Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Catching most Western observers by surprise, the selection of Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata as the Nobel laureate in literature for 1968 ushered in a trend of genuine cosmopolitanism for the West and the Swedish Academy. Kawabata’s recognition led to a new appreciation in the West for Japanese culture in general and Japanese literature in particular.

Summary of Event

The Nobel Prize in Literature was presented to Yasunari Kawabata on December 12, 1968, by Anders Österling, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. To aid the Westerner unfamiliar either with Kawabata’s work or with Japanese literature in general, Österling pointed out that, for all his peculiarly Japanese ideas and sensibilities, Kawabata seemed to share certain features with some European writers. Among those Österling mentioned was the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who, like Kawabata, sensitively portrayed the social scene at a time of transition between old and new. Nobel Prize in Literature;Yasunari Kawabata[Kawabata] [kw]Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 12, 1968) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Kawabata Wins the (Dec. 12, 1968) [kw]Literature, Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 12, 1968) Nobel Prize in Literature;Yasunari Kawabata[Kawabata] [g]Asia;Dec. 12, 1968: Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature[10070] [g]Japan;Dec. 12, 1968: Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature[10070] [g]Sweden;Dec. 12, 1968: Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature[10070] [c]Literature;Dec. 12, 1968: Kawabata Wins the Nobel Prize in Literature[10070] Kawabata, Yasunari Österling, Anders Seidensticker, Edward

Such comparisons between Kawabata and familiar Western figures were not, however, enough to convince many in the West who reacted to the selection of Kawabata with wonderment and surprise. Most who had speculated had expected the prize to go to one of several well-established European writers: Samuel Beckett, Günter Grass, Eugène Ionesco, or André Malraux. The selection of a Japanese writer genuinely shocked the unsuspecting.

This general reaction of disbelief rested largely on the simple fact that Kawabata, whose oeuvre had been only partly translated into a handful of languages—the best translations are arguably those in English by Edward Seidensticker—had languished in near obscurity. What is more, faithful translations were in themselves insufficient to explain what seemed to many Westerners weaknesses in plot construction and characterization.

Comparable though Kawabata may be to certain European writers, overwhelmingly it is his peculiarly Japanese qualities that best define him. Like his elder contemporary Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, who was similarly influenced by Western literature, Kawabata still very much represents a continuity, not a break, with the tradition of Japanese culture. His worship of beauty, fascination with nature, and obsession with death are all treated with keen observation and a visual immediacy recalling Japanese painting. His prose style, as the academy itself remarked, calls to mind haiku poetry.

Fortunately, the part of Kawabata’s oeuvre most accessible to the academy(and to the West in general) was that handful of novels that distinguish the mature Kawabata: Yukiguni Snow Country (Kawabata) (1947; Snow Country, 1956), Sembazuru Thousand Cranes (Kawabata) (1952; Thousand Cranes, 1958), Yama no oto Sound of the Mountain, The (Kawabata) (1957; The Sound of the Mountain, 1970), Kyoto Old Capital, The (Kawabata) (1962; The Old Capital, 1987), and—though an early work, written in the mature style—Izu no odoriko Izu Dancer, The (Kawabata) (1926; The Izu Dancer, 1955). All of these novels are episodic in nature, and all in fact were published in serial form before appearing in single volumes. Also, the novels all end on notes seemingly lacking resolution or closure, a feature of Kawabata’s oeuvre that has caused some consternation.

It can be said that this distinctive characteristic results from the fact that Kawabata records life as a process; the form or structure of his novels is more musical in quality than architectural, more temporal than spatial. He has a sharp eye for physical description, as attested by his sensitive and highly charged renderings of the Japanese landscape. It is probably significant that Kawabata, one of whose passions was collecting Japanese art, had originally wanted to be a painter.

Perhaps because the Swedish Academy cited Kyoto, which can be interpreted as Kawabata’s most undisguised lament over Japan’s Westernization, in making the award, it was only logical that the academy emphasized the underlying conflict between East and West, old and new, in the laureate’s works. In Kyoto, the dignity imparted to the ancient capital by its Shinto and Buddhist temples, centuries-old artisan shops, and botanical gardens is beclouded by increasing signs of Americanization.

Snow Country, a novel also specifically cited by the academy, characteristically links beauty with the evanescent. The protagonist, a disillusioned dance critic trying to rejuvenate himself at a hot-spring resort in the snowy region of Hokkaido, gets involved with two geisha. The young one is pure and virginal and perishes suddenly before her beauty has been defiled; the older woman declines in vigor and beauty in slow, inexorable stages.

The Sound of the Mountain has in microcosm practically all the main characteristics—motifs, images, themes—of Kawabata’s oeuvre as a whole. The main character, Shingo, is an elderly businessman obsessed with death. As old friends and acquaintances die, and as he experiences the frailties and debilities of old age, his observation of the world around him takes on new dimensions. His senses, despite his marked physical decline, seem sharpened, and he becomes more acutely aware of the cyclical nature of time. The symbolism of the novel is arguably the most intricate of any of Kawabata’s works. Flora, fauna, and inanimate objects of nature turn up mostly as symbols and emblems; for example, the mountain of the title is a harbinger of death, and one-thousand-year-old lotus seeds represent a promise of eternal life.

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Stylistically, too, The Sound of the Mountain may be the most satisfying of Kawabata’s novels. The remarkably simple syntax is still capable of bearing multiple meanings. Short paragraphs, sometimes only a single sentence long, capture not only impressions of the external world but also the internal associations of the protagonist. This technique recalls the traditions of Japanese renga verse.

Kawabata’s acceptance speech, published as Utsukushii nihon no watakushi Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself (Kawabata) (1969; Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself, 1969), discusses his influences and approach as a writer. The speech consists mainly of quotations from Japanese classics and reflections thereon, strung together in what practically amounts to free association. Among those quoted are such past masters of verse as Myoe and Dogen, poets who attend to the details of nature and who, by so observing, penetrate the veil of the temporal and contingent and glimpse into eternity.

Significance

By selecting Kawabata as 1968’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, the Swedish Academy took a dramatic step away from Western parochialism. As the translator and scholar of Japanese literature Donald Keene noted, it also went some way toward integrating the tradition of the Japanese novel, the oldest in the world, into the mainstream of world writing. The occasion of the award was highly symbolic, coming as it did exactly one hundred years after the Meiji Restoration, which marked the end of Japanese isolation.

Perhaps the most tangible result of Kawabata’s elevation to the rank of Nobel laureate was the simple fact that he grew immensely in popularity in the West. This was no mean feat, given that Kawabata, whom the Japanese themselves had some trouble understanding, was generally thought to be impenetrable to the Western mind. Indeed, much of his work may, in fact, be untranslatable.

The Swedish Academy’s selection of Kawabata seemed to awaken an interest in Japanese literature in general. Westerners with no previous exposure to Japanese culture were now reading and discussing such uniquely Japanese literary forms as the waka and haiku, to which Kawabata’s writing style was often compared. Younger and older contemporaries alike were swept in on the coattails of Kawabata and were finally granted the worldwide recognition that was their due.

Critics, too, redoubled their efforts at trying to come to grips with the slippery phenomenon that was Kawabata’s work. They observed that Kawabata explored such universal themes as love, death, aging, beauty, and innocence and that such themes are often treated in dichotomous fashion. For every example of virginity or purity, there is an example of decay or corruption of equal weight; for every example of beauty, there is an equal and opposite example of ugliness. Discussions of Kawabata tended to center on his Asian or Japanese qualities. Noted were his sharp eye for physical description and his evocative renderings of the Japanese landscape. Gradually, it also came to be appreciated that the episodic nature of Kawabata’s novels was not peculiar to him but was a basic characteristic of Japanese literature in general.

Also—with some help from Kawabata himself, who in his acceptance speech called attention to the fact—critics noted that the beautiful in Kawabata is intimately linked with the evanescent and the impermanent; that, however, beyond this there is the ultimate beauty of nothingness. This nothingness is Buddhist in conception and is not to be confused with the nihilism of the West.

Kawabata not only was the first Japanese to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature but also was only the second Asian to be so honored (the first was the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won in 1913). Moreover, in retrospect it is clear that the 1968 award, in stark contrast with the 1913 prize given to Tagore, signaled the start of an important trend. Since 1968, the year of Kawabata’s award, the once overwhelmingly Western European bias of the Swedish Academy has given way to a genuinely cosmopolitan orientation.

Finally, it should be noted that the Nobel Prize had an important consequence of an entirely personal nature. Kawabata, who was a very private man, was after the award encumbered with several public duties. As a Nobel laureate, he traveled widely, giving lectures, visiting the many foreign academies to which he had been elected a member, and even receiving (at the University of Hawaii) an honorary doctorate.

On April 16, 1972, Kawabata committed suicide by inhaling gas. He left no note of explanation, and he had gone on record that he did not approve of suicide. It has been reasonably surmised that the growing number of public activities, an onerous burden to one so used to privacy, may have contributed to that state of mind that led to his suicide. Nobel Prize in Literature;Yasunari Kawabata[Kawabata]

Further Reading
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    xlink:type="simple">Buckstead, Richard C. Kawabata and the Divided Self. Taiwan: China Printing, 1972. A fine book that addresses the symbolic and allegorical features of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes. Also discusses the symbolic and emblematic aspects of Kawabata’s female characters.
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    xlink:type="simple">Juniper, Andrew. Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence. Boston: Tuttle, 2003. A clear description of the concept of sabi—or beauty in age, impermanence, and decay—in Japanese literature, art, and culture. Recommended for general readers preparing for further studies of Kawabata’s use of impermanence in his work.
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    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Donald. Fiction. Vol. 1 in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998-1999. A groundbreaking book by perhaps the most outstanding Western scholar of Japanese literature. His chapter on Kawabata gives an overview of the author’s oeuvre that is perfectly balanced between richness in detail and prudent concision.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______. Five Modern Japanese Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. An updated treatment of Kawabata and his work.
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    xlink:type="simple">Lippit, Noriko Mizuta. Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1980. The chapter on Kawabata is a consideration of his numerous dilettante characters. The author considers Kawabata’s dilettantes in limbo between life and death.
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    xlink:type="simple">Miyoshi, Masao. Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Kawabata is one of six authors covered in this volume. Although the chapter devoted to him presents an overview of his entire career, it is mostly concerned with discussing some themes and motifs of his mature years.
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    xlink:type="simple">Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979. The section on Kawabata provides an introduction to his works, exploring their incorporation of traditional Eastern aesthetics, Buddhist philosophy, and Japanese literary symbols. Includes an extensive (but dated) bibliography and a detailed biographical chronology.
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    xlink:type="simple">Starrs, Roy. Soundings in Time: The Fictive Art of Kawabata Yasunari. Richmond, England: Japan Library, 1998. Provides a critical interpretation of Kawabata’s work. One chapter analyzes his use of time, and another looks at the confluence of tradition and modernity.
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    xlink:type="simple">Swann, Thomas E., and Kinya Tsuruta. Approaches to the Modern Japanese Short Story. Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 1982. The section on Kawabata considers three of his novellas: The Izu Dancer, The House of the Sleeping Beauties, and One Arm.
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    xlink:type="simple">Takeda, Katsuhiko. Essays on Japanese Literature. Tokyo: Waseda University Press, 1977. Includes a short chapter on the Nobel laureate entitled “Kawabata Literature: Harmony and Conflict.” Dealing mostly with influences, it argues that Kawabata’s writings reflect not only Buddhist and Shinto traditions but also the Old and New Testaments of the West.
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    xlink:type="simple">Tsuruta, Kinya, and Thomas E. Swann. Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1976. Includes a section on Kawabata made up of analyses of three of his novels: Snow Country, The Sound of the Mountain, and The Master of Go.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1976. This volume, which takes up the critical and aesthetic views of several modern Japanese writers, includes a chapter on Kawabata’s theory and practice. Includes extensive Japanese and English bibliographies.

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