‘When we see the beauty of the snow, when we see the beauty of the full moon, when we see the beauty of the cherries in bloom, when in short we brush against and are awakened by the beauty of the four seasons, it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure.’
-Kawabata, Japan, the Beautiful and Myself
Yasunari Kawabata would be turning 111 next month if still alive. The first Japanese person to receive the Nobel Literature award in 1968, he likely changed—for better or for worse—the way many Japanese writers approach their craft. For it is Kawabata who is arguably responsible for conveying through fiction the idea that Japanese people find meaning in life through the beauty that surrounds them—whether it’s in the spring cherry blossoms, the lightly falling snow or the yellow moon in the night sky.
Miho Matsugu of DePaulUniversity's Japanese Studies Program, who has for years studied Kawabata’s life and teaches both his major and minor works, kindly elaborated on this when we spoke. She explained to me that Kawabata is indeed credited with capturing this notion of ‘Japanese beauty,’ in his work, and even now readers and academics believe that by reading his literature,’ they can understand ‘what it is to be Japanese.’
Interestingly enough however, she also told me that in her opinion, this ‘most crucial legacy,’ of Kawabata’s is in some ways a burden for contemporary Japanese writers who have ‘had to struggle with his concept of “Japanese beauty” that is now deeply associated with Japanese literature.’ Matsugu pointed out that ‘whether they like it or not, Japanese writers must deal with how to differentiate themselves from the image…Kawabata established.’
But on the other hand, Kawabata, who lived through two world wars and who also wrote short stories and once worked as a reporter for one of Japan’s top newspapers, may have played a large part in promoting the work of his contemporaries and later generations.
As the longest serving president of the Japan P.E.N. Club (from 1948 to 1965), an organization that upholds the message: ‘Literature, national though it may be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals,’ he was committed to preserving art and making written works more universally available through translations.
As for what makes Kawabata’s works Nobel-worthy and universally appealing, Matsugu used examples from her favourite work, Snow Country (which took Kawabata 14 years to write, from 1934 to 1948), to explain. She said for instance, just the story’s famous opening line, ‘The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country,’ loaded with social context, reminds her of Kawabata’s qualities as a writer, his ‘tireless exploration of linguistic and cultural borders, his enormous desire to connect the elite and the popular, and his ability to analyze objects and put them into words.’
She also reminded me that Kawabata actually went to a hot spring village and met a geisha there who became the model for the book’s heroine, Komako, and that this raises the question: why choose to define authentic Japanese beauty ‘in the figure of a lower class hot spring geisha on the frontier of Japan’s national expansion?’
She said it further leads her to ask things like, ‘Why did he do that? What does it mean to do that?’
I’d guess that these are the kinds of questions that would lead someone like Matsugu directly into her line of work. And she confirmed this when she added, ‘I love that this work challenges me as a reader.’