10 January 2013

Thousand Cranes (Kawabata Yasunari)

Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Perigee, 1981)

When Kikuji's father died it seemed he inherited not only his material properties--the house and the antique tea bowls. His father's mistresses seemed to claim their hold onto him too. At the beginning of the novel, his father's first mistress Chikako sought him out to participate in a tea ceremony. But it seemed there was more to her invitation than tea drinking. She was arranging for Kikuji to meet a young beautiful woman as a marriage prospect. Mrs. Ota, his father's second mistress, with whom his father had had a longer lasting affair, was also present in the tea ceremony, together with her daughter. Her presence turned out to be a prelude to sexual relations with her former benefactor's son, with Kikuji himself.

The novel was another slippery haiku performance from Kawabata. As with his earlier novel Snow Country, nature and culture functioned as more than backdrops to sexual encounters. They were the very settings on which human frailties and beauties were heated to bubble up to the surface like steam on a tea kettle.

Over fiery coals the tea boils to perfection. The smoke couldn't hide the hushed desires, meaningful evasions, and raging passions of the characters. The elaborate tea ceremony at the opening almost obscured the all-too-civilized catfight between two mistresses soliciting the attention of a young man.

Thousand Cranes was a work of high symbolism and lyricism. It could be seen as a novel of cultural inheritance, the transference of culture through the generations, like a valuable heirloom in a family.

Before Mrs. Ota's ashes it [Shino tea ware] had been a flower vase, and now it was back at its old work, a water jar in a tea ceremony.

A jar that had been Mrs. Ota's was now being used by Chikako. After Mrs. Ota's death, it had passed to her daughter, and from Fumiko it had come to Kikuji.

It had had a strange career. But perhaps the strangeness was natural to tea vessels.

In the three or four hundred years before it became the property of Mrs. Ota, it had passed through the hands of people with what strange careers?

"Beside the iron kettle, the Shino looks even more like a beautiful woman," Kikuji said to Fumiko. "But it's strong enough to hold its own against the iron."

The novel could also be seen as a description of "cultural niche" (cf. ecological niche), the unique functions and inherent values of products and artifacts like tea bowls, in which the essence of culture dwells since immemorial time. There was a kind of mutual agreement between tea bowls and tea drinkers: the drinkers maintain the beauty of the bowls; the drink rejuvenates its drinkers.

"It's a great waste not to use Shino [sixteenth century ware] for tea. You can't bring out the real beauty of a tea piece unless you set it off against its own kind."
In black enamel touched with green and an occasional spot of russet, thick leaves of grass encircled the waist of the bowl. Clean and healthy, the leaves were enough to dispel his morbid fancies.

The proportions of the bowl were strong and dignified.

One appraised the value of tea vessels in terms of their aesthetic qualities and utility. Beauty and function defined their place in the world. The tea bowls were a valuable inheritance and were acquired at a high price. One left one's soul in them, like the stain of a lipstick that couldn't be rubbed off a teacup's rim.

The Shino was reddish to begin with, but Mother used to say that she couldn't rub [her] lipstick from the rim, no matter how hard she tried. I sometimes look at it now that she is dead, and there does seem to be a sort of flush in one place.

There was coevolution between cultural artifacts and people. As with The Old Capital, Kawabata was concerned with how cultures and traditions are transferred like genetic traits, like birthmarks. The imprint of culture was consistent to the way a birthmark was imprinted on a person. In the novel, Chikako had a birthmark on her breast. This mark, one character had noted, could leave a lasting impression on a child suckling on it.

From the day it was born it would drink there; and from the day it began to see, it would see that ugly mark on its mother's breast. Its first impression of the world, its first impression of its mother, would be that ugly birthmark, and there the impression would be, through the child's whole life.

As for the figure of the "thousand cranes", it was the striking pattern on a young woman's kerchief. It had so affected Kikuji's perception of her (the Inamura girl, the marriage prospect) that she came to embody it, becoming for him the "girl of the thousand cranes". The pattern could symbolize the vitality of youth, or the exhilarating freedom in flying. In the flight of the thousand cranes, flapping wings bring bird blood into the bristles of every feather. She probably inherited this piece of cloth from someone.

Read for Tony's January in Japan.


  1. Great review :) I read this a while back, and I think I whizzed through it a little too quickly. With some of these shorter Japanese pieces, you really need to go back and enjoy them again to get the full flavour...

  2. Ah, I have read this one.

    One thing that struck me is how small the cultural niche is. The tea ceremony is eminently Japanese, yet almost no Japanese people do it; few have any interest in it at all. Thus the transference, the work of the collectors and hobbyists, is all the more valuable.

  3. Tony, like sipping tea, yes. The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura would make a fine companion piece to this book.

    Thanks again for hosting this thematic group read. Just the right push to savor J-lit.

    Tom, has it become rarefied there? Perhaps there is a kind of casualness now to drinking tea, with tea leaves and tea implements easily mass-produced.

  4. Great post, Have this upon my shelf waiting my perusal. On the tea ceremony been reading this in a wonderful biography on Miyamoto Musashi

  5. The "high symbolism and lyricism" aspect you mention intrigues me, Rise, as does the "cultural niche" element you and Tom discuss above. However, I've decided to wrestle with Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion for my J-Lit read even though I gave up on it halfway through the last time I tried to read it a few years back. I think I'm trying to say that something like Kawabata's book might be a little too subtle for me this month!

  6. My experience with Kawabata is that he is awfully subtle!

  7. Thanks, Gary. I have one more book by Kawabata myself.

    Richard, what Tom said. Subtle as subtle can be. But Mishima had his own thing going too. Each could be mystifying in his own way.

  8. Thanks for a thoughtful post. I shared it on my own FB page, "The Way of Tea in L.A." and may also do so on my own blog of the same name on blogspot.

    I've always thought that the white shino chawan in the story is one of the major characters.

    I'm a tea ceremony instructor and also produced a literary series of Contemporary Japanese Short Stories for NPR / KCRW, 89.9fm in Santa Monica CA in 1993.

  9. Namaste, Lauren. Thanks for visiting the blog. I hope that audio series on contemporary Japanese stories is revived and the podcast made available.