I continue my romp into world literature with Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1968). In awarding him the prize, the Nobel Committee gave special mention to Thousand Cranes, along with Snow Country and The Old Capital among the many novels he had written.
When I first read this novel, I wondered what about it merited special mention. Granted, I’m not that familiar with Nobel’s criteria for choosing its winners. Of authors I’ve read, I only remember a handful who had received the award. That’s partly because the Nobel in Literature only began in the 1900s. Classics greats like Feodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, or Jane Austen could not have been conferred the honor of a Nobel.
Thousand Cranes is told from the point of view of Kikuji, a young man who not too long ago lost his father. On the surface, it’s about his father’s extramarital affairs and Kikuji’s own passionate tryst with Mrs. Ota after his father dies. Mrs. Ota was his father’s last mistress.
That experience seems memorable and self-defining to Kikuji (for whom this might be the first sexual encounter) although he feels some guilt over it. Later, maybe also out of guilt, Mrs. Ota dies. However, Kikuji and Mrs. Ota’s daughter, Fumiko know that Mrs. Ota killed herself.
Kikuji and Fumiko meet often after these incidents. An attachment forms between the two but it’s never overtly acknowledged, much less consummated. Fumiko disappears for parts and a fate unknown.
As in many cultures not as demonstrative of feelings as the West, the events and gestures in Kawabata’s short novel (about 145 pages) are replete with symbolism and hidden meanings. The symbolism begins with Thousand Cranes, the title of the book and images of which Kikuji sees on the kimono of a beautiful young Japanese woman he meets on the way to a tea ceremony.
Cranes, to the Japanese, symbolize long life (cranes are believed to live a thousand years) and good fortune. The wearer of the thousand cranes happens to be the woman that another former mistress of Kikuji’s father has set up as a match for Kikuji. But Kikuji hesitates and this young woman marries someone else. Has Kikuji lost his chance for good fortune?
Another significant symbolism resides in the tea ceremony, the solemn ritual with a prescribed series of actions and special equipment, in this case, cups and a teapot a few hundred years old. Here, the ceremony embodies old venerated Japanese traditions.
Special tea ceremony dishes are not meant to be used every day and when Fumiko thinks Kikuji has done so, she reacts violently. Shortly after that, she goes away.
The story is also about death and dying, particularly by suicide. Japan has a history of ritualistic honor suicides of both men and women, many times as a consequence of shame (historically, of defeat in the hands of an enemy) and dishonor. Maybe, Mrs. Ota feels shame not only for her sexual encounter with Kikuji, but also for continuing to feel lustful towards him. Mrs. Ota might also have seen her daughter’s growing attachment for Kikuji and death might have been her way of giving that attachment a chance.
While the story unfolds against a backdrop of an Eastern locale and culture, Kawabata digs deep into universal human desires and frailties. Very few contemporary Western writers are as capable of writing so human a story in an unsentimental way. Not only is this novel not one of happy-ever-after, it is also one from which you come away with much uncertainty, not only for the characters, but also for yourself and every other human being.