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Yasunari Kawabata: 古都 (The Old Capital)

This novel was not published in English till twenty-five years after it was first published in Japanese, when it had already been published in many other languages and had been specifically cited by the Nobel Prize Committee as the one that made the deepest impression in the author’s native country and abroad. This is surprising as it has more action (though still very little) than his earlier works published in English. Much of the book is a paean to Kyoto, the old capital of the title, i.e. the capital of Japan for over a thousand years till the middle of the nineteenth century. Not only does Kawabata lovingly describes the various parts of old Kyoto, his main characters seem to spend a significant amount of their time at ceremonies and festivals, which seem to occur most of the time.

The main plot concerns Chieko, daughter of Takichiro and Shige Sada. She is around twenty and their only child. Her father owns a wholesale dry goods shop which is struggling somewhat, not least because Takichiro has not fully moved with the times. Throughout the book, Takichiro considers retirement and goes to the temple to decide what to do with the rest of his life. This, of course, has an effect on both his wife and daughter. The two main plot elements are Chieko’s origins and her love life. Chieko had been told by her parents that they had snatched her from a shrine when they found her, apparently abandoned, and had then registered her as their own daughter. However, she now has reason to believe that someone had left her outside the Sadas’ door and that she had been found when her father returned from a night’s drinking, leaving her mother to think – at least initially – that she was the love child of the father and a geisha. It is only when she sees a young woman her own age who looks just like her and when one of her friends thinks this young woman is Chieko, that she suspects that maybe she was snatched and that she has a sister. The book recounts her efforts to learn more about this young woman, Naeko, and her relationship, if any, with her.

There are three young men in her life. The first is her high school friend, Shin’ichi Mizuki, whom she meets early on. Whether there is any romantic liaison between the two is left very much open. However, Shin’ichi’s older brother, Ryusuke, does seem to be interested, and this interest is increased by the possibility of Ryusuke serving a sort of apprenticeship in Takichiro’s shop. Finally, there is Hideo, a weaver, whose father owes his start in business to Takichiro. Both Hideo and his father consider that they are beneath Chieko and her family (though, if this view is shared by Chieko and her father, it is not mentioned), so much so that Hideo transfers his affections to Naeko as a substitute.

Kawabata does give us his usual concerns, specifically the increasing influence of the West, particularly the United States, and the changes that Japanese businessmen must make to compete in this day and age. While the plot is more developed than in his earlier works, he leaves us wondering what will happen, as none of the plot lines is really resolved. I think that I prefer his earlier works but this is still a very fine work.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchosha in 1962
First English translation published by North Point Press in 1987
Translated by J Martin Holman