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Yasunari Kawabata: 千羽鶴 (Thousand Cranes)

This novel is set around the Japanese tea ceremony, a highly ritualised and formal event. At the beginning of the novel, Kikuji Mitani was about to attend a tea ceremony given by Chikako Kurimoto. Kikuji is in his mid-twenties. His parents are both dead. Chikako Kurimoto had been his father’s mistress (though his mother may not have known). Kikuji visited Chikako with his father when he was a boy and remembers surprising her cutting the hair off a birthmark that she had between her breasts. Soon after that, she became less attractive and she reverted to a role of organising tea ceremonies. Also at this tea ceremony are three other important people. The first is Yukiko Inamura. Unknown to Kikuji, Chikako is organizing a miai (an arranged marriage) between Kikuji and Yukiko. The other two people are Mrs. Ota, another of his father’s former mistresses, whom he helped after her husband’s death, and Mrs. Ota’s daughter Fumiko. Much of the novel is about the guilt that Mrs. Ota (and her daughter) feel towards Kikuji, for having had the affair with his father. This is compared to Chikako’s reaction (she feels that she has to take control of Kikuji’s life) and Kikuji’s own reaction, which is initial attraction towards Mrs. Ota and then, contrary to Chikako’s wishes, attraction for Fumiko at the expense of Yukiko.

As in his other novels, Kawabata’s approach is generally understated. While Chikako is fairly imposing, pushing herself into Kikuji’s life, Kikuji’s gradual love for Fumiko is never openly stated either by him or by Kawabata. Indeed, much of it revolves around the, for Westerners, arcane tea ceremony and the significance of the gifts to Kikuji by Fumiko of tea bowls and her subsequent destruction of one of them. The inherent sadness and guilt of Mrs. Ota (completely unlike Chikako), which is transmitted to her daughter, is key. Kikuji only gradually catches on and, when he does, it is too late. As Kikuji says in the final paragraph, only Kurimoto is left. The people who recognise their guilt are always survived by those that do not.

Publishing history

First published in magazine form in 1949-51; in book form by Shinchosha in 1952