 Nobel Lecture: Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. 

An article by Omura Azusa on Shinkankakuha and Bungei Jidai.


Kawabata Yasunari in 1946. I think this staged photo says a lot about how Kawabata wanted to portray himself as a writer.
The film adaptation of Snow Country from 1957, directed by Toyoda Shiro and released by Toho. If nothing else, you don’t see too many film adaptations of Nobel prize works in literature!
Kawabata in 1938.
Kawabata Yasunari in 1917.


I think it’s fair to say that basically no other institution on earth has quite the currency or cache as the Nobel Prize. The name comes from Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist born in 1833. A talented chemist, he invented many key chemical processes behind things like cordite–a type of smokeless explosive. He’s most famous, of course, as the inventor of dynamite.

All of which served to make him ludicrously rich, naturally enough. War, of course, is a business that’s always booming.

Supposedly, the story goes, in 1888 Alfred Nobel woke up to a bit of a shock: his obituary was in the newspaper, and what it had to say was not good. Specifically, the article labeled him as a “merchant of death” whose contribution to humanity had been primarily in the field of new and innovative ways to kill each other.

Apparently, the whole thing was a mixup: his brother, Ludvig Nobel, who was also active in the family business, was the one who had actually died and said French paper had mistaken the two.

However, the experience deeply shook Alfred Nobel, who personally was a quiet and sensitive guy. He liked to write poetry in his spare time, and had (he claimed) invented dynamite as a mining and construction tool and was upset at its deployment for warfare.

The upshot of the whole experience was that Nobel, now very worried about how he’d be remembered after his death, rewrote his own will. And when he finally did die in 1896 of a cerebral hemorrhage, it was revealed that he’d left 96% of his substantial fortune to endow a Nobel Foundation which would hand out awards using his fortune, “the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”–to use the words of the man’s own will.

Specifically, Nobel ordered the annual returns from his invested wealth be divided into five parts and then handed out to five prizewinners: “one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity among nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

These are, of course, the Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature, and peace. They’re a reflection of Nobel’s own interest; apparently, it’s a commonly told urban legend that Nobel didn’t endow a prize in pure mathematics because a mathematician ran off with his girlfriend, but that’s not actually the case–he just didn’t care for pure theory as a field overmuch.

The sixth Nobel prize in economics is a later invention, if you’re wondering; the money for that comes from an endowment given by Sweden’s central bank for the 300th anniversary of its founding in 1968.

Each of the prizes has an institute in its field responsible for awarding it: for example, the Swedish Academy of Sciences handles Chemistry, Physics, and Economics, while a specially assembled Nobel Committee hands out the Peace prize.

You might be wondering; why does any of this matter for a podcast on Japan? Well, given that the various Prizes are one of if not the the most prestigious awards in their respective fields, competition for them has been fierce ever since the first prizes were handed out in 1901 (it took a few years for the Norwegian Parliament, the Sorting, to verify Nobel’s somewhat outlandish idea for his estate, and then to set everything up).

Much like another international institution, the Olympics, nationalist competition around collecting Nobel Prizes has been fierce from the jump, with the prize often serving as a sort of proxy vindication of a given nation’s efforts in education, the arts, or what have you.

Which yes, is deeply ironic given the internationalist aspirations of the prize itself, but that’s a whole other subject.

And by that standard, Japan has done rather well for itself. The United States has currently produced the most winners, with 406 total Nobel Prizes won. After that, the list goes: United Kingdom (138 total prizes), Germany with 114, France with 73, Sweden with 33, Russia/the USSR with 32, and then Japan in 7th place with 29. To be fair, Canada is hot on their heels with 28 prizes, eh.

However, it’s not the competitive world of Nobel rankings I’m interested in. I’m specifically interested in one of these prizes, the Nobel Prize in Literature, handed out by the Swedish Academy to the person who, “produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency.”

For better or worse, winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature tend to be held up as the writer (or writers) to represent their countries–it’s a big part of the reason why, for example, pretty much any high school literature covering Latin America will teach the work of Pablo Neruda (winner in 1971) or Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982).

That’s not to suggest it somehow shouldn’t be that way; those two writers are tremendous and won their prizes for a reason. But I do find the dynamic of selection really interesting.

In a certain sense, an author becomes a stand-in for their culture, a sort of symbol of what ‘literariness’ looks like in their own context. Indeed, arguably literature is a tremendous window for social history–it’s certainly treated that way in academia–because which writers and works resonate with people provides a great window into the self-conception of those people. But at the same time their work has to be accessible enough to play with an international audience–particularly for non-Western writers.

That creates a sort of fundamental ambiguity where winners are both stand-ins for the places they’re from and also universal figures of “idealistic literature”, to use Nobel’s own words.

It’s that dynamic I find really fascinating, and that–combined with the death in March of 2023 of Japan’s second Nobel laureate in literature Oe Kenzaburo–led me to decide on a twinned biography of the two literature prize winners Japan has produced. Oe is the second, but of course we must start with the first: Kawabata Yasunari, born in Osaka on June 11, 1899.

Kawabata was from a well-to-do townsman family; his father was apparently deeply interested in Chinese poetry, and encouraged bookishness in his son from a young age. However, his parents also died when he was four–his grandmother and grandfather took him in. However, his grandmother died in 1906 when he was 7, and his grandfather in 1914 when he was 15. His older sister, who went to live with an aunt, died when he was 11. All of them, from what I could find, were killed by disease–public health being an ongoing issue in the increasingly crowded cities of Meiji-era Japan.

It’s something of a truism of Kawabata’s career that these early losses condemned him to a lonely life in school dorms (since he had no home to return to) and filled him with a profound sadness that he then expressed in literature–but that is also a trope of stories about famous literary auteurs, who (so it is felt) are simply finding beauty in the tragedy of their own lives.

I’ve always hated that take, to be honest, because I’ve seen it used to romanticize a lot of pretty awful situations. But it’s certainly one you see in relation to Kawabata a fair bit.

Certainly he turned to literature at a very young age; Kawabata published his first story in 1915, entitled Shi no Hitsugi wo Kata ni (Carrying my teacher’s Coffin on my Shoulder), in a small literary magazine.

His literary virtuosity in turn got him through the doors of Tokyo Imperial University–the nation’s most prestigious school. There, he naturally gravitated to literature–first English literature, but then switching majors over to Japanese literature because (as he later said) the graduation requirements were less strict. That shift will end up being pretty decisive for his career, because at a time when most writers in Japan were focusing on foreign works–and imitating their styles–Kawabata was learning from the literary past in Japan, and incorporating its symbolism into his work.

Along the way, he came to the attention of one of the great literary virtuosos of the era, Kikuchi Kan. A novelist and playwright, Kan was once upon a time a celebrated literary figure both in Japan and overseas–but his fullthroated support for the expansion of Japan’s empire somewhat tarnished his reputation and as a result he’s not as well known today.

But in his day, Kan was the kind of guy whose name could open doors–among other things, he’s the founder of Bungei Shunju, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary magazines that’s still in operation today.

The name Bungei Shunju means something like “the year in arts and literature”–shunju literally means “spring and autumn”, an old idiom for the passage of a year in Chinese. It was the title of Kikuchi Kan’s literary review column in the first literary magazine he started–Shinshicho, or the new tides of thought, which he then left to start Bungei Shunju.

Shinshicho had several very rocky starts–it folded and reopened in several different incarnations over the years. But it’s still a mark of Kikuchi Kan’s faith in the young man that, when the still-in-college Kawabata asked for a chance to revive the title with a few of his friends from school, Kan said yes.

And it was in Shinshicho, in April of 1921, that Kawabata’s first big hit was published–Shokonsai Ikkei, or “Memorial Day Sketch.” The story is, as the title implies, a simple sketch–depicting a female narrator named Omitsu who visits the shokonsai, or memorial days, at Yasukuni Shrine (which take place in late April).

Inasmuch as I, a non-fiction writer, can do it credit, Shokonsai Ikkei is basically a writing exercise in trying to capture a certain tone and style–the somber memorial celebration for Japan’s war dead combined with what is, in the end, a spring festival. The narrator figure, Omitsu, is a horseback rider in a circus show hired as part of the entertainment for the festival, and one of the key themes of the text is her youth and beauty as contrasted with her fellow entertainers–the idea being, I suppose, that she too is in her spring, and that like all springs, it will end.

Beyond this meditation on impermanence–on which more later–Kawabata relies heavily on evocative, sensory language–for example, spending a great deal of time on the smell of horses being ridden in the street clashing with that of roasting chestnuts.

Very often, the focus on the sensory experience goes past the realm of the possible–for example, there’s one point where the narrator hears soybeans being roasted from across the shrine’s main concourse. That’s not really the kind of thing one can hear in a crowded place during a festival from that far away, but it is the kind of thing that anyone who’d been to one of those festivals before would recognize and which would presumably evoke some strong sense memories.

That kind of heightened, sensory-driven aesthetic became one of Kawabata’s trademarks, and he’d be known for it for the rest of his literary career–a subjective reality where the rules are bent in the service of a good story.

If that sounds a bit abstract for you, honestly, think of a romcom. There too you have a story ostensibly committed to reality as we understand it–no fancy superpowers or anything that really bends the rules–but where those rules are constantly tweaked for improbable occurrences in service of the story. I’m sure a million Kawabata scholars are rolling over in their proverbial graves from that comparison but honestly, I think it works.

Anywho: Kawabata continued to write, but his early work was primarily on the critical side, engaging in a fierce debate with other writers of the time on the nature of Japanese literature. In particular, after his graduation from Tokyo Imperial University (with a BA thesis entitled “A short history of the Japanese Novel”) he paired up with another college friend and pupil of Kikuchi Kan, Yokomitsu Riichi, to start Bungei Jidai (the Literary Age), a literary journal that would serve as a vehicle for their own work and their literary criticism.

And Kawabata’s views on literature are, I think, pretty important to understanding Kawabata’s trajectory as a writer. Bungei Jidai’s staff saw themselves as opposed to the two main currents of early 20th century Japanese literature. The first was Shizenshugi, or Naturalism, an idea that frankly is INCREDIBLY hard to define as a literary movement because in many ways it wasn’t really one–quite a few writers commonly identified as naturalists rejected that label for themselves.

In the broadest possible strokes, Japanese naturalism in literature is about an emphasis on psychological and social realism for characters. Which is very simplified but honestly we don’t need to get into it too much.

The second strand was so called Musanshashugi, or Proletarian literature, which as the name implies was essentially literature as a vehicle for Marxist social critiques.

Kawabata and company saw both of these as limiting and instead went to bat for what they called Shinkankakuha–Roughly, “The New Sensationalist Faction”, and representing in essence a Japanese branch of the literary modernist movement.

Which, ok, what is literary modernism? Well, here’s my attempt as a very much not a scholar of literature to explain.

The late 19th and early 20th century were, around the world, deeply disruptive. You have the culmination of the second industrial revolution, radically remaking global economies and the societies around them. You have urbanization changing how people live as cities grow and grow. You have massive wars culminating, of course, in World War I, that upend societies and scar generations. Literary modernism as a movement was an attempt to reckon with those changes, and to do so by experimenting with new literary forms and ideals.

In other words, there’s not much tying the modernist movement together beyond a shared sense of reaction to unsettled times, and that reaction being “who knows, let’s give this a go.” Which yes, is not exactly a perfect summary of modernism, but it’s a complicated topic in its own right.

And what matters most for us is Kawabata specifically. His experimentation was grounded very much in what he viewed as a uniquely Japanese, or at least non-Western perspective.

By the way, fun fact: Kawabata was also, during his early years as a journalist and writer, a big fan of the Bengali writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-Western winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

Despite his fondness for Tagore, however, Kawabata always viewed himself as a uniquely Japanese writer, and a big part of understanding his approach involves thinking about a uniquely Japanese aesthetic ideal: mono no aware.

This is a term we’ve talked about a LOT on this podcast–it roughly translates to the impermanence of things. Aware, in this context, is simply the knowledge that nothing in the world lasts, an insight usually credited to Buddhist ideas on worldly transience and impermanence. Thus, one should both savor and enjoy the beauty of the world while it exists, and operate with the understanding that it will not last–that literally nothing in the world is permanent. It’s something you see in much of the classic works of Japanese literature–the term immediately makes me think, for example, of the samurai epic Heike Monogatari and its opening line: “the sound of the Gion Shoja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sala flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind.”

The extent to which mono no aware defines Japanese literature has been questioned in recent years–it’s almost guaranteed to appear in any discussion of the history of Japanese literature going back to its earliest days, but the that mono no aware is central to Japanese literary taste is actually a fairly recent one. It dates back to the kokugaku/nativist movement of the 1700s and onward, whose scholars, obsessed with discovering true ‘Japaneseness’ in language analysis untainted by Chinese influence, hit upon the idea as a distinguishing factor of Japanese taste.

Regardless of how genuinely mono no aware does or does not define the essence of Japanese literature, Kawabata Yasunari certainly treated it as an important part of his literary aesthetic. For example, a key emotional element of Shokonsai Ikkei is the awareness on the part of the narrator of both the beauty and grace of the older trick riders she works with–and her desire to match them as she grows–and the awarenes of the physical toll that sort of work takes on your body over the years.

Now, there’s absolutely no way I could go through all of Kawabata’s substantial literary output from this point onward, but I do want to highlight what’s probably his most famous single piece of work.

Kawabata would continue to produce work throughout the 1920s and 1930s, while living first in Asakusa, a downscale neighborhood in Tokyo, and then in Kanagawa prefecture just to the south. And it was while in Kanagawa, in 1934, that he began his work on the novel Yukiguni–or Snow Country.

Like most Japanese novels of the 20th century, Yukiguni was originally written in serialized form, published over a series of magazine releases from 1935-37. Indeed, the text has a complicated history because of one of Kawabata’s more unique literary quirks: he very much enjoyed going back to his old pieces and re-releasing them with slight edits. In particular, Yukiguni got some pretty substantial edits in the early to mid-1940s, with the final and current form of the text completed in 1947. In this, of course, Kawabata is much like another great auteur of our age: George Lucas.

Now there’s a comparison that’s going to anger a LOT of Kawabata fans, I’m sure. But frankly once again, I stand by it.

Unlike Lucas, Kawabata’s edits were not about substantial plot revisions (#hanshotfirst), but instead about the quality of the language–because Yukiguni is, frankly, not a very plot-heavy story. The story, indeed, is rather bare bones.

The main character is a Tokyo-based dilettante and scholar named Shimamura. He’s a specialist in Western ballet (who ironically has never seen one in person) whom Kawabata describes as “too plump for running”–he’s lived a sheltered and privileged life of plenty, in other words.

On his way up to stay at a hot spring in Niigata, in Japan’s mountainous and cold interior–the snow country, in other words–he encounters two women with whom he will become enthralled. The first is Yoko, caretaker to a sick and elderly man named Yukio whose mother lives in the village where the hot spring Shimamura plans to visit is located. The second is Komako, a geisha employed by the hot spring–one who, as was common in the poor and mountainous interior, used the title of geisha to lend some luster to what was in essence sex work, and who lives with Yukio’s mother.

The result is, of course, a classic love triangle, with Yoko falling for Shimamura (who has some interest in her too, especially her voice), but with most of the energy reserved for his relationship with Komako. The two spend a great deal of time in tense orbit of one another, as Shimamura visits the hot spring three times over the course of two years, each time returning to Komako.

It is later revealed that Yukio and Komako were once engaged, and that Komako took up sex work to pay for his medical care–Shimamura speculates that this is why Komako and Yoko do not get along, as Komako is jealous of her new relationship with Yukio.

The main force of the narrative is the tension between Komako and Shimamura; Komako yearns for a better life with him, but Shimamura is weary of her attachment to him–and she seems somewhat uncertain of it herself. The implication is pretty clearly that she simply desires a better life and sees Shimamura as a symbol of it. But in the end, the status difference between them is too much to overcome–and Yoko, despondent, ends up committing suicide.

That’s basically the whole plot–but, once again, the plot isn’t really the point. Kawabata’s text is all about evocative imagery and sensory language–which serves to transport the reader to the Snow Country itself in order to appreciate both the beauty of the place and Shimamura’s relationships and, of course, their transient impermanence.

Snow Country is generally regarded as one of Kawabata’s greatest masterworks, and it’s generally what people point to as having eventually won him the Nobel Prize–particularly once it was translated into English in the 1950s by the great Edward Seidensticker, one of the most talented historians and translators of his generation (he’s also responsible for one of the best regarded English translations of Tale of Genji, for example).

Ironically, Kawabata himself actually thought another work–Meijin, literally “the master”, but often rendered as “the master of Go” in English–was his masterwork. That text is based on an actual famous Go match from 1938, between the great master Honinbo Shusai and Minoru Kitani, an up and coming challenger who defeated the established master.

Kawabata’s version of the story is all about the sort of generational conflict between the established master and the young up and comer–once again returning to that theme of transience and the fading of all worldly glory that is mono no aware. But it didn’t get translated into English until 1972, the year of Kawabata’s death (once again by Seidensticker), so it was not one of the pieces that got him the prize.

Instead, when Kawabata finally was nominated (in 1968), it was for Snow Country, as well as two other works that Seidensticker had already rendered into English: Koutou, or the Ancient City, and Izu no Odoriko, or The Izu Dancer.

The nomination was put forward by the Swedish author Eyvind Johnson, who had joined the Swedish Academy (the group responsible for the nominations) in 1974. Johnson was working off Seidensticker’s English translations, as well as some Swedish ones that were based on the English texts. Those, in turn, were the translations upon which Kawabata’s selection was based–something Kawabata himself would later express some anxiety about, surprised that his work had resonated outside of the very specific linguistic and cultural context it had come from.

Kawabata was on a short list of 74 other writers, eventually narrowed down to four: the French author Andre Malreaux, the Irishman Samuel Beckett (who won the next year), the British poet WH Auden, and of course Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata ended up as the dark horse winner after the Nobel committee was split between Malreaux and Beckett.

Incidentally, that very testosterone-heavy list got me wondering, and apparently out of 119 Nobel laureates in literature only 17–just over 14%–have been women, which is still the second highest total out of all the prize categories (only the Nobel Peace Prize has more, with 18 women out of 110 awards). Draw from that the inferences you will, I suppose.

Kawabata was, as we’ve said, a bit surprised by the nomination and win–which actually created some social drama for him with another famous Japanese writer of the age, Mishima Yukio. Mishima is, of course, best known for his descent into the Japanese right culminating in his rather bizarre coup attempt in 1970, but he was also an enormously famous writer with a popular following in the West. He’d been nominated for three nobel prizes (1963,64, and 65) and was considered the favorite choice for “first Japanese writer to win”–though so far as I know, he never made it past the initial candidate list. Kawabata was actually nominated 8 times, but he himself never thought he’d win–and when he did, Mishima was publicly congratulatory. But it has long been suggested that the surprise Kawabata win led to a rift between the two men, and it has been speculated that this in turn is what led Mishima into the spiral that culminated in his coup.

But that’s just a fun theory and bit of literary drama–nobody’s quite sure what was going on in Mishima’s head during those final years.

In addition to the not insubstantial monetary award and prestige, Nobel Laureates get one other privilege–the right to give a Nobel Lecture, delivered in English. Kawabata’s, which is fairly famous–though not as famous as the one we’ll talk about next week–is called Utsukushii Nihon no Watashi. Very literally translated, this would read as “Myself of Beautiful Japan”, but it’s commonly and more poetically rendered as “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself.”

The speech is essentially a longform meditation on Japanese aesthetics, with a particular focus on the role of Buddhism and especially Zen in developing them. The text opens with a pair of poems from two Buddhist monks: Dogen (from the Zen tradition) and Myoe (from the esoteric Shingon one).

This provides a launching point into the discussion of Japanese aesthetics that ranges from Myoe and Dogen to the great works of Heian literature like Ise Monogatari or Genji Monogatari to modern writers like Akutagawa Ryunosuke.

Honestly, there’s not really any way I could meaningfully do it justice without devoting the remainder of this episode to the topic, and I have other things to talk about instead. I’ll include a link to the text of the lecture in the show notes if you’re curious.

Honestly, I’m pretty suspicious of everything he says in this speech, which reads more like Nihonjinron–a genre of essays trying to argue that Japan is unique and special and better in some way than other societies–than anything else. The idea that Zen aesthetics represent something unique to Japan is also a hard pill to swallow given that Zen itself (you might recall from past episodes) came from China–indeed, Kawabata repeatedly quotes the great master Linji’s aphorism that “if you meet the Buddha on your path to enlightenment, you should kill the Buddha”, but doesn’t give Linji’s name and just calls it a “zen saying”–because acknowledging otherwise means acknowledging something awkward for his whole argument.

He does also repeatedly refer to “oriental sensibilities” (his words), but frankly that too ends up feeling a bit gross. After all, how can you meaningly generalize about something that broad?

Given that I’m not reading the speech, I’ll limit my critique to that; if you want more, I recommend reading some of the works in the show notes. But there’s one thing I think we have to spend some time on: Kawabata spends a good couple of paragraphs in his speech talking about the theme of suicide.

His discussion of the topic begins, of course, with Akutagawa Ryunosuke–Kawabata’s contemporary as a writer, and probably one of the best-known Japanese writers out there…well, ever. Honestly, had he lived longer, I think it is fair to imagine he, not Kawabata, would have been Japan’s first Nobel Laureate (but prizes cannot be awarded posthumously). From discussing Akutagawa, Kawabata moves into a conversation on the theme of suicide more generally, and particularly as a response to the uncertain nature of life itself. His discussion of the subject is rather pre-emptory–he says he neither admires nor is in sympathy with the act itself–but one wonders–because Kawabata himself would end up committing suicide just four short years after winning the Nobel prize.

Speculation around his death has been going on from literally the moment it was announced–Kawabata was found dead in his apartment in Zushi, just outside of Kamakura, on April 16, 1972. Next to him was a bottle of whiskey and a gas hose from his stove–leading to the obvious conclusion that he’d committed suicide, though there have been some suggestsions that he died doing a botched home appliance repair.

Still, his death being self-inflicted is the more common suggestion, and given that there was no note, speculation as to why he did it has been ongoing ever since.

I have to say that the most compelling theory for me–not out of any evidence, simply because I find it interesting–is that Kawabata felt haunted by the ghost of Mishima Yukio, who had of course died by his own hand two years earlier. He’d apparently confided to a friend that he’d had a hard time sleeping for several hundred nights in a row, and that he kept seeing an angry Mishima in his dreams. It’d be a fascinating continuation of their whole arc, but there’s not exactly any proof one way or another.

Either way–that brings us to the end of Kawabata Yasunari’s story, and leaves us just to deal with his legacy. And I have to admit at the outset that honestly, I’ve never been a huge fan of his work. Admittedly, that’s partially unresolved trauma from having to copyedit an article about him during grad school written by someone who just could not use a comma or semicolon correctly for the life of them. I had to reread that thing so many damn times.

But beyond pure pettiness, I’ve just never gone in much for the kind of literature Kawabata writes–I’d rather read some actual Zen literature and theory than literature attempting to mimic the style, and that very sense-oriented plot-light writing style is just something I personally do not enjoy and find very self-indulgent.

Still, Kawabata was the entre for a lot of folks into the world of Japanese art and aesthetics, and for that reason I can’t look entirely askance at him.

There is one more thing about Kawabata that I just can’t shake. You’ll notice that I didn’t really talk about him during the war years; and frankly, he mostly just wrote. He did engage in some anti-government action, most notably protests against the suppression by police of “anti-government” writers, but that was mostly in the early 1930s, after which he moved away from overt politics. Indeed, the image Kawabata tried to project–and the one most people have of him–is of the aesthetic unconcerned with worldly concepts like politics. But frankly, I’m suspicious of anyone who claims that sort of mantle; there’s no such thing, in my view, as something that’s totally apolitical, because politics at its core is about human community, and whenever you engage with that community you’re doing something political. And I do think there’s something to the criticism that Kawabata’s work–which treats all the aesthetic ideas we’ve been talking about as something intrinsic to the Japanese soul–is therefore replicating the idea of Japanese superiority and uniqueness that was the essential basis of Japanese fascism. Which is not to suggest, just to be clear, that Kawabata himself was a card-carrying fascist; but his ideas tapped into a well that Japan’s fascist tradition drew heavily from.

There’s literally no way I can summarize this debate meaningfully–even if I’d spent literally the entire episode summarizing that specific discussion–but, to give it the brief overview: Kawabata was very much a modernist writer, but dismissed most other modernist writers dealing with the tumult of the 20th century as degenerates concerned with self-indulgence, where he was focusing on something “real.” What was “real” in this case was the classical Japanese aesthetic as he understood it (a very narrow reading focused on elite literature concerned with the Buddhist themes he liked so much)–and which gave his work a value, as he understood it, because it was talking meaningfully about the nature of the Japanese soul. That’s also why he got on with Mishima, who was similarly concerned with “unique” Japanese identity so much. And that very sense of uniqueness is, again, something used throughout the 1930s and 1940s as a justification for Japan’s ‘special mission.’

If you want to read more about this, the book The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism, which has a whole chapter on Kawabata, is a great start. And it’s entirely possible I’m being unfair here–again, I’m not really a fan of his work. But also, it’s impossible to think of him without looking at Japan’s second Nobel Laureate, who, if nothing else, provides a fascinating contrast.

4 thoughts on “Episode 482 – Japan, the Beautiful, the Ambiguous, Part 1”

  1. How come this episode is not yet upload onto libsyn for downloading? Looking forward to that.

  2. Hi Isaac,
    I’m not sure if the problem is on my side as I am abroad, but the episode itself is missing from both HoJ libsyn site, your main website and rss feed.
    Best wishes from Szczecin (Poland)

    1. Thanks for letting me know! This problem should be fixed now, apologies for the delay.

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