Study Guide: Kawabata Yasunari’s “The Izu Dancer” (1927)
*Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成 (1899-1972): Son of a highly-cultivated physician, Kawabata was born in 1899 in Osaka. After the early death of his parents he was raised in the country by his maternal grandfather and attended the Japanese public school. From 1920 to 1924, Kawabata studied at the Tokyo Imperial University, where he received his degree. He was one of the founders of the publication Bungei Jidai, the medium of a new movement in modern Japanese literature. Kawabata made his debut as a writer with the short story, “Izu dancer,” published in 1927. After several distinguished works, the novel Snow Country in 1937 secured Kawabata’s position as one of the leading authors in Japan. In 1949, the publication of the serials Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain was commenced. He became a member of the Art Academy of Japan in 1953 and four years later he was appointed chairman of the P.E.N. Club of Japan. At several international congresses Kawabata was the Japanese delegate for this club. The Lake (1955), The Sleeping Beauty (1960) and The Old Capital (1962) belong to his later works, and of these novels, The Old Capital is the one that made the deepest impression in the author’s native country and abroad. In 1959, Kawabata received the Goethe-medal in Frankfurt. (source: www.nobelprize.org)
Answer all of the following questions.
1. Describe the narrator (his social position, personality, motivations, etc.). Why does he consider himself a “misanthrope”? How does his experience on the Izu peninsula “cure” him of his misanthropy?
2. Describe the setting. Make a list of all the place names that appear.
3. What is the “certain hope” that the narrator harbors in the opening scene. What does he seem to be plotting?
4. Describe the “dancing girl” Kaoru. How does she seem to hover between the two realms of childhood innocence and young womanhood?
5. Make a list of the minor characters in the work. How are they related? How do the older women behave toward Kaoru? Toward the narrator?
6. Kawabata was very involved with the New Perceptionist group (Shinkankaku-ha) when he wrote this work. What modernist techniques can you find in the work?
7. Why does the narrator “sit rigid” in his room on the night of the party? What does he fear might happen to the dancing girl while entertaining male guests?
8. Discuss the outdoor bath scene in which the narrator sees the dancing girl naked. Why does he feel that “suddenly a draught of fresh water seemed to wash over my heart”? Why does he feel “as though a layer of dust had been cleared from [his] head”?
9. Does the plot of “The Izu Dancer” correspond to the Freytag Pyramid? Explain.
10. It has been forty-nine days since the prematurely born baby died. What is the significance of forty-nine days in Buddhist funerals?
11. Discuss the class distinctions that appear in the work. How are the entertainers viewed by the local residents/inn managers/etc.? How does the narrator’s attitude toward to the entertainers differ from theirs?
12. What is the second “certain hope” that the narrator harbors (as he reads to Kaoru from her storyteller’s collection)?
13. Describe the structural/stylistic similarities between this work and Matsuo Bashō’s Oku no hosomichi (late 17th c.), and “diary literature” (nikki bungaku) in general.
14. What images of death appear in the work? Describe their significance.
15. Describe the purification/ablution scene at the spring/well. How is this similar to the Shintō ritual of “purification/ablution” (misogi 禊)?
16. Discuss the last scene. Why is the narrator crying again? Why does he eat the boy’s lunch “as though it were mine”? Why does his head feel “clear and empty”? What does he mean by a “beautiful emptiness”? Is this scene related to the ideas of banbutsu ichinyo (“unity of all beings/things”) in Zen Buddhism?
The boy opened his lunch and I ate as though it were mine. Afterwards I covered myself with part of his cape. I floated in a beautiful emptiness, and it seemed natural that I should take advantage of his kindness. Everything sank into an enfolding harmony.
The lights went out, the smell of the sea and of the fish in the hold grew stronger. In the darkness, warmed by the boy beside me, I gave myself up to my tears. It was as though my head had turned to clear water; it was falling pleasantly away drop by drop; soon nothing wood remain.
17. Do you think the narrator will ever see the entertainers again?
 Translated by Edward Seidensticker; originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, January 1955.
 Term coined by journalist/critic Chiba Kameo (1878-1935) to refer to the group of writers centered around Bungei Jidai journal (1924-7), who were influenced by the avant-garde trends in European literature of the 1920s. Chiba sees this period as the “birth of literary modernism.”