Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes


Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) was the first (of two, though another one can’t be too many years off) Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. I know that I have read his most famous novel, Snow Country (begun in 1934, completed in 1947) twice, though I retain only the vaguest memories of it.

Along with Snow Country and The Old Capital, Sembazuru (Thousand Cranes, 1951) was specifically mentioned in the Nobel Prize citation of Kawabata’s “narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” I am dubious about that last phrase, though there is much that is very Japanese, including a particular kind of kinkiness that seems Japanese to me. And the venerable Japanese art of the tea ceremony provides many symbols of the evanescence of human life and the longevity of Taoist culture.

Plus, throughout the region, the (red-crowned) crane is a symbol of longevity. The traditional belief is that the crane lives for a thousand years. A Japanese application of the belief is that making a thousand paper cranes (origami paper-folding) will make a wish come true, the wish often being for a cure for a particular malady.

The only cranes in the book are on the pink scarf of one of the two younger women whom the novel’s passive male protagonist, Mitani Kikuji, might marry. Fumiko is the daughter of the favorite mistress of his dead (for five years) fathers. Chikako, an earlier mistress of his father, one whose birthmark on one breast the child Kikuji saw (a sight that haunted if not traumatized him). As a self-appointed matchmaker supposedly motivated by gratitude to Kikuji’s father). Chikako relentlessly presses Imamura Yukiko.

Kikuji repeatedly rejects the match, though he is attracted to the damsel, who performs the tea ceremony with grace, not knowing she is being examined as a prospective bride. Kikuji is not characterized at all: she is a piece in a sort of board game (chess or go) between Chikako and Mrs. Ota.

Mrs. Ota is about 45 and seduces Kikuji. After her suicide, Kikuji is drawn to her daughter Fumiko, who is selling her mother’s house and looking for a job. Chikako is quite ready to lie to prevent a liaison between Kikuji and Fumiko. Chikako also takes great liberties on the Mitani property, particularly the tea cottage.

Kikuji’s father was an aficionado of the tea ceremony and had collected 300-year-old utensils (bowls, pots, whisks), more than a few from the Ota collection. Fumiko gives Kikuji more as mementoes of her mother.

The novel (I think it would be a récit rather than a roman in French classification) is compressed and sometimes maddeningly indirect (IMHO)—in the grand Japanese tradition dating back to Genji monogatori.

Kikuji’s relationships with his father’s mistresses is not technically incest, but does not strike me as healthy. The eroticism seems to me better done by Tanizaki, whom I think should have received the Nobel Prize in 1968 instead of Kawabata. Both writers were concerned with the corrosive effects modernization and traditional subtle Japanese art.


(receiving the Nobel Prize in 1968)

(top photo Kawabata in 1946)


©2016, Stepben O. Murray

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