Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Snow Country won the Novel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.
According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeated praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”
As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality sake brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas like Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate services.
Snow Country is about a named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a tunnel into the open air:
The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.
These are some of the most famous opening lines in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets like Bashō and Issa.
As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.
In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressable beauty of it.
Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and his tracking shots.
If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:
To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.
What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.
In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. Of course Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.
It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is inarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.
I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of reverse Orientalist imagery is to do it as disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”