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Japanese Literature Challenge: A Retrospective

I recently finished a self-imposed Japanese literature challenge (consisting of After the Banquet, Snow Country, I am a Cat, Naomi, and Ugetsu Monogatari).


Though I have previous read many other Japanese works, it is obviously not enough to draw conclusions about an entire country’s literature.  However there were certain themes I noticed;

- The meeting of and conflict between separate and disparate ideologies, two main themes being Traditional vs Modern and Western vs Japanese.

  • In I am a Cat many new, Western ideas and conveniences are largely embraced and the characters see nothing wrong with adopting many non-Japanese cultural aspects (yay modern plumbing!).  The main human character is even an English teacher.
  • The decades before and after WWII change the attitude; there is a national resurgence of interest in traditional culture along with increasing exposure to the West.  Some felt industrialization/modernization/Westernization had gone too far while others wanted to fully embrace it and felt Japanese culture to be too restricting.  Tanizaki especially loved this theme; his characters are always struggling to assimilate the two ideologies.  Too much of the “new” fractures relationships within families (The Makioka Sisters) or between spouses (Some Prefer Nettles, Naomi), but too much of the “old ways” repressed emotions and individuality.  Post-war Mishima’s scathing portrayal of Japanese politics in After the Banquet is a complaint against the imported democratic political system.  Kawabata also writes of incompatible Traditional and Western, but in a different way; he separates new (city life, ballet, etc.) from old (the Snow Country, traditional geisha) completely by giving them different locations in which to dwell.  I’ll stop before I write an entire thesis.
  • The Western theme is largely absent from Ugetsu Monogatari (written before 1853), however many of the stories still contain the Past vs Present theme- the past is glorified and treated with nostalgia, and many would prefer it to their grim and war-torn present.

- Loneliness and isolation.  So many of the characters feel separated, isolated, and unable to connect.

  • This is a big theme for Kawabata.  Snow Country is separate, only reached after a long train journey.  Komako, a geisha, is desperate to connect; she is often alone, or wandering in search of clients, or drunk at parties.  Shimamura, her frequent client, deliberately keeps a distance from everyone.  In Thousand Cranes each person is trying to connect with another character (mainly through affairs and tea ceremonies) because they want to remember someone else.
  • A more modern approach- Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.  Although more fractured than all of the other novels I read the characters exhibit the same isolation.  Toru spends most of his time alone in his apartment, his wife (and even the cat) have left, and his one main outside contact being May, herself a lonely teen.

Beauty, Aesthetics, and the Natural World.

  • In Snow Country the weather and mountainous countryside location are elevated to almost becoming characters in the novel.  In fact, all Kawabata works are heavy on aesthetics and beauty, focused by his succinct and lyrical phrasing.  Thousand Cranes continually comes back to the traditional tea ceremony; where every movement and object has meaning, and where a chipped cup can be more aesthetically pleasing than a perfect one because it symbolizes the impermanence of life.
  • Many characters take time to appreciate nature, and to enjoy the beauty of the world around them.  Kazu is most content in her garden, and walks in it every morning.  The four Makioka sisters have a tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms together every spring- it is a special event not only for the beauty of it, but also to be together despite their differences.
  • Ugetsu Monogatari tells several tales where elementsof the natural world play a role- including ghosts, oni, and the unexplainable, often intersecting with humankind.
  • I remember these themes being a large part of Genji; classic Heian culture according to Murasaki Shikibu was a lot of poetry writing, arranging flowers and clothing (so that color and pattern would be not just ascetically pleasing but also have hidden meaning), and rigorously observing ceremonies.

So- yes I did enjoy my literature challenge!  I would like to do it again, focusing on another part of the world; perhaps one I haven’t read anything from before.

*Further note: Part of me feels it is a bit arrogant to assume I can parse out the elements of an entire literary tradition based only upon books that have been translated from their original language.  Conclusion: I don’t know, but I will have to work with what I’ve got!

Snow Country

Snow Country is a small, rich novel by Yasunari Kawabata.  Kawabata, partially in reaction to earlier, more verbose authors, and partially to evoke emotions over describing events, wrote the novel in a sparse style reminiscent of haiku – a short string of words meant to create an impression, a fleeting feeling, a juxtaposition.

The “snow country” of the title refers to the remote western part of Honshu where the story takes place.  The area is known for the large amount of snow that falls in the winter.  The area is also known for the small towns and hot springs that provide a break for city-dwellers willing to make the long train ride.  The hot spring inns are serviced by geisha – not the hyper refined and artistic geisha from the larger cities, but provincial geisha that are not particularly talented as entertainment and far closer to the label “prostitute” than their urban counterparts.

The story centers around the love affair between Shimamura and a geisha, Komako.  Shimamura is a wealthy but directionless man who fancies himself an expert on Western-style ballet – he has extensively studied the subject and ponders writing a book, although he has never seen a single performance.  Komako is a provincial geisha who, even though she tries to better her craft, knows that she will always be stuck in a backwater, dependent of the brief visits of men like Shimamura.

Digital Capture

Komako and Shimamura’s relationship deepens as they meet over several seasons.  Both the weather and location are part of the story, as their relationship deepen in summer and autumn until the final scene in winter.  As in the previous Kawabata novel I have read, Thousand Cranes, what happens is not as important as how it is written.  The ending is a bit incomprehensible, especially based on what had come before, and there is no real resolution.  The point of the novel is reading it slowly, for the language and writing.  I somewhat prefer Thousand Cranes to Snow Country because, though it is written in the same style, it is more comprehensible, and isn’t quite as obscure.  If you are going to choose one over the other I would choose Thousand Cranes, especially if the tea ceremony interests you.