Japanese Literature

Book Review – Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

While reading this book I wondered if Taiichi Ohno, the Father of Lean Manufacturing, adopted Yasunari Kawabata as a pen-name and wrote Thousand Cranes. It contained one of the more interesting approaches to novel writing that I’ve read. Kawabata wasted no words in presenting his narrative. Every syllable counted in such a way that the book at times read more like a poem than a novel. In addition it came in at a mere 147 pages. Based on all that I expected to rush through, but, like the intricacies of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, it turned out much more complex than I thought.

Kawabata’s overall premise made the book very appealing. He presented a tale rife with passion, death and regret. Interspersed with this he included the tradition of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. While one of the female characters wore a kimono with the figures of cranes, the title also had a symbolic reference outside of that. Since I’m not familiar with Japanese culture much of this escaped me. Still, I applaud the author for his skill weaving so much material into a novel that turned out this brief.

The theme of guilt emanated from almost every byte in this book. I’ll present a few examples here. I’ll limit myself to the ones that won’t give away spoilers.

He was apologizing. But love flowed into the apology, to coddle and mollify the guilt…Was it love or guilt that had killed her? (Location 758)

Kikuji started up, afraid that in the motion she would fall over. “What are you saying? It is I who must ask to be forgiven. It is I who must ask to be forgiven. I’ve been trying to think of the right words. But there’s no way to apologize, and I’m ashamed to be here with you.” (Location 803)

“If it was guilt,” she continued, “it may never go away. But sorrow will.” (Location 1404)

Now I feel guilty, but it’s because I can’t give Thousand Cranes the review it deserves. In spite of its brevity, I found it a very challenging read. Out of my own cultural ignorance, I didn’t understand the references Kawabata made to Japanese society, although he fit them in very well. The writing style threw me, too. While I’m familiar with Ernest Hemmingway and Cormac McCarthy, this author presented his economical use of words in a very unusual way. It’s hard for me to describe or find adequate passages to cite; although the ones above provide a good representation. Readers familiar with the Tea Ceremony would enjoy this book much more than I did.