Nationality: Japanese. Born: Osaka, 11 June 1899. Education: Ibaragi Middle School, 1915-17, and First Higher School, Ibaragi, 1917-20; Tokyo Imperial University, 1920-24, degree in Japanese literature 1924. Family: Married Hideko; one daughter. Career: Writer and journalist; helped found Bungei Jidai magazine, 1924, and Kamakura Bunko, publishers, Kamakura, later in Tokyo, 1945; author-in-residence, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1969. Chairman, 1948, and vice-president, 1959-69, Japan P.E.N. Awards: Bungei Konwa Kai prize, 1937; Kikuchi Kan prize, 1944; Geijutsuin-sho prize, 1952; Japan Academy of Arts prize, 1952; Noma literary prize, 1954; Goethe medal (Frankfurt), 1959; Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, 1961; Nobel prize for literature, 1968. Member: Japan Academy of Arts, 1954. First Class Order of the Rising Sun, 1972. Died: 16 April 1972.
Zenshu. 19 vols., 1969-74.
Tenohira no shōsetsu [Stories on the Palm]. 1926.
Izu no odoriko. 1926; as "The Izu Dancer," in The Izu Dancer and Others, 1964.
Kinju. 1935; as "Of Birds and Beasts," in House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, 1969.
Aishu [Sorrow] (stories and essays). 1949.
Suigetsu. 1953; as "The Moon on the Water," in The Izu Dancer and Others, 1964.
Nemureru bijo. 1961; as "House of the Sleeping Beauties," inHouse of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, 1969.
The Izu Dancer and Others. 1964.
Kata-ude. 1965; as "One Arm," in House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, 1969.
House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories. 1969.
Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. 1988.
Kanjo shushoku [Sentimental Decoration]. 1926.
Asakusa kurenaidan [The Red Gang of Asakusa]. 1930.
Jojoka [Lyrical Feelings]. 1934.
Hana no warutsu [The Flower Waltz]. 1936.
Yukiguni. 1937; revised edition, 1948; as Snow Country, 1957.
Aisuru hitotachi [Lovers]. 1941.
Utsukushii tabi [Beautiful Travel]. 1947.
Otome no minato [Sea-Port with a Girl]. 1948.
Shiroi mangetsu [White Full-Moon]. 1948.
Maihime [The Dancer]. 1951.
Sembazuru. 1952; as Thousand Cranes, 1959.
Hi mo tsuki mo [Days and Months]. 1953.
Yama no oto. 1954; as The Sound of the Mountain, 1970.
Go sei-gen kidan. 1954; as The Master of Go, 1972.
Mizuumi. 1955; as The Lake, 1974.
Onna de aru koto [To Be a Woman]. 1956-58.
Utsukushisa to kanashimi to. 1965; as Beauty and Sadness, 1975.
Sakuhin sen [Selected Works]. 1968.
Tampopo [Dandelion]. 1972.
Bunsho [Prose Style]. 1942.
Zenshu [collected Works]. 16 vols., 1948-54; revised edition, 12 vols., 1959-61.
Asakusa monogatari [Asakusa Story]. 1950.
Shōsetsu no kenkyū [Studies of the Novel]. 1953.
Tōkyo no hito [The People of Tokyo]. 4 vols., 1955.
Who's Who among Japanese Writers, with Aono Suekichi. 1957.
Koto [Kyoto]. 1962; as The Old Capital, 1987.
Senshu [Selected Works], edited by Yoshiyuki Junnosuke. 1968.
Utsukushii nihon no watakushi; Japan, The Beautiful, and Myself(Nobel prize lecture). 1969.
Shōsetsu nyumon [Introduction to the Novel]. 1970.*
Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel by Masao Miyoshi, 1974; The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature by Hisaaki Yamanouchi, 1978; The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima by Gwenn Boardman Petersen, 1979; Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kwabata by Van C. Gessel, 1993.* * *
Many of Kawabata's short stories are in the form of what he called tanagokoro no shōsetsu, "palm of the hand stories," a selection of which have appeared in English under the same title. He said he wrote them in the same way that others wrote poetry. But the implications of a "palm" story, sometimes only a few paragraphs long, reach beyond the obvious reference to the scale. In Japan, as in the West, there are many people who profess to read fortunes from the pattern of lines on the hand, and with all such magical systems there are elements of synecdoche and metaphor—the hand representing the circumstances of the entire body and one small line standing for a whole complex of events.
Many of Kawabata's short short stories work in precisely this way, an apparently casual remark or trivial circumstance alluding to a crucial event in a person's past, or else predicting one in the future. In "The Sparrow's Matchmaking" a man trying to decide if he wants to marry a woman whose photograph he has been shown suddenly sees the image of a sparrow reflected in the garden pond. Somehow sure that this sparrow will be his wife in the next life, he feels that it will be right to accept the woman in the photograph as his bride in this life. The Christian reference is almost certainly intended because Kawabata read the Bible carefully and often alluded to it in his stories.
In "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" this notion of an unknown fate working through casual signs is made very explicit. The narrator sees a group of children hunting insects at night using lanterns they have made themselves and into which they have cut their names. A boy finds a grasshopper and offers it to one of the girls, who then exclaims that it is actually a rare insect—a bell cricket. As the pair stand together the narrator sees that the boy's name, cast through the cutout in his lantern, is now lit up on the girl's breast, while hers can be seen on the boy's waist. From this symbolic instant the narrator looks forward in his imagination to the relationships the two children will have and to the moments they will be given a grasshopper and find it a bell cricket, or be given a bell cricket and find it only a grasshopper.
Almost all of Kawabata's stories concern the unknowable quality of the relationship between men and women, and even the happiest are suffused with a kind of melancholy sensuality. More precisely, it should be said that the unknowable element in relationships comes from the woman. Kawabata lost both his parents when he was too young to remember them, and critics have seen in his work the constant search for the unknown mother. "The Moon in the Water," about a young woman nursing a terminally ill husband, can be read as an attempt to comprehend one aspect of female suffering (his mother had nursed her tubercular husband before dying of the same disease a year later).
In "The Mole" the female narrator has a large mole on her back. Her habit of playing with it irritates her husband to the extent that he ends up beating and kicking her. Then, as their marriage deteriorates, he becomes indifferent even when she suddenly gives up the habit. It is the look of lonely self-absorption in her eyes when she does it that the husband seems to hate; but later the woman wonders if touching it reminds her of the time when her mother and sisters used to tease her about the mole and the atmosphere of family affection in which she used to live. Although talk of "fingering" is not without its sexual suggestiveness, the mole is essentially a symbol of her lovelessness and her desire to receive love from her husband.
The great importance placed on symbols leads naturally to descriptions of surreal, dream-like circumstances, to the supernatural, or to some world that seems to be on the borders of all these. A late short story by Kawabata, "One Arm," begins with a young girl giving her arm to the narrator for him to spend the night with. We are to understand that she is able to detach it painlessly and that it will continue to function exactly as if it were still joined to her body. This is the surreal premise of the story. All the other circumstances are described quite naturalistically, but the night in which the story takes place is, so to speak, a naturalistically strange one, one of heavy fog and dampness. The radio announcer warns that zoo animals will roar all night and clocks will go wrong. Alone in his room, the narrator talks to the arm, and it replies almost as if it were the girl herself; yet it is clear that although it knows the girl's thoughts, it is a separate entity—it can betray her secret feelings without embarrassment to the narrator. Finally he removes his own arm and puts the girl's in its place so that their blood begins to mingle. Given the sensual tone of the story, this can be seen as the expression of an unattainably perfect sexual union; but with Kawabata's abiding, urgent desire to find out what it is like to be a woman, the gesture transcends the physical. At the end the man wakes, horrified at the sight of his own arm lying by itself, and brutally tears off the girl's arm. He replaces his own and then remorsefully cradles the delicate female arm as he lies in bed. It has become a beautiful object again, once more sad and inaccessible.
Specific dreams come to assume a more prominent role in Kawabata's writing. "The Snakes," "Eggs," "Autumn Rain," and "The White Horse" all have a dream as their centerpiece. "The White Horse" is about a man who goes to stay in a hotel every new year specifically to have the same dream about his father. One of Kawabata's most representative works, "The House of the Sleeping Beauties," concerns a house where old men pay to sleep with beautiful young girls who have been drugged into unconsciousness. "Sleep" here is not a euphemism; all they wish to do is to admire their youthful beauty and dream of their own pasts beside the innocently slumbering forms.
This last story, really a short novella, is different in length and structure from the "palm of the hand stories"—the whole nature of Kawabata's writings was always very fluid. The same short story would be reworked and appear in different versions, short stories would reappear as incidents in longer novels, and the novels themselves break off at apparently arbitrary moments. Kawabata was not much interested in relating a series of events and not at all interested in bringing things to a clear resolution. He wanted, rather, to turn a moment or a scene around in his hand until one element of it suddenly gave off a special luster. Something—a flower, a sound—momentarily takes on a cosmological significance but never quite long enough for that significance to be wholly grasped.
See the essay on "The Rooster and the Dancing Girl."