Kawabata and Culture in ‘Thousand Cranes,’ ‘Snow Country,’ and ‘Beauty and Sadness’

September 8, 2022 by Essay Writer

Yasunari Kawabata is a Japanese author who ties his culture in with his novel, though not necessarily to add to the story. In Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata uses the tea ceremony as an undertone for the theme of going against tradition when it comes to the main character, Kikuji. Kawabata uses the setting of a Japanese hot spring as well as geishas as a part of Snow Country to show the doomed love between Shimamura and Komako. In Beauty and Sadness, Kawabata uses Japanese literature and arts as a part of the long lost love between Otoko and Oki. All three of these novels use the culture he grew up in to either support a theme or add a traditional background to a non-traditional story.

In Thousand Cranes, Kawabata has the common tea ceremony tradition in the background of this novel. Tea ceremony is an activity many Japanese people take part in, dating back to ancient times. There are many steps to participating and many pieces to a tea ceremony, all needing to be meticulously used. Kawabata used the tea ceremony to contrast the breaking of tradition in the novel. The main character, Kikuji, falls in love with his deceased father’s former lover, Mrs Ota. They first meet at a tea ceremony where he is meant to be set up with another woman appropriate for his age, but he finds himself intrigued by Mrs Ota’s relationship with his father: “Kikuji remembered the tea bowl Chikako had placed before the girl. It had indeed belonged to his father, and his father had received it from Mrs. Ota” (Thousand Cranes 18). His father collected items for tea ceremonies, and since Mrs. Ota was his lover, it was not surprising that she had gifted him items to add to his collection. They would later be given to tea master Chikako following Kikuji’s father’s death. Later, he falls in love with Mrs Ota. Riddled with guilt, she kills herself, and Kikuji quickly falls in love his Mrs Ota’s daughter, Fumiko. Close to the end of the novel, Fumiko goes to visit Kikuji at his home, and together they search for his father’s favorite tea bowl. Fumiko places her mother’s favorite tea bowl next to Kikuji’s father’s, and they discovered that they were matching — husband and wife tea bowls. This reminds them both of their parents: “Seeing his father and Fumiko’s mother in the bowls, Kikuji felt that they had raised two beautiful ghosts and placed them side by side” (Thousand Cranes 140). Fumiko and Kikuji’s love story ended very similar to their parents’. Doomed from the start, their parents have an affair, knowing that it is as far as they can go in a relationship. The same can be said for Fumiko and Kikuji, where Fumiko kills herself over guilt and grief before they could even truly start a relationship. Like tradition, the tea bowls still last, unlike the love between Kikuji and Fumiko, or Kikuji and Mrs Ota.

Snow Country also ties Japanese culture in with the plot. The story is set in a hot spring town, where the main character Shimamura, a married man, meets a geisha named Komako. During Kawabata’s time, hot spring geishas were considered prostitutes. Geisha are typically hostesses who are meant to provide entertainment, but in hot springs (called onsens by the Japanese), they were meant to provide sexual pleasure. Geisha are easily noticeable for their appearance, plastering their face and neck in white, and accenting their cheeks and lips with a stark red. Kawabata uses this imagery in Snow Country when Shimamura describes Komako, saying that “[t]he white in the depths of the mirror was the snow, and floating in the middle of it were the woman’s bright red cheeks. There was an indescribably fresh beauty in the contrast” (Snow Country 48). Shimamura compares Komako to the snow in the hot spring town, the white symbolizing the purity of a woman, and adds the accented red to show that she is, in fact, a hot spring geisha, tainted with the love of other men who pay for her company. Nevertheless, Shimamura and Komako fall in love, but they are well aware that their love will not last. Shimamura calls it “‘An affair of the moment, no more. Nothing beautiful about it. You know that – it couldn’t last’” (Snow Country 22). Shimamura is married, and Komako does not live a respectable lifestyle, so they would never be able to last. The setting of the hot spring and the circumstance of Komako being a geisha support Kawabata’s constant theme of doomed love.

Beauty and Sadness is about a man named Otoko who reconciles with his young lover Oki. Both of them use their art forms as an expression of the love they had over a decade ago. Otoko is an author that was likely apart of the World War II era of writing, similar to Kawabata. Otoko wrote a novel called A Girl of Sixteen, which is about the love affair he had with Oki. It was his best-selling novel, and during the time period he likely wrote in, it made sense: “[o]f all his novels, the one that had had the longest life, and was still widely read, was the one that told the story of his love affair with her” (Beauty and Sadness 350). Like Kawabata, Otoko pushes the bounds of Japanese tradition by writing about an affair a thirty year old man had with a sixteen year old girl. Meanwhile, Oki, his former lover, became a very well known painter, and along with the assumption that Otoko was an author of the World War II era, it can be assumed that Oki is a painter of the same era. She paints in both Japanese and western style, dating her art to around the Pre-War era. From Oki and Otoko’s affair years ago, Oki had fallen pregnant, but the pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage that sent Oki into a frantic depression. During the time Beauty and Sadness is set, Oki is now trying to capture the feelings of her lost baby in a painting, with Kawabata explaining that “[s]he searched through albums of Western art for pictures of cherubs and of the Christ child…[t]here were several famous old Japanese paintings of Saint Kobo a a boy” (Beauty and Sadness 732). Otoko used his writing skill to compose his best novel about his darkest secret and deepest feeling, and Oki used her art to capture the feeling of love she had for Otoko and the baby she was supposed to have as well as the tragedy of her miscarriage and their affair not lasting.

All three novels — Thousand Cranes, Snow Country, and Beauty and Sadness — tie in the culture that Yasunari Kawabata grew up learning and living. He used his experience as a Japanese man to write fiction novels about tragic love. He wrote about themes that were risque at his time, like going against Japanese tradition, affairs, and prostitution. In the mid-1940s, his pieces were revolutionary to Japanese literature.

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