I think it is time to return to reading up on some Japanese Culture and look at ideas of beauty and suicide that are being ignored and stained by thethe horrible swell in the number of suicide bombers the world has been witnessing in the last years.
By Kevin Stoda
Here is a quick look back at Kawabata’s THOUSAND CRANES for nostalgia’s sake.
- What significance do you find in the choice of the title, Thousand Cranes?
A “Senbazuru” or 1000 cranes—often made of paper, like in Japanese origami—are a symbol of good luck in several Asian countries. A “Senbazuru” may be used at the time of a birth of a child or at a wedding, as a gesture of good luck or good providence for the child, couple or new family. According to Wikopedia, “It is also used as a matchmaking charm for a Japanese girl when she turns 13 years old. She would make 1000 paper cranes and give it to an admired boy.”
Unmentioned in the novel by Yasunari Kawabata is the meaning or symbolism of the 1000 cranes on the scarf of the Inamura girl. Early on in the novel, Thousand Cranes, unbeknownst to the main character, the Inamura girl is heading to a miai or matchmaking opportunity. Along the way to the teahouse, as the main protagonist, Kikuji, meets her for the first time, he notices the scarf. Long after Kikuji has forgotten the face of this particular Inamura girl, he can still recall the 1000 Cranes of Inamura’s scarf. This is part of the nostalgia of missed opportunities, which make up the tale.
Melancholy and nostalgia are induced by a wide range of Japanese customs, ceremonies and traditions, such as cherry blossom viewing. I personally feel that earth tones for me conjure up sadness of autumn or the end of winter. The Japanese have historically preferred earth tones and organic forms of art—this is particularly true in the practices of tea ceremony and the selection utensils used in such ceremonies. (Admittedly, a splashy orange and red are used to break up this dreariness.)For a tea ceremony, every guest given a particular bowl, which has been thoughtfully selected for them. These bowls are usually of earth tone colored ceramic.
Throughout the novel, Thousand Cranes, the main male-character continually ruminates over the 300-plus years of histories of each non-perfectly-formed and glazed- piece of pottery that his father had chosen to use as student of the tea ceremony over the generations. This introspection (into a bowl or other ancient utensil) occurs even though this young man claims to not be particularly interested in attending tea ceremonies. In short, melancholy mixed with moments (or flashes) of hope and nostalgia are feelings that the young man, Kikuji seems to carry best with him–through his other-wise work-world ways as a bachelor in post-WWII Japan.
Melancholy and hope to be found in the legends of a 1000 Cranes have also been popularized in other tales in Japan from the same era as Kawabata’s novel. For example, in the 1950s when Kawabata first published Thousand Cranes (1951), the tale of 1000 Cranes became the focus of millions of tearful school children. This was, of course, the result of the now-famous “Sadako Sasaki tale”, which was of a war victim–i.e. a young female victim of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Around 1955, this young female victim of war’s genocidal weaponry was reported to have been encouraged by a visiting friend at a hospital to start making paper cranes in order to try and save her own life. So, as she lay dying of nuclear-bomb generated cancer, the girl folded origami cranes. This actual Japanese girl was named Sadako Sasaki, and she had been born and raised within one-mile of ground zero in Hiroshima. She had been only 2-years old when the bombing occurred in her city.
Some legends claim that this girl, Sadako, never finished the 1000 cranes—i.e. dying a little short of reaching her goal. However, this tale is a bit distorted. The fact is, even after making 1000 origami cranes, Sadako soon passed away in 1955. However, rather than forget her and her suffering, she became a melancholic legend. “After her death, Sadako’s friends and schoolmates published a collection of letters in order to raise funds to build a memorial to her and all of the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb.” Now, all Japanese children in schools everywhere throughout the country know the story of Sadako–and most even make a pilgrimage to Hiroshima (and the statue) before graduating from high school.
So, in the legend of Sadako, we find a parallel of symbolism and melancholy in art and beauty to match and perhaps come to dominate the tale of Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes.
- What are some of the relationships/analogies between ceramic vessels and people?
Shino and Karatsu are among two types of traditional ceramic bowls that are important to the narration of Yasunari Kawabata in Thousand Cranes . Shino glazes came to fruition in kilns around 4 to 5 centuries ago, using a special soil “in the Tajimi and Toki areas”.
Karatsu is another ceramic-style of Japanese pottery dating from almost the same era. It also is used in tea ceremonies.
In Thousand Cranes, readers are reminded by the author, Kawabata, early on that the utensils in a tea ceremony have often been passed down for generations from one member of a family to another—or from one master of tea ceremony to their students and future masters. (They are usually quite expensive these days.) That is why some pieces of humble kitchen-ware and ceremony have now experienced three or four centuries of history (and tales or memories) through their usage.
The first time we meet all the main characters in a one scene together in Thousand Cranes , the main protagonist is found being served and drinking out of one of his father’s favorite tea ceremony bowls. That bowl is “a black Oribe” that dates to “Rikyu himself”–, i.e whether this is the Rikyu of ceramics fame or whether it is the Rikyu school for the ceremony-of-tea ceremony famed Rikyu, it is never clearly stated.
In Thousand Cranes , Kikuji, the son of one student (Mr. Mitani) of the tea-ceremony master, named Kurimoto Chikaku, falls in love with another old flame of his now deceased father. The women’s name is Mrs. Ota—and she had fallen in love with Kikuji’s father after the father had had an affair with Chikaku. In this way, the tale strikes one immediately as a set of scenes that could have been models for the Mrs.-Robinson film. In order to make the tale clearer, I should add that there are many sets of ménage-a-toi to be found in this Kawabata tale of tea-ceremony, missed chances, ceremony utensils, the life and the long shadow of the father (Mr. Mitani), and finally the adventurers his son, Kikuji.
This story, Thousand Cranes, takes place at least five years after Kikuji’s father, has passed away. In the last pages of this novel, we now find that the Shino bowl of the older woman, Mrs.Ota, has been transferred to the home of Kikuji. In the interim, Mrs. Ota had committed suicide. After the funeral, the Shino bowl had been given to Kikuji by the daughter of Mrs. Ota. The daughter’s name is Fumiko. In Fumiko and Kikuji’s last scene together, Kikuji is getting ready to drink from his father’s bowl, a Karatsu bowl that passes remarkably well to the Shino bowl of Mrs. Ota—i.e. like a pair of bowls, but of a different color and impression. Meanwhile, the daughter getting ready to prepare that Shino bowl of her mother’s with green frothy tea, but suddenly she says, “It is hard.” The brush she was using became magically stuck in place.
Moments later, Fumiko finally mutters, “Mother won’t let me.” She becomes weak and Kikuji reaches out for her. Soon the ancient Shino bowl is smashed and that chapter of Kikuji’s life is soon over. The next evening, Kikuji is unable to pick up all the pieces and put the Shino bowl back together—and the relationship with Fumiko is also soon ended.
I should add that this particularly Shino bowl was whitish and well-admired by both Kikuji and–apparently years before–by his own father. However, from the perspective of the girl Fumiko, the Shino bowl is not particularly pretty as it has a “red stain” on it that she claims to be from the lipstick of her mother. By the end of the novel, we know that Fumiko has truly been against committing the sins of her mother, i.e. of falling in love with Kikuji. This desire to put the past behind her is seen in the smashed Shino bowl.
By the way, earlier, during prior episodes in the tale, Kikuji, in the house by himself has washed the same Shino bowl several times thoroughly, but after doing so, he had come to the conviction that the creator of that particular Shino ware had intentionally designed it to look less than purely white and had thus purposely left a dark organic print (a dark red or brown spot) in the cusp where people usually chose to drink from during the tea ceremony. Kikuji had quickly also considered the possibility that many generations of women, with lipstick like Mrs. Ota, may have drank from the same spot of the bowl, hence discoloring it long (many generations) before Mrs. Ota received it from her own husband (and before she had an affair with Kikuji’s father).
- In what ways does the novel strike you as being “non-Western” in its sensibility and construction? Do you find parallels between its modes of perception and expression and the ideas expressed in the author’s Nobel Lecture, “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself”?
I do not consider the story’s so foreign to me because it has twists in relationships and storytelling, which Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Franz Kafka, and Naguib Mahfouz might have employed. The novel, Thousand Cranes , makes allusion to good and evil spirits, which particularly reminds me of ghost stories of Mahfouz and works of Latin American magical of recent decades, like Isabel Allende. On the other hand, if I had not read Donald Keene’s “The Japanese Idea of Beauty” and if I had I not lived in and studied in Japan a number of years, I would not have fully appreciated the allusions to traditional concepts of beauty and the practices carried out at a tea ceremony and in Japanese home. I thus would have had little appreciation of Kawabata’s writing.
I think the four-fold breakdown of beauty concepts as presented by Keene was particularly helpful in reading the Thousand Cranes. Keene “chose four characteristics [of beauty] that seemed to me [him] of special importance: suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, and perishability.” All four characters described by Keene are important to understanding most of the beauty in Kawabata’s narration. As well, Keene pointed out, that these ideas or ideals of beauty are not totally alien concepts in the West. In turn, Sakaguchi Ango, at the time that Kawabata lived—also stated of modern Japan: “A more convenient life is more important to the Japanese than the beauty of tradition or the authentic Japanese appearance [of beauty].” Sakaguchi in 1942 had claimed that the Japanese would not miss Kyoto if all the ancient homes were destroyed, but they would certainly miss streetcars (and fast trains or cameras).
Keene noted that “Suggestion” had been described by the 13th century Buddhist priest Kenko as “an aesthetic principle”. This idea of suggestion focuses not on the full-moon, for example, but on the shades of the moon—e.g. first on the moons path to becoming full-moon, barely-hinting at fullness or on the end of the moons-cycle where we can only imagine a full moon from a shade of curved light shining through a cloud. According to Kenko, “In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting.” He asks, “ Does the love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each others arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who let’s his thoughts wander to distance skies, who yearns for the past in a dilapidated house—such a man truly knows what love means.”
When I look at that statement by Kenko and I turn to observed the quiet but forlorn figure of Kikuji. He is depicted by Kawabata as once-in-love man. I can clearly see that this is the brush stroke with which Kawabata paints for us in the character Kikuji, thoughout the tale of Thousand Cranes. Kikuji has flashes of great momentary life among a life of once-in-love sobriety and melancholy. In one chapter, Kikuji actually is shown staring at a glimpse of the Morning Star. Anotehr time he is sitting in the night on a veranda—in the dare. Near the end of the book, we see that he continues to live in his father’s house, which is beginning to fall apart, i.e. as described by Kenko and other Japanese artists, who have marveled at overgrown gardens and un-pruned trees or bushes.
“Irregularity” is something that Kikuji also is very adept at appreciating in the pottery of his father and of Mrs. Ota. I described [above] how, in contrast to Fumiko, Kikuji loved Mrs. Ota’s Shino bowl to the very end. It was discolored and Fumiko felt it was not of good standard—as well as, it was stained by the lipstick of generations of women. Kikuji obviously embraces Kenko’s definition of “irregular” beauty. Kenko had written: “In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it more interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth.” Keene adds, “The Japanese have been partial not only to incompleteness but to another variety of irregularity, asymmetry.” Keenes emphasizes that this it much more typical of the Japanese idea of beauty than that of other Asian countries, such as China. [However, I also note that there is another incongruent drive to uniformity in Japanese society, as seen as in the test-driven schools and in mass production of products and consumerism in Japan. A famous phrase in Japan: “If a nail sticks up, hammer it down.”]
Finally, Keene has stated, “Simplicity as an aesthetic principle is, of course, not confined to houses and their furnishing [a la feng-shui]. Perhaps the most extreme example of the Japanese love for unobtrusive elegance is the tea-ceremony. . . . it was perhaps a reaction to parvenu extravagance in an age [16th century] when military men obtained sudden power and wealth. . . .it was not the forced simplicity of the man who could afford no better, but a refusal of easily obtainable luxury, a preference for a rusty-looking kettle to one of a gleaming newness.” However, Keene adds, the “tea ceremony is sometimes attacked today as a perversion of the ideal of simplicity. The prized utensils are by no means ordinary wares but may cost fortunes.”
The numerous antique bowls and tea-ceremony utensils in Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes is fairly important for understanding the beauty with which most of the main characters approach the tea ceremony and even enjoy their afternoon teas and life of intermittent love making. The somewhat evil Chikako and the much younger Kikuji are particularly appreciative of those ancient wares that they have used or have seen to be used in a ceremony. Only the daughter, Fumiko, of Mrs. Ota is intent on getting rid of the ancient and rustic tools of the world of the tea ceremony. She has decided to get a job and just to move on with her life—leaving memories of her mother and Kikuji behind.
Keene notes, “The last of the four qualities of Japanese aesthetic preference is the most unusual: perishability. In the West, permanence rather than perishability has been desired, and this has led men to build monuments of marble.” However, as we all know monuments do crumble and victory is often fleeting. Keene adds, concerning Japanese sense of beauty, “Signs of wear and tear such as the fraying of a silk wrapper or the loss of mother-of-pearl inlay from the roller would probably dismay most other people, and it is likely that the owner would send it to a restorer.” However, Keene claims that those things that look like they were made yesterday are less appreciated in the world of art and taste than elsewhere in the world. In Thousand Cranes this, too, seems to be the perspective that Kikuji has inherited from his father—and even Chikaku, who sees as an enemy of sorts–, but is not something that Fumiko desired for herself after her mother’s death.
In Kawabata’s Nobel Prize Acceptance speech in 1967, he spoke of many Japanese poets and writers who had influenced him. In his speech, entitled, “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself”, Kawabata also talked about the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and the moon. Kawabata stated, “Among flower vases, the ware that is given the highest rank is old Iga, from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it commands the highest price. When old Iga has been dampened, its colors and its glow take on a beauty such as to awaken on afresh. Iga was fired at very high temperatures. The straw ash and the smoke from the fuel fell and flowed against the surface, and as the temperature dropped, became a sort of glaze. Because the colors were not fabricated but were rather the result of nature at work in the kiln, color patterns emerged in such varieties as to be called quirks and freaks of the kiln. The rough, austere, strong surfaces of old Iga take on a voluptuous glow when dampened. It breathes to the rhythm of the dew of the flowers.” Perhaps the smashed Shino bowl with the red mark had been of similar kiln development.
He continued, “The taste of the tea ceremony also asks that the tea bowl be moistened before using, to give it [the tea bowl] its own soft glow.”
Moreovere, Kawabata noted, “Ikenobo Sen’o remarked on another occasion (this too is in his Sayings) that “the mountains and strands should appear in their own forms”. Bringing a new spirit into his school of flower arranging, therefore, he found ‘flowers’ in broken vessels and withered branches, and in them too the enlightenment that comes from flowers. ‘The ancients arranged flowers and pursued enlightenment.’ Here we see awakening to the heart of the Japanese spirit, under the influence of Zen. And in it too, perhaps, is the heart of a man living in the devastation of long civil wars.”
We find near the closing in Thousand Cranes , the tale of Kikuji’s maid’s handiwork. The maid simply placed a morning glory cutting into an ancient gourd, which his father had once used for such displays. The artistry of perishability was observed in the maid’s placing a momentary joy—i.e. the morning glory—into something, like a useless old broken gourde—to be enjoyed, of course, for a single morning. Such was the perishability shared to readers by Kawabata, a man who would commit suicide 4 years after giving that very speech—even though he, too, had argued against taking one’s own life in that Nobel Prize acceptance speech on beauty. [Did he do that simply to add, in the end, a splotch of red-blooded surprise to the artwork of his well-conducted life of writing and art?]