Although Kawabata was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature for three of his novels, he preferred working in the genre of short stories, in particular, stories so small they can fit into the palm of one’s hand. These stories, which Kawabata continued to write over a span of fifty years, were not translated into English until seventeen years after the author’s death. Analysis of these stories reveals a Kawabata not immediately obvious in his novels. Despite the common, modern perception that Kawabata had a stronghold on the new sensationalism literary movement in modern Japan and therefore is primarily an experimental writer, critical analysis of his palm-of-the-hand stories and ‘‘The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,’’ in particular, reveals a writer dedicated to exploring his universe using the principles of traditional Japanese aesthetics.
The aesthetic principles of traditional Japanese literature—all art forms, actually—can be traced to two philosophical schools of thought: Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Kawabata revered traditional literature, particularly Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, written during the Heian period (794–1185). Kawabata credits such texts with influencing his style and literary sensibilities.
Inherent in those traditional texts are the Japanese culture’s aesthetic principles, the tenets that pertain to the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty. Regardless of art form, these aesthetic principles never fluctuate; there are seven of them, and there will always be seven. In no particular order, those seven principles are: simplicity, tranquility, naturalness, nonattachment, profundity, sublimity, and asymmetry.
Western readers cannot appreciate to the full extent of its potential any of Kawabata’s short stories without a grasp of the meaning of these seven principles and how they inform traditional Japanese art. Perhaps this is why his stories went so long without translation; undeniably, Western aesthetics, which fall into the modernist school and which eventually heavily influenced Japanese literature, are almost diametrically opposed to Japanese aesthetics. After World War I, Japanese society began turning its back on tradition in favor of Western values and beliefs. Kawabata recognized this shift, and it grieved him.
Although this is a much simplified comparison, it serves to contrast the modern school of thought with traditional Japanese aesthetics. When considering and judging the depth of beauty, be it a story, a painting, or a garden design, modernism favors logic over intuition, a sense of progress versus a cyclical nature, a sense of clarity over ambiguity. The Japanese aesthetic values the organic form—whatever it may be—over symmetry, the concept of nature above anything man-made, and the idea of living in harmony with nature rather than controlling it. These are just some examples of differences between Western (modern) and Japanese (traditional) aesthetics. They provide a launch point for understanding how traditional Japanese culture perceives the universe.
Simplicity refers to the idea of making do with the minimum, accepting as good only what is appropriate, never going overboard. In literature, this would play out in the length of a piece of writing. This is, in part, why the poetic form haiku is favored in Japan. It is written economically, following a simple format.
Tranquility is the feeling of calm and balance. This principle can be achieved by word choice as well as setting and tone.
Naturalness is the trait of organic being. In a garden, naturalness would be achieved by a design that looks as if everything just happened to grow where it appears. In literature, the writer achieves naturalness by constructing his piece so that it seems to have merely unfolded—that the story has been there all along, and the reader just managed to stumble upon it. There is no contrivance or forced formulaic structure.
Nonattachment is the idea that humans are not invested in anything of this earth. Nothing depends upon anything else; it just exists. In literature, nonattachment is what allows the reader to enjoy a story simply because it is enjoyable. It has its own worth, independent of any meaning a reader may or may not imbue it with.
Profundity is the idea of having depth and intensity. Traditional Japanese profundity is subtle; it fluctuates and shifts, depending upon the meaning found within it. Profundity makes a piece of literature timeless as well as endless in that there is no right or wrong way to read it. What one reader sees, another may not. The writer sees his job as one of suggestion rather than revelation.
Sublimity refers to the essence of an artistic work (or life experience). Stripped of all nonessential verbiage and explanation, a work can be appreciated for its innate clarity.
Asymmetry, or irregularity, is the idea that beauty is found in a balance based on lack of control. It implies a dynamic of give and take, and imperfection contributes to that beauty.
Even a basic understanding of these principles gives a reader unfamiliar with traditional Japanese aesthetics a springboard from which to jump into the writing world of Kawabata. The fact that his palm-of-the-hand stories are so incredibly brief sometimes makes them difficult to grasp because they are over before they barely begin. In his notes to Palm-of-the-Hand Stories, translator Lane Dunlop admits to struggling for connection with the stories. After translating three of them, he was ‘‘unable to find any others that reached me. . . . I mistook their subtlety for slightness, their lack of emphasis for pointlessness.’’
Using ‘‘The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket’’ as a representative title for Kawabata’s short story collection, one begins to see that the Nobel Prize winner may have written his novels to attract a wider audience, but he lived to write those stories in the hopes of keeping alive a tradition he saw quickly fading. Although Kawabata applies all seven Japanese aesthetic principles to his story, three stand out: simplicity, tranquility, and profundity.
The basic story of ‘‘The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket’’ is simple. A man watches as children engage in a favorite childhood activity and, from his vantage point as an outsider looking in, turns a seemingly chance event into a life lesson. At a mere 1,350 words, Kawabata presents the story without decoration or superfluous prose. As readers, we do not know the frame of mind the narrator is in when he first encounters the children. And it does not matter. We do not know his physical traits or those of the children. And it does not matter. We do not even know the exact ages of the children, or the setting beyond the fact that the activity takes place on an embankment outside a school playground. We are given no information that is not absolutely essential to the story.
The most detailed section of the story is the description of the children’s lanterns and the construction process. While this may seem unnecessary, it actually is important. Because lanterns and lantern making are almost sacred aspects of the Japanese culture, the passages pertaining to the lanterns are integral to understanding Kawabata’s meaning. Whether the reader is Japanese or American—or something else—he cannot finish reading those passages and not grasp the reverence bestowed upon the lanterns.
Kawabata imposed upon his story a sense of tranquility in several ways. The entire story is actually one scene, and even though that scene involves almost two dozen children running around flinging lanterns throughout the dusky air, the reader is not encouraged to believe it is chaotic or raucous. Using phrases like ‘‘coming together of children on this lonely slope’’ and ‘‘the candle’s light seemed to emanate,’’ Kawabata gives the reader a sense of calm. And yet there is excitement, too, as the children cry out, ‘‘It’s a bell cricket! It’s a bell cricket!’’ It is interesting to note that Kawabata does not say the children are yelling or screaming; he only indicates or suggests the excitement by the use of exclamation points. When the bell cricket is discovered, something big has happened, and the reader knows it. Even when Fujio initially announces his willingness to give away his insect, he shouts just once. After that, Kawabata describes him as calling out; he is beckoning to the other children, not bellowing. And so it is with setting as well as word choice that Kawabata infuses his story with a sense of tranquility and energizing calm.
Finally, Kawabata creates a sense of the subtly profound with his use of symbolism as well as his allusion to the future. Traditional Japanese culture tends to value allusion—the suggestion of the possibility of something—over explicitness. The narrator alludes to Fujio and Kiyoko’s futures. While the reader may want to know if the two ever fall in love, Kawabata is not willing to make the reader’s job of figuring that out so easy. Maybe they will, maybe they will not.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Yasunari Kawabata, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket”, in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.