Having lost all close relatives, he moved in with his mother's family (the Kurodas). However, in January 1916, he moved into a boarding house near the junior high school (comparable to a modern high school) to which he had formerly commuted by train. After graduating from junior high school in March 1917, just before his 18th birthday, he moved to Tokyo, hoping to pass the exams of Dai-ichi Koto-gakko (First Upper School), which was under the direction of Tokyo Imperial University. He succeeded in the exam the same year and entered the humanities faculty as an English major (July 1920).
Kawabata graduated in 1924, by which time he had already caught the attention of Kikuchi Kan and other noted writers and editors through his submissions to Kikuchi's literary magazine, the Bungei Shunju.
In addition to fiction writing, Kawabata also worked as a reporter, most notably for the Mainichi Shimbun. Although he refused to participate in the militaristic fervor that accompanied World War II, he also demonstrated little interest in postwar political reforms. Along with the death of all his family while he was young, Kawabata suggested that the War was one of the greatest influences on his work, stating he would be able to write only elegies in postwar Japan. Still, many commentators detect little thematic change between Kawabata's prewar and postwar writings.
Kawabata apparently committed suicide in 1972 by gassing himself, but a number of close associates, including his widow, consider his death to have been accidental. Many theories have been advanced as to his reasons, among them poor health (the discovery that he had Parkinson's disease), a possible illicit love affair, or the shock caused by the suicide of his friend Yukio Mishima in 1970. Unlike Mishima, Kawabata left no note, and since (again unlike Mishima) he had not discussed significantly in his writings the topic of taking his own life, his motives remain unclear. However, his Japanese biographer, Takeo Okuno, has related how he had nightmares about Mishima for two or three hundred nights in a row, and was incessantly haunted by the specter of Mishima. In a persistently depressed state of mind, he would tell friends during his last years that sometimes, when on a journey, he hoped his plane would crash.
In October 1924 Kawabata, Kataoka Teppei, Yokomitsu Riichi and a number of other young writers started a new literary journal Bungei Jidai ("The Artistic Age"). This journal was a reaction to the entrenched old school of Japanese literature, specifically the Japanese movement descended from Naturalism, while it also stood in opposition to the "workers'" or proletarian literature movement of the Socialist/ Communist schools. It was an "art for art's sake" movement, influenced by European Cubism, Expressionism, Dada and other modernist styles. The term Shinkankakuha, which Kawabata and Yokomitsu used to describe their philosophy, has often been mistakenly translated into English as "Neo-Impressionism". However, Shinkankakuha was not meant to be an updated or restored version of Impressionism; it focused on offering "new impressions", or, more accurately, "new sensations" or "new perceptions" in the writing of literature.
Kawabata started to achieve recognition with a number of short stories shortly after he graduated, receiving acclaim for "The Dancing Girl of Izu" in 1926, a story about a melancholy student who, on a walking trip down Izu Peninsula, meets a young dancer, and returns to Tokyo in much improved spirits. This story, which explored the dawning eroticism of young love, was successful because he used dashes of melancholy and even bitterness to offset what might have otherwise been overly sweet. Most of his subsequent works explored similar themes.
In the 1920s, Kawabata was living in the plebeian district of Asakusa, in downtown Tokyo. During this period, Kawabata experimented with different styles of writing. In Asakusa Kurenaidan (The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa), serialized from 1929-1930, he explores the lives of the demimonde and others on the fringe of society, in a style echoing that of late Edo period literature. On the other hand, his Suisho Genso (Crystalline Fantasy) is pure stream-of-consciousness writing.
Kawabata relocated from downtown Tokyo to Kamakura, Kanagawa prefecture in 1934, and although he initially played a very active role in the social life among the many other writers and literary people residing in that city during the war years and immediately thereafter, in his later years he became very reclusive.
One of his most famous novels was Snow Country, started in 1934 and first published in installments from 1935 through 1947. Snow Country is a stark tale of a love affair between a Tokyo dilettante and a provincial geisha, which takes place in a remote hot-spring town somewhere in the mountainous regions of northern Japan. It established Kawabata as one of Japan's foremost authors and became an instant classic, described by Edward G. Seidensticker as "perhaps Kawabata's masterpiece".
After the end of World War II, Kawabata's success continued with novels such as Thousand Cranes (a story of ill-fated love); The Sound of the Mountain; The House of the Sleeping Beauties; Beauty and Sadness; and The Old Capital .
The book which he himself considered his finest work, The Master of Go (1951), is a severe contrast with his other works. It is a semi-fictional recounting of a major Go match in 1938, on which Kawabata had actually reported for the Mainichi newspaper chain. It was the last game of the master Shūsai's career and he lost to his younger challenger, to die a little over a year later. Although the novel is moving on the surface as a retelling of a climactic struggle, some readers consider it a symbolic parallel to the defeat of Japan in World War II.
His two most important post-war works are Sembazuru (Thousand Cranes) from 1949-1951, and Yama no Oto (The Sound of the Mountain), 1949-1954. Sembazuru is centered on the tea ceremony and hopeless love. The protagonist is attracted to the mistress of his dead father, and after her death, to her daughter, who flees from him. The tea ceremony provides a beautiful background for ugly human affairs, but Kawabata’s intent is rather to explore feelings on death. The tea ceremony utensils are permanent and forever, whereas people are frail and fleeting. These themes of implicit incest, impossible love, impending death are again explored in Yama no oto, set in Kawabata’s home town of Kamakura. The protagonist, an aging man, has no affection for his children and has lost all passion for his wife. He is strongly attracted to someone forbidden–his daughter in law, and his thoughts for her are interspersed with memories of another forbidden love, for his dead sister-in-law. The story is left dangling at the end.
Kawabata left many of his stories unfinished, sometimes to the annoyance of readers and reviewers. This was done intentionally, as Kawabata felt that vignettes of incidents along the way were far more important than conclusions. He equated his form of writing with the traditional poetry of Japan, the haiku.
As the president of Japanese P.E.N. for many years after the war (1948-1965), Kawabata was a driving force behind the translation of Japanese literature into English and other Western languages.
In 1968 Kawabata became the first Japanese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind." In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee cited three of his novels, Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and The Old Capital.
|Year||Japanese Title||English Title||English Translation|
Izu no Odoriko
|The Dancing Girl of Izu||1955, 1998|
|The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa||2005|
|Snow Country||1957, 1996|
|The Master of Go||1972|
Yama no Oto
|The Sound of the Mountain|
|The House of the Sleeping Beauties|
|The Old Capital||1987, 2006|
Utsukushisa to Kanashimi to
|Beauty and Sadness|
Tenohira no Shōsetsu
|Palm-of-the-Hand Stories||1988, 2006|