The Beautiful Japan of the Mind

The Beautiful Japan of the Mind

Yasunari Kawabata (川端康成) was the first Japanese novelist to receive the Nobel prize in Literature. I had read his novel “The Master of Go” (名人) and recently I listened to the BBC dramatised version of “A thousand cranes” (千羽鶴). This led me to look up his Nobel lecture “Japan, the Beautiful and Myself” and it made a great impression on me, in particular his discussion of poems by Zen Buddhist monks.

The English translation by the eminent Edward Seidensticker is excellent, but inevitably some features of the original get lost in translation. This is why I prefer to attempt to read the original Japanese text. The Nobel Prize site provides a Japanese version of the lecture but unfortunately it is a series of images of handwritten text. The handwriting is incredibly regular but the images have such a low resolution that the text is very hard to read. Because of the poor quality, to read it I first created a readable version of the Japanese text.

There have been two other Japanese Nobel laureates, Kenzaburo Oe and Kazuo Ishiguro (who was born in Japan but moved to the UK at the age of five). Both these authors wrote and delivered their lectures in English, so there is no original Japanese version. Kenzaburo Oe discusses Yasunari Kawabata’s lecture in his own Nobel lecture, titled “Japan, The Ambiguous, and Myself”, a clear reference to the title of Kawabata’s lecture:

“Kawabata Yasunari, the first Japanese writer who stood on this platform as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered a lecture entitled Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. It was at once very beautiful and vague. I have used the English word vague as an equivalent of that word in Japanese aimaina. This Japanese adjective could have several alternatives for its English translation. The kind of vagueness that Kawabata adopted deliberately is implied in the title itself of his lecture. It can be transliterated as ‘myself of beautiful Japan’. The vagueness of the whole title derives from the Japanese particle ‘no’ (literally ‘of’) linking ‘Myself’ and ‘Beautiful Japan’.”

“The vagueness of the title leaves room for various interpretations of its implications. It can imply ‘myself as a part of beautiful Japan’, the particle ‘no’ indicating the relationship of the noun following it to the noun preceding it as one of possession, belonging or attachment. It can also imply ‘beautiful Japan and myself’, the particle in this case linking the two nouns in apposition, as indeed they are in the English title of Kawabata’s lecture translated by one of the most eminent American specialists of Japanese literature. He translates ‘Japan, the beautiful and myself’. In this expert translation the traduttore (translator) is not in the least a traditore (betrayer).”

I will come back to Oe’s views on Kawabata’s lecture later.

The Nobel lecture by Kazuo Ishiguro is also very much worth reading. I like in particular his description of his realisation that “his” Japan is a mental construct:

“I was starting to accept that ‘my’ Japan perhaps didn’t much correspond to any place I could go to on a plane; that the way of life of which my parents talked, that I remembered from my early childhood, had largely vanished during the 1960s and 1970s; that in any case, the Japan that existed in my head might always have been an emotional construct put together by a child out of memory, imagination and speculation. And perhaps most significantly, I’d come to realise that with each year I grew older, this Japan of mine — this precious place I’d grown up with — was getting fainter and fainter.”

I have always been convinced that any place we visit, or a place where we come from but no longer live, is essentially a place “of the mind”, and that is why everyone’s experience of visiting the same place is so different. Our minds best retain the memories that made the strongest impressions on us, and what these are is different for everyone.

I have been to Japan several times, twice for visits of several months. During these visits I’ve worked with researchers at the Disaster Prevention Research Institute of Kyoto University, and explored the temples and shrines of Kyoto. Kawabata’s views and ideas resonate with me because they are close to my “Japan of the mind”.

Source text and translation


Kawabata was born in 1899 and received the Nobel prize in 1968. This means that he learned to write in the period between 1900 and 1946 when the usage of kana was based on historical principles, i.e. they reflected the historical pronunciation rather than the actual one. For example, the verb iru “to be” was written in hiragana as ゐる (wiru) rather than いる (iru). The noun kao “face” was written かほ (kaho) rather than かお (kao). In general, many kana writings used the “h”+vowel (ha, he etc.) and “w”+vowel (wo,wi etc.) were in modern Japanese only the vowel is used; for some words, what is now ka was kwa, written くわ. Other difference were the spelling やう (yau) instead of よう(you), せう(seu) instead of しょう (shou) and similar.

In 1946 the kana spelling was reformed into the simpler, pronunciation-orientated spelling that is still the standard in modern Japanese. Many kanji were also simplified. Nevertheless, Kawabata’s Nobel lecture is largely written in the old spelling, and uses some of the old-style kanji (旧漢字, kyuukanji). This gives the text a peculiar old-fashioned character that is not obvious from the translation.

Note for example the spelling of 言へる (now 言える) and してゐます (now しています) in one of the first sentences in the essay, a commentary on a poem by the Zen poet Myoe:


Myoe no kono uta ni wa, utamonogatari to iheru hodo no, nagakukuwashii kotobagaki ga atte, uta no kokoro wo akiraka ni shitewimasu.

The limits of translation

As Kenzaburo Oe pointed out above, exact translation is impossible.

For example, Kawabata comments that the explanatory note (kotobagaki, 詞書き ) by Myoe on this own poem is so long and detailed that it could be said to be an utamonogatari(歌物語, meaning a “short Heian period tale in the form of a poem”), a level of detail not present in the translation which simply says:

“The second poem bears an unusually detailed account of its origins, such as to be an explanation of the heart of its meaning”

In the essay, many poems are quoted, most of them by Buddhist monks. The translator, Edward Seidensticker, received help from a Buddhist scholar (Jikai Fujiyoshi,藤吉慈海) for the quotations and references. They had to translate them in a great rush as Kawabata was still writing his lecture in his hotel on the morning that he had to deliver it.

In the original Japanese text, the old poems are written in classical Japanese (kobun, 古文) which is a very different language from modern Japanese, with different grammar and vocabulary. As it is impossible to render this in English, we get a modern translation instead. To a Japanese reader, the poems therefore have an entirely different feeling, probably similar to what an English reader experiences with the original Beowulf, or a Dutch speaker reading Karel ende Elegast. This is of course not essential to the message of the lecture but it illustrates the difficulties facing the translator.

Zen Buddhism and poetry

Most of the poems quoted are tanka, (短歌 meaning “short poem”), a poem consisting of 31 mora in five units, usually following a 5-7-5-7-7 pattern of mora per unit. For example, the first poem (written here a unit per line to show the structure) is


“In the spring, cherry blossoms, in the summer the cuckoo.
In autumn the moon, and in winter the snow, clear, cold.”

and the second one


“The winter moon comes from the clouds to keep me company.
The wind is piercing, the snow is cold.”

What I find most interesting is Kawabata’s observation on this second poem. Myoe provided the following note about his inspiration for this poem:

“When the hour of the midnight vigil came, I ceased meditation and descended from the hall on the peak to the lower quarters, and as I did so the moon came from the clouds and set the snow to glowing. The moon was my companion, and not even the wolf howling in the valley brought fear. “

Kawabata says:

“My reason for choosing [this poem] has to do with its remarkable gentleness and compassion. Winter moon, going behind the clouds and coming forth again, making bright my footsteps as I go to the meditation hall and descend again, making me unafraid of the wolf: does not the wind sink into you, does not the snow, are you not cold? I choose the poem as a poem of warm, deep, delicate compassion, a poem that has in it the deep quiet of the Japanese spirit.”

Kawabata further discusses a particular poem that is very easy to understand, but nevertheless loses a lot in translation, because the visual effect and structure are untranslatable:


aka aka ya
aka aka aka ya
aka aka ya
aka aka aka ya
aka aka ya tsuki

Notice that even this poem is a tanka! The translation is

“Bright, bright, and bright, bright, bright, and bright, bright.
Bright and bright, bright, and bright, bright moon.”

Kawabata observes:

“Seeing the moon, he becomes the moon, the moon seen by him becomes him. He sinks into nature, becomes one with nature. The light of the “clear heart” of the priest, seated in the meditation hall in the darkness before the dawn, becomes for the dawn moon its own light.”

Zen monks like Dogen and Myoe spent a lot of their time in meditation. As a result, they were able to live as much in the present as possible and to have as little sense of self as possible.

Dogen and Myoe lived in the 13th century. The final poem I want to highlight is the deathbed poem of the priest Ryokan who lived much later (1758-1831):


“What shall be my legacy? The blossoms of spring,
The cuckoo in the hills, the leaves of autumn.”

Kawabata says

“In this poem, as in Dogen’s, the commonest of figures and the commonest of words are strung together without hesitation — no, to particular effect, rather — and so they transmit the very essence of Japan.”

and further

“Ryokan pursued literature and belief in the benign spirit summarized in the Buddhist phrase “a smiling face and gentle words”. In his last poem he offered nothing as a legacy. He but hoped that after his death nature would remain beautiful. That could be his bequest.”

The phrase “a smiling face and gentle words” is a “four-kanji idiom” (yojijukugo,四字熟語), pronounced as wagan aigo. Its origin is from a Buddhist text called “The Sutra of Immeasurable Life”:

“With an expression of tenderness in his face and with kindness in his speech, he spoke to others in consonance with their inner thoughts.”

It carries the connotation that the bodhisattva speaks gentle words to guide people. The web site of the Honganji temple in Kyoto has a nice explanation (in Japanese).

Why did Kawabata include these poems in his lecture?

In his own Nobel lecture, Kenzaburo Oe expresses his views on the use of classical poetry in Kawabata’s lecture:

“Even as a twentieth-century writer Kawabata depicts his state of mind in terms of the poems written by medieval Zen monks. Most of these poems are concerned with the linguistic impossibility of telling truth. According to such poems words are confined within their closed shells. The readers can not expect that words will ever come out of these poems and get through to us. One can never understand or feel sympathetic towards these Zen poems except by giving oneself up and willingly penetrating into the closed shells of those words.”

“Why did Kawabata boldly decide to read those extremely esoteric poems in Japanese before the audience in Stockholm? I look back almost with nostalgia upon the straightforward bravery which he attained towards the end of his distinguished career and with which he made such a confession of his faith. Kawabata had been an artistic pilgrim for decades during which he produced a host of masterpieces. After those years of his pilgrimage, only by making a confession as to how he was fascinated by such inaccessible Japanese poems that baffle any attempt fully to understand them, was he able to talk about ‘Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself’, that is, about the world in which he lived and the literature which he created.”

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