Rivalry

Title: Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale
Japanese: 腕くらべ (Ude kurabe)
Author: Nagai Kafū (永井 荷風)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2007 (America); 1917 (Japan)
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 165

Nagai Kafū is a fascinating person and an incredible writer, but, without access to the resources of a university library, it’s almost impossible to find his work in translation. Thankfully, Columbia University Press has recently released a paperback edition of Stephen Synder’s excellent translation of one of the writer’s most popular novels. Rivalry is full of rich detail and beautifully drawn characters, as well as compelling melodrama that draws the characters and setting together into a highly entertaining story.

The narrative perspective of Rivalry is split between multiple characters, but the protagonist of the story is Komayo, an aging geisha (she’s 25 years old) who married and left Tokyo to live with her husband’s family in the country. When her husband dies three years into the marriage, Komayo finds herself increasingly alienated by his family and thus returns to Tokyo, where she resumes her life as a geisha. Komayo is beautiful and highly talented in a number of traditional arts, and her goal is to secure a patron, or danna, who will buy out her contract with the house that currently employs her and help support her as she begins a career as an artist and proprietor of her own establishment in the “flower and willow world” of professional entertainers.

At the beginning of the novel, the top candidate for Komayo’s danna is a wealthy “man of affairs” named Yoshioka, who had known Komayo in his student days. Yoshioka wants to rise in the world, and he sees his patronage of the highly desirable Komayo as a means to do so. Komayo enters into a financial and sexual relationship with Yoshioka but also falls in love with Segawa, a Kabuki actor specializing in female roles. When Yoshioka learns of this relationship, his pride is so affronted that he begins to scheme at how to get back at Komayo. Meanwhile, how long can Komayo’s relationship with a fellow performer actually last?

Oh, the drama!

Rivalry is like Gossip Girl with geisha, and it is immensely entertaining to watch these beautiful people fall in and out of love and squabble with each other. The trappings of the world they occupy are just as glamorous as they are, and the reader is often given the opportunity to pass judgment on characters based on their outfits. For example, this is Komayo at the beginning of the novel:

Her hair was done in a low shimada style with an openwork, silver-covered comb and a jade hairpin. She had changed into a kimono of light crepe with a fine stripe. The effect was quite refined, but perhaps fearing that it would seem too old for her, she had added a half collar with elaborate embroidery. Her obi was made of crepe in the old-fashioned Kaga style, lined with black satin, and it was held together with a sash of light blue crepe dyed in a bold pattern. The cord word over the obi was a deep celadon green decorated in front with a large pearl. (10-11)

Obviously, such an elegant and tasteful woman should hold our sympathies. Here is Segawa at the end of the novel:

He sat casually with his legs folded to one side, as a woman would, showing a bit of the material of his underkimono, a yellow brown fabric dyed with a pattern of wheels rolling through waves that could only be a specific order from the Erien. His obi, narrow in the old style and tightly bound, was made of satin decorated with a single stripe and marked at one end with the name of the maker embroidered in red. It was most likely the work of the Hiranoya in Hama-chō. On most men, this costume would have been terribly gaudy, but for an onnagata it seemed positively inspired. (136)

What a rake! But what woman wouldn’t fall for such a handsome devil?

Komayo and her relationship with Segawa take center stage, but other characters flit in and out of the story. One of my favorite of these characters is Kikuchiyo, a geisha who is more Western than Japanese. Her sensuality isn’t expressed by her art but directly connected to her concupiscent physicality. Interestingly enough, Kikuchiyo’s ambition is to become a stage actress in the new Western-style theater productions. Also amusing are Kurayama Nansō and Yamai Kaname. Both are writers; but, while Nansō writes Edo-style novels and lives in a beautiful old Japanese house with a traditional garden, Yamai writes modern confessional novels and lives like a vagrant. The two men are friends, and their commentary and ramblings through the glitzy Asakusa neighborhood help to create critical distance from the main story while establishing the world of professional entertainers in a wider context.

It’s difficult to separate any story of geisha from discussions of sexual slavery and sexual politics. I won’t give my own opinions here, but Rivalry itself has more than enough to say concerning the paid relations between women and men, which it views from both a male and a female perspective.

For a man, the patronage of a geisha is apparently about ownership and practicality. This is how Yoshioka sees Komayo in a particularly intimate moment:

He wanted to see every detail of her expression, every inch of her body as she writhed with pleasure. He wanted to see her beg him to stop. Among all his experiences, this was the richest; among all the postures and poses he had seen in erotic prints, these were the most exotic – and he wanted to study them with his eyes wide open. (22)

This is how Yoshioka justifies his dalliance with geisha in his student days:

Rather than suppress his sexual desire only to risk shaming himself by falling under the spell of a maid or some other amateur, it was far safer to spend the money to buy a woman properly when needed. To pay for a woman and have her without undue worry to relieve his sexual tension and then pass his examinations with high marks – this was combing duty with pleasure and, he though, killing two birds with one stone. For a young man of the modern age, in whom there was no trace of the Confucian values that had shaped earlier generations, the only thing that mattered was success, reaching his goal, and he’d had neither the inclination nor the leisure to question the means that got him there. (36)

For the geisha herself, relationships with men are mostly based on practicality and careful planning, and geisha understand what they must tolerate in order to become financially self-sufficient. Here, Komayo and Hanasuke (another geisha in Komayo’s house) discuss whether Komayo should take on another steady client:

Hanasuke’s attitude was that men were fine when things were going well, but once they had a change of heart, they could be terribly cruel. This sentiment fitted nicely with Komayo’s long-standing theory that men were fickle by nature, and from that time the two women began to compare notes more frequently. Ultimately, they decided that the best plan was to put away as much as they possibly could while they still had earning power and thereby accumulate the resources that would allow them to live comfortably, perhaps running a small business of some sort, and have nothing further to do with men. (52)

Having taken on this client, a physically imposing man from Yokohama who made his fortune in the import business, Komayo must then deal with him:

The sea monster was silent, his eyes, dim with saké, passing back and forth between the enticing scene of the bed and the melancholy figure of the woman seated with her back to the lamp. Like a gourmet before an array of delicacies, he seemed unsure where to begin; but he was in no hurry, choosing instead to study the prospects carefully, determined, when the time came, to lick the carcass down to the marrow, according to some private design of his own. For her part, Komayo recoiled from those piercing eyes, and yet she knew there was no use objecting at this point. As long as she was in no real danger, no matter what happened she would quickly close her eyes and try to bring things to a conclusion as quickly as possible. (60)

Although the novel gradually shifts to the perspective of its male characters as its female characters become more embittered against each other, the author never lets his readers forget that the women who operate within the confines of the glamorous world of geisha are real human beings who are just as rational and aware of their social and economic circumstances as the men who enter into relationships with them. There is also much more variety in the female characters of Rivalry than in the novel’s male characters, and Kafū uses the attitudes and behavior of these women to subtly illustrate generation gaps and shifts cultural ideology between various understandings of “traditional” and “modern.”

Rivalry is an accessible novel that rewards multiple readings. It’s exciting and scandalous and sexy enough to read for pleasure, but it’s also intricate and detailed enough to be used in a classroom. The themes of the novel are timeless and universal, but Kafū is also able to open a window onto a different time and place with his incredible prose.

Stephen Synder’s translation of Kafū’s novel is excellent. As the above passages detailing the clothing of Komayo and Segawa demonstrate, Synder is superbly skilled at rendering even the most Japanese of descriptions and settings into natural and readable English. The one word left in italics is danna, but the translator’s six-page introduction at the beginning of the novel explains the meaning and context of this term as it relates to the pleasure districts of Tokyo during the Taishō era. Synder’s translation is an enormous improvement over the translation by Kurt Meissner and Ralph Friedrich published by Tuttle, which is currently available on the Kindle store. Even though Columbia University Press’s physical publication of Snyder’s translation is gorgeous, I wish they would release a digital edition as well.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970″ section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. [...] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

Schoolgirl

Title: Schoolgirl
Japanese Title: 女生徒 (Joseito)
Author: Dazai Osamu (太宰 治)
Translator: Allison Markin Powell
Year Published: 2011 (America); 1939 (Japan)
Publisher: One Peace Books
Pages: 94

At the beginning of an essay on Yoshimoto Banana, Ann Sherif quotes the Japanese psychiatrist Machizawa Shizuo as saying that he despairs of the darkness in Japanese literature, as people come into his office clutching books by Dazai Osamu and saying, “This is exactly how I feel. I’m sorry that I was born.”

Dazai’s work is pretty dark. However, for all the young men who have lived “lives full of shame” (a sentiment expressed in the opening line of No Longer Human, generally considered to be Dazai’s defining work) there are apparently hordes of schoolgirls who visit the author’s grave on the anniversary of his death to offer flowers and prayers. I never really understood why this would be so (most of Dazai’s narrators are abusive pigs); but, having read Schoolgirl, I think I’m starting to get it.

Schoolgirl is an uninterrupted stream-of-consciousness monologue by a bourgeois high school student who has lost her father and lives alone with her mother. The girl rambles from topic to topic, stating strong feelings in one paragraph (I hate my mom!) and then contradicting them in the next (I actually love my mom!). She talks about her best friend (whom she hates – or not), the other women she sees on the bus (whom she hates – or not), the people who come over for dinner (whom she hates – or not), and the prospect of getting married (which she hates – or not). She also meanders through mundane topics such as her dogs, movies she likes, her teacher, and the garden around her house. More than anything else, though, she subject she repeatedly returns to is that of her feelings regarding herself. The narrator of Schoolgirl describes herself with the self-loathing characteristic of all Dazai narrators:

In my heart, I worry about Mother and want to be a good daughter, but my words and actions are nothing more than that of a spoiled child. And lately, there hadn’t been a single redeeming quality about this childlike me. Only impurity and shamefulness. I go about saying how pained and tormented, how lonely and sad I feel, but what do I really mean by that? If I were to speak the truth, I would die.

Her descriptions of herself tend to be a bit dramatic, but I guess she is a teenage girl. In fact, Dazai uses the narrator’s identity as a teenage girl in order to make general third-person and first-person-plural statements about young people. Sometimes these statements are a bit strange for the narrator herself to make (such as when she says, “What a girl likes and what she hates seems rather arbitrary to me”). Generally, though, Dazai uses the relatively marginal social position of the teenage girl to make rebellious manifestos of the My Generation variety. Where the narrator’s “girliness” really takes off, however, is in her flights of fancy. For example:

Mother used this parasol long ago, when she first got married. I felt quite proud for finding this interesting umbrella. When I carried this one, it made me feel like strolling through the streets of Paris. I thought that a dreamy antique parasol like this would go into style when this war ends. It would look great with a bonnet-style hat. Wearing a long pink-hemmed kimono with a wide open collar, with black lace gloves and a beautiful violet tucked into that large, wide-brimmed hat. And when everything was lush and green I’d go to lunch in a Parisian restaurant. Resting my cheek lightly in my hand, I’d wistfully gaze at the passerby outside and then, someone would gently tap me on the shoulder. Suddenly there would be music, the rose waltz. Oh, how amusing. In reality, it was just an odd, tattered umbrella with a spindly handle.

Another flight of fancy I enjoyed was the narrator’s description of her “Rococo cooking,” which is enjoyable and meaningful for her but apparently not fully appreciated by all of the ugly, stupid, and boring adults in her life. As insecure as the narrator is in her identity and her relationship to other people, however, she can always find refuge in her fantasies of luxury and glamour of an ahistorical European origin. “I’m Cinderella without her prince,” the narrator says at the end of the novella. “Do you know where to find me in Tokyo?”

Despite her petulant grumpiness, the narrator of Schoolgirl reminds me less of the tortured youths of novels like No Longer Human and The Setting Sun and more of the narrative voice of the Gothic Lolita poster child Ryūgasaki Momoko from Takemoto Nobara’s 2002 novel Kamikaze Girls. In fact, reading Schoolgirl felt a bit like reading one of the longer essays (perhaps by someone like Miyavi) from the Gothic & Lolita Bible. In Schoolgirl, as in Lolita fashion cultures, a certain world weariness and disgust towards adult society is mixed with a self-consciously artificial desire to maintain one’s innocence and emotional purity through a beautiful and delicate fantasy enacted through clothing, cooking, visual imagery, and music.

Of course, the Gothic Lolita mindset inspired in part by the narrative style of Schoolgirl is only one facet of the novella, which glitters like a diamond from any way you choose look at it. Schoolgirl might be used to demonstrate how premodern poetic nature imagery made its way its modern literature, or how the early Shōwa period was not all about fascism and conquest, or how “modern girls” viewed the West as a site of cultural maturity and longing, or how the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship shape the development of teenage girls – or even how male authors use transgender narration to escape the confines of literary conventions. Despite its relative brevity, Schoolgirl is fascinating and can be approached from a variety of angles by a wide range of readers. I can’t think of a single person to whom I wouldn’t recommend this novella.

Schoolgirl is published by One Peace Books, a small indie press that readers of contemporary Japanese literature in translation should keep an eye on. One Peace has published translations of two amazing manga, Tenken and Breathe Deeply, that should already be on the radar of serious and mature manga fans. They’ve also published two illustrated children’s books and a handful of inspirational books, such as Treedom and Shift. If the high publishing quality of Schoolgirl (and the small number of their other titles I have in my possession) is any indication, One Peace Books puts a great deal of attention and care into their non-conventional yet highly interesting catalog. Go check them out!

Review copy of Schoolgirl provided by One Peace Books.

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.”

Kusamakura

Title: Kusamakura
Japanese Title: 草枕 (Kusamakura)
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Meredith McKinney
Publication Year: 1906 (Japan); 2008 (America)
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 152

I don’t know whether it’s the tasteful covers, the velvety paper, the typeface, or the footnotes, but I love Penguin Classics. And I love it that they’re commissioning and publishing new translations of Japanese literature. Immediately before Kusamakura, I read the new Penguin translation of The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, also translated by Meredith McKinney. This is probably not something someone who makes her business studying literature should say, but sometimes the publishing quality of a book makes all the difference for one’s enjoyment. A short but helpful and non-pretentious introduction, cogent yet unobtrusive footnotes, and a fluid and readable translation make texts like Kusamakura so much more worth reading in my eyes. I feel extraordinarily grateful to both Penguin and McKinney for the vast improvement they have made over the outdated Tuttle publications.

Aside from the cosmetic changes, what makes this new translation of Kusamakura worth reading? It is, quite simply, an intensely beautiful book. To put it in a different way, it is an aesthetically pleasing book about aesthetics. Many foreigners could be accused to coming to Japan while chasing a Japan fantasy; Kusamakura is Sōseki’s pursuit of this same Japan fantasy.

A nameless flâneur who styles himself as an artist escapes the harsh words (“fart counting”) of his critics in Tokyo by journeying to a small mountain hot springs village called Nakoi. There he observes the local culture and flora while casually interacting with the daughter of the owner of his inn, the abbot of the local temple, and a few other colorful characters. All the while, the narrator muses on art, poetry, and life. He references Chinese poets like Wang Wei and Tao Yuanming, Nō plays like Takasago and Hagoromo, and Japanese artists like Nagasawa Rosetsu and Maruyama Ōkyo while still sneaking in references to John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia and Gotthold Lessing’s essay Laocoön. All this seems far removed from the military conflicts brewing with Russia and China on the mainland, and the modernity of crowded urban spaces, bustling public life, and anonymous train stations is kept at bay until the end of the novel, when the monk nephew of the inn’s owner is shipped away to war.

I did not read deeply into Kusamakura, but rather took it at face value as a testament to the nostalgia Sōseki must have felt for the old Japanese way of life, which was still preserved in isolated rural areas but vanishing quickly from the cultural landscape. Of course Sōseki does treat his narrator with a small degree of irony and invites his readers to laugh at him as well as sympathize with him, and of course traces of nationalist discourse can be found in this supposedly anti-modernist work, but I feel that the pleasure of this short novel lies in its descriptions of a beautiful mountain village and its vivid portraits of quaint rural characters.

To illustrate the allure of Sōseki’s Japan fantasy, I would like to offer a passage in which the narrator relaxes in the bath….

Chill autumn fog, a spring’s mist serenely trailing fingers, and the blue smoke that rises as the evening meal is cooked – all deliver up to the heavens the transient form of our ephemeral self. Each touches us in a different way. But only when I am wrapped, naked, by these soft spring clouds of evening steam, as now, do I feel I could well become someone from a past age. The steam envelops me but not so densely that the visible world is lost to view; neither is it a mere thin, silken swath that, were it to be whipped away, would reveal me as a normal naked mortal of this world. My face is hidden within voluminous layers of veiling steam that swirl all around me, burying me deep within its warm rainbows. I have heard the expression “drunk on wine” but never “drunk on vapors.” If such an expression existed, of course, it could not apply to mist and would be too heady to apply to haze. This phrase would seem fully applicable only to this fog of steam, with the necessary addition of the descriptive “spring evening.”

Kokoro

Kokoro

Title: Kokoro
Japanese Title: こゝろ
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Edwin McClellan
Publication Year: 1957 (America); 1914 (Japan)
Publisher: Regency Publishing
Pages: 248

When I first started studying Japanese literature in college, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro was one of the first modern novels I read. I remember being disappointed and a bit confused by it, however. Sōseki is one of the major figures in the Japanese literary canon, if not in fact the major figure. His early novel Botchan (坊っちゃん, 1905, recently translated by Joel Cohn) has been required reading for generations of Japanese schoolchildren, and his portrait used to grace the one thousand yen bill. A quick search on Google will turn up numerous syllabi for courses in Japanese literature that all begin with Kokoro. In short, this novel is kind of a big deal.

So why then, when I first read it, was I so disappointed? In short, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this it?” Kokoro contains few lyrical passages, few descriptions of landscape, season, architecture, interior, or dress. Perhaps as a result, there is also no overt or sustained system of imagery. No light, no sound, no water, no heat. Of course I am exaggerating a bit (there are two memorable passages that occur in a tree nursery and by the seashore, respectively), but this novel boasts none of the opulent attention to detail that, in my mind at least, characterizes a great deal of Japanese literature.

There is also very little plot. The novel is divided into three sections. The first, “Sensei and I,” details the meeting and deepening friendship between an unnamed narrator (“Watakushi”) and an older man who he calls “Sensei.” In the second section, “My Parents and I,” the narrator has graduated from college in Tokyo and returns to his home in the countryside to be with his dying father. The third section, “Sensei and His Testament,” consists of a letter that Sensei has sent the protagonist explaining his past, his melancholy, and his decision to commit suicide after the death of the Meiji emperor. Kokoro ends with the conclusion of Sensei’s letter, and the reader is given no indication as to whether the narrator of the first two sections is able to make it to Tokyo in time to save Sensei or whether his father dies during his absence.

Although every single character in the novel is otherwise fully fleshed out as a believable human being, none of them seem to reflect archetypes familiar to a Western reader. In fact, Kokoro offers very little in terms of allusions and therefore might tend to come off as a bit shallow and one dimensional. Sure, there are some topical references to the death of the Meiji Emperor and the death of General Nogi, who committed suicide to “follow his master” out of an anachronistic sense of honor, but I wonder how deeply the reader is supposed to consider these references. The theme of the passing of an age is intriguing, but far from fully developed in the novel.

So why this novel one of the great classics of Japanese literature? Although I was frustrated the first time I read it, I think I am finally beginning to understand its appeal. Much of the literary writing in the Meiji period (1868-1912), such as Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” (布団, 1907) and Shimazaki Tōson’s Broken Commandment (破壊, 1906), was concerned with the literary philosophy of Naturalism, which in Japan took the form of an attempt to realistically depict the psychology of a modern individual. The narrative style of such works was often stilted and noticeably stylized (despite their claims of realism). To me, Kokoro is an amazing work in that the narrative style actually feels quite “natural” in a Western way; at no point is the reader made aware of the fact that he or she is reading a novel. In other words, Sōseki was able to take the Japanese language and the concept of Japanese literature and do with them something that no one had done before.

What will appeal to the reader, then, are passages that a first time reader (such as myself in college) might not notice simply because they are so natural. When the narrator returns to his parents’ home, for example, he remarks that coming home from school is nice for the first week or two, but then the novelty wears off both for the student, who misses his friends, and for the parents, who begin to nag him. I couldn’t help smiling a bit when I read this. Moreover, the tragic past revealed by Sensei is his letter is believable but also, perhaps because it is so low-key, quite heart-wrenching. I feel that takes a master writer to avoid melodrama when working with such material, and Sōseki handles his subject matter beautifully.

All in all, Kokoro is worth reading not merely because it is a monument of Japanese literature but because of the sheer quality of the writing (and McClellan’s excellent translation). In any case, I found it very satisfying, and I’m glad I re-read it.

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

Palm-of-the-Hand Stories

Title: Palm-of-the-Hand Stories
Japanese Title: 掌の小説
Author: Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成; Kawabata Yasunari)
Translators: Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman
Publication Year: 1988 (America)
Pages: 259

This book gathers Nobel Prize winning author Kawabata’s famous short shorts, or “palm of the hand (tenohira) stories.” These stories average about two and a half pages each, although some are a little longer, and some are much shorter. Most of these stories deal with the intricacies of male-female relationships, dreams, and fragmented memories of childhood. Even though some of the stories have a bittersweet sentimentality, Kawabata’s style is mainly realistic, especially in his portrayal of relationships crippled by words left unsaid and small, but meaningful, actions.

Some of Kawabata’s short stories are lyrical in their depictions of time, place, and nature, but many strike the reader as small mysteries to be pondered and unlocked. Who said what to whom? What significance did that have? Why would this person do that? What exactly is the relationship between these characters? The extreme brevity of these stories boils down life stories into a few irreversible moments and leaves the reader to read between the lines. This aspects of the works is rewarding but can be occasionally frustrating.

These stories were written over a period spanning between 1923 and 1972. Read individually, they can be unsatisfying; but, if the reader reads one story after another in a smooth, unbroken stream, the major themes and concerns of Kawabata’s career begin to gain a greater clarity, and the stories meld seamlessly into a greater whole.

I have read several of these stories in Japanese, as they are quite famous, and I have found that the translations are not only accurate but successfully convey the tone of the originals. The stories translated by Lane Dunlop (Shiga Naoya’s The Paper Door and Other Stories) tend to be a bit dry, but they are balanced nicely by Holman’s more experimental style.