Snow Country

Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 175

Snow Country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.

According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeatedly praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”

As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata prefecture, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality saké brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all of the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas such as Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate performances.

Snow Country is about a man named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a mountain tunnel into the open air:

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.

This is one of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets such as Bashō and Issa.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.

Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and in his tracking shots.

If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where the geisha Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:

To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.

What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.

In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. It goes without saying that Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.

It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is unarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.

I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of auto-Orientalizing imagery is to do it a disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”

9 thoughts on “Snow Country

  1. toranosuke says:

    I actually read “The Master of Go” as my first Kawabata novel, but I later went on to read Snow Country and find the imagery and, as you put it, “haiku-like” writing style, in translation, wonderfully beautiful and gripping. There’s something about his writing that feels like it connects into the spirit of traditional Japan, as “In Praise of Shadows” does. I read Kawabata, and I feel like I’m biking leisurely around machiya-filled areas of Kyoto, or having a soak in an onsen, or relaxing in a washitsu at a ryokan, looking out over the garden.

    In this respect, for me (especially given how little Japanese literature I have read, or even read about), Kawabata feels like the perfect complement and opposite to Murakami, whose books feel like hip, happening, modern Japan. Or, to put it another way, Kawabata is to Kyoto as Murakami Haruki is to Tokyo, in my mind.

    One of these days, I need to try reading Kawabata in the original. I have a whole bunch of his books in Japanese back home in NY…

    • Kathryn says:

      I haven’t read The Master of Go yet! You just reminded me that I would really like to. Thank you!

      Perhaps when you think of Kawabata, you think of Kyoto, but I always think of Kamakura. So many of Kawabata’s novels (like Thousand Cranes and Sound of the Mountain) are set there, and I think that’s where he lived after the war. Every time I go up to the mountain teahouse in Engakuji, I always think Kawabata used to drink tea here! and get really giddy (although he probably didn’t; I think he was actually associated with Kenchōji). I really like Beauty and Sadness, though, since it’s set in both Kamakura and Kyoto.

      The wonderful thing about Kawabata is that he was crazy talented. It’s easy to associate him with traditional Japan (which I will shameless admit that I do sometimes), but the truth is that a lot of his early fiction – for example, the vast majority of his “palm of the hand” work – is set in Tokyo, and he also wrote a lot of fantastically weird experimental fiction later in his career, like The Lake and House of the Sleeping Beauties (which is my favorite). In some ways, I think, Murakami is a much more conventional storyteller than Kawabata; and, in any case, Kawabata was rocking the whole “magical realism” and “disappearing women” party way before Murakami came onto the scene.

      What I am trying to say, I guess, is that you should totally read more Kawabata when you can recover your books; you definitely won’t regret it.

      • toranosuke says:

        I’m sure I won’t. It’s funny, I remember going to the public library (was it the main Boston Library? or the Waltham Library, out in the suburbs? I think it was the main Boston one.) and looking specifically for Snow Country. The Master of Go was the only one they had on the shelf… so that was the first book of his I read.

        Now that you say Kamakura, I can see how that fits his aesthetic even better. The traditional aspect is certainly there, but there’s something a bit different about the flavor of Kamakura… quieter, but perhaps less magical, less romantic(ized). I guess Kawabata combines the air of the (romanticized) traditional Japan with a dose of reality, like the plain, unvarnished wood of a Kamakura temple, as contrasted with the sleek lacquered surface of a Gion serving tray. Something like that.

        PS Talking about Kenchoji in my lecture on Japanese art in our Global Art History Survey course in a couple weeks. 鎌倉行きたいなぁ。

  2. Arti says:

    I’m much impressed by your analysis of the book. Your post is not only a review, by a socio-political and cultural commentary of the time and the psyche of the people and the nation of Japan. I read Snow Country last winter, during the deep snow we were having here in Western Canada. I read it due to your recommendation, when I asked you about what was the literary parallel of Ozu’s films. And I have you to thank for my discovery of Kawabata. I’ll be reading The Sound of the Mountain next.

    Another question here: Do you think Ozu just might hold similar political views as Kawabata in that he focused on the minute individual and the family, and never mentioned too much about Japan’s dominance as a nation during WWII?

    • Kathryn says:

      A commentary on the psyche of the people and the nation of Japan?

      Hmmmm… I wish I could actually pull that off!

      I think perhaps the only psyche represented by Snow Country is Kawabata’s (inasmuch as any author can accurately represent his psyche), and it’s helpful to remember that Kawabata, who was wealthy and hyper-educated, represents a very, very small minority of the Japanese population during the first half of the Shōwa Period. If Snow Country can be said to represent a view of Japan, it’s Kawabata’s own unique view of Japan. If I am being picky here, it’s because I have heard so many people talk about Snow Country as representing “the quintessential soul of Japan” without bothering to put it in its historically specific context.

      Sometimes I even get the feeling that Kawabata was trolling the Nobel committee in his acceptance speech. It’s as if this highly literate, cosmopolitan, and almost frighteningly articulate man was like, “Okay, you guys can’t see me as being able to operate outside of my own cultural and linguistic sphere? You want some Zen? I WILL GIVE YOU SOME ZEN.” Although that’s probably just my imagination.

      As for Ozu, I wouldn’t want to make any generalizations since I haven’t seen more than a handful of his movies – although I think Tokyo monogatari is just as much about the city of Tokyo (and about Japan as a whole, by extension) as it is about the Hirayama family. If you’re really into Ozu, though, I would recommend Donald Richie’s Ozu: His Life and Films. It’s a really fun read (if a bit dated, but interesting in the cultural context the late seventies).

  3. apricot says:

    I was assigned Snow Country for a class back when I was in my freshman year of undergrad, and I’m embarrassed to admit I never finished it. Your post has given me the push I need to go back and read it!

    • Kathryn says:

      You should! The novel has kind of a shock ending. Although some people think this ending is a bit random, I love the way it provides closure for the two female characters, who…

      Well, I’m not going to spoil it! But let’s just say they get their revenge on Shimamura in a very, very subtle way.

  4. David says:

    I stumbled across your blog looking for an analysis of Snow Country because I was having trouble coming to terms with the end of the novel. I can see a great many things in it, but I’m also confused by it. One notable point of confusion is when you wrote in the comment above that the women get revenge on Shimamura. (Spoilers ensue.) I interpreted the closing as his coming to terms with having to leave this fantasy (the warehouse burning down). I’m sure this is Kawabata’s intention, as subtle passages allude through the entire section. I also see in the Milky Way Kawabata’s persistence to find beauty in times of tragedy, but I feel it must be something deeper. I don’t truthfully know how to read into Yoko’s ‘collapse’. I suppose what I’m requesting is a spoiler for me.

    • Kathryn says:

      The way I read the end of the novel – and there are many, many ways to read the end of the novel, so please take this with a grain of salt – is that Komako and Yōko finally establish a (or demonstrate a preexisting) bond with each other that is much deeper and more meaningful than the fleeting relationship either of them had with Shimamura. After all, it is Komako who carries the unconscious Yōko away from the warehouse-cum-movie theater, a harsh and pragmatic space temporarily transformed into a romantic dreamland that does not last, and Shimamura lies back and gazes at the stars because he realizes that he ultimately has no place in their world and their drama. For me at least, the ending of Toyoda Shirō’s 1957 cinematic adaptation of the novel emphasis this reading.

      Taking into account the fact that this section was published after the war, I might also offer the interpretation that Shimamura, the dilettante, represents either a wartime military government or postwar Occupation government, both of which were possessed of certain fantasies concerning “Japan” that had very little to do with the realities of various individual constructions of personal or regional identity as “Japanese.” While Shimamura is lying on his back and absorbing the Milky Way, real people are dealing with a real fire, which he declines to acknowledge in any sense save the symbolic.

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