The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

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?

Read the Nobels

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Hm, if the city is the main character of sorts, this might not be my sort of book.

  2. I really want to read this book as I love Japanese literature. I love reading about old Japan so I think I’d like dipping in and out of this book, taking time to savour it.

    PS. I love the twin fact – I’ll be telling a few people that one!

  3. I’ve never heard of this book, but it sounds wonderful! I had the good fortune to visit Japan many years ago, and I really enjoyed Kyoto, so am always looking for ways to visit it through literature (much cheaper than a plane ticket!). Also, Tony has a bit of an obsession with Japan, so I think this is a book he’d really enjoy as well. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“The Heights” by Peter Hedges =-.

  4. Hmm, not sure if this is the book for me. I like books about cities, but not when I am unsure of whether the city is the main character or not! I am glad you read this and wrote such a thoughtful and lovely review, but I don’t know if I will read it, too.
    .-= Aarti´s last post on blog ..Blogsplash: Thaw! =-.

  5. Is it silly that I was hoping for an enthusiastic review because I love the cover so much? 😛

    I actually really like books that present a place as a character (and mention that in a review scheduled for later this week), so this sounds like a book for me.
    .-= Nymeth´s last post on blog ..The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery =-.

  6. I’m with Nymeth – that is such a beautiful cover!

    I love a beautiful, slow-paced novel with little final resolution. I also love how you took some time to mull this one over and give us both your initial reactions and your retrospective ones. Seems fitting to the content of the book. 🙂
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Essay Mondays: Chesterton =-.

  7. I was hoping for a more gushing review, just because I want to give Kawabata another chance (after not enjoying Snow Country that much) and this one really appealed to me. I’m most interested in it, because Kyoto is the Japanese city that’s really captured my imagination. So I still might give it a try. 🙂
    .-= Eva´s last post on blog ..Dearest Anne (thoughts) =-.

  8. Amanda, yeah, I’m thinking you would NOT enjoy it….

    Jackie, yes, it’s meant to be read slowly, I think I read too fast. But this is a book without a cohesive plot-resolution in the traditional sense, so it would surprise me if you enjoyed it, since I know you like a good plot over good writing! But maybe your JLit interest differ?

    Steph, I’m developing a strong desire to go to Japan….

    Stefanie, it is a lovely book, I thought.

    Aarti, this is not a book for everyone, I’ll give you that!

    Nymeth, I like this cover too. Unfortunately, mine had this cover, which was horrible and ugly….

    Emily, yes, my first thought when I finished was “so….what did they do? What happened?!” and upon reflection I see how all the elements fit together — writing this post helped me put it in perspective!

    Eva, in some of the discussion comments on Tanabata’s blog post, some people complained about how women were approached. I know you’re sensitive to that so I thought I’d mention it. But for me, the whole setting and traditions seemed foreign, so it seemed the 1950s scene with Chieko wondering if this was “proper” (for example) seemed to be emphasizing the foreignness–and the contrast to the Westernization that was only slightly present. So I guess it felt like a period piece to me.

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