The Old Capital
Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1988
VI + 164 pp.
Translated by J. Martin Holman
The title of this book refers to Kyoto, which is indeed a former capital of Japan and the site for the action of this quite (characteristically Japanese) slim novel. I am not sure whether, in the original language, this title could be taken to have a Bourdieuesque element in that it focuses so much on the cultural capital of Japanese society. Culture includes not just women’s clothes and food, although it is often thought to do so and these are both much in evidence here but, also, the social relations embedded in work and in the practices of production and the class structure and its dialectical relationship with language and forms of behaviour. These elements underlie a superficially simple story of a young woman who discovers she was a foundling and has a twin sister whom she is able to befriend. Yet it is the simplicity of the story and the language with which it is described that reveals why Yasunari Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.
The narrative is centred on dutiful Chieko, the daughter of a man with a modest business dealing in women’s clothes. Change is coming to Kyoto and her father is wrestling with ways to incorporate the bold new visions of Paul Klee into the traditional methods of making the obi and matching it to the kimono. Nevertheless, the pace of traditional life continues and is marked by the orderly arrival of the various celebrations and rituals of public life. However, the harmony and unity on which many such rituals are based seem to be breaking down:
“Large benches were lined up along a path in the cherry grove, and there was a great commotion of people drinking and singing in a boisterous crowd. Some old country women were dancing gaily, while the drunken men lay asleep, snoring. Some of the men even rolled off the benches (p.46).”
It is not necessary to say that it is the spread of transportation infrastructure that links agricultural places of production and urban centres of consumption to the benefit of both, that has brought about this sordid scene in which decent forms of behaviour have become imperilled. All the representations of the old capital remain in place but they are occasional punctured by some reminder that the world has been moving on and disruptions are emerging.
Chieko was given to believe that her parents had, in effect, kidnapped her from her natural parents but later it was revealed that she was left outside the shop one night. Further, it appears that she has a twin sister but this was problematic for everyone. I did not know what the issue is with twins but a brief article on the Time website (content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,770452,10.html) which includes the following: “… Japanese mothers believe that to bear more than one child at a time is a bestial act, frequently try to hide multiple births by separate registry of offspring, even by infanticide.” So, ashamed at having borne twins, Chieko’s parents abandoned her and kept with them Naeko, to live in the countryside in what it subsequently appears is rather difficult rural poverty. Of course, the action then goes on to focus on Chieko’s desire to meet and establish a relationship with her sister and the latter’s reluctance to cross the social and class barriers that have grown up between them. This is all managed with a simplicity of language that is characteristic of Japanese literature. The translator, J. Martin Holman, has done a good job in keeping out of the way of the text and not making it sound too American. He notes, in a brief foreword, that at least some of the text written in a Kyoto dialect that has not made it into this version of the text. To have done so would have required, presumably, footnotes or other interruptions which some readers dislike. Alas, therefore, some nuances of the original language may have been lost.
This is an engrossing work that repays careful attention to the small, ephemeral details of daily life and the ways in which they have an impact on people in different stations of life. The author himself is famous or infamous for his mysterious death – he was found in a gas-filled room in such a way as to suggest suicide or, less likely, having become the victim of an unusual accident. An ambiguous act conducted in silence is a very typical way of considering Japanese society as described by its best literature.
John Walsh, Shinawatra University