The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata – A Book Review

The Old Capital written by Yasunari Kawabata is an #OwnVoices Japanese fiction novel about the modernisation practices that began to spread across Japan post-WWII, and the struggle that the older generation Japanese society had with compromising their traditions and customs for the sake of a new era. It’s told through the eyes of a young girl named Chieko, who is the adopted daughter of a kimono maker and his wife. Through the adventures she partakes in in Kyoto, we learn a lot about this culturally rich city and we get to watch Chieko attempt to come to terms with the mysteries that comes with adoption.

There are many thought-provoking aspects to The Old Capital that I thoroughly enjoyed and found to be rather compelling. The first is the exploration of how Japan began to modernise shortly after the Second World War. The evolution was exhibited in just about every part of Japanese life–the clothing, the language, the manners, and etiquette. But there was one city that had always been steeped with the heart of Japanese culture, customs, and beliefs; one city that wasn’t quite ready to sacrifice their identity to this new modern age: Kyoto.


Kyoto became the capital of Japan during the Heian Era and remained as such for over a thousand years. Many businesses that were established hundreds of years ago, still function with those original practises and methods. This is emphasised with meticulous details on what the everyday life of these businesses entail. The severe attention to detail doesn’t stop with the economic persona of Kyoto, but is also demonstrated via festivals, natural surroundings, shrines, character interactions, etc.

I got the impression that the author was not inclined to go along with Japan’s quick westernisation. With the care that he uses to explain everything to the reader–the acute comparison of traditional versus newer found fondnesses–it becomes clear that he was afraid that Japanese culture would become obsolete in the face of the contemporary revolution. Unfortunately, he wasn’t too far off.

Perhaps one of the loveliest features of this small novel were the depictions of the natural surroundings. It’s all quite poetic with an air of sophisticated reminiscence that feels like an homage to the Heian Period. Poetry infused with nature was a huge cultural aspect of the era. It was wrapped up in friendship, romance, and sensuality; the three facets that we see surrounding Chieko.

Even with all of these delightfully contemplative components, The Old Capital wasn’t as great as I hoped it would be. The author focuses so much on the crumbling disposition of Japan that the plot involving Chieko becomes a back-seat storyline. She gets curious about her birth parents and certain opportunities arise that give her a chance to indulge her curiosity. But in the crowds of civilisation, her journey just felt extremely vague and lacklustre, which was immensely disappointing because of how fascinating the set-up of the whole thing was. It ended up dragging the book down severely, making it painfully sluggish.

I recommend this novel to people who have a legitimate interest in furthering their knowledge of Japanese society, specifically the continuation of its modernisation and inevitable westernisation after World War II. On the other hand, you’re looking at an indolent reading experience.

3.75 sakura petals outta 5!