Alternative Culture & Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital

By Vanessa Bell

I procrastinate.  Every time I look at my blog I think, Oh, no! Must I really write a  900-word post about Yasunari Kawabata’s The Old Capital?

I’m a typical American “lady” blogger…just wordy.

I used to feel like a member of an alternative culture, or a girl group. But blogging isn’t as much fun as it used to be: it is more mainstream now that Netgalley offers us the same review copies which traditional media review.  Our charm and quirks are lost in our earnest plot summaries.  We even have our own blogging rituals, like Women in Translation Month in August and All Virago, All August.

Twelve of my blogger friends have stopped blogging in recent years. I miss Nancy at Silver Threads, who wrote lively posts on her reading of the classics and older books, and  Tom at A Common Reader, who reviewed literature in translation and crime fiction.

And now  I Prefer Reading is tired and has gone on break.  She wrote,

I’ve been feeling less enthusiastic about blogging for a few months now. I’ve been watching quite a bit of Book Tube & I like the idea of maybe a Book Haul & a monthly wrap up instead of longer reviews with a bit of Literary Rambling thrown in. I don’t know but I need a break to think about it all.

It is no small thing to write posts, columns, or reviews as a hobby.  But mainstream publications no longer deride book blogs, presumably because we are no longer  a threat.

And so, while reflecting on the changing “alternative”  blog culture, I will write very briefly about Kawabata’s The Old Capital, set in Kyoto and published in 1962.

In this spare, elegant novel, Kawabata describes the consolation of nature and its changing depictions in design in post-war Kyoto: can  traditional kimono design, hand-weaving, and other crafts survive industrialization and the shattering changes wrought by World War II?

In The Old Capital, the  heroine, Chieko, is an ardent nature lover:  she feels bliss at the sight of the first violets of spring, the blossoms on the weeping cherry trees, and the gigantic camphor trees.  She also marvels over the details of the joyous seasonal festivals she attends and the elaborate ceremonies at temples.

Chieko lives with her adoptive parents, her father, Takichuro, a kimono designer, and her practical mother, a housewife.  But Takichuro’s dry goods business is foundering and he believes  has lost his talent for design.  Chieko gives him a Paul Klee book, which inspires him to do an abstract obi design.  But the talented young weaver he hires to weave the obi is  harsh in his criticism of the new design.  Only Chieko believes in her father.  (And with reason.)

Chieko could not ask for more loving parents, but she  is curious about her origins. Her parents  tell her they kidnapped her (her mother says, “Your real parents were probably crazed with grief” ).  She says, “Tell me the truth.  I was a foundling, wasn’t I?” But her mother feels the pain of abandonment would harm her daughter.

Then by chance at a festival Chieko  meets a woman who looks just like her.   Naeko is her identical twin, and is overjoyed to find her  sister, whom she knew her father had abandoned.  But Naeko, a laborer, does not want to transcend class boundaries, and says it is enough to have met her once.  But they do see each other a few times, and their bond is cemented  via their love of nature and a modern obi design.

A gorgeous book!  This is very spare, but I loved it.  The translation is by J. Martin Holman.

And I’m well under 900 words.   I can breathe again.