The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket
Yasunari Kawabata was in the early stages of his writing career when he wrote "Batta to suzumushi," (The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket) in 1924. Although he eventually gained fame and earned the Nobel Prize for Literature as a novelist, Kawabata preferred the short story genre and wrote hundreds of short stories until his death in 1972.
Translated by Lane Dunlop and published in the short story collection Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" is roughly 1,350 words long, short enough to be considered what is referred to as "flash fiction." Although brief, Kawabata chooses his words with great care and presents the reader with a vividly imagined scene rife with imagery and symbolism.
The Japanese and English languages vary greatly, and at times, meaning or intent can be lost in translation. The same can be said of American and Japanese culture. In order to understand Kawabata's meaning, it is important to understand certain aspects of Japanese culture.
The bell cricket, for example, is not just another noisy insect. In Japan, the plain little bell cricket is revered and loved for its song. Each male bell cricket sings his own unique song, made individual by wing and body vibrations. There is even a Buddhist temple named after the insect, and for centuries, people have journeyed there to meditate
to the sound of the bell crickets' songs. Those songs, heard collectively, are believed to be the voice of Buddha.
Kawabata was born on June 14, 1899, in Osaka, Japan. Kawabata's father died when Kawabata was two years old. In the next seven years, his mother, sister, and grandmother died. By the age of nine, Kawabata's life had brought more sorrow than anything else, and he found solace in reading. He read widely, but favored difficult Japanese classic texts, which he credited with influencing his use of language and sense of writing style. He decided to become a writer.
His blind grandfather, with whom he lived, became bedridden. Kawabata kept a diary detailing his care of his beloved grandfather. In May 1914, Kawabata's grandfather died. People began to refer to Kawabata as the "master of funerals" for having spent so much of his short life tending to the dead. The sadness of Kawabata's experience would stay with him for life and find its way into his novels and short stories. His first important novella, Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old (1925), vividly recalls his experiences at his grandfather's deathbed.
A local newspaper published some of his poems, essays, and short works of fiction. Following the sudden death of his English teacher in 1917, Kawabata wrote "Shi no hitsugi o kata ni" ("With Our Teacher's Casket on Our Shoulders"). The story appeared in the periodical Dan'ei that same year; it was Kawabata's first story published in a literary journal.
Kawabata was accepted into Tokyo's First High School, one of the most prestigious public schools in Japan. He disliked English literature and lacked confidence in his writing skills. He also struggled with feelings of not belonging anywhere or to anyone, a condition he referred to as "his orphan's disposition," as noted by Van C. Gessel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.
Kawabata embarked on a walking tour across the Izu Peninsula in 1918 to try to clear his head. Along the way, he met a variety of people ranging from simple country folk to traveling entertainers. What resulted was one of his most highly praised stories, "Izu no odoriko" ("The Izu Dancer"), published in 1926. The trip helped restore his self-esteem, and he returned to school ready to work. At school, he helped found a literary magazine. He also published his short stories in the literary journal Bungei Shunju.
Although this was a time of great professional growth, Kawabata's personal life suffered when his planned marriage to a fifteen-year-old waitress fell through. Kawabata received a letter from her telling him something catastrophic had occurred and that she could never see him again. The young writer was devastated and turned once again to his work as an emotional outlet. He began writing and publishing literary critiques and reviews, an endeavor he pursued for twenty years. He gained a reputation as a fair, unbiased critic.
Kawabata graduated university in 1924 and helped launch a bold, experimental literary journal called Bungei Jidai (The Age of Literary Arts). The journal and its writers reacted to what they construed as the dull writings of the naturalist movement. These authors searched for new ways to Page 148 | Top of Article express feelings and depict situations of human interaction. Reader response was positive and the writers were labeled neoperceptionists, members of the new sensationalism school. The movement itself did not last past the 1920s, but it had a remarkable influence on Kawabata. In 1924, he wrote and published "Batta to suzumushi" ("The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket").
Despite eventually being recognized with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 for his novels, he preferred short stories. Frederick Smock of American Book Review explains, "Kawabata believed that the very short story—the story that fits into the palm of one's hand—holds the essence of the writing art. It is to fiction what the haiku is to poetry." Throughout his career, Kawabata wrote more than 140 palm-of-the-hand stories.
Kawabata met Hideko Matsubayashi in May 1925. The couple moved in together and lived in common-law marriage until 1931, when they officially wed. They had a daughter in 1927 who died before the traditional naming ceremony, and the couple never tried to have children again (although they did adopt the daughter of a cousin in 1943). The loss caused Kawabata to distance himself further from the emotional attachment of family relationships.
Kawabata decided his career would best be served if he lived in a city. The couple moved to Tokyo in 1927, where he developed friendships with artists and performers who provided endless material for Kawabata's stories. He published his tales in 1930 as Asakusa kurenaidan, translated and published in the United States in 2005 as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa. During this time period, Kawabata also fostered the careers of several Japanese writers.
Kawabata gave lectures on literature at the Bunka Gakuin school in Tokyo from 1930 to 1934, and in the fall of 1933, he joined the staff of another literary journal, Bungakukai. One of his most beloved and critically hailed novels, Yukiguni (Snow Country), was written in 1935. The novel found its genesis in a magazine article Kawabata had written, and he published the rest of the book piece by piece. Never satisfied with how the story ended, he crafted a palm-of-the-hand version of it just three months before his death. That story, too, is included in the volume Palm-of-the-Hand Stories (1988).
Success with Snow Country, published in its entirety in 1937, brought Kawabata wealth, and he purchased a second home in the resort town of Karuizawa. He and his wife lived there during the summers of World War II. The home became a haven as the Japanese military increased its control over its country through strict censorship of speech and writing. Kawabata was disillusioned and concerned at the disregard for the traditional culture he so loved. Kawabata contacted other established writers and requested book donations. With these books, he established a library called Kamakura Bunko library. After the war, it became a publishing company and reprinted affordable editions of classic Japanese texts. It was a key factor in the resurgence of interest in Japanese literature after the war.
A revised edition of Snow Country—the one Kawabata considered complete—was published in 1947 to much acclaim. In 1947, publication of a sixteen-volume set of Kawabata's works began, and in 1948, he was elected president of P.E.N. Japan, an association of writers. In this position, Kawabata was able to influence literary activities in Japan. He was instrumental in getting Japanese texts translated and distributed throughout the world. During his seventeen-year term, Japanese literature made monumental strides in international recognition.
In 1954, he developed an addiction to sleeping pills, and the quality of his work was affected. His writing turned toward popular fiction as he wrote serialized novels in newspapers and women's magazines. He published his final work, a volume of short stories, Nemureru bijo (House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories), in 1961. Around that same time, he received the Bunka Kunsho, or Medal of Culture, the highest honor given to writers by the Japanese government.
As his physical and emotional health failed in the 1960s, Kawabata could not finish some works he had begun, but he was instrumental in establishing the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature in Tokyo. The museum opened in 1967.
Despite being the first Japanese writer to earn the Nobel Prize for Literature, Kawabata continued to suffer from depression. His condition worsened in 1970 when he received word that his brightest protégé, the author Yukio Mishima, had committed suicide. The impact of Mishima's death was so strong that, even when asked by an editor to write about the suicide months later, Kawabata could not. According to the Dictionary of Literary Biography entry, Kawabata explained, "I am not free for a single moment from the grief and sorrow I feel over Mishima's Page 149 | Top of Article deplorable death." Kawabata took his own life on April 16, 1972, by placing his head inside a gas oven.
Kawabata did not leave a suicide note but there is speculation that the intensity of his grief, depression, and severe insomnia became too much for him to bear. Kawabata's funeral was sponsored by P.E.N., the Japan Writers Association, and the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature. Kawabata was buried with his favorite fountain pen, his pipe, glasses, a volume of his writings, one hundred sheets of blank writing paper, a kimono, and the purple ceremonial hakama (Japanese pants) he wore to accept his Nobel Prize.
The opening scene of "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" finds the unnamed narrator walking outside the university (equivalent to the American high school). He turns to approach the upper school, which could mean the school that was situated higher up the hill, or it could mean a school attended by young teens, perhaps the equivalent of an American middle or junior high school. Since the school has a playground, it is more likely to be a school for younger children.
Although the time of day is never specified other than to indicate "a dusky clump of bushes," the reader learns that it must be dusk, if not dark. Kawabata implies this when his narrator discovers the bright lanterns bobbing along the base of the embankment. If it were daytime, lanterns would not be needed and the colorful light shining through them would be all but invisible to the naked eye. As it is, the narrator watches in wonder at the sight of twenty children engaged in an insect chase.
Immediately from this first scene, Kawabata employs vivid imagery. The walls of the university are tile-roofed, and the fence is constructed of white board. He describes the individual colors of the children's lanterns as they bob through the dark. The first two paragraphs are constructed almost completely using sensual imagery, a literary technique Kawabata will continue to rely on throughout the story.
The scene witnessed by the narrator is so idyllic that he likens it to a fairy tale, and he explains how the children came to participate in the insect chase in progress before him. What began as one child curious to find the owner of the singing from within the bushes soon became twenty children, all eager to hunt and capture the singing grasshoppers. Although one of the children bought his red lantern (and eventually discarded it as something gaudy and tasteless), most of them carefully and lovingly constructed their own lanterns out of multicolored paper, which they cut into various designs.
These lanterns are important to the children, and what was sufficient one night was not so in the light of day. So each day, the children would thoughtfully craft a new lantern. The lanterns represent the individuality of each child, and the children put mighty effort into besting one another. "Look at my lantern! Be the most unusually beautiful!" Those lanterns, with their mystical patterns and superb craftsmanship, are what the children are using to light their insect chase.
Kawabata never specifies the ages of the children, but given the nature of the activity, the reader assumes they are young enough to still enjoy such innocent activity but old enough to have the skills to have produced such fine and intricate lanterns.
One boy—whose name we eventually learn is Fujio—stands and shouts out to his peers, "Does anyone want a grasshopper?" A number of children reply that yes, they would like the grasshopper. Even as they crowd around him, the boy repeats the question. As still more children approach him to claim the grasshopper, he asks his question a third time. Finally, one of the children who responds is a girl, and it is this particular girl whom Fujio wanted to attract.
Fujio hands the girl, Kiyoko, his insect. It turns out to be not a common grasshopper but a bell cricket. In Japan, bell crickets are beloved for their unique singing, and their song is considered by many to be the voice of Buddha.
When Kiyoko announces that the insect is actually a bell cricket, the other children are excited in an envious way. She looks at Fujio as she places the cricket in her little insect cage that hangs at her side. Fujio grasps the cage and holds it at eye level so he can peer inside. With his multicolored lantern also at eye level, he glances at Kiyoko's face.
At that point, the narrator realizes that Fujio wanted Kiyoko's attention all along, and the narrator admits to a pang of jealousy at this experience of first love. Suddenly, he sees something no Page 150 | Top of Article one else can see because they are standing too close to Fujio and Kiyoko.
In the light of his lantern, the design of which included his name, "Fujio" shines on Kiyoko's white kimono. And in the light of Kiyoko's lantern, the design of which also included her name, "Kiyoko" shines on Fujio's waist. Neither child would ever know that this occurred, but the narrator sees it and understands the meaning: for one brief moment—perhaps more, if their lives' paths dictate it to be so—Kiyoko and Fujio belong to one another.
At that point, the narrator imparts the wisdom he has gleaned only through decades of living and loving. He advises Fujio to take pleasure in a girl's delight and to appreciate her when she believes something to be more than it is but accepts it even when the truth is revealed. The narrator then warns Fujio that even when he has the intelligence to look for a life partner who is not like all the other girls or women, he will find that most of them are common and plain, like grasshoppers. "Probably you will find a girl like a grasshopper whom you think is a bell cricket."
The narrator sees Fujio as a man, when his heart has been broken and he becomes jaded to love. At that point, the narrator says, even a bell cricket (that rare woman who is special and unique and worthy of love) will seem like a grasshopper (common and nothing special). He pities Fujio for his inability to ever know that there was one moment in time when his name was written on the breast of a girl, when she was his, and he was hers.
In addition to Fujio and Kiyoko, there are eighteen children on the embankment, chasing and catching insects. Using only the light that shines from their lanterns, they hunt the insects and capture them in tiny cages.
Fujio is the young boy who gives Kiyoko what he believes is a grasshopper but which in reality is a bell cricket. Although he has announced his find and invited the other children to come see his grasshopper, his intent was to attract Kiyoko and give her the insect as a token of his admiration.
Kiyoko is the young girl who accepts from Fujio a bell cricket. She is the object of Fujio's desire. Kiyoko is representative of all the girls in the world as well as that which is good and pure.
The unnamed narrator is an adult from whose point of view the story unfolds. Although the narrator's gender is never pointedly named, the reader can assume he is male because he ends the story by giving Fujio advice on women in what seems like a man-to-man way.
Fate is destiny, an event or course of events that will happen in a person's lifetime. Fate is predetermined; it cannot be altered or changed from what it was always meant to be. This is an integral belief in the traditional Japanese culture and a primary theme in Kawabata's "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket."
The idea that fate makes itself known in subtle signs is emphasized in the final scene, in which Fujio's name shines brightly onto Kiyoko's chest at the same time her name is visible through the lantern light on Fujio's waistline. To the unaware observer, these are children engaging in a favorite activity and nothing more. But as the narrator notices the chance interplay of light and color with the children's names, he realizes what he is seeing may be neither chance nor play but the two children's fates—their futures with either partners of quality and individualism or those possessing nothing that sets them apart from the crowd.
None of the themes in Kawabata's story is overtly examined; true to traditional Japanese literary style, they are merely suggested, hinted at, alluded to. Kawabata uses very simple language to depict the incredibly confusing paths love often takes. Love is a theme touched upon in the final scene of the story as the narrator witnesses Fujio and Kiyoko together, their names shining upon one another's clothing. That brief encounter gives the narrator a glimpse into the lives of Fujio and Kiyoko, and he suddenly—as evidenced by the use of an exclamation point in an otherwise tranquil scene—desires to give Fujio advice. In his Page 151 | Top of Article mind, he warns the boy that even if he searches in the most unlikely places for a girl of substance (a bell cricket), he will most likely find girls he believes to be like bell crickets but who in reality are mere grasshoppers. After many disappointing experiences with love, Fujio will likely carry such a wounded heart that even when a genuinely interesting, intelligent, and worthy girl comes along, he will fail to recognize her.
Individualism is a theme woven throughout "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket." In the scene where the narrator spies the children with their amazing, handcrafted lanterns, Kawabata juxtaposes the idea of individualism with conformity. Although there are twenty children engaging in the same activity, each child has put great effort into being different from every other child in the way he fashions his lantern. There is not one color but a rainbow of variety. There is not one common lantern shape but many. There is not one design but an endless array of designs, and each child strives not only to craft a different design, but one more intricate, more difficult, more unique than the others.
The concept of the value of individualism is also carried out in the grasshopper-versus-bell cricket scenario. Bell crickets are prized for their songs, no two of which are alike. Whereas individual grasshoppers vary little if at all, every male bell cricket sings a different song. In fact, his song is how he finds a mate. The narrator wants Fujio to understand and recognize the value of finding a mate who stands out from the rest, who is unique and special, like the bell cricket.
Imagery is a technique a writer uses to involve the reader in the story. He does this by appealing to the reader's senses. Kawabata uses imagery throughout his brief story, beginning with the first paragraph, in which he gives specifics. The university wall is not just a wall but a "tile-roofed wall"; the fence is constructed of "white board"; and the trees are not just trees but orange and black cherry trees.
Imagery abounds in Kawabata's passages involving the children's lanterns. He uses the phrase "bobbing cluster of beautiful varicolored lanterns, such as one might see at a festival" and then lists the individual colors. Just from this brief choice of words, the reader sees in his mind's eye exactly what the narrator is seeing as he watches those children on their insect chase. Kawabata has
put the reader into the story, next to the narrator. In doing so, he makes the scene that plays out between Fujio and Kiyoko come alive, and it is as if the reader is experiencing it, not just reading about it.
Kawabata does the same when he describes in detail the way the children so carefully construct their lantern designs. His child-artists cut "lozenge leaf shapes in the cartons, colorcoding each little window a different color, with circles and diamonds, red and green…." He again relies on imagery to emphasize the importance of the scene in which Fujio and Kiyoko unknowingly shine their names onto each other. "…wasn't the name ‘Fujio’ clearly discernable?" Kiyoko's pattern is not projected as clearly, but could be made out "in a trembling patch of red on the boy's waist."
First-Person Point of View
Stories can be narrated from several different perspectives. First-person point of view uses the word "I" and is a technique that allows the reader to feel she is not so much reading about something but is somehow sharing in the story itself.
Kawabata's narrator is talking to his audience directly. As he sees and experiences something, so does the reader. Even though the narrator is not truly involved in the plot of "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket," he is on the sidelines and therefore able to get a clear perspective on what is taking place. And because he has that viewpoint, so does the reader. In this case, the first-person perspective makes the story more intimate. Think of the difference between a conversation with a friend and listening to a lecture.
Symbolism in this short story is apparent, but only to a reader who has an understanding of traditional Japanese culture. This very fact is why some stories that get translated into another language tend to lose some of their meaning. In Page 153 | Top of Article some cases, there is no word for what an author has written, and so a translator must choose the word that has the most similar meaning. Depending on the choice made, the meaning of the text can change.
Kawabata's respect for traditional Japanese culture is symbolized in "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" in several ways. Of the approximate 1,350 words in the story, about 375 of them are used to describe the colors and intricacies of craftsmanship that go into the construction of the children's lanterns. That is over one-fourth of the entire story. Lanterns are icons of good luck in the Japanese culture, and in traditional culture, much effort and attention went into the making of them. Even in the twenty-first century, Japanese hold lantern festivals. To devote such a large amount of space in such a brief story to this one aspect signifies its importance.
Colors hold special meaning in traditional Japanese culture. By itself, the color red is believed to protect against evil forces and demons. It is also the color worn by brides and, when combined with white, symbolizes an auspicious or happy occasion. Kiyoko's lantern light shines red as it reflects her name onto Fujio's clothing.
Fujio's name is inscribed on Kiyoko's breast in green. Originally, there was no word in the Japanese language for the color green. It simply did not exist. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the Japanese language was in flux as new words were being added to reflect the changing culture. One of those new words was "midori," which means "green." Before the inclusion of this word, green was considered just another shade of blue. Without seeing Kawabata's original Japanese manuscript for this story, there is no way to know if he used the word midori or if he used the Japanese word for blue (ao). Either way, Lane Dunlop translated it to mean the color green. Because of its relative newness to the Japanese language, the color green does not hold symbolic meaning.
The color white symbolizes the sacred. It is used in many Japanese rituals, including weddings and funerals. It is also the background of the Japanese flag, which features a red sun (remember: red and white together signify a happy occasion). Kiyoko's kimono is white. So here we have the interplay of red, white, and green (or blue?). Kawabata uses color to symbolize the innocence and sacredness of youth as well as the potential for the possibility of happiness. Even Kiyoko's name falls into a similar translation: "pure, clean child." She symbolizes that which is pure in the world—true love—as well as all the women Fujio will meet in his lifetime, both the grasshoppers and the bell crickets.
Japan in the 1920s was in a state of great transition. World War I was over, but the country would never be the same. Just as the decade was one of great societal and cultural value shifts in the United States, so it was in Japan. Western influence was infiltrating every aspect of the Japanese way of life, leaving those who favored tradition over modernity feeling uneasy and uncertain.
Art often mimics reality, and this held true of literature in 1920s Japan. In the 1910s, much of Japanese literature fell into the artistic realm of naturalism. As a literary movement, naturalism emphasized man's accidental, physiological nature over his moral or rational characteristics and qualities. Naturalism had its roots in Europe, and its writers tended to focus on social issues and themes. Japanese writers put their own spin on the school of thought, and it quickly became a movement largely composed of autobiographical fiction that revealed the excesses and confessions of its writers.
Everything was changing—language, thought, societal norms and expectations—and writers wanted alternatives. As a result, the 1920s was rife with literary movements, but none as strong as the proletarian (worker) literature movement. The movement was in its infancy and would gain momentum throughout the 1930s as Japan became a more militaristic state and divided the country into those who favored such a government and those who did not.
Strong as it was, the proletarian literary movement shared its spotlight with other literary schools of thought as Japanese writers took this transition as an opportunity to experiment with form and content. One such school was called new sensationalism; Kawabata was a key member. Kawabata defined new sensationalism as "Expressionism in epistemology and Dadaism in formal expression." In simpler terms, this means the movement emphasized expression of inner experiences using irony and cynicism. World War I left many people in a mood of disillusionment. Artists expressed their Page 154 | Top of Article outrage over the destruction of so much and so many through their art and reacted against the traditional, existing artistic (including literary) techniques.
Unlike the proletarian literary movement, which was based on ideological principles, or naturalism, the more traditional school of thought, which was founded on principles of natural science, new sensationalism stood on literary principles. Where proletarian literature emphasized politics and theory, new sensationalist (or neoperceptionist) literature focused on the emotional, personal, individual side of life's experiences.
The movement itself did not last long (approximately 1924-1930), but it had its own journal, Bungei Jidai (The Age of the Literary Arts). It was in this journal that Kawabata published his first significant fiction in the form of brief sketches he called "palm-of-the-hand stories." Kawabata continued to write in the new sensationalist style to the end of his life.
Kawabata is considered one of Japan's most accomplished writers and one of the last to write in the classical Japanese tradition. Unlike more modern Japanese writers, Kawabata did not adopt a style that could easily be understood on an international level. Instead, he embraced the concept of "less is more" and strove to make every word choice matter. In "The Month of Cherry Blossom," in New Statesman, writer Jason Cowley calls Kawabata a miniaturist who "compresses where others seek to inflate and enlarge." Calling him a writer who knew the value of silence, Cowley suggests that reading Kawabata is an act of collaboration between the author and the reader. "Kawabata challenges you to interpret and imagine, to colour in and shade the empty spaces of his stories."
Although Japanese readers living during Kawabata's lifetime were familiar with this traditional style, many modern readers across the globe are not. Others read to be entertained; they do not necessarily want to have to fill in those blanks or shade those empty spaces. And yet Kawabata's talent continues to be appreciated both in his homeland and beyond. In his review of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, American Book Review writer Frederick Smock judges the book as one of "those dozen or so volumes necessary to life."
Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 based on three of his novels: Yukiguni, 1937 (Snow Country, 1957); Sembazuru, 1952 (Thousand Cranes, 1958); and Koto, 1962 (The Old Capital, 1987). And it is as a novelist that he earned his fame. Marlene A. Pilarcik, in Modern Language Studies, writes that the author's works are remarkable for their wistful beauty and haunting lyricism. Page 156 | Top of Article "They express the essence of the Japanese soul, but also draw on the universality of human experience." Perhaps that is why, almost a century after "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" was written, it continues to be read and appreciated by audiences around the world.
The story did not appear in the American market until its translation in 1988. That same year, Library Journal's Kitty Chen Dean reviewed not only that story but the entire Palm-of-the-Hand Stories volume and called Kawabata a "master storyteller reminiscent of James Joyce, but with a smaller, sharper, more incisive vision."
The term lyricism arises again and again among critics, who cite it as one of Kawabata's primary strengths. Lyricism refers to a writer's ability to gently express emotion, and although Kawabata's novels are infused with lyricism, it is more obvious in the writer's short stories. In 1924, the same year "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" was published, critic Kameo Chiba wrote an article in the November issue of the Japanese journal Seiki. In it, he credits Kawabata and his contemporaries with being "sensually alert to diction, lyricism, and rhythm that are far fresher than anything ever before expressed by any of our sensitive artists." That sensual lyricism made him both a traditionalist (in style) and a modernist (in form).
In addition to his lyricism, Kawabata's writing style reflects the author's emphasis on mood and atmosphere over plot, structure, and other features associated with the creation and analysis of fiction. This tendency is directly influenced by those European modernist techniques that led Kawabata to help found the new sensationalism literary movement.
Valentine is a freelance writer who holds a B.A. in English with minors in philosophy and professional communications. In this essay, she argues that despite his affiliation with Japan's new sensationalism movement, Kawabata's "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" is distinctly a traditional piece of literature because it is constructed using principles of Japanese aesthetics.
Although Kawabata was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature for three of his novels, Page 157 | Top of Article he preferred working in the genre of short stories, in particular, stories so small they can fit into the palm of one's hand. These stories, which Kawabata continued to write over a span of fifty years, were not translated into English until seventeen years after the author's death. Analysis of these stories reveals a Kawabata not immediately obvious in his novels. Despite the common, modern perception that Kawabata had a strong-hold on the new sensationalism literary movement in modern Japan and therefore is primarily an experimental writer, critical analysis of his palm-of-the-hand stories and "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket," in particular, reveals a writer dedicated to exploring his universe using the principles of traditional Japanese aesthetics.
The aesthetic principles of traditional Japanese literature—all art forms, actually—can be traced to two philosophical schools of thought: Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Kawabata revered traditional literature, particularly Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, written during the Heian period (794-1185). Kawabata credits such texts with influencing his style and literary sensibilities.
Inherent in those traditional texts are the Japanese culture's aesthetic principles, the tenets that pertain to the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty. Regardless of art form, these aesthetic principles never fluctuate; there are seven of them, and there will always be seven. In no particular order, those seven principles are: simplicity, tranquility, naturalness, nonattachment, profundity, sublimity, and asymmetry.
Western readers cannot appreciate to the full extent of its potential any of Kawabata's short stories without a grasp of the meaning of these seven principles and how they inform traditional Japanese art. Perhaps this is why his stories went so long without translation; undeniably, Western aesthetics, which fall into the modernist school and which eventually heavily influenced Japanese literature, are almost diametrically opposed to Japanese aesthetics. After World War I, Japanese society began turning its back on tradition in favor of Western values and beliefs. Kawabata recognized this shift, and it grieved him.
Although this is a much simplified comparison, it serves to contrast the modern school of thought with traditional Japanese aesthetics. When considering and judging the depth of beauty, be it a story, a painting, or a garden design, modernism favors logic over intuition, a sense of progress versus a cyclical nature, a sense of clarity over ambiguity. The Japanese aesthetic values the organic form—whatever it may be—over symmetry, the concept of nature above anything man-made, and the idea of living in harmony with nature rather than controlling it. These are just some examples of differences between Western (modern) and Japanese (traditional) aesthetics. They provide a launch point for understanding how traditional Japanese culture perceives the universe.
Simplicity refers to the idea of making do with the minimum, accepting as good only what is appropriate, never going overboard. In literature, this would play out in the length of a piece of writing. This is, in part, why the poetic form haiku is favored in Japan. It is written economically, following a simple format.
Tranquility is the feeling of calm and balance. This principle can be achieved by word choice as well as setting and tone.
Naturalness is the trait of organic being. In a garden, naturalness would be achieved by a design that looks as if everything just happened to grow where it appears. In literature, the writer achieves naturalness by constructing his piece so that it seems to have merely unfolded—that the story has been there all along, and the reader just managed to stumble upon it. There is no contrivance or forced formulaic structure.
Nonattachment is the idea that humans are not invested in anything of this earth. Nothing depends upon anything else; it just exists. In literature, nonattachment is what allows the reader to enjoy a story simply because it is enjoyable. It has Page 158 | Top of Article its own worth, independent of any meaning a reader may or may not imbue it with.
Profundity is the idea of having depth and intensity. Traditional Japanese profundity is subtle; it fluctuates and shifts, depending upon the meaning found within it. Profundity makes a piece of literature timeless as well as endless in that there is no right or wrong way to read it. What one reader sees, another may not. The writer sees his job as one of suggestion rather than revelation.
Sublimity refers to the essence of an artistic work (or life experience). Stripped of all nonessential verbiage and explanation, a work can be appreciated for its innate clarity.
Asymmetry, or irregularity, is the idea that beauty is found in a balance based on lack of control. It implies a dynamic of give and take, and imperfection contributes to that beauty.
Even a basic understanding of these principles gives a reader unfamiliar with traditional Japanese aesthetics a springboard from which to jump into the writing world of Kawabata. The fact that his palm-of-the-hand stories are so incredibly brief sometimes makes them difficult to grasp because they are over before they barely begin. In his notes to Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, translator Lane Dunlop admits to struggling for connection with the stories. After translating three of them, he was "unable to find any others that reached me…. I mistook their subtlety for slightness, their lack of emphasis for pointlessness."
Using "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" as a representative title for Kawabata's short story collection, one begins to see that the Nobel Prize winner may have written his novels to attract a wider audience, but he lived to write those stories in the hopes of keeping alive a tradition he saw quickly fading. Although Kawabata applies all seven Japanese aesthetic principles to his story, three stand out: simplicity, tranquility, and profundity.
The basic story of "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" is simple. A man watches as children engage in a favorite childhood activity and, from his vantage point as an outsider looking in, turns a seemingly chance event into a life lesson. At a mere 1,350 words, Kawabata presents the story without decoration or superfluous prose. As readers, we do not know the frame of mind the narrator is in when he first encounters the children. And it does not matter. We do not know his physical traits or those of the children. And it does not matter. We do not even know the exact ages of the children, or the setting beyond the fact that the activity takes place on an embankment outside a school playground. We are given no information that is not absolutely essential to the story.
The most detailed section of the story is the description of the children's lanterns and the construction process. While this may seem unnecessary, it actually is important. Because lanterns and lantern making are almost sacred aspects of the Japanese culture, the passages pertaining to the lanterns are integral to understanding Kawabata's meaning. Whether the reader is Japanese or American—or something else—he cannot finish reading those passages and not grasp the reverence bestowed upon the lanterns.
Kawabata imposed upon his story a sense of tranquility in several ways. The entire story is actually one scene, and even though that scene involves almost two dozen children running around flinging lanterns throughout the dusky air, the reader is not encouraged to believe it is chaotic or raucous. Using phrases like "coming together of children on this lonely slope" and "the candle's light seemed to emanate," Kawabata gives the reader a sense of calm. And yet there is excitement, too, as the children cry out, "It's a bell cricket! It's a bell cricket!" It is interesting to note that Kawabata does not say the children are yelling or screaming; he only indicates or suggests the excitement by the use of exclamation points. When the bell cricket is discovered, something big has happened, and the reader knows it. Even when Fujio initially announces his willingness to give away his insect, he shouts just once. After that, Kawabata describes him as calling out; he is beckoning to the other children, not bellowing. And so it is with setting as well as word choice that Kawabata infuses his story with a sense of tranquility and energizing calm.
Finally, Kawabata creates a sense of the subtly profound with his use of symbolism as well as his allusion to the future. Traditional Japanese culture tends to value allusion—the suggestion of the possibility of something—over explicitness. The narrator alludes to Fujio and Kiyoko's futures. While the reader may want to know if the two ever fall in love, Kawabata is not willing to make the reader's job of figuring that out so easy. Maybe they will, maybe they will not. Even Page 159 | Top of Article the scene in which the two children's names are shining on one another involves imagination: is the narrator really seeing what he thinks he sees? Kawabata writes, "if it was chance or play," as if to suggest that maybe the narrator is not completely sure of what he is witnessing. And so even the here and now are merely alluded to, rather than explicitly explained.
In a sort of crossover with the aesthetic principle of naturalness, Kawabata's story really only matters because he is telling it. It may very well have been that the children participated in the insect chase using lanterns they poured their hearts and souls into to make, and Fujio might have given Kiyoko what he thought was a grasshopper but was in actuality a rare bell cricket, and none of it would have mattered because there would have been no one there to see it. The event itself is not contrived or natural; it is a common scene in traditional Japan. It would have occurred even had no one been there to witness it. This is the naturalness. But there was someone there—the narrator. And he watched and imagined. And so this simple, common event became a catalyst for one man's imaginative prediction into the future. That the grasshopper was actually a bell cricket came to hold profound meaning.
Kawabata was a traditionalist in every sense of the word. By his own admission, his literary sense was informed and directly influenced by the Japanese classics, and when he saw his country forsaking its heritage by buying into the Westernization of its culture, he took steps to delay the inevitable.
Although he experimented with the form of the novel and eventually gained international acclaim for his efforts, he found the idea of sustaining a self-contained piece of art difficult. From the 1920s until his death, Kawabata kept returning to the short story, the genre he preferred. In his critical essay "The Asymmetrical Garden: Discovering Yasunari Kawabata" in Southwest Review, Thom Palmer says it best: "The ‘palm-sized’ stories constitute the marrow of his artistic essence, and this essence is a constant refinement and exploration of the East's prototypical aesthetics and philosophical thought." For Kawabata, the novel was a grasshopper; the short story was the bell cricket.
Source: Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Peter M. Carriere
In the following article, Carriere illustrates differences between modern and geido symbolist writing styles, but states that Kawabata demonstrates both styles, as his purpose is to awaken or reinforce in the participant a sense of culture and spirit.
In his article "Alternative Modernity? Playing the Japanese Game of Culture" (1994), Andrew Feenberg suggests that Yasunari Kawabata's novel The Master of Go (1954) embodies the Zen Buddhist principle that playing Go in traditional Japan constituted a quest for self-realization and a path to spiritual unity—in effect, a "Tao," or "Way," the Way of Go. The goal of the contest was not victory but spiritual enlightenment: as a momentary refugee from culture, the self was reduced by subjection to rule and struggle to the nothingness of Zen, and the game became an agent of consciousness effacement, the Zen "no-mind" that is a prerequisite for spiritual unity. This insight, that immersion in Go constituted a Way in traditional Japanese culture, suggests that Kawabata's immersion in the aesthetics of religion and culture was an attempt to create an aesthetic Way in the spirit of cha-no-yu, or tea ceremony, which he described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 12 December 1968 as "sad, austere, autumnal," concealing "a great richness of spirit." The object of the tea ceremony is to awaken Page 160 | Top of Article or reinforce in the participant a sense of cultural identity and spiritual connection through its ritualized aesthetics. The object of other forms of aesthetic rituals, such as the art of fiction, for instance, might do the same. Indeed, such a connection between art and religion flourished during Japan's medieval period (950-1400), when "religious and aesthetic values became virtually co-terminous in what was called geido—the ‘Tao’ (or Way) of aesthetics." This essay will examine the aesthetic, cultural, religious, and historical contexts out of which Kawabata's pre-war masterpiece Snow Country (1947) and his last novel, Beauty and Sadness (1961), emerged in order to show that geido was an abiding element of Kawabata's fiction.
The phrase "alternative modernity" implies that Kawabata's modernism differs from traditional understandings of the term. By definition, however, the art of modernism is subjective, recondite, esoteric, and avant-garde. Furthermore, the symbolist aesthetic often noted in Kawabata, with its emphasis on spirituality and culture, informs the works of modernism's most celebrated writers, including T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and W. B. Yeats. Yeats's well-known affinity for Japan originated in his symbolist perception that Japan supported a culture infused with myth, legend, and a hazy kind of spiritualism arising out of a unique blending of Shinto and Buddhism.
Because of geido's similarity to the symbolist writing of some modernists, critics often suggest that Kawabata's art tends toward the symbolic. Gwen Boardman relates that in Kawabata's rewriting of Snow Country, his characterizations went from "more ‘realistic’ and straightforward to ‘lyrical’ and symbolic." According to Paul St. John Mackintosh, Snow Country "does the native spirit good by going back to the oldest Japanese literary traditions," and yet the novel is "modern in its narrative discontinuity and almost symbolist imagery." And Kawabata's involvement with other young artists in the Shinkankaku-Ha and its publication Bungei Jidai (1924) was, according to Boardman, "a reaction against the naturalistic writing and the ‘proletarian’ literature of their time." When this same reaction in Europe takes a spiritual direction, it is labeled symbolist, though the difference is that symbolism is subjective and somewhat occult, whereas geido uses aesthetics as a Way within Buddhism, an established religion.
Western discussions of Kawabata's art imply that his fiction may be grasped either in terms of unique Japanese aesthetic categories or Western existentialism. In "Elements of Existentialism in Modern Fiction," Mita Luz de Manuel suggests that Kawabata's modernism originates in the pervasive existential personality of his characters, that he "may well have connected Buddhist ‘emptiness’ or ‘nothingness’ with the nihilism of Western philosophy." Those who interpret Kawabata through Japanese aesthetic categories usually point out that his art contains yugen (mysterious or shadowy essence), mono no aware (poignant melancholy), sabi (refined, seasoned simplicity), or wabi (a calm, clear state of mind perfected in the tea ceremony). Wabi and sabi also suggest the quiet sadness Kawabata spoke of in reference to the tea ceremony. Kawabata used all of these aesthetic labels as keys to his art in the Nobel speech (though in his English translation Edward Seidensticker used descriptive phrases rather than these esoteric terms).
Enlightening as these efforts may be, however, analyses based on Japanese aesthetics leave Western readers unsatisfied as to the real purpose of Kawabata's art. We may see mono no aware as an abiding element in The Sound of the Mountain (1954) or Beauty and Sadness, but we still want to know what purpose it serves. The fact that Snow Country may illustrate wabi or sabi does not tell us what these two aesthetic qualities achieve. The existential model is at odds with Kawabata's symbolist propensities as well as his Nobel speech, in which he insists that it would be a mistake to confound the nihilism of Western existentialism with the nothingness of Zen: "This is not the nothingness or emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless" (JBM 56). Kawabata is insistent on this point and he returns to it at the Page 161 | Top of Article close of his address: "My own works have been described as works of emptiness," he notes, "but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundations would seem to be quite different" (JBM 41).
A unique feature of Japan is what Steve Odin refers to as "the primacy of aesthetic value experience or artistic intuition as the distinguishing feature of Japanese culture." This primacy of aesthetics permeates even the most mundane conditions of life in Japan, to the extent that ordinary store purchases are wrapped with painstaking attention paid to their final aesthetic presentation, or food is prepared and served with a focus on its aesthetic appeal. Even behavior—bowing and sitting, for example—has aesthetic as well as social components. The dominance of aesthetics in a culture infused with the traditional spiritual mysteries of Shinto and Buddhism means that a complex layering occurs in Japanese artistic expression as aesthetics, religion, and culture merge. Hence Kawabata's fiction must be seen as an expression of what it means to be Japanese: the self living in harmony with nature, culture, and spirituality through the disciplined application of aesthetics.
In the Nobel address, which is a discussion of Japanese aesthetic principles and their meaning and importance to the writer, Kawabata alluded to significant and abiding figures from Japan's literary history in his artistic development. Writers such as Dogen (1200-1253) and Myoe (1173-1232) were not just early inspirations. Their art and the eras in which they wrote epitomize the geido aesthetics Kawabata adopted as he strove to achieve the same degree of harmony with nature, art, spirituality, and culture that he perceived in their work. Dogen suggested to Kawabata "the deep quiet of the Japanese spirit" (JBM 69), while Myoe inspired the severe beauty and austere cold of Snow Country.
Kawabata began his Nobel speech by quoting a poem by Dogen called "Innate Spirit," followed by one by Myoe on the winter moon. These two poems set the tenor of the rest of Kawabata's address. Both poems illustrate yugen. Dogen's poem seems like a simple, four-line expression of the four seasons: "In the spring, cherry blossoms, / in the summer the cuckoo. / In autumn the moon, and in / winter the snow, clear, cold." But Kawabata's explanation of it sheds light on the poem's embodiment of yugen, in which that which is described becomes simply the foreground to the greater essence that lies behind: "The snow, the moon, the blossoms, words expressive of the seasons as they move one into another, include in the Japanese tradition the beauty of mountains and rivers and grasses and trees, of all the myriad manifestations of nature, of human feelings as well" (JBM 68).
Myoe's poem, three short lines on the cold wind and winter moon, evokes the same ephemeral sensations. The winter moon becomes the simple foreground for "the myriad manifestations of nature, of human feelings," even spiritual feelings, since it was a session of Zen meditation that evoked the poem: "Winter moon, coming from the / clouds to keep me company, / Is the wind piercing, the snow cold?" The austere beauty of nature in winter, the cold, clear air and moonlit night, suggest that which is not part of the scene: "When we see the beauty of the snow," writes Kawabata, "it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure. The excitement of beauty calls forth strong fellow feelings, yearnings for companionship, and the word ‘comrade’ can be taken to mean human being" (JBM 68).
Kawabata's evaluation of later writers, those whose historical moments were closer to his own, clearly suggests that geido became for him an artistic goal. For example, Ryokan (1758-1831) was important because in his work "one feels … the emotions of old Japan and the heart of a religious faith as well" (JBM 65). To Kawabata, Ryokan suggested that Japanese artists must be guided by the aesthetic purity of the past rather than the vulgar present: "Ryokan, who shook off the modern vulgarity of his day, who was immersed in the elegance of earlier centuries … lived in the spirit of these poems…. The profundity of religion and literature were not, for him, in the abstruse" (JBM 65). Behind this description of Ryokan lies Kawabata's self-portrait: the twentieth-century author rejecting the vulgarity of a decadent present through immersion in the elegance of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Speaking of his novel A Thousand Cranes (1959), Kawabata declared it "a negative work, an expression of doubt about and a warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen" (JBM 68). In this context "tea ceremony" may be seen as a metaphor for Japanese culture.
Kawabata's preference for the geido aesthetics of earlier writers makes it clear that he saw life in contemporary Japan as vulgar. Some critics have observed that he turned away from Page 162 | Top of Article it. Kawabata's declaration following Japan's defeat in World War II that he would never write again reinforces such observations and suggests that the author interpreted the war's outcome as a destruction of the potential of geido to merge nation, culture, and spirituality through art.
Kawabata did write again, of course, but his fiction now warned against the vulgar intrusion of Western culture into Japanese life. These warnings sometimes appear as the insertion of foreign elements into moments focused on Japanese tradition. The Sound of the Mountain, whose theme contrasts the animism of Japan's Shinto past with life in the fragmented and vulgar present, is set near Tokyo, where the daily routine of the protagonist, Shingo, immerses him in the conditions of life in a contemporary industrial city while his traditional house and the mountain that speaks to him provide a cultural refuge. The ambiguous animism of the mountain—evoking the traditional Japan of Myoe and Dogen—coexists with Shingo's daily business existence in modern Tokyo, where Shingo's son is having an affair with his secretary. This contemporary setting serves as a metaphor for the intrusion of foreign elements into Japanese life and contributes to the novel's mono no aware or melancholy tone.
Beauty and Sadness begins with Oki Toshio traveling to Kyoto by express train on December 29 in an undefined year, perhaps the late fifties or early sixties, in order to participate in the ceremony of the New Year's bells, whose "lingering reverberations held an awareness of the old Japan and of the flow of time." During the trip, an American couple photograph Mount Fuji as the train passes. Mount Fuji's status as a sacred mountain creates a severe contrast with the superficial act of the American tourists, who see the mountain as a mere photographic object to be venerated for its crude aesthetic rather than its sacred spiritual essence. When Oki arrives in Kyoto he does not go to a traditional ryokan, but straight to the Miyako Hotel, one of the better Western hotels in Kyoto. The discordant note sounded by Oki's preference for a non-Japanese hotel during a trip to recover the "old Japan" creates an inescapable irony and reveals a degree of ambivalence in his quest to recover tradition. Both incidents are projections of Kawabata's conservative artistic and cultural attitude and create ironic juxtapositions that serve as moral warnings against the decadence into which contemporary Japanese culture has fallen.
While the Kyoto of Beauty and Sadness may boast Japan's most traditional cultural environment, the novel reads less like an attempt to revisit traditional Japan than a story concerned with the tangled web of relationships between Oki, his wife, his former mistress, and the children of these relationships. In the course of the novel, Oki's son has an affair with the young protegee of Oki's former mistress and drowns in a motorboat accident on Lake Biwa. Despite the novel's traditional title which proclaims a principle of Japanese art—only that which is sad or tragic can be truly beautiful—its subject is infidelity and involves the intrigues of unrequited love, and the setting could be any modern country. Motorboat accidents, fast trains, Western-style hotels, cafes and coffee shops, even the suggestion of a lesbian relationship between Oki's former mistress and her young protegee all give the novel a contemporary feeling. Beauty and Sadness is an elaborate presentation of the tragic consequences of life in a tainted culture, making the novel yet another "negative work," a powerful artistic expression of the decadence of postwar life in a battered nation.
But the moment responsible for Snow Country was the prewar 1930s, Japan's modern Nationalist period, when the fervor for tradition and cultural unity became intense. This historical moment, in contrast with the sixties era that produced Beauty and Sadness, was permeated by "government efforts at national spiritual mobilization." The direct effect on art and culture of this spiritual mobilization may be seen in the translation project involving The Manyoshu, whose more than 4,500 poems were compiled during the eighth century. Begun in 1934, the same year that saw the publication of the first part of Snow Country, the project marked the first attempt by Japanese scholars to produce an English translation of The Manyoshu. As the introduction indicates, the project arose out of the need to assert traditional Japanese culture and the superiority of Japan's organic social structure against encroaching influences from the West: "But filial piety [and by extension devotion to culture, nation, and emperor], so sincere, intense and instinctive as shown in the Manyo poems is not likely to be duplicated by any other people and under any other social order." According to Donald Keene, the spirit of The Manyoshu, which was republished in 1940, was "constantly invoked by literary men" during the war years between 1941 and 1945 because certain works contained expressions of clan unity and therefore a sense of filial obligation Page 163 | Top of Article to country and emperor. There is a spiritual condition in this appraisal, since Japan has always traced the origins of both country and emperor to its mythological past.
What immediately strikes the reader of Snow Country is that the story takes place in Niigata Prefecture, away from Tokyo, the city that represents in the Japanese mind all that is modern and Western in Japanese culture. "Tokyo is Japan, but Japan is not Tokyo" the saying goes, with the obvious implication that visitors wanting to know the "real" Japan must venture into rural areas. These form the setting of Kawabata's novel, which, not so coincidentally, was also the home of Ryokan, who "lived his whole life in the snow country," as Kawabata noted enthusiastically in his Nobel speech (JBM 64). The two major characters of the novel are the Tokyo visitor Shimamura and the snow-country native Komako, who says at one point in the novel, "Tokyo people are very complicated. They live in such noise and confusion that their feelings are broken to little bits." Komako's feelings are intact and vibrant, unlike those of Shimamura, the Tokyo refugee she is destined to love.
The novel's snow-country setting is a northerly region of the main island of Honshu in what is known as the reverse side of Japan, the area close to the Japan Sea that is swept by cold winds from Siberia during the winter. Whereas Tokyo embodies Japan's contemporary, industrial, Eurocentric energies, the reverse side of Japan represents the Japan of unbroken tradition, of life close to nature, life rich with aesthetic and spiritual potential far removed from the bustle of life in the twentieth century. In the Japanese mind the region evokes the shadowy cold of winter, which makes it the perfect embodiment of yugen. Less complicated by Western intrusions into the story than The Sound of the Mountain, Beauty and Sadness, The Lake, and some of Kawabata's short stories, Snow Country embodies the innate spirituality of Dogen and the severe beauty of Myoe. Begun during a time of hope, when recovery of tradition seemed possible, the novel epitomizes Kawabata's twentieth-century triumph over what he described in reference to A Thousand Cranes as "the vulgarities into which the tea ceremony has fallen" (JBM 68).
The novel's setting recalls Myoe's poem on the winter moon in which that which is foregrounded in the poem becomes the spartan expression of all things not seen—summer, grass, trees, and close friends and fellow human beings—forming a literary counterpart to the traditional sumie inkwash drawing. Rendered in monochrome black ink on a white or pale background, sumie drawings contain three planes: a clear foreground, a midground, and a distant background, "which fades into the mystery and depth of enveloping pictorial space." The transitions among the planes occur in "an atmospheric haze of concealing mists and vapors … further enhancing the quality of yugen in its sense as ‘hidden depths.’" This spartan art evokes in the Japanese mind a rich sense of unity with those things not expressed, both cultural and spiritual, and becomes an embodiment of the opposite of itself. Taken to an extreme, this artistic concept suggests in the empty character of Shimamura precisely those things he lacks and those things missing in the austere, snowy region that serves as the novel's setting. Rather than being precisely defined and enumerated, however, that which is missing, as in the sumie drawing, must remain intuitive and ephemeral, though one would naturally expect a Japanese reading audience to agree, at least to some extent, on what is missing, since geido merges spirituality and culture.
Kawabata's use of geido as a principle of the novel's development, and the intricate layering of some of its cultural conditions, creates for readers a refined cultural ritual similar to the tea ceremony. Yukio Mishima recognized this principle in the introduction to Kawabata's collection The House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Short Stories, where he noted that in the works of great writers, there are those whose meaning is culturally obvious, and "we might liken them to exoteric … Buddhism. In the case of Mr. Kawabata, Snow Country falls in [this] category." Mishima was referring to the novel's merging of culture, religion, and aesthetics as an expected and predictable characteristic of Japanese art, especially the art of the Master intended for Japanese readers. Such readers would instantly recognize that the love affair between Shimamura and Komako is both a literary allusion to Tanabata, a festival from mythology that celebrates the story of the Oxherd and the Weaver Maid, and an expression of mono no aware, defined by Mackintosh in a reference to Snow Country as "the pathos of things, the sadness of their transience," a Buddhist concept at the heart of Japanese life and thought.
Symbolized by the cherry blossom, which flowers for a brief moment then fades, impermanence Page 164 | Top of Article defines the relationship between Shimamura and Komako. Both know their affair is doomed from the start: the Japanese male visits hot springs more for momentary relief from the monotonous patterns of his organized life at home than to discover anything of lasting value or importance. Shimamura is no different, and both he and Komako know why Shimamura visits each year. Their mutual awareness that the affair is fated to flower only briefly casts over the story a feeling of recurring poignancy, or mono no aware. But the love affair becomes a foreground vehicle for the expression of deeper cultural perceptions. Paradoxically, the transitory love affair between Shimamura and Komako reinforces a sense of cultural unity, particularly in Japanese readers, who would be expected to grasp Kawabata's aesthetic motives.
Tanabata is a national festival celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month every year. Though the myth was originally Chinese, it found its way into Japanese cultural mythology, and became such an established feature of the literary landscape of early Japan that 120 songs about it found their way into The Manyoshu.
The story is simple. The Oxherd star and the Weaver Maid star love each other so much that they are constantly together and neglecting their duties. So the Ruler of Heaven separates the two young stars: they will exist for eternity on opposite sides of the Heavenly River, or Milky Way, being allowed to meet one day a year, the seventh day of the seventh month. The ubiquitous references to the Milky Way in the last chapter of the novel and Shimamura's once-a-year visit to Komako's snow-country village, with his side trip to the Chijimi cloth weaving region famous for its weaver maidens, reinforce the novel's connection to this traditional myth.
The allusion to the Tanabata myth in Shimamura's side trip to Chijimi, and the connection between it and the love story of Shimamura and Komako, suggest that the world of Shimamura and Komako retains its ancient mythological roots: "the land of Chijimi [symbolically the land of weaver maidens] was very near this [Komako's] hot spring," writes Kawabata (SC 125). But Shimamura is disillusioned by Chijimi. Seeking the ancient cloth-weaving villages and weaver maids engaged in their personal weaving rituals, he finds instead villages mostly deserted, where an old woman smiles knowingly at his suggestion that the maidens of the village might occupy themselves during the winter by weaving Chijimi cloth. Shimamura remembers that his guidebook had told him that weaving cloth in the old way was impractical and too labor-intensive for modern times, and during his visit he thinks about leaving Komako. Chijimi predicts the novel's final outcome as Shimamura, disillusioned by the intrusion of the contemporary industrial present into this isolated rural environment, transfers his disillusionment to the affair with Komako. When he returns to Komako's village the end of their relationship is near. But it is not a final, existential end, for even as Shimamura's connection to Komako and her snow-country village is terminating, Shimamura is being spiritually absorbed into the region of the snow country, where "generation after generation of his ancestors had endured the long snows" (SC 128).
His absorption is so intense that it becomes a religious experience, a Way, in which, as he loses connection with Komako's material world, he finds himself drawn up into the Milky Way with the sparks of the cocoon warehouse fire that ends the novel: "The sparks spread off into the Milky Way, and Shimamura was pulled up with them. As the smoke drifted away, the Milky Way seemed to dip and flow in the opposite direction" (SC 139). Shimamura stumbles, and Kawabata ends the novel with Shimamura's head falling back and the Milky Way flowing down inside him with a roar (SC 142).
In the last few pages of the novel, references to the Milky Way occur nineteen times. While it is easy to see the symbolic connection between the love affair and the Tanabata myth, the ending seems too saturated with aesthetics, spirituality, and culture for these geido qualities to be mere coincidence. The Milky Way is often referred to in Japanese mythology as the Bridge of Heaven, the path taken to earth by the country's founding deities. Each mention of it in the novel tends to merge the Tanabata myth with the spiritual origins of Japan's mythical past. These expressions are typical: "the Milky Way came down to wrap itself around the earth" (SC 136) or, referring to Shimamura, the Milky Way "like a great aurora flowed through his body to stand at the edges of the earth" (SC 137).
"Snow Country is perhaps Kawabata's masterpiece," writes Seidensticker in the introduction to the novel's English translation. And it is not incidental that both the setting and the story evoke the cultural, artistic, and spiritual sensitivities of the tea Page 165 | Top of Article ceremony and become an embodiment of the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles designated by geido. Snow Country's final scenes constitute both a rejection of the vulgar and decadent present and an apotheosis of geido, of Kawabata's insistent demand for the traditional Japanese unity of spirit, culture, and self through art.
Source: Peter M. Carriere, "Writing as Tea Ceremony: Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 29, No. 1-2, January 2002, p. 52.
In the following article, Richie states that the sense of evanescence that is Kawabata is what links him strongly to his country and culture and what makes him universal.
This collection of stories, plus an essay and a dance-drama, was originally published in 1958 as Fuji no Hatsuyuki. It is late Kawabata—most of the major works had already appeared, the author wrote much less during these years, and he died in 1972.
That these works form a meditation on death is not surprising. Many of Kawabata's works—early and late—are just that. He called himself a master of ceremonies at funerals, and though he was referring to duties at the demise of friends, his writing was from the earliest informed by thoughts of death.
Indeed, this awareness of transience creates the Kawabata tone. In a way it makes him "Japanese," because these people are traditionally less inclined to deny the facts of life (and death) than are those of at least several other countries. It also makes him universal, because these are facts that, like it or not, we must all face.
This lends Kawabata's work a certain cohesion—this and the facts that he often finished works long after they were originally published, and that all of his writing shares a relatively narrow repertoire of themes.
Readers of a work as early as "The Diary of My Sixteenth Year" will find that one of the stories here, "Nature," might be considered a continuation. The story "Yumiura" could be seen as a late metamorphosis of "The Izu Dancer." Indeed, one Japanese critic saw it as that, stating that the aged woman turning up at the novelist's door is really the child dancer now grown old. In any event, Kawabata included both works in a collection of his favorites published shortly before he received the Nobel Prize.
A theme that is often found in Kawabata's works (as well as in the writings of many other authors) is the nature of self-awareness. The woman in "This County, That County" is surprised to discover that two entities can express themselves through her; the man in "Nature" has lived a life as a woman and Kawabata is very interested in what Thomas Rimer has called "the interplay between character, gender and self-knowledge."
In "Silence," the author visits another writer, victim of a stroke, who can no longer speak and seems "a living ghost." Interwoven into this is a "real" ghost story, one side of the theme lending body to the other. The essay "Chrysanthemum in the Rock" contains its own ghost, since the rock is eventually a grave stone and the various themes of awareness, ghosts and death are all gracefully gathered together.
Kawabata's means are famously economical. Indeed, perhaps the only way to treat the great truths he deals with is through a style this laconic. Through ellipses, thrown-away observations and intimations, Kawabata is able to suggest his meaning without explicitly stating it. One must infer when reading Kawabata, and this modest exercise means that one brings to him what is necessary for his intentions to flower.
The sense of death that hovers just about the Kawabata page would, indeed, be impossible were it directly delineated. Rather, author and reader together weave the pattern. Translating this into another language is a problem. This work has been translated into German and Russian, and I can have no opinion as to their success.
In English, Kawabata is fortunate in having had good translators—Edward Seidensticker, Howard Hibbett and now Michael Emmerich.
This sense of evanescence that is so palpable in Kawabata is what, I believe, links him so strongly to his country and its culture, and what makes him at the same time so universal. He wrote about the most important subject and his words directly reach us. After his suicide, no note was found, but one obituary remembered something he had said: "A silent death is an endless word."
Source: Donald Richie, "Kawabata and Great Truths," in Japan Times, December 1, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Jurgella discusses how to use dramatic interpretation as a means to teach the classics through student skits, based on "Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket."
… So what else is new? It is inherent in English classrooms today that interpretation of literature includes dramatic activities such as readers' theater, role playing, and student-generated skits. I have three unique theatrical favorites which have worked well for me.
India's Rabindranath Tagore authored a timeless poem, "The man had no useful work." The poetic narrative questions whether humankind values a productive livelihood more than it values the individual. I've developed a "blind" performance of this poem which unfolds as the students, under my cue, perform individual parts assigned to them on a piece of paper they drew from the pot. The paper slips direct students to, for example, be the narrator, look up a word in the dictionary, read the girl's lines, answer questions about the author, draw a scene from the poem on the board, even interject their opinion after a particular line is read. After a silent ten-minute prep time, the performance begins with my asking "Where is the author Rabindranath Tagore from, and when did he live?" The student, whose slip of paper included directions to look up those facts, answers. It moves on to "Will the narrator of the poem please begin reading?" and continues as the students see their individual parts form a whole, defining words, pointing out pictures drawn on the board, reading lines to the final few students who wrap up with their prepared answer to "What does this poem say about the individual and society?"
"The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" by Yasunari Kawabata of Japan looks at elements of nature and true beauty through the eyes of a quietly observant narrator. A very simple dramatic activity, which I call "zoom in on nature," reinforces Kawabata's tale of epiphany. After we have read and discussed the story, small groups choose an incident of nature written on a slip of paper—anything from "a blooming flower" to "an eclipse." They have to really "zoom in" to first visualize, then perform these moments in nature. One of the most powerful of these skits was when a boy jumped up through his groupmates' circle of arms, diving and landing onto the floor with such force that the class gasped, then guessed correctly that he was the lava exploding out of a volcano.
Another simple, dramatic, yet realistic, corollary leaves students thinking—and talking—after walking out of the classroom. I have revived the classic film adaptation of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" in my world literature class. Our closing activity is staging a lottery of our own. It takes just a few minutes as the students each draw a square of paper from my "black box," hold it in their hands until the signal, then slowly unfold it to see who received the one with the black dot. (Coincidentally, last semester, the student who "lost" the lottery was the same boy who earlier had exploded through the volcano!)
Source: Janet Jurgella, "Classic Connections: Aiding Literary Comprehension through Varied Liberal Arts Alliances," in English Journal, Vol. 87, No. 3, March 1998, p. 18.
Thomas J. Rimer
In the following article, Holman reviews a collection of Kawabata's stories and praises the prose and themes of stories that hearken back to traditional, classic Japanese literature.
"As death approaches, memory erodes," writes Kawabata in one of the graceful and often unsettling stories contained in this new collection. These few words reveal the themes that pervade these diverse tales, but can only begin to suggest their range and subtlety.
Kawabata (1899-1972), the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize, in 1968, has long been known in the United States and Europe for such novels as The Sound of the Mountain, Snow Country and others that often hark back to the traditions of classical Japanese literature. He employs devices from those long poetic traditions in order to create in modern prose his remarkable effects: juxtapositions of image upon image to open up the depths of feeling lurking behind placid surface reality. These stories, most of them composed when he was a young writer, serve as a reminder that he was then fascinated by the work of the European imagists and symbolists, who often used similar techniques in order to move from fact to suggestion.
Many of the 20-odd stories that make up this collection are only a few pages in length. A number of them are justly famous in Japan, but only one, "The Dancing Girl of Izu," has received wide circulation in translation, in a slightly shortened version by the great Edward Seidensticker, first published in the 1960s and available in a variety of editions over the years. "The Dancing Girl," like many other stories included here, contains strong autobiographical elements, but these are used not for their own sake, as possible self-revelations, but as a means to suggest the difficulties of penetrating toward any kind of ultimate truth.
This conviction, so important to an understanding of Kawabata's basic artistic stance, is most clearly revealed in the second story, "Diary of My Sixteenth Year." The story contains three layers: the narrative itself, an afterword appended in 1925, and a second afterword attached still later. The material presented in the tale itself, Kawabata tells his readers in the first afterword, is taken from his teenage diary and concerns his attempts to care for his dying grandfather, by then his only close relative. The old man grows weaker as the story progresses. Kawabata tells us in the second afterword that he was to die some eight days later.
It is easy to see why he was regarded as such a precocious writer, for the description of the old man, from his incoherent mumblings to his seemingly constant need to urinate, is gripping to read, particularly when experienced through the consciousness of the young boy, who is forced to help the situation along as best he can. According to the first afterword, in his published version Kawabata added only an occasional parenthesis to the original text, in order to identify persons and places and, occasionally, to augment his memories of his own responses. In the second afterword, however, he acknowledges that "since I wrote that first Afterword as fiction, there are some parts that differ from the truth." He proceeds to make further corrections and suggestions, then makes the following statement, which goes to the core of his ambitions in this short but remarkable work:
"I cannot simply imagine that something has ‘vanished’ or ‘been lost’ in the past just because I do not recall it. This work was not meant to resolve the puzzle of forgetfulness and memory. Neither was it intended to answer the questions of time and life. But it is certain that it offers a clue, some piece of evidence."
In resolutely seeking for such clues, Kawabata removes "Diary" from that genre of nihilistic literary game so much practiced in the West in the postwar years. For Kawabata, the fact that we cannot know is perhaps more an occasion for chagrin, for humility. "Bad as my memory is," he writes, "I have no firm belief in memory. There are times when I feel that forgetfulness is a blessing."
Other stories in the first part of this collection circle around the sense of loss that Kawabata felt as a youngster over the many deaths in his family, and how this radical loneliness marked his very conceptions of reality. No wonder, as he records in one of these stories, he was referred to as "The Master of Funerals."
The book's second section contains a number of brief stories that reveal Kawabata's ability to put a moment of poetic vision into a page or two of striking prose. These sketches, often referred to as haiku-like, reveal his penchant for the excitements of literary experimentation. Many are purely lyrical. Some reveal an acute sense of the social conditions found in interwar Japan, such as "The Money Road," which describes some remarkable events that took place after the great earthquake of 1923 virtually destroyed Tokyo, or "The Sea," which describes with understated poignancy the plight of Korean laborers in the Japanese countryside.
Given the difficulties of Kawabata's subtle and difficult language, the translator, J. Martin Holman, has generally struck an excellent balance between accuracy and the need to create a certain level of evocative possibility. Holman is to be congratulated for making available in English a number of striking works by this now-classic Japanese author. He chose well from among the various possibilities available to him.
Source: Thomas J. Rimer, "Kawabata Country," in Washington Post, September 21, 1997, p. X04.
Mary Jo Moran
In the following article, Moran advises that teachers should introduce students to non-Western writers such as Kawabata because he succeeds in integrating Western and Eastern techniques, producing superb fiction.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 for "contributing to spiritual bridge-spanning between East and West," Yasunari Kawabata, one of Japan's best modern writers, appeals to today's students because he understands and writes about a world afflicted with alienation.
Kawabata's life was one marked by recurrent, personal tragedy. His father died when Kawabata was only two and his mother died a year later. By the time Kawabata was sixteen, his only sister and grandparents were dead, and he spent the remainder of his adolescent years in several boarding schools. Thus, he shares the scars of alienation, one of modern society's characteristic maladies, with today's youth, and the intense loneliness he experienced during his early years is reflected in his writing.
Thousand Cranes (New York: Berkley, 1965, written in 1947), treats loneliness and the fragility of human relationships with rare sensitivity. As the novel opens, the reader meets Kikuji, a young man in his late twenties who has recently lost both his parents, and who, for the present, has abandoned his heritage and traditions. However, Kikuji's resolve to ignore his roots wavers when he accepts an invitation to attend a tea ceremony where he will be formally introduced to Yukiko Inamura, the girl of the thousand cranes, by Chikako, his father's first mistress. While participating in this tea ceremony, he also meets Mrs. Ota, his father's second and last mistress, and her daughter, Fumiko.
As the novel unfolds, Kikuji, struggling to break with established traditions, has the choice of either embracing the past, its ugliness represented strikingly by Chikako who is disfigured by a large, ugly birthmark on her breast, or a future, characterized by the purity and innocence of the Inamura girl. Although Kikuji intuitively knows that no goodness or life can come from a relationship with Chikako. he can not escape her and consequently becomes enmeshed in his father's past. The venom he was so keenly aware of during the innocence of his youth becomes an integral part of him.
Thus, Kawabata strongly proposes that Kikuji becomes possessed by his father's spirit, while Fumiko, after her mother's untimely suicide, becomes possessed by her mother's spirit. Neither can escape fate, and family history is doomed to repeat itself because both Kikuji and Fumiko become romantically involved in a relationship which proves destructive to both.
Kawabata's writing is characterized by brevity. In the first ten pages of the novel, the reader not only meets the novel's major characters and becomes immediately acquainted with intertwining details of their past but is also introduced to the novel's theme, conflict, and recurring symbols.
Thousand Cranes is rich in symbolism and imagery.
Back in his bedroom after brushing his teeth, Kikuji saw that the maid had hung a gourd in the alcove. It contained a single morning glory….
It was a plain indigo morning glory, probably wild, and most ordinary. The vine was thin, and the leaves and blossom were small.
But the green and the deep blue were cool, falling over a red lacquered gourd dark with age….
In a gourd that had been handed down for three centuries, a flower that would fade in a morning….
There was something unsettling in the idea of a cut morning glory.
Repeated references are also made to colors, birds, flowers, and other natural phenomena.
Against the backdrop of the Japanese tea ceremony, Kawabata examines the role and importance of ritual and tradition, the transience of life, parents' influence on children, the role of fate in individual lives, and life's cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Readers are continually reminded of their own mortality as Kawabata juxtaposes the novel's characters and the age-old tea utensils.
In Snow Country (New York: Berkley, 1960, written in 1937), Kawabata examines male-female relationships. Shimamura, an idle but wealthy married man from Tokyo who has inherited his money, meets two women, Komacho, a sensitive, warm geisha, and Yoko, a young girl strangely different from other hot spring natives.
The reader visits the snow country on the west coast of Japan's main island three times with Shimamura. The coldness of the setting and Shimamura's incessant awareness of others as "cold" accurately reflect his character. Through these trips, Kawabata concentrates on developing Shimamura's relationship with Komacho and his inability to love. Kawabata's power of characterization is striking as both characters become unique. Komacho's beauty and warmth draw the reader to identify and sympathize with her, but one is repelled by Shimamura's cold, indifferent self-centeredness.
Although Shimamura believes that "only women are able really to love," he cannot justify his lack of emotional response to us. His is a wasted life, symbolized by his area of specialization, the Western ballet, chosen because he Page 169 | Top of Article has not seen the Western dance. Thus, living with his own fantasies, he can remain untouched by experience. In describing Shimamura, Kawabata states simply, "He preferred not to savor the ballet in the flesh; rather he savored the phantasms of his own dancing imagination, called up by Western books and pictures. It was like being in love with someone he had never seen."
Kawabata's female characters, as well as his understanding of the female psyche, distinguish his work. In Snow Country, Kawabata paints a picture of Komacho:
The high, thin nose was usually a little lonely, a little sad, but today, with the healthy, vital flush on her cheeks, it was rather whispering: I am here too. The smooth lips seemed to reflect back a dancing light even when they were drawn into a tight bud; and when for a moment they were stretched wide, as the singing demanded, they were quick to contract again into that engaging little bud. Their charm was exactly like the charm of her body itself. Her eyes, moist and shining, made her look like a very young girl. She wore no powder, and the polish of the city geisha had over it a layer of mountain color. Her skin, suggesting the newness of a freshly peeled onion or perhaps a lily bulb, was flushed faintly, even to the throat. More than anything, it was clean.
Snow Country and Thousand Cranes introduce Western readers to unfamiliar aspects of Japanese culture and geography while they contrast pre- and post-World War II Japan. Kawabata succeeds in integrating Western literary techniques with Eastern spirit while achieving superb psychological fiction. In Thousand Cranes, while speaking to Kikuji about her mother's suicide, Fumiko says, "She died because of herself. If you say it was you who made her die, then it was I even more. If I have to blame anyone, it should be myself. But it only makes her death seem dirty, when we start feeling responsible and having regrets. Regrets and second thoughts only make the burden heavier for the one who has died."
Both novels fool the reader at a first, casual glance. They are short, the print large, the vocabulary unsophisticated. But during a more thoughtful reading one is struck by the profound meaning expressed in elegant simplicity. Kawabata's style is paradoxical, simple, yet profound, descriptive, yet suggestive.
Kawabata's style resembles that of the Japanese Sumiee painter. He suggests a character or situation much as a Sumiee painter expresses the essential nature of his subject in a few abbreviated strokes. Through language, Kawabata presents a visual image suggesting an intuitive experience beyond the confines of language. Like the artist, Kawabata depends upon a response from his reader to complete his work. He relies on our common pool of experience which awakens intuition and meaning in the mind of the reader.
While most undergraduate and graduate English programs do not include a study of non-Western literature, today's secondary English teachers are equipped with analytical reading skills. We must use those skills to teach non-Western literature if we are to prepare students to live in today's world. Like Kawabata, we must begin bridging the gap between the West and the East.
Source: Mary Jo Moran, "Recommended: Yasunari Kawabata," in English Journal, Vol. 71, No. 7, November 1982, pp. 75-76.
Chiba, Kameo, "The Birth of the Neoperceptionists," in Seiki, November 1924, reprinted in "Kawabata: Achievements of the Nobel Laureate ," in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 2, Spring 1989, pp. 209-12.
Cowley, Jason, "The Month of Cherry Blossom," in New Statesman, August 21, 2006, p. 46.
Dean, Kitty Chen, Review of Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, in Library Journal, Vol. 113, No. 3, August 1988, p. 174.
Gessel, Van C., "Yasunari Kawabata," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 330, Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 2: Faulkner-Kipling, edited by Jeffrey Louis Decker, Thomson Gale, 2007, pp. 449-62.
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Kawabata, Yasunari, "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket," in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, pp. 13-17.
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Aesop, Aesop's Fables, translated by Laura Gibbs, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Aesop was supposedly a tongue-tied slave who received the power of speech through a miracle. Although these fables were first published in the late 1400s, they are still enjoyed by readers of all ages. This edition includes six hundred fables.
Akutagawa, Ryunosuke, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, translated by Jay Rubin, Penguin Classics, 2009.
The short stories contained in this collection explore human nature and moral ambiguity. Like Kawabata, Akutagawa's writing style is simple and spare, and his treatment of the human condition makes him one of Japan's most highly respected authors.
Kawabata, Yasunari, Snow Country, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, Vintage, 1996.
This novel found its genesis in the short story "Gleanings from Snow Country" (1972), also published in Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. Kawabata writes a haunting story of wasted love between a wealthy man and a mountain geisha. This is one of the three novels that earned Kawabata the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds., New Sudden Fiction: Short-Short Stories from America and Beyond, W. W. Norton, 2007.
Each of the sixty stories in this compilation is 2,000 words or less. Writers hail from around the globe and include those well known (Ian Frazier, Tobias Wolff, and Sam Shepard) as well as those new to the scene. The variety of themes and styles makes this volume ideal for use in the literature classroom.
Tanaka, Yukiko, To Live and to Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938, Seal Press, 1987.
Nine Japanese feminists explore the challenges and obstacles of life in pre-World War II Japan. The tension of being caught between the limitations of tradition and the demands of modernity is reflected in these stories as they touch on themes of politics, gender, poverty, and many others.