User Tools

Site Tools


Kawabata’s Snow Country and Japanese Culture

Giambattista Vico - Lucian of Samosata Wiki

Literature, as a whole, is an art form wherein ideas from the artist’s experience flow to create prose and poetic forms. A great deal of literature stems from man’s myths and the culture surrounding him. Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country is no different, despite it coming from a culture opposite from the West. Kawabata’s novel is full of the culture and myths of Japan. But to truly understand how myth plays into Kawabata’s novel or into literature in general, one must first understand myth as Terence Hawkes explains it in his introduction to Structuralism and Semiotics.

This idea of myth is not really Hawkes’ original idea. It was originally espoused by the Italian Giambattista Vico who principally studied a concept he called “primitive man” (Hawkes 2). Myth was created when man “reveals himself not as childishly ignorant and barbaric, but as instinctively and characteristically ‘poetic’ in his response to the world, in that he possesses an inherent ‘poetic wisdom’ which informs his responses to his environment and casts them in the form of ‘metaphysics’ of metaphor, symbol, and myth” (Hawkes 2). Furthermore, Hawkes explains how Vico’s ideas of looking at myth, called “New Science,” concentrates on how man is a “maker” (Hawkes 3). More importantly, Hawkes summarizes Vico’s ideas in the following statement: “man constructs the myths, the social institutions, virtually the whole world as he perceives it, and in so doing he constructs himself” (4). This is largely the case in Kawabata’s novel. Kawabata creates this novel out of the myths, culture, and metaphysics of his country. He takes his perceptions about the culture and creates world within his novel.

Kawabata’s novel is richly endowed with Japanese culture, religion, and especially aesthetics which make a key text for exploring the connection between this text and Vico’s idea of how man creates myth and culture. The facets of Japanese culture that will be discussed in this essay are the Buddhist idea of impermanence, the Shinto symbols of Tanabata and the Milky Way, and some Japanese aesthetics.

The Buddhist idea of impermanence runs throughout the course of the novel and is manifested in many different ways. The Buddhist ideas found in this novel correlate with the Japanese aesthetic geido which Carriere defines as the merger between spirituality and culture (56). Carriere also defines the idea of impermanence as relating to the cherry blossom “which flowers for a brief moment then fades, impermanence defines the relationship between Shimamura and Komoko” (60). There are several examples of impermanence in the novel. One of the first examples is actually a dialogue where the two lovers, Shimamura and Komoko realize that their affair will never last. As they argue over which geisha Komoko should bring to Shimamura, Shimamura states, “An affair of the moment, no more. Nothing beautiful about it. You know that—it couldn’t last” (Kawabata 22). In Japanese culture, flowers are often used to symbolize many things especially the idea of impermanence. One of the more obvious examples is the reference to the Camellia Room. The Camellia Room is the room wherein the two lovers have their affair and it is referenced at least once in the novel. Komoko tells Shimamura how everyone makes fun of her as she tries to go quietly up to the Camellia room, “The floor always creaks when I come down the hall. I walk very softly, but they hear me just the same. ‘Off to the Camellia Room again, Komoko?’ they say as I go by the kitchen. I’d never thought I’d have to worry so much about my reputation” (Kawabata 128). The correlation between the Camellia Room and their affair is that a camellia flower, which is very beautiful and blooms in the winter, quickly loses its beautiful flower after one day of blooming. It is an impermanent flower and therefore significant to the plot of the story. There is another herbaceous reference which ties in with impermanence in the novel. This is the brief reference to maple leaves toward the end of the book. Maple leaves, especially Japanese maples, have a brilliant red color that makes them look stunning in the autumn. However, when winter comes, the leaves wither and fall to the ground. Shimamura is looking out at the night sky one night and states, “It’s beginning to look like snow. The end of the maple leaves” (Kawabata 145). He knows that when winter comes the leaves will fall just like their affair.

The festival of Tanabata is a very important festival in the culture of Japan as well in reference to this novel. Tanabata, as explained in Carriere’s article, “is a national festival celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month every year” (60). He also explains the idea behind the festival,

The Oxherd star and the Weaver Maid star love each other so much that they are constantly together and neglecting their duties. So the ‘Ruler of Heaven’ separates the two young stars: they will exist for all eternity on opposite sides of the ‘Heavenly River,’ or Milky Way, being allowed to meet one day out of the year, the seventh day of the seventh month. (Carriere 60-61)

This festival is optimally the time when Shimamura and Komoko come to the snow country to have their affair every year. Shimamura works in Tokyo and comes to visit her every year. They are separated for a time, just as the two mythical lovers were, and can only get together once a year. Kawabata alludes to this festival when the couple visits Chijimi to see where they made an old fashioned style of snow washed linen. He has been with Komoko during this one time during the year and as he is looking among the deserted sheds and buildings of Chijimi and thinking about his affair with Komoko.

He stayed so long that one might wonder whether or not he had forgotten his wife and children. He stayed not because he could not leave Komoko nor because he did not want to. He had simply fallen into the habit of waiting for those frequent visits. (Kawabata 155)

This passage references Shimamura and Komoko’s relation to the two lovers in Tanabata who wait for each other and have done so for a long time. As Carriere states in his article, “Chijimi predicts the novel’s final outcome as Shimamura, disillusioned by the intrusion of the contemporary industrial present in this isolated rural environment, transfers his disillusionment with the affair with Komoko” (61).

The significance of the Milky Way is incredibly important for the novel. Not only is it significant because it holds the two mythical lovers apart in Tanabata, but also because at the end of the novel and the end of his affair, Shimamura has a deep religious and cultural experience wherein he “loses connection with Komoko’s material world” and is “drawn up into the Milky Way” (Carriere 61). Carriere unravels the myth behind the Milky Way as being “the Bridge of Heaven, the path taken to earth by the country’s founding deities” (61). This allusion is mentioned nineteen times in the novel though perhaps only a few quotes shall suffice to demonstrate the significance of this religious idea in the novel. At the end of the novel, Shimamura and Komoko are hurrying towards the scene of a fire and suddenly Komoko looks up and sees the Milky Way. After pointing it out, Shimamura has a reaction that is very important, “The Milky Way. Shimamura too looked up, and he felt himself floating into the Milky Way. Its radiance was so near that it seemed to take him up into it” (Kawabata 165). Kawabata then goes on to describe Shimamura’s thoughts about the Milky Way and its relation to Japanese culture, “Was this the bright vastness the poet Basho saw when he wrote of the Milky Way arched over a storming sea?” (165). The description of his being drawn up into the Milky Way is much deeper and more vivid than any of Shimamura’s descriptions of his feelings toward Komoko. Kawabata writes,

There was a terrible voluptuousness about it. Shimamura fancied that his own small shadow was being cast up against it from the earth. Each individual star stood apart from the rest, and even the particles of silver dust in the luminous clouds could be picked out, so clear was the night. The limitless depth of the Milky Way pulled his gaze up into it. (165)

Such beautiful descriptions go on and on in this final chapter and involve the reader and Shimamura in the myths of Japan’s past. This ties in very well with Hawkes’ article on myth. Shimamura is drawn very deeply to the ancient myths of his people which consequently defines himself. He “submits his own nature to the demands of [the] structuring” myths (Hawkes 5).

Japanese aesthetics are very prevalent throughout the novel. While the aesthetic geido has been mentioned already, there are others which pop up every now and then. The most common and most poignant of aesthetics is the Japanese view of beauty. While our Western ideas of beauty may be surmounted by joy and happiness, in Japan nothing is beautiful unless it is sad. Many of the other aesthetics have a sadness element to them which always connotes something of beauty. The first allusion of this idea is present when Shimamura watches Komoko play the samisen. He describes her nose as being “a little lonely, a little sad” and that it a good thing in Japanese culture (Kawabata 73). More importantly, some thirty pages later, he describes her singing voice as, “so clear it was almost sad, the voice that seemed to be echoing back from somewhere” (Kawabata 109).

There are much more vivid aesthetics though in the novel especially with regard to sabi, and yugen. Carriere defines them as “refined, seasoned simplicity” and “mysterious or shadowy essence”, respectively (54). There is a very good example of yugen in the beginning of the novel when Shimamura is on the train. Kawabata writes,

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. (9)

This is an excellent image of yugen where there is a mysterious or shadowy picture portrayed before his eyes as the windows mirror each other and the scenes beyond them. Another instance of yugen is found one night when Shimamura and Komoko are taking a night walk. Kawabata writes, “The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the heavenly sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass” (44). In fact, the whole region is treasured in the Japanese mindset as having yugen. As espoused in Carriere’s article, “the region evokes the shadowy cold of winter” which symbolizes yugen (56). Sabi is found during a discourse between Shimamura and Komoko as they walk into a Shinto shrine grove. Shimamura gazes up at the cedar limbs and this is what he describes, “From behind the rock, the cedars threw up their trunks in perfectly straight lines, so high that he could see the tops only by arching his back” (Kawabata 30). This image can be qualified as sabi due to the trees’ straightness or simplicity and their age which is seasoned. Both of these aesthetic values are conjoined with Japanese idea of sadness. This is due to the fact that each state of aesthetic beauty has a melancholic atmosphere to it. The mirrored train windows, cold wintry mountain slopes, and tall stately cedars all seem to suggest a somber sort of beauty unlike the forms of beauty found in western novels.

But how are these elements of aesthetics and religion connected with Hawkes’ discourse on myth? Man is endowed with “poetic wisdom” which helps him create myths and metaphysics that came out of his responses to his environment. He also stated that “particular forms of humanity are determined by particular social relations and systems of human institutions (Hawkes 4). In Kawabata’s novel, the myths and social structures of Japan are brought to the reader’s eyes as the defining structures in their lives. They are defined by their culture and myths. As Kawabata creates his novel centering on Japanese culture and aesthetics, his characters are constructed in light of how they perceive the myths around them. They structure their lives, their attitudes, and their desire for yugen, sabi, and geido around the myths of their culture.

Wilkerson, Ben D. B. “Kawabata's Snow Country and Japanese Culture.” 1/1/11 <>

vico/kawabatas-snow-country-and-japanese-culture.txt · Last modified: 2014/01/14 23:20 (external edit)