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)
“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.