Travelling influences what I read and a recent trip through Japan made me keen to familiarize myself with Japanese writers. Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and, as a result, I selected his1959 published book, Thousand Cranes.
The one hundred forty-seven page novel is set post World War Two. It is divided into five chapters with a black and white sketch pertinent to the theme of each at the start. The titles are: “Thousand Cranes”, “The Grove in the Evening Sun”, “Figured Shino”, “Her Mother’s Lipstick”, and “Double Star”.
The tea ceremony is fundamental to the story and an introduction at the beginning of the book establishes its significance in Japanese history. With thirteenth century origins, every detail is pre-determined and adherence to an exacting process required. This information heightens the reader experience and its inclusion is valuable.
Kikuji Mitani, a twenty-five year old bachelor with deceased parents, is the main character. Contrary to cultural beliefs, he is indifferent to marriage and wavers in his conviction to honouring traditions. The plot centers on Kikuji’s relationships with his late father’s former mistresses, Kurimoto Chikako and Mrs. Ota, and the chain of events they trigger.
Kurimoto had a brief liaison with his father. A meddlesome woman derided for an unsightly birthmark on her chest, she sustains a livelihood by offering tea lessons. She invites the unsuspecting Kikuji to his father’s tea cottage under the guise of having tea when in reality she has organized a miai; an opportunity for him to view a prospective bride named Yukiko Inamura.
Anticipating a tea ceremony, Mrs. Ota and her daughter, Fumiko are also present. In contrast to Kurimoto, her relationship with Kikuji’s father was long-standing plus she enjoyed camaraderie with his wife. Kikuji finds Yukiko and Fumiko attractive but remains uncommitted to marriage.
As shown in this excerpt from “The Grove in the Evening Sun”, he also demonstrates a lack of respect for the tea ceremony.
“Kikuji absent-mindedly arranged the charcoal and put on the kettle. Keeping his father company, he had often been through the tea ceremony. He had never been tempted to take up the hobby himself, however, and his father had never pressed him. Even with the water boiling, he only pushed the lid open a little and sat staring at it.”
Kikuji’s attitudes offend Kurimoto and the resulting dynamics illustrate intergenerational conflict as well as the tension implicit in conflicting values.
Events occur and Kikuji and Mrs. Ota have an affair. In the aftermath, Mrs. Ota commits suicide. Kikuji had told her about Kurimoto’s intention vis-à-vis Yukiko and he suspects she killed herself so that based on her relationship with his father, he’d automatically inherit responsibility for Fumiko.
Given her displeasure with Kikuji, Kurimoto lies and tells him Yukiko and Fumiko have wed and his behaviour, therefore, has bereft him of two potential wives. He and Fumiko, however, reconnect. She did not marry but the ending is ambiguous as to whether or not they spend their lives together.
Thousand Cranes explores the issues of grief, forgiveness and sorrow with regards Mrs. Ota’s death. There are poignant passages of dialogue between Kikuji and Fumiko and the following excerpts from “Figured Shino” testify to the author’s skill at his craft.
“…But it only makes her death seem dirty, when we start feeling responsible and having regrets. Regrets and second thoughts only make the burden heavier for the one who has died.”
“Worrying oneself over the dead-was it in most cases a mistake, not unlike berating them? The dead did not press moral considerations upon the living.”
“…I thought that no matter how she had been misunderstood, death could not be her answer. Death only cuts off understanding….”
Yasunari Kawabata’s prose is sparse and controlled; nevertheless, he pens evocative descriptions as this sample from “The Grove in the Evening Sun” shows.
“As the train approached Tokyo Central Station, he looked down upon a tree-lined avenue. It ran east and west, almost at right angles to the railroad. The western sun poured into it, and the street glittered like a sheet of metal. The trees, with the sun behind them, were darkened almost black. The shadows were cool, the branches wide, the leaves thick. Solid western buildings lined the street.”
On a final note, the title is derived from chapter one and the thousand-crane pattern design on Yukiko Inamura’s kerchief Kikuji notices the first time he sees her. Impressed with her beauty, he has yet to learn her identity or the impact she will have on his world.
Thousand Cranes is a compelling book. It provides insight into Japanese culture post World War Two; highlights the tug between the past and present; invites reflection as to the standing of cultural traditions today; and prompts reflection as to what the future might hold.