Monday, November 30, 2009

'The Old Capital' Discussion (JLit Book Group)

Welcome to the discussion of our first selection for the Japanese Literature Book Group, The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata.

Originally published serially from October 1961 to January 1962. The original Japanese title is Koto 古都, which literally means 'former capital' and refers to the city of Kyoto as Edo (now Tokyo) became the capital in 1868.
First translated into English in 1987, with a new revised edition published in 2006, both by J. Martin Holman.
Set in the traditional city of Kyoto, The Old Capital tells the story of Chieko, the adopted daughter of a kimono designer and his wife. Since her youth, Chieko was told that the childless couple kidnapped her in a moment of profound desire. When Chieko learns unsettling truths about her past, her life of love and affection is thrown into disarray.

This delicate novel traces the legacy of beauty and tradition from one generation of artists to the next as they navigate, with an ambivalent mixture of regret and fascination, the complex world of postwar Japan. This simple story of chance, art, and devotion resounds with deep spiritual and human understanding.

Yasunari Kawabata is widely recognized as one of the most significant figures in modern Japanese literature. The Old Capital was one of three novels specifically cited when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.
A few questions to get us started, but please feel free to ask about, or discuss, any aspect of the book.

What did you think of the story?  Did you like it?  Was it easy to read, or a challenge?
There were a lot of place names mentioned which would've meant much more to someone familiar with Kyoto.  Did that bother you?
What did you think of the translation?
What did you think of the relationships between the characters? Chieko's parents? Chieko and Naeko? Chieko and Shin'ichi?
How was the behaviour of the characters different from what you might have expected?  Do you think this is due to a purely cultural difference?
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?
[Your Question Here]

The Old Capital has been reviewed by:
Absorbed in Words
The Reading Life
We Be Reading
Rebecca Reads

Further thoughts on the book:
Over a Hedge
The Reading Life
If you've reviewed this book and would like me to include a link here, please let me know.

Note:  The comments may contain spoilers so if you have not read the book yet, proceed at your own risk.

The small print:  Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) contain my Associates ID.  Purchases made via these links earn me a small commission.  For more information visit my About Page.


  1. I only finished reading the book earlier today so I haven't had a chance to put together any links for Cultural Context yet like I did for I Am a Cat, but I thought I should get this post up in case anyone was eager to get started with the discussion. Look for the other post tomorrow, as well as a little activity for you to do.

  2. I so wished I could have participated with this book, but I just couldn't find a copy anywhere. :-(

  3. I did like the story but I wanted a bit more from some of the plot lines -- like how did Shin'ichi feel after Chieko and his older brother began talking? It specifically said that Shin'ichi loved her but once Chieko was linked with his brother, Shin'ichi was just taken out of the story.

    I definitely want to find more information on the "twin" issue in Japan. What made twins so undesirable and has this changed and when?

    I am curious as well whether some of the "over-reacting" sorts of comments from all of the characters are because of the difficulty in translating from Japanese to English or if they are actual cultural differences in the way people speak to each other. Sometimes it was tiring to have every line of dialogue be so dramatic.

  4. I've only read Holman's first translation of the novel. has anyone had a chance to read both and compare them? Is it worth springing for a second copy?

  5. I enjoyed the story but it left me with many questions about who the parents really were, why twins were undesirable, how the characters really felt.
    I found it an east read, but difficult to imagine it being set so long ago as she seemed to have a lot of freedom. I wanted more about Naeko and the boy who had proposed to her aswell

  6. I'm wondering what people thought about two of the key images in the novel--the two violets on the maple tree and the bell crickets in the glass jar. On first reading they struck me as beautiful images, but a bit too obvious to communicate significant symbolic meaning. The more I read and thought about them, the more it seemed like they were deceptively simple. I've already written down my own thoughts about these two images on my blog, so I'm more interested in hearing someone else's thoughts here rather than repeating my own. Any takers?

  7. I hope to write my review soon and will come back here afterwards... I feel I have to find my own words before looking at the thoughts of the bookgroup! ;)

  8. Kristen - I know what you mean, the writing style is somewhat sparse sometimes. I think that's intentional though and we're supposed to fill in the spaces and the silence ourselves. In Japanese culture in general, but I think in Kawabata's writing very much so, often what isn't said can be more important than what is.

    I found the twin issue interesting too. I hadn't heard of it being an issue before so that was enlightening. I happened to mention to my grandma class (a group of grandmothers that I teach English to once a week) that I'd read the book, and asked them about twins. They said quite matter-of-factly that in the old days one of the twins would usually be sent to live with someone else. But they also said that nowadays there is no stigma about twins anymore. In fact one of them said she felt that more twins were being born these days, but of course that is just her impression. I don't know if it's actually true or not. Maybe it's just because no one hides it now, or there is the possibility that fertility drugs are increasing the chances of twins. Anyway, interesting.

    I'm not 100% sure what you mean by "over-reacting" but I think the dialogue was chosen with care to represent that the characters also spoke with care. Maybe someone else can elaborate further..

  9. Travis - I've only read the revised edition so I really don't know. I tried to find some information about what had been changed but didn't come up with anything, sorry.

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the symbolism of those images. My thinking of the violets was pretty similar. Two violets essentially the same but separated, definitely brought to mind the twins. But also more generally too, how we can be 'with' someone but still not able to 'touch' them.

    I have to admit that I hadn't really given too much thought to the crickets in the jar, but of course I should have realized that they were there for a purpose. Kawabata seems so precise in his writing that they would hardly be accidental. Thanks so much for sharing those thoughts, I hope the others will go over to your post as well. He hasn't yet commented on this post, but Mel (The Reading Life) also has some interesting thoughts on the symbolism in the novel. Just click on the link above under Further thoughts..

  10. brizmus - I'm sorry you weren't able to find the book. :(

    katrina - I included a couple of links about this old belief about twins in the Cultural Links post that explain a little bit about why they were considered undesirable.

    About her having a lot of freedom, do you mean how she would sometimes go out by herself? I really don't know if her behaviour was unusual for the time, about 60 years ago. And I wanted more about Naeko and Hideo too.

    Gnoe - I look forward to your review. :)

  11. @katrina: I share the same observation about freedom. What I was wondering about it is how Chieko's wishes and opinions seemed to appreciate much consideration from her parents. As a matter of popular thinking, I suppose, I was inclined to think that young daughters (Chieko was 20 right?) at the time had a much more submissive position in the family, especially in a Japanese one. But after reading The Old Capital, I began to think that maybe my assumptions had all been wrong. Take her parents' stand on letting her marry whom she chooses, for example. We all know that in China, arranged marriages are practically tradition. But in the Kawabata's story, it does seem like Japanese women enjoyed more freedom. And I'm curious as to how Chieko's liberties compare to those of the modern Japanese woman.

    Would anyone care to enlighten me on this? :)

    On a side note, I absolutely enjoyed The Old Capital and I consider to be somewhat of a perfect Japanese novel. I can understand how many people might get the feeling that the plot was somehow incomplete or even hollow. But I've long learned not to expect the traditional Western definition of plot in Japanese writing. And this allowed me to fully enjoy the story, even though in a way I also wish I'd learn more about Naeko. Understandably, this kind of storytelling wouldn't sit so well for some readers. But like I always say, with Japanese novels I concentrate more on the emotional experience that I go through as I read the book instead of on which way the story goes and how it ends. And in the case of The Old Capital, it had been such delightful experience. As I've said in my review, it somehow brought me a kind of floating feeling, something like the feeling of being young at heart :)

  12. I thought Kristen raised some interesting questions in her first post. Regarding Ryusuke supplanting Shinichi so quickly as a marriage candidate, I think this can be explained by the strong tradition at the time of families arranging marriages. Children did have a say, but both families' class and business interests would have to be taken into consideration as well. Once the eldest brother expressed an interest, Shinichi would have known that was it for him.

    I had never looked to closely at the twins issue before, so I'm glad you raised it and appreciate the two links tanabata posted. The dateline on the article from Time magazine is interesting since it was published the same decade Chieko and Naeko would have been born. When I first read the novel, I thought that the financial circumstances of Chieko's rural family was enough to explain why she was left on the doorstep. Now that I'm aware of the extent of the twins stigma, Naeko's desire to make personal sacrifices for her sister resonates all the more.

  13. I have just finished writing up my thoughts on this book HERE.

    Indeed, there are many aspects of this book worth a good discussion or two. What I found really interesting was the relationship between the male and female characters in the story. It seemed that perhaps only Shin'ichi and Chieko had a relationship that was more or less on equal terms. In others, even with Hideo and Chieko, there seemed to be a distinct male superiority.

    Though I know this to be a cultural thing, as many Asian cultures have this similar 'inequality', I just found it quite strong in the story.

    There was another point in the story that has stayed with me for a little while, and that was when Takichiro slapped Hideo when talking about Takichiro's design for an obi for Chieko. The fact that Hideo is not Takichiro's own son, and that Takichiro actually hit Hideo in front of Hideo's father, without so much as a second thought, and that Hideo's father did not even flinch, quite quite amazes me.

    I was a little put off by the way it was written as if every reader would know Kyoto like the author did. But I think Kawabata did an amazing job in his descriptions of certain scenes and atmospheres.

    I reckon perhaps the original Japanese version of this book would have made a better novel. Maybe some things so distinctly Japanese, like this book, are best left Japanese.


    Well, anyway, I'm off to look at your list of cultural references! =)

  14. I read and reviewed this today!

    I really enjoyed how it was written - so slow and peaceful it was refreshing. But I thought it was going to be about the people and then it ended -- it was only after the fact that I realized how much he wanted us to see the city as a character.

    I only wish I knew more about Kyoto!


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