On Purpose, Duty, and Tradition: A Reflection on Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

“What do you do as an English major?”

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of being an English major is to have my life choices constantly questioned. Questions coming from parents, siblings to far fetched relatives have become an omnipresent presence in my life. And yet, despite the constant nagging and you should’ve chosen another major, it trains me to develop a witty, evasive verbal maneuver in answering their curiosity. Some questions come from a good place, some others not, but those questions are equally valuable for me, in a way that it makes me reflect and constantly evaluate the choices I have made and will make. “What exactly am I doing in this major? What can I do to gain the most of it?”. So when someone asks me, “What do you do as an English major?”, I try to genuinely think about the answer. Pondering about how the courses, lecturers, environment, and the English major in general, have shaped my life for the past two years. My experience in this major has been nothing but delight, and while there are many essential, hard skills that I’ve picked up from supplemental grammar, writing, and reading courses, I believe that the heart of an English major lies in the literature courses, which is one of the reasons why the word “World Literature” made my ears perk up all curious. 

If I have to describe the World Literature course in one word, the answer is diverse. Ever since I started learning in English major, I noticed the lack of diversity within the syllabus. Most of the works and authors that the students had to learn were coming from white, heterosexual authors, and more often than not, a place of privilege. Hence, World Literature feels like fresh air to my learning experience; I finally get to know and even discuss the significance of non-white literature as well as their living experience. The authors and works that I’ve learned didn’t only come from the western world. There was Kazuo Ishiguro and Yasunari Kawabata from Japan, as well as Herman Hesse—albeit German-Swiss—whose work, Siddhartha, follows the story of Buddha Gautama, with Indian culture as its background. There was also Toni Morrison and her extraordinary work, The Bluest Eyes, which was eye-opening to the horrid reality of the oppression of women and marginalized groups, especially Black people.

For someone who’s not familiar with literature, they might ask “why bother learning about fictional people and events that never happened?”. Those characters might have had a horrendous life, made bad decisions, or even brought themselves their own downfall… and so what? What business do we have with their fictional experiences? This is the kind of question that I receive a lot when it comes to this major. Being a literature student means that I’m constantly exposed to narrative, and it seems that most people do not realize how transformational stories can be, despite the fact that they consume it daily through TV shows, movies, books, or even words of mouth. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Story and history are what sustain us, and by learning them, we can make sense of our living experiences because it’s been shared even a thousand years ago within stories. Coming from Indonesia, which is a third-world country, we’ve experienced a great share of colonialism and westernization in this country. Without realizing it, our current economic and socio-political “pedestals” are rooted in an inferiority complex and a hundred years’ worth of trauma from western subjugation. World Literature course makes me realize that this experience is shared by many, for example in Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, where Japan was grappling with their sense of identity after the World War and Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes with its Black protagonist who wished for blue eyes and eurocentric physical appearances to the point of insanity. Both stories share one common feature: colonialism. Upon reading them, I find those stories relatable and reflective because the stories forced me to reflect on my bias; the fact that I’ve been looking at the world from others’ point of view and internalizing double-consciousness that has been imprinted in me ever since I was a child through my parents, society, and the popular media. Reading the non-western, non-white literature in World Literature broadened my point of view and made me evaluate and scrutinize how I’ve been perceiving the canon literature I’ve learned in my previous classes. Did I truly enjoy it? What made it enjoyable, exactly? Was it due to the preconceived notions that every canonical work (which is mostly created by white authors) is objectively better or something else entirely? Furthermore, the World Literature course also introduced me to many thinkers and their philosophies from all over the world. As someone with a particular interest in Japanese culture, it was deeply rewarding to discuss Kawabata’s extraordinary usage of the Japanese tea ceremony and how the tradition itself possessed a large portion of impact on the culture. Furthermore, I think that the course’s biweekly reaction paper was actually a great way for me to get immersed in each of the books. I’m not the most diligent person when it comes to reviewing the books I’ve read, be it for college purposes or pure enjoyment. The reaction paper helped me to remember important quotations and plot as I had to quote and include it in the paper. Additionally, not only that it’s productive for the learning process, reaction papers also encouraged me to read the work and think deeply about the story, for example how it affected my reading experience and challenged my existing knowledge.

On this occasion, I’m going to explore my thoughts on my favorite works from the World Literature course, which is Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata. Strangely, unlike other lengthy works I’ve read in previous courses, the page count is only less than 150 pages. Perhaps it is, too, one of the most staggering aspects of literature, as this Nobel Prize-winning novel was known for its brevity and conciseness, yet those aspects didn’t decrease the number of lessons that I could harvest from it.

At its very core, Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata is a story about memories and traditions. It tells the way traditions are continuously burdened upon one generation to another, and the remnants of the previous generations lingering like a persistent ghost. Using the traditional Japanese tea ceremony as a vehicle, Kawabata also highlights the inner conflict of Kikuji Mitani, the protagonist, on whether to conform to the traditional values and continue the lineage of Mitani’s family or not. Kikuji is a perfect portrayal of a man living in limbo; floating on an ever-changing current, unknowing of where to go. Both of his parents are dead, leaving him alone in a big, musty family house. The most logical choice is to marry and produce heirs, filling the house with children and a wife who can enlive it up. One of his father’s late mistresses, Chikako Kurimoto, has already held a miai or marriage arrangement with a woman for him. Unfortunately, instead of following suit, Kikuji spiraled down into an affair with Mrs. Ota, another mistress of his father, who later commits suicide out of guilt. Kikuji’s momentary affair with Mrs. Ota is filled with memories of his father whom Mrs. Ota couldn’t forget.

At one point, the narrative shifts to the tea ceremony, and Mrs. Ota reflects on the memories she shared with Kikuji’s father, with the tea ceremony as a witness. “It had passed from Ota to his wife, from the wife to Kikuji’s father, from Kikuji’s father to Chikako; and the two men, Ota and Kikuji’s father, were dead, and here were the two women. There was something almost weird about the bowl’s career.” (Kawabata, 2002, p. 16) The bowl is a ghost living amidst the characters in Thousand Cranes; a silent witness of the irrevocable past. Similar to the characters, I also hold the same feelings upon receiving antiques. Last year I was given a box of heirlooms that have been passed down from my grandfather, then to my mother, and later me. There isn’t much in the box, only three or four pieces of accessories and two sets of handkerchiefs; all of them in pristine condition. I believe that there’s something haunting about antiques; the way it holds years’ worth of history and memories of its past owners, and especially when it comes from my own blood. When I see the brooch inside that box, I’m always reminded of how my late grandfather used it during weddings and other important events, and by knowing that, I also use it as a final touch to my outfit whenever I attend weddings or parties. Most people will only see it as a superficial accessory, but for me, the act of wearing my family heirloom is the preservation of memory; a sign that we still remember. At the end of the day, antiques are like a bowl that can never be full. My ancestors have filled it with their memories, and now it’s my turn to continue the stories. So I understand the way Kikuji, Mrs. Ota, and Chikako hold the bowl and the ceremony so dearly because it’s the only thing that connects them with their object of affection: the deceased father. Unfortunately, like any other form of reminiscence, an overabundance of it can be detrimental. This is what happens to Kikuji. He is too preoccupied with the past until the point that his life is a constant scene of haunting; of his unfaithful father, his feeble mother, his trauma, and his guilt. As  Chi-sum Garfield LAU aptly put it in The Past and Split Self in Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, due to the early years trauma and transition from the traditional to modern, Kikuji is unable to forget the past and the dead. Kikuji also has what Freud calls an Oedipal mentality, in which a son puts his father figure as an object of imitation. (Lau, 2019) Kikuji, who couldn’t separate himself from the shadow of his late father, has to endure the fact that the only people in his life are those who were in a relationship with his father. With this condition, how can he separate himself from his father? Who is the one in charge of making the decisions; himself or the ghost of his father? ”You think of my father, don’t you, and my father and I become one person?” (Kawabata, 2002, p. 39) Kikuji’s affair with Mrs. Ota shows just how much he identifies himself with Mr. Mitani. He falls to the bed with Mrs. Ota, fully knowing that she only sees him as a replacement for his father—an outlet of frustration and longing—and yet he obliges anyway.

What happens when a tradition starts to fall apart? When the old ways of doing things don’t resonate with the younger generation, and the values of the tradition have been eroded and nullified by time? 

These questions hide within the pages of Thousand Cranes, wishing to be answered. Thousand Cranes itself acts as a demonstration of Kawabata’s worry towards Japanese tradition at that time. During the time where Japan underwent a major modernization, more and more people deliberately distanced themselves from tradition that has been sustained for years. Tradition also comes with expectations to its bearers, and in most cases, the defiance from that expectations will result in an unpleasant turn of events.

As an Indonesian, my knowledge of the Japanese tea ceremony extends as far as the Google search lets me. It is in the expectations of family and society that I know very well. As I step into the end of my 5th semester, the shadow of adulting is looming over my head. As the eldest child in my family, I live to play many roles; my siblings’ guardian, my parents’ successors, my own self, and many others. Moreover, as the eldest child, I have to become my family’s “knight in shining armor”. Not to mention the societal pressure of having to be successful, get married, and have children in my 20s. Of course, not all expectations are bad; I believe that expectations are put on your shoulder because they believe that you can do it successfully. Being the eldest child also helps me to become more mature and cold-headed, something that I really appreciate once I step into adulthood. However, it doesn’t erase the fact that expectations can be immensely suffocating at times, especially when it is tied to your identity—the eldest child, a woman, a daughter—and people see it as a definite path instead of a choice. This leads to my understanding of Kikuji’s behavior. As an orphan with a great deal of responsibility burdened upon him, it would be very difficult to navigate who he is and what he wants without feeling guilty for not prioritizing his family. In my opinion, Kikuji’s identification with his father is one of his coping mechanisms to survive amidst the uncertainty. His father had a generally successful attempt in being the head of the family, hence Kikuji might think that by emulating him, he’d achieve the same result as well. This pattern is apparent in eldest children, especially those who have to carry great responsibilities at an early age. When you don’t know who to look up to, you always resort back to your parents. In fact, every children’s first teacher and mentor is their parents, and a great deal of what your parents teach you will be imprinted forever in your psyche, be it bad or good.

I have previously mentioned that Thousand Cranes is my favorite book in this course. Aside from being a relatable piece of work, what makes Thousand Cranes memorable for me is its sheer difference from the usual English literature I’ve gotten so used to read. Living in the 21st century, we’re so used to having information being chopped and stripped from context in the form of short, “easy-to-read” articles. While I understand and appreciate its practicality, those kinds of texts won’t get you anywhere. It’s addictive, but not fulfilling; not reflective. This is why reading Thousand Cranes feels so rewarding in its own way. Yasunari Kawabata meticulously uses every literary device I’ve learned during my early semesters and made it an integral part of his story. From the delicate thousand cranes pattern to the smudged lipstick stain, every symbol holds the same weight, and the process of decrypting feels like learning another culture altogether. Surely, for those who are accustomed to western literature, Thousand Cranes’ plot might come off as tedious and wandering at best. But personally, I believe that Kawabata’s strength lies not in his plot, but in how he paints delicate emotions and complex relationships between human beings. It took me a week to fully get the story out of my mind, and in the process of doing so, I revisited the box of heirloom I’ve left untouched at the corner of my room and called my grandmother. We talked about the handkerchief my grandfather left there and why a piece of clothing could hold so much meaning for him. Thousand Cranes might be transformational in its style, plot, and characters, but what makes it unforgettable for me is its influence on how I see the things my ancestors have left for me, and how I should honor and continue their story.

It’s surreal to think that by reading a story with less than 150 pages count, I could reflect on so many things happening in my life. Obviously, this, too, is another transformational power of literature, as sometimes spoken words alone aren’t enough. Literature is a real living experience made into words, and in the process of reading it, the readers are changing the text and having the text change them in return simultaneously. My favorite American writer, Jeanette Winterson, once wrote in her semi-autobiography: “[literature] isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” 

Literature opens my eyes to the boundless capabilities of narrative, and in return, by learning literature, I become more aware of who I am and my place in the greater scheme of things. And with this, perhaps, I’m finally able to answer the initial question that started this reflection: “What do you do as an English major?” We—English majors—look for truth, and it is in the pursuit itself that we find it. 


References

Lau, C. G. (2012). The Past and Split Self in Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes. Comparative Literature: East & West, 17(1), 77-87. doi:10.1080/25723618.2012.12015530

Kawabata, Yasunari. (2002). Thousand Cranes. Penguin Modern Classics.

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