44. Kawabata Yasunari

The great writer Kawabata Yasunari, Nobel Prize winner, was also a collector of Japanese and Chinese paiintings, and through that connection I came to know him fairly well. During my Fulbright year, probably in early 1955, Shûjirô Shimada took me around to meet notable collectors and see some of their holdings; on several trips to Tokyo and its environs, sometimes accompanied by Mayuyama Junkichi and others, we visited Sumitomo Kan'ichi in Oiso, Umezawa in Kamakura, Takashima in Kagenuma whose collection later went to the Tokyo National Museum, and Kawabata in Kamakura. On our first visit to Kawabata we were shown, among other things, the great Taiga-Buson Jûben Jûgi pair of albums, the wonderful Gyokudô winter landscape titled Tôun Shisetsu, and the album by Lo P'ing with leaves after lines from Song poems, dated 1774 (Kokka 748).


Some weeks later I decided to make another trip to Kamakura, with Dorothy, and phoned Kawabata to ask whether I could come again and make color photos of these paintings—I planned a lecture on painting albums in China and Japan (it was to be the first public lecture I gave at the Freer, two years later. I have the notes for this, as CLP 127, but they are not digital). He agreed, and we spent most of a day making the photos, with some help from him and his wife. In the late afternoon I asked him whether he could recommend an inexpensive ryokan or inn nearby, so that we could stay overnight and I could take Dorothy to Enoshima (the island just off the beach at Kamakura, reachable by a bridge, and with delightful shops, shrines, temples, and other attractions)—she had never been there, as I had—the next morning before we returned. He replied that he and his wife would put us up—an act of generosity, to a foreign student he scarcely knew, that led to one of my happiest experiences in Japan. Mrs. Kawabata made a sukiyaki dinner for us—this being something all foreigners are known to enjoy—and we talked and drank sake.


We talked about his writings, of which I was an avid reader (but in translations). He told me that he wrote only at night; if he needed to finish some installment of a story to meet a deadline (from the magazine or newspaper that was publishing it), he would close the shutters and turn on lamps to simulate nighttime. He asked what I was working on, and I told him: the Four Great Masters of Yuan Dynasty painting. He said he had a friend who owned a painting by one of them, "Gei Unrin" (Ni Tsan); would I like to see it? Of course I replied with an enthusiastic yes, and he sent a servant to bring it back from a neighbor, who turned out to be another famous writer, Osaragi Jirô. The painting was one I had long hoped to see, a horizontal picture with the same composition as one in the Freer, which I had come to doubt; the version in Japan looked in reproductions as though it might be the real thing, perhaps with some repainting, and seeing the original confirmed that judgment. After more talk Dorothy and I were taken to where we were to sleep; the next morning we were given breakfast and sent off to Enoshima.


Of course I wrote thanking Kawabata for this extraordinary hospitality and kindness, and we had some correspondence. When, several years later, he decided to sell his Lo P'ing album (through Mayuyama) he directed that it be offered first to the Freer, remembering my fondness for it. So Mayuyama brought it to us on consideration, and I was happy in the assumption that we would buy it—the price was not high. Imagine my dismay when John Pope, who had taken over as director after the death of Wenley, called me into his office and said "Jim, we've decided not to buy the Lo P'ing album." Me. in a disbelieving voice: : "But why?" "Because it's not very good painting." I strongly suspect that Harold (Phil) Stern, who was urging Pope toward buying more Japanese painting, less Chinese, on the grounds that the Freer had enough of the latter already (!), had some part in this decision. Anyway, I was forced to build a case for acquiring the album, calling on colleagues to back my appraisal of it, and Pope eventually relented and allowed the purchase.


Kawabata came to the Freer on his U.S. tour, and I showed him paintings. The last time we met was in Taipei. I was there for the 1970 symposium, in the middle of which, on the Saturday of a weekend promised as free time for travel and shopping, we were instead all bussed to the fortress-like residence of Chiang Kai-shek for an audience. We waited for an hour, drinking lukewarm soda-pop, until the aged Gizmo came doddering down the hall, on the arm of Mme., nodding to us—and that was it: for this "great honor" we gave up the promised free weekend. Anyway, Kawabata was also there, as head of the Japanese Pen Club, which was meeting in Taipei. We met on a terrace of the presidential "palace" and had a last talk. When he committed suicide in 1972 I blamed—still do—the despicable Yukio Mishima, who had shortly before performed seppuku ("harakiri") before an audience of his followers after delivering a militarist-nationalist speech. Kawabata regarded him as a kind of disciple, and in some strange way was motivated, I think, to follow his example—but did it as a solitary act, with his head in a gas oven. He was a quiet, unpretentious, extremely sensitive man, and I feel privileged to have known him.

Latest Work

  • Conclusion Conclusion
    VI Conclusion It is time to draw back and look, if not at the whole Hyakusen, at as much of him as we have managed to illuminate in this study. Dark areas remain, and doubtless many distortions, but...

Latest Blog Posts

  • Bedridden Blog
    Bedridden Blog   I am now pretty much confined to bed, and have to recognize this as my future.  It is difficult even to get me out of bed, as happened this morning when they needed to...