When Politics Confronts Aesthetics in Post-War Japanese Tea Culture: The Decay of Arts in Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

© Yasuyuki Uemura, Hatsukoe, 2006

The Japanese grand master system iemoto seido is a hierarchical way to preserve many forms of traditional practices of arts such as calligraphy, Noh and chadō (the “Way of Tea”) in local households. When Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, he pointed out that his novel Thousand Cranes (1952) had often been misrepresented as “an evocation of the formal and spiritual beauty of the tea ceremony.” If we examine this masterpiece carefully, it, in fact, criticises how arts has become a form of political weapon under the system of iemoto seido. In a modernist fashion, intertwining the fates of tea utensils with his characters’ entanglements, Kawabata warns us against the decay of arts in a post-war context.


© Yoshimura Kozaburo, movie adaptation of Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, 1953

In the novel, the encounters between Kawabata’s characters are all planned under the structure of chadō. The hierarchical structures of iemoto seido sketch the destined course of their fates and relationships. The aesthetics of chadō, especially the four Zen Buddhist principles of “wa, kei, sei, jaku” (「和敬清寂」, “harmony, respect, purity, and tranquillity”) in tea ceremonies, are confronted by the political manipulation of interpersonal relationships by karmic doings in the story. In a tea ceremony, Chikako, a former disfavoured mistress of Kukiji’s deceased father, she weaves the destinies of different characters through her mastery of the practice of toriawase. Under her manipulation, the father, his mistresses and their younger generation fall in a venomous spider-web. Haunted by his childhood memory of Chikako’s ugly birthmark on her breast, Kikuji is destined to be under her control. Being unable to bear the idea of a child milking on Chikako’s deformed breast, Kikuji struggles to defy her arrangements of marriage for him and Yukiko Inamura, a perfect girl pure as the patterns of thousand cranes on her kercheif. However, by refusing to marry Yukiko, he does not find himself free from the curse. Instead, he gets sexually involved with Mrs. Ota, whom his father abandons Chikako for. Chikako selects the black Oribe gifted to Kikuji’s father by Mrs. Ota for a tea ceremony to humiliate her. This particular Oribe ironically binds Kikuji and Mrs. Ota together, which ties the fates of Kikuji and his father. Mrs. Ota sees his father in him and claims that he has “tea in his blood”, which symbolises the inseparable bond between the two. When Mrs. Ota kills herself after their affair, it complicates her daughter Fumiko’s relationship with Kikuji. Kikuji sees her mother in her and is attracted to Fumiko. The two both hope to give up on tea but their relationship is bound to the history of their parents’ tea utensils. Such inevitable fates are embodied in the ‘man-wife’ cups and the pair of Shino and Karatsu left to them by their parents.


© Penguin Modern Classics

The complicated entanglements between Kawabata’s characters portray the decay of the purity of arts with the moral decline of souls under political influences. In this sense, Yukiko is a symbol of the unreachable pure state of arts. Chikako’s evil intention to utilize her for her game signifies how contemporary tea practices serve to show only the superficial beauty of tea. Such vulgarity discards the spiritual core of arts and makes tea ceremonies into mere festivals. While Kikuji resists Chikako’s manipulation by refusing to see the real state of arts, he himself falls into her game of politics when he has affairs with Mrs. Ota and Fumiko. When Fumiko desperately shatters her mother’s Shino, such act can be interpreted as a modernist representation of shattered faith regarding the preservation of arts.


The parallels between the history of tea utensils and the karmic intertwining between Kawabata’s characters form an artistic metaphor for the tension between aesthetics and politics in contemporary society. Through reflecting the conflicts between the two realms in his tea room, Kawabata remarks on the danger of presenting arts in a socially hierarchical system of inheritance. The hue of melancholy dominates the narrative and offers a modernist representation of Kawabata’s lack of faith in contemporary practices of arts in a post-war modern context. Considering the time he wrote the novel, he was surely a man of foresight. The issues of overtly commercialised heritage preservations are visible in modern society. Mrs. Ota’s lipstick stain on the rim of the Shino represents his ultimate frustration – when the realm of arts is stained by politics, we can never restore its spiritual components to the state of purity. Even when the Shino breaks in pieces, nothing can undo the crimson scar left on it by contemporary schools of arts.

By Chan Tsz Yan Audrey

Categories: Books, Modernism and Postmodernism

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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