Kawabata stories

Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasuari’s fiction, whether autobiographical or not, delivers very little in the way of plot. I would not say his work is character-driven either. The novellas “Diary of My Sixteenth Year” and “The Dancing Girl of Izu” reveal something of the diffident orphan Kawabata was, three overlapping reflections on the deaths and funerals of his family in “Oil,” “The Master of Funerals,” and “Gathering of Ashes” a bit more.

Somber facts lead off “Oil”: “My father died when I was three, and my mother died the following year, so I do not remember a single thing about my parents.” Moreover, the grandmother who raised him died when he was seven, his only sibling, a sister whom he only saw once after their father’s death, when he was eleven, and his grandfather just before his fifteenth birthday. Becoming “the master of funerals” was pretty much inevitable. What he remembered or was told by relatives about his conduct is obsessively revisited in the three stories, augmented by his memories of nosebleeds he disguised from others at the funerals.


(Kawabata at 16 or 17)

“Jûrokusai no Kikki”/“Diary of My Sixteenth Year” (fourteenth by western reckoning) begins with a text Kawabata claimed he wrote 4-16 May 1914 (his grandfather died 24 May). It shows a young boy very uncomfortable about attending to the grandfather, who cannot remember just being fed and who must be aided in urinating (he has stopped defecating altogether). It is pretty uneventful, with the death occurring after the end of the diary. The 1925 afterword, Kawabata later (1948) labeled the first afterword fiction, while continuing to claim authenticity for the 1914 diary.

All four of these stories obsess about the fallibility — or poverty — of memory. Kawabata wrote that he did not remember the sordid details of his grandfather’s last month that he had recorded a decade earlier, did not remember his parents or the funeral of either of them, depending on being told about them by others who attended. (BTW, the three funerals of “Masters of Funerals” were of persons the narrator/Kawabata had not met or at least did not recall having met.


“Izu no Odoriko”/”The Izu Dancing Girl” published in 1926 was, according to Donald Keene, “the work that not only brought him fame but, even more than his longer novels, remains the one many people remember him for.” (It has been filmed at least five times.) Nothing, unless one counts rain, happens in it. The narrator, a high-school student, recalls a walking trip on the Izu peninsula (the real-life basis was in 1922, when he was 22), in which he fell in with a small group of itinerant entertainers (whose status was very low, equated with beggars in being unwelcome in a sign on the outskirts of Oshima, the largest city and port of the peninsula.

The one male in the troupe, Eikichi, is very friendly. The dancing girl (and drummer) of the title is Kaoru, his fourteen-year old (I’m not sure whether this is Japanese or western reckoning of age, i.e., she may have been thirteen). Though she dresses like an older woman, she is a virgin, and chaperoned most of the time. The narrator does see her naked at a hot springs, and does not attempt to seduce her. (Kawabata continued to be fascinated by girls on the cusp of puberty and to find adult women repulsive.)


(Kawabata in 1937)

Insubstantial as these autobiographical stories were, the “palm-of-the-hand stories”, running 1.5-5 pages, 18 of which were published between 1923 and 1929 that J. Martin Holman translated and included with them (having already published a translation of other “tanagokoro no shôsetsu)”, are even wispier, including some that are condensed versions of Chinese and Japanese legends. Perhaps they seem less surrealistic to Japanese readers, though I suspect that Kawabata’s world and worldview are nearly as alien to contemporary Japanese as they are to me.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

I am indebted to Donald Keene‘s magisterial Dawn to the West for the biographical situating of Kawabata’s early stories.

I have also posted here about

Thousand Cranes

With Beauty and Sadness

The Sound of the Mountain

The House of the Sleeping Beauties and One Arm

The Old Capital


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