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Kawabata, Mishima & the Nobel Prize


In Mr. Kawabata’s works, delicacy joins with resilience, elegance with an awareness of the depths of human nature … they are modern yet directly inspired by the solitary philosophy of the monks of medieval Japan. … For many writers in modern Japan, the claims of tradition and the desire to establish a new literature have proved well-nigh irreconcilable. Mr. Kawabata, however, with his poet’s intuition, has gone beyond this contradiction and achieved a synthesis. …I feel honored to recommend him, who more than any other Japanese writer, is truly qualified for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mishima Yukio wrote these words to the Swedish Academy in 1961, officially nominating him for the prize. It was seven more years before Kawataba would win, with the committee citing his “narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind”:

True, of his production only three novels and a few short stories have so far been translated into different languages, evidently because translation in this case offers especially great difficulties and is apt to be far too coarse a filter, in which many finer shades of meaning in his richly expressive language must be lost. But the translated works do give us a sufficiently representative picture of his personality.

Kawabata’s banquet speech also addresses the issue of translation:

In view of the complexities presented by differences in language, and in view of the fact that my works, no doubt more than those of others, have had to be perused in translation, I must indicate my deep and undying gratitude and respect for the resolve shown by Your Excellencies of the Academy. This first award to an Oriental in fifty-five years has I believe made a deep impression upon Japan, and perhaps upon the other countries of Asia as well, and upon all countries whose languages are little known internationally.

Speaking to the Japanese media, he was even blunter:

If I could have been read by the judges in Japanese that would have been best, but … the fact is that I am heavily indebted to translation. (日本文で審査してもらえれば一番ありがたいわけですけども…翻訳のおかげを非常に被っているわけですね)

Kawabata’s love/hate — or, more accurately, want/distrust — attitude towards translation was expressed in many ways. He was, by all reports, very hands-on during the translation process, which is not to say helpful, necessarily. Edward G. Seidensticker’s Tokyo Central: A Memoir contains this anecdote about the translation of Snow Country:

“Do you not, my esteemed master, find this a rather impenetrable passage?” [I would ask Kawabata]. He would dutifully scrutinize the passage, and answer: “Yes.” Nothing more.

Similar themes are visible in Kawabata’s correspondence with Mishima Yukio, published in 1997 as Kawabata Yasunari/Mishima Yukio: Ōfuku Shokan (『川端康成・三島由紀夫往復書簡』). As early as 1951, Kawabata asked Mishima for the name of “that American translating Confessions of a Mask,” because he wanted his advice as “a Japan-based foreigner who reads Japanese literature” on the question of which short stories to send to the US college magazines that Wallace Stegner had put him in touch with.

(The translator was in fact Meredith Weatherby, although Mishima had some misgivings at the time: “He is an ex-diplomat with no particular standing in American letters,” he wrote, and added that negotiations regarding the matter were at a standstill after a conversation with Ivan Morris in which Morris apparently expressed doubt over whether Weatherby was the right man for the job. The letters are a treasure trove of gossip like this. Ishihara Shintarō’s Season of the Sun (『太陽の季節』) is described by a potential foreign publisher as “Harmless to the youth of America, because they’ve already done everything in it.”)

In 1956, Kawabata wrote to Mishima apologizing for the fact that on the back of the English edition of Snow Country, Kawabata was credited with having “discovered and sponsored such remarkable young writers as Yukio Mishima”:

Perhaps the flattering misconception that I “discovered” you will be all that remains attached to my name in the history of literature.

Mishima replied to congratulate him on the publication and shared his thoughts on Kawabata’s overseas audience:

Those Americans aren’t fools, and I think they’ll understand well enough. It’s really the Europeans who have gotten too set in their ways and now lack the kind of flexible understanding you need for Japanese literature, don’t you think?

Part of this shared concern with translation and overseas reception was clearly artistic self-interest, but there was more. The U.S. occupation had left Japan awash with both foreigners who could speak and read Japanese and local authors with something to say and a burning desire for recognition from the international community. In the U.S. itself, Suzuki Daisetz was touring and teaching at major universities, and beats like Gary Snyder were making zen hip.

Kawabata, for his part, was president of the Japan P.E.N. Club from 1948 to 1965, making the international promotion of Japanese literature part of his job. When, in 1959, he writes to Mishima to thank him for the English edition of Temple of the Golden Pavilion, remarking, “I have long thought that this book was ideally suited to translation into other languages, and I have high expectations for its reception overseas,” he wasn’t just speaking as one comrade to another. The sense of long-term strategy is quite palpable.

And so, when Mishima wrote his letter to the Swedish Academy quoted at the beginning of this article, it was in fact at Kawabata’s request. There was a general feeling in the air that it was about time Japan’s post-war literary spring received some Nobel-style attention, and Kawabata seemed a likely candidate.

Kawabata himself reportedly felt that a younger writer — like Mishima, for instance — was more likely to get the nod. Even after Kawabata received word of his selection, he kept the idea at a distance. Ibuki Kazuko, his editor at the time, claims that he told her, “It wasn’t me who received the Nobel Prize — it was just Japan’s turn” (「ノーベル賞は、僕が貰ったのじゃありません、日本が貰う番になっていただけですよ」).

Perhaps as a result, Kawabata’s Nobel Lecture was less about himself than about the facets of Japanese thought that he felt were least likely to be understood by the West. When he did mention his own work, it was largely to correct potential misconceptions:

[T]o see my novel Thousand Cranes as an evocation of the formal and spiritual beauty of the tea ceremony is a misreading. It is a negative work, and expression of doubt about and warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen.

Even the title of the lecture emphasizes the point: Utsukushii Nihon no watashi. The intentional ambiguities of this title are part of the point, but one way to translate it would be “I of Beautiful Japan.” It is a claim of inseparability from the thousand-year-old tradition that Kawabata claimed — a refusal to be absorbed into the international community as an exotic adjunct to the European worldview and a demand that Japanese literature be understood on its own terms instead.

Two years after Kawabata received the Nobel Prize, Mishima and his Shield Society shocked the literary world with what remains one of the most spectacular flame-outs in modern history. Two years after that, Kawabata died in what is generally — but not universally — considered a suicide. Today, these events look like a grim and decisive epilogue to those first two decades of post-war Japanese literary activity: final artistic statements from artists who felt they had reached the limits of their art, Mishima’s as startling and unlikely as Kawabata’s was ambiguous and subdued.

Sometimes we are too sensitive about refinement or elegance or our sense of beauty … Sometimes we are tired of it. We need sometimes a sudden explosion to make us free from it. —Mishima


April 11, 2008

Matt Treyvaud is a writer and translator living near Kamakura. He is Néojaponisme's Literature/Language editor and the proprietor of No-sword.

14 Responses

  1. Chuckles Says:

    Even more forceful are Mishima’s thoughts on translation.
    From the archives:

    I have always thought his commendation of the young John Nathan to be rather interesting. For more reasons than one, he would probably be aghast at the whole romanize Japanese movement.

    Speaking of translations and Seidensticker – has any of our resident experts on Neojaponisme had the opportunity to compare his work on Genji Monogatari with Royall Tyler’s – I found this to be rather instructive:

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Thanks for the links.

    That NYT article has lots of odd places where they use the right word once and then mess it up later: katakana-hiragana, yatsuhashi-yatsuhachi.

  3. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Yes, excellent links!

    I read Seidensticker’s Genji and flicked through Tyler’s. My initial impression was that while Seidensticker’s would probably appeal more to a reader working his or her way backwards through the canon from Murakami via (Seidensticker’s!) Kawabata, etc., who is accustomed to that spare, minimalist postwar translation style, Tyler’s seemed more readable in its own right. Tyler’s also benefits from an extra decade or two of scholarship, if accuracy is important to you (of course if accuracy is REALLY important to you, you really have no choice but to take a deep breath and learn Heian Japanese). And, as Tyler observes, Waley’s has a lot going for it as sheer literature too.

  4. language hat Says:

    Nice piece! But there’s something wrong here:

    “The U.S. occupation had left Japan awash with both foreigners who could speak and read Japanese and local authors with something to say and a burning desire from the international community.”

    Should it read “a burning desire for respect [or “attention”] from”?

  5. Chuckles Says:

    There is so much juicy gossip surrounding this matter. I have heard it said in some circles that Mishima was actually the favorite for the Nobel but that he yielded to Kawabata out of the same deference to Japanese culture that led him to commit suicide. Said circles also suggest that the reason Kawabata killed himself was because he was tormented by this act on Mishima’s part – he certainly felt that the more brilliant Mishima had in effect patronized him (possibly the same sentiment revealed in his statement to the effect that he will be best remembered as Mishima’s discoverer). Kawabata certainly felt deficient alongside Mishima and Mishima I have heard was tormented by the fact that *he* didnt win the Nobel, perhaps another factor leading to his suicide.
    I believe there is a digression to this effect in one of Shuichi Kato’s works – I have seen it attested to by Keene briefly elsewhere. This was certainly a sordid affair on all accounts, as there is nothing more painful than being a figurehead – as Kawabata certainly felt he was – when a younger, more handsome, dashing, brilliant and certainly more deserving colleague is the dispenser of said noblesse oblige. Mishima in loyalty to Japanese culture, in effect, acting as the prince of said culture, yielded to Kawabata – against his own personal ambition. Catastrophe was the ensuing result. Oh, Quelle Horreur!!! Perfide Nature Humaine!!!

  6. Matt TREYVAUD Says:

    Thanks LH, I’ve gone ahead and fixed that!

    Chuckles: Yeah, the gossip is as rewarding as you’d expect, especially when the “and what if Tanizaki had still been alive?” angle is thrown in. To add to your info: Even in the discussion between Saeki Shoichi and Kawabata Kaori at the end of the correspondence, Saeki says “[三島の] 最後の行為の引金とまでは言わないけれど、繋がる何かを感ぜざるをえないなぁ。” They also discuss a “final letter” from Mishima that Kawabata burned shortly after he received, allegedly for Mishima’s family’s sake.

    Seidensticker in Tokyo Central specifically rejects the theory of a direct link, but does claim that Mishima’s hunger for the prize “helps a good deal to explain his cosmopolitanism during those years”. He also quotes a diary entry of his from 1964 stating that Kawabata “does not admire Mishima’s recent work any more than I do, but considers the plays perhaps a little superior to the novels.” (Definition of “recent” is certainly relevant there…)

    There was clearly a lot more going on than anyone has yet cared to straighten out on the record.

  7. The Task of this Translator. « Wordthief Says:

    […] Matt at No-sword, where you can see an actual geta symbol; his Néojaponisme article “Kawabata, Mishima & the Nobel Prize” is also well worth your […]

  8. british nitpicker Says:

    “US occupation”? Sigh. Not only were there British officials and troops involved on the ground (in and around Hiroshima, for example), but the occupation was both formally and in practice a multinational effort – dominated of course by the US, but not to the point of excluding everybody else. “Allied Occupation” (with capital initials), please!
    That said, I have nothing else to add, as this was a fascinating article, for which many thanks.

  9. M-Bone Says:

    Virtually all historians accept “US Occupation”. Most of the major scholarship on the British presence is devoted to figuring out why they had no appreciable impact on anything of importance to do with the occupation.

  10. Aceface Says:

    And “the British” were including Aussies and Kiwis and Indians.
    Brits had no idea of what to do with post war Japan because London had to consider the interest of colonies and the members of commonwealth which were basically all against bringing Japan back to life again.

    I was reading Keene’s memoir and he was saying some of the member of Swedish academy had voted against Mishima because he judged based on a rumour that Mishima is too much a left wing!

    Any of you read this?

    The writer,Grigory Chkhartishvili(also known as the mystery writer Boris Akunin) is literary critic and the first translator of Mishima Yukio in Russian.
    Anyway in this “literary history of suicide”contains suicide case of writers from all over the world,but I was shocked with the abundance of Japanese among the data.(The author had written in the forword that this was partially due to his expertise,but also a tradition in a J-lit world.)Needless to say,Mishima and Kawabata’s cases are also included along with the other J-lit giants.

  11. W. David MARX Says:

    “Writer Suicide (Don’t Do It)”

  12. patrick Says:

    Yeah I heard Mishima had a revolver loaded with Ich Lüge bullets on the side in case the whole ritual suicide thing didn’t work out…and then there was that hullabaloo about him and Masa calling each other “クルトちゃん” and “ラムちゃん” in public…

  13. Lee Miller Says:

    Mishima is a fascinating character, it is a shame that in America one must go out of their way to even discover him

  14. anonymous Says:

    Nah, Mishima’s still one of those classic mid-century lit giants in the US. Talk to any “smart person”, and chances are Mishima is in their favorite author list; he’s even referenced on TV shows and all that.

    I’m curious to why Mishima is popular and respected in America, even compared to foreign authors in general. Murakami, now that guy’s becoming a joke.