Japan in the 1920s was in a state of great transition. World War I was over, but the country would never be the same. Just as the decade was one of great societal and cultural value shifts in the United States, so it was in Japan. Western influence was infiltrating every aspect of the Japanese way of life, leaving those who favored tradition over modernity feeling uneasy and uncertain.
Art often mimics reality, and this held true of literature in 1920s Japan. In the 1910s, much of Japanese literature fell into the artistic realm of naturalism. As a literary movement, naturalism emphasized man’s accidental, physiological nature over his moral or rational characteristics and qualities. Naturalism had its roots in Europe, and its writers tended to focus on social issues and themes. Japanese writers put their own spin on the school of thought, and it quickly became a movement largely composed of autobiographical fiction that revealed the excesses and confessions of its writers.
Everything was changing—language, thought, societal norms and expectations—and writers wanted alternatives. As a result, the 1920s was rife with literary movements, but none as strong as the proletarian (worker) literature movement. The movement was in its infancy and would gain momentum throughout the 1930s as Japan became a more militaristic state and divided the country into those who favored such a government and those who did not.
Strong as it was, the proletarian literary movement shared its spotlight with other literary schools of thought as Japanese writers took this transition as an opportunity to experiment with form and content. One such school was called new sensationalism; Kawabata was a key member. Kawabata defined new sensationalism as ‘‘Expressionism in epistemology and Dadaism in formal expression.’’ In simpler terms, this means the movement emphasized expression of inner experiences using irony and cynicism. World War I left many people in a mood of disillusionment. Artists expressed their outrage over the destruction of so much and so many through their art and reacted against the traditional, existing artistic (including literary) techniques.
Unlike the proletarian literary movement, which was based on ideological principles, or naturalism, the more traditional school of thought, which was founded on principles of natural science, new sensationalism stood on literary principles. Where proletarian literature emphasized politics and theory, new sensationalist (or neo-perceptionist) literature focused on the emotional, personal, individual side of life’s experiences.
The movement itself did not last long (approximately 1924–1930), but it had its own journal, Bungei Jidai (The Age of the Literary Arts). It was in this journal that Kawabata published his first significant fiction in the form of brief sketches he called ‘‘palm-of-the-hand stories.’’ Kawabata continued to write in the new sensationalist style to the end of his life.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Yasunari Kawabata, Published by Gale Group, 2001.