Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) was a distinguished Japanese novelist who won the Nobel Prize in literature for exemplifying in his writings the Japanese mind.
Yasunari Kawabata was born in Osaka on June 11, 1899, into a cultured family, his father being a doctor of medicine. When Kawabata was 3, his father died; the next year his mother died, and Kawabata went to live with his grandparents. When he was 8, his grandmother died, and in 1914 his grandfather died. The child was thus constantly confronted with the death of members of his family, and it is thought that this experience left its mark on the writer, who often dwells on the problem of death, or loneliness of life. In Diary of a Sixteen-year-old, actually written on the eve of his grandfather's death but published in 1925, Kawabata gives vent to his emotions in a haunting memoir of early sorrow.
After the death of his grandfather, Kawabata became a ward of his mother's family. During grammar school he was inspired to be a painter. Indeed, he enjoyed a lifelong interest in art. Later, however, while attending high school in Tokyo and living with relatives in Asakusa, he decided to become a novelist. His literary career dates from about this time, when he began writing stories and essays for little magazines and local newspapers.
Kawabata read contemporary Japanese authors of the Shirakaba Ha, or White Birches school, and translations of Danish and Swedish writers. From the beginning of his career Kawabata was at odds with the currently popular naturalistic school, pursuing instead a more subtle, lyrically inspired tendency stemming from Japanese literary. During his student days he became acquainted with Kikuchi Kan, a writer of note and editor of the magazine Bungei Shunju. In 1923 Kawabata joined the magazine staff.
Graduating from the university in 1924, Kawabata together with other friends founded a literary magazine, Bungei Jidai. This journal was the starting point of a new school of writers, the Neoperceptionists, who reacted against both popular naturalism and the politically oriented Proletarian Writers' movement. Thereafter Kawabata wrote significant literary criticism and patronized young writers. In 1948 he became chairman of the Japanese PEN Club meetings, and in 1954 he was elected a member of the Japanese Academy of the Arts. Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968. He committed suicide in Zushi on April 16, 1972.
Kawabata's fiction is distinguished by subtle psychological characterization and a lyrical style that is deceptively simple. His works might be called elegies of life. The Dancing Girl of Izu (1926) tells of a youth's sentimental love for a dancer in a troupe of entertainers who wander from one hot-spring resort to another. The "Kurenaidan" of Asakusa deals with the fascinating milieu of street gangs in the Asakusa quarter of Tokyo. The author introduces himself as a character in the story, depicting a variety of low-life types who inhabit the back streets of Tokyo, their customs and mores.
Snow Country (1947), a stylistic tour de force, analyzes the love and loneliness of a country geisha in a mountain hot-springs resort who has an affair with an urbane dilettante from Tokyo. Living in two different types of isolation, the two find their love ultimately impossible. A Thousand Cranes (1949) depicts the tangled lives and hopelessly complicated emotions of a group of people, with the subtleties of the tea ceremony for a background. The shattering of a famous tea bowl, a kind of symbolic breaking of an evil spell, is perhaps the strangest in a long series of chapters on the strange life of objects. The principal characters are left, each with his own tragedy of loneliness. Sleeping Beauty (1961) reveals the faded memories of a man on the threshold of old age who indulges his erotic fantasies by visiting an establishment where young girls have been drugged to sleep and are unaware of his presence.
Further Reading on Yasunari Kawabata
A biography of Kawabata is in the Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai, Introduction to Contemporary Japanese Literature, pt. 2 (1959). His career is also studied in Nakamura Mitsuo, Contemporary Japanese Fiction, 1926-1968 (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Gessel, Van C., Three modern novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Tokyo; New York: Kodansha International, 1993.