The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata: A Serene Yet Sensual Slow-Burn Exposition on the Modernisation of Post-War Japan – Book Review

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata is a Japanese literature novel taking place in the traditional city of Kyōto, Japan and follows a young woman named Chieko as she starts to uncover mysterious bits of her past. The more she learns, the stronger her longing becomes, and thus causing her confusion to develop further.

The heart of this narrative is the modernisation of Japan during the post-Second World War era, and the many struggles that the older generation Japanese people had with having to compromise their traditions and their sense of cultural identity for the sake of a new, frightening, and utterly alien era. The characterisation of Chieko, a daughter of a kimono maker and his wife, is built upon the sights, sounds, and interactions taking place within Kyōto itself. As Chieko discovers more about herself and her past, the dynamics of modernisation and Japan’s post-war cultural identity crisis become more vivid and apparent.  

I love how unsuspectingly contemplative this book is. The exploration of the key elements of the modernisation process in the nation are wonderfully moving. It took root in just about every aspect of culture that one can think of from clothing to manners and etiquette and even the language spoken. While much of the younger generation were keen on accepting the strange, new interactions and introductions, there was the heart of the traditional Japanese society that wasn’t ready to part ways with the customs, beliefs, and practises that helped to craft the backbone of their entire civilisation over time. They weren’t ready to sacrifice their unique and intimately cherished identity to the modern age, particularly due to outside influences and more so in the country’s most culturally-rich and historically profound city: Kyōto.

The everyday workings of Kyōto are discussed in meticulous details from the economic climate to the more ethnically-resonant ambiances, such as festivals, the natural surroundings and many historical shrines, the various ways that different folx interact with one another, and much more. So many of these facets were established during the Heian Era and its influence in the 1960s was still rather prominent. This gave me the impression that the author was being sentimental about the Japan of his childhood and the one of his parents’ childhoods; that he wasn’t too enthusiastic on the quick Westernisation process that seemed to have taken over the country. With precision he explains the pros of the classic with the cons of the contemporary, and how the attributes that truly encompassed what Japanwas as a single and solitary entity was being erased before their very eyes, and he does it through the confusion and curious journey of Chieko. For example, the crumbling disposition of Chieko’s life reflects the statehood of this freshly evolving Japan. Going obsolete in the face of new-fangled revolution and revelation. The allegory of the defeat in the war leading to the defeat of the Japanese individuals as their own distinctive people is not lost at all in these pages. As a Polynesian who had their country colonised and then destroyed because of it, I couldn’t help but agree with most of this thought-processes and arguments.

If there’s anything in this book that some readers may not care for it’s the methodical unfolding of Chieko’s story combined with the detail-oriented descriptions of the soul of everyday Kyōto. Kawabata takes his time in truly showing the reader what the city is beyond just a bustling town of shops, shrines, and more. The poetic impressions of the scenery and the careful etiquette shared between older generation shopkeepers is a whisper of the Heian Era that formed the groundwork for this former capital. Because of that it’s a slow-burn and introspective read. The point is to make the reader pause and place themselves in a position of being robbed of everything that made them who they were. I love books like this because it’s extremely revelatory on the destruction caused by colonisation, but I also know some readers don’t like super slow books. So, that would really be the only flaw I found in The Old Capital, and even then, it’s a matter of perspective really.

Overall, The Old Capital is an excellent and pivotal work of Japanese literature. It’s beautifully rendered, both sombre yet serene, sensual and simple. It’s not a book everyone’s going to like, even so, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND it. It’s a treat for readers that enjoy methodical historical analyses, classic Japanese culture and literature, and character allegories for developing modern societies.

Publication Date: 1962; 1987 (First English printing)
Publisher: Tuttle
Translator: J. Martin Holman
: Japanese Literature
Page Count: 164
Availability: In-print; eBook and Paperback editions available

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3 thoughts on “The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata: A Serene Yet Sensual Slow-Burn Exposition on the Modernisation of Post-War Japan – Book Review

  1. Pingback: 22 Best Books of October & November 2021! | BiblioNyan

  2. The writers I really cherish often indulge in a meandering sort of dialogue, describing a place in great detail. I know many readers apparently don’t like this. It seems like the difference between those of us for whome the journey itself is the destination, and the folx who refuse to stop to pee, let alone admire a roadside market or scene, because they just have to reach that goal. I don’t know that one is better than the other (I have an opinion but it’s just my opinion I suppose) but they are different. Luckily the world is so wide now that we can all find the books we like 😀 Adding this to my list…

    • I love that indulgence too. It’s as you said, the difference between the journey itself and the end goal or destination is defined here and that journey is really thoughtful in this book. 🙂

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