Nobel laureate (1968) Yasunari Kawabata is obviously talented at describing scenes, and there was, in The Old Capital, something refreshing about a slow-paced story of a young woman coming into a realization of herself.
In her free time, Chieko would see the cherry blossoms and visit the cedar forests. It was a celebration of the world around us, and I enjoyed Kawabata’s pace. The world today moves so quickly, it was unusual to slow down and try to imagine this foreign 1950s world. Chieko’s Kyoto seemed on the cusp of embracing Westernization.
And that was how the book felt to me: on the cusp. I can’t say I didn’t like it: I enjoyed it very much. But as I read, I felt it was on the verge of something beautiful, and I missed it. Only in retrospect does it all fit together for me. (Note that I’ve attempted to avoid major “spoilers,” if those are even possible.)
As I read, I thought, from beginning to end, that Chieko’s relationships drove the subtle story. First, there is the obvious observation of her unknown status to her adoptive parents. Was she a foundling? Was she a stolen child? The culture threw me off here, because apparently being a foundling is far worse than being stolen. (I would have thought that discovering that your parents were kidnappers was the worse alternative.) But beyond her relationship to her parents, and even more importantly, Chieko had competing suitors that seemed to vie for attention in the novel, and she develops a new relationship with the newly discovered Naeko. Just as I thought some resolution to these relationships was to come, the novel ended.
In retrospect, I realize I misunderstood the novel. It is titled The Old Capital because Kyoto was the capital of Japan for many hundreds of years. As I reflect on the novel, I realize that Kyoto is the character that Kawabata wanted me to focus on: the city streets, the festivals, the cherry blossoms and the cedar woods, the geishas. This traditional city is the Kyoto that Kawabata probably loved most, and he, as a modern individual writing 1957, can see the growing influence of those Western shops, for example, where one cannot even purchase a kimono or an obi.
Just as the two violets in the beginning grow a few feet apart, the Western and the Japanese traditions in the Old Capital seem to be growing apart. Do they know of each other? How do they interact? In this novel, we do not see them interact much at all. The violets parallel extends to Chieko and Naeko and Chieko’s suitors as well. How do they all fit together?
I want to thank Tanabata for leading a book group discussion (I’m a few months late…). One question she asked was this:
When Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, he apparently remarked “that in his work he sought a harmony among man, nature, and emptiness.” Do you think he achieved this in The Old Capital?
Yes: in highlighting the beauties of the traditions of Kyoto, Kawabata illustrates just how the cultures should work together.
In the end, I believe Kawabata is writing in mourning for the Old Capital. In that sense, the novel is simply beautiful. I want to reread this someday after I’ve gone to Kyoto, or at least somewhere I can see a proper kimono and obi. In just 50 years, even in a global environment like the Internet, such traditions are overwhelmed by the Western.
What cultural traditions do you mourn the lose of?
Random Fact for those that have read the book: I read in my recent project book, DNA, that twins are statistically rare in Japan. Less than 3 out of 1000 pregnancies are twins. In a country in Africa, on the other hand, the rate jumps to 40 out of 1000 pregnancies. Is that rarity an explanation for the superstitions revolving around twins?