Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness: Love, Sex, and Revenge

beauty and sadnessIs it merely coincidence that I see a thread running through the two books by Yasunari Kawabata that I’ve read? Maybe, I should read at least one more before I conclude that this 1968 Nobel Prize winner, who writes about obsession, is himself obsessed with the issue of older Japanese men preying on vulnerable young Japanese women.

I understand Kawabata’s obsession better, after a quick Google survey on “infidelity in Japan.” What I found—I must admit—shocked me a little. It contradicts the stereotype I have of Japan as a society with conservative morals. I should not have been surprised. In this land of geishas:

Adultery and infidelity are time-honored Japanese traditions — for the nation’s men.

Much of the cheating has financed the huge sex for sale industry in Japan that takes the form not only of prostitution, but also of internet meeting sites, fashionable hostess bars, and love hotels—all of them legal. Ashley Madison, the booming infidelity site based on the motto “Life is short, have an affair,” acquired its million Japanese subscribers faster than in any other country. Until not too long ago, the cheating has been done mostly by men.

It seems the Japanese believe tissue is basically the issue: Men can’t help themselves. And wives are willing to tolerate infidelities, if not necessarily accept them. Just don’t flaunt it so she doesn’t lose face. And, of course, keep the money coming. Marriage in Japan has often been contracted for reasons other than love, although love may be gaining ground.

Kawabata tackles this practice/tradition in both Thousand Cranes (1952, in Japanese) and Beauty and Sadness (1964, in Japanese). The latter, written years later, digs deeper into the tradition’s emotional, even fatal consequences.

Oki, a married writer, is on his way to Kyoto for the ringing of the New Year’s Eve bells. Now in his 50s, he reminisces about a love affair he had at 30 with Otoko, then only a girl of 15. Regardless of the issue of consent, this scenario would constitute statutory rape in many parts of the United States, punishable by years in prison. But apparently, not in mid-20th century Japan. Even the girl’s mother accepts it, although she doesn’t like it.

Otoko is now 39, a successful painter based in Tokyo and Oki hopes to meet up with her again. Is he hoping to rekindle their passion? After all, theirs might have been the one he cherishes among all the affairs he’s had before and since. He has written a novel based on her and the book is his unsurpassed best seller.

Otoko agrees to meet him for dinner, but doesn’t come alone. Oki is not prepared to meet Keiko, a beautiful, irrepressible young woman of 18 or 19 on apprenticeship to be an artist to Otoko. We learn later that Otoko and Keiko are lovers. In the early 1960s, fiction probably rarely dealt with lesbian relationships. Kawabata treats it as naturally and frankly as any other.

Throughout the book, old and new tangled emotions among the three simmer under the surface. The affair with oki had devastating consequences on Otoko. She got pregnant, attempted suicide, and was committed to a psychiatric hospital for a few months. She also refused all subsequent suitors until she found herself seducing Keiko. No dire aftermath befell Oki who moved on to other affairs and had two children by his wife.

But what of Keiko who Kawabata presents as a contrast to Otoko? As a painter, Otoko is a realist, Keiko, an abstractionist. Otoko respects traditions, Keiko relies on her emotions and impulses regardless of traditions. She vows to revenge Otoko’s hurts, but jealousy of Oki also fuels her desire for revenge. She realizes Otoko’s love for Oki lives on; it’s dormant, but not dead.

Her revenge takes the form of seducing Oki, which she does rather easily. As a Japanese saying goes:

Suezen kuwanu wa otoko no haji (It is shame for a man not to eat a feast placed before him).

And, it turns out, Oki is just another ordinary man.

But the seduction at a hotel room is thwarted when, as passion mounts, Keiko spontaneously utters Otoko’s name. The name acts like an icy shower for Oki.

Later, Keiko may have completed her revenge, not on Oki but on his son Taichiro who develops his own obsession for Keiko. And Keiko, it seems, returns his love.

Yes, the plot sounds convoluted, but Kawabata is showing us the twisting and twining of love and passion, how tragically it entangles its players. Against a backdrop of the treasures of Kyoto, which he uses as locales, his spare narrative exerts full power.

Golden Pavilion Kinkakuji, Kyoto
Golden Pavilion Kinkakuji, Kyoto

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