Title: Meijin (The Master of Go)
Author: Kawabata, Yasunari
Published: 1951 for Shincho, a Japanese magazine (in serial). In 1954, Kawabata’s work was published as a novel.
Translation: Edward Seidensticker’s English translation was released in 1972 though not identical to the 1954 edition. This is due to the fact that Kawabata revised The Master of Go before it was published in book format. Seidensticker writes in the introduction that he used the shorter version because Kawabata preferred it.
Publisher: 1972, Alfred A Knopf
# of Pages: 186 (includes 2 pages of footnotes)
Began Reading: December 28th, 2007
Finished Reading: January 2nd, 2008
The "Beef": The Master of Go is the slight-fictionalization (shosetsu) of the actual Go match that Kawabata covered when he worked as a journalist for the Osaka and Tokyo magazine Mainichi. Kawabata describes it as a “faithful chronicle novel” and in fact many of the chapters are rewrites of his published articles (Kawabata v). The translator, Seidensticker, deduces in his introduction that Kawabata's work expresses his regret of Japan’s loss in World War II. Kawabata saw the post-war years as a time where he would only be capable of writing elegies, pieces that pay homage to times past. However, the deliberate yet graceful writing style of Kawabata emulates less of a regret than an uncertainty for the new era of Japan. With the war lost and the Emperor expressing defeat (his speech never mentions surrender), the Japanese faced a post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki world of pain, humiliation and, it can be said, dishonour. As a people, the social collective moved towards an adaptation of new (semi-Western) ways. This duality between old and new is articulated in the two opponents over the Go board. Kawabata examines the possibility in the Master’s younger opponent, Otake, whether or not there is not a necessity for the Japanese to adapt this “new approach” that can lead the nation to victory in the future. The character of the Master seems to have been reshaped from the cynical man in reality to a noble, wise figure who is accustomed to the older rules and manners of playing Go. Both players have a particular style and approach to their game that the narrator describes and analyzes throughout the novel. The Master who has always been victorious to date loses to the seventh rank player Otake, this being said in the opening pages so no need for concern on spoilers here.
"So What?": Like most things that concern Japan – sword fighting, drinking, the feudal system, the country’s literature is not an endeavour a Caucasian can expect to curl up with and enjoy. A certain amount of background and perhaps even a second read is required to fully comprehend an author’s intentions.
Consider this: plot. While reviewing the assignment of my Japanese language-exchange partner, Yoshiko, I suggested that she keep track of the plot by listing the key events with the page number beside. She was unfamiliar with the word "plot" and the dictionary's suggestion, arasuji, implies more summary than plot. When the difference between the two words was clarified, Yoshiko expressed surprise that English would even be concerned with “the order of events”. All elementary school attendees, past and present, recall the lesson of the ‘ ’. The beginning which introduces the characters and events that leads to the pivotal moment, also known as Climax, where the author’s point comes across at its strongest. From there, the reader is brought to a smooth end, usually a series of events that are of direct consequence to the previous key event. All this action concerns us, the Western reader (Americans and Europeans alike), to what end?, Yoshiko would ask directly... My (humble) guess is simply that, like an essay, Western culture has been given key templates to follow and we have done so without question, adopting the “plot” layout as a writing norm. Flip to Chapter II of any Jane Austen novel and you’ll see it for yourself – the Queen of English Literature gives detailed accounts of her characters at the precise time she is expected to. She introduces their personality, provides historical background and contextualizes them within the framework of their time and place.
This is not so for Japanese Literature (nor is it for Science Fiction and Fantasy genre but that is for another post). Let us consider the following passage:
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The tale of The Master of Go, and most other Japanese novels, do not quiet begin nor do they really end. When the reader has registered the last word on the final page of the novel, the tendency is to wonder whether perhaps there is not some misprint, some pages missing. In a Japanese novel, this "introduction of characters" where one is given history and context of the principal characters rarely happens if at all. The reading above summarizes all the events that take place - essentially the entire plot of the book - is given with this first chapter. The narrative for Japanese literature is focused more on the moments in which they have decided to express. This may sound like it is centered around a plot, but if so than it is o ne which bears little order or focus. It is not that the Japanese novel is a random series of events. Rather, it lacks a central focal point that everything revolves around. Overall, it can be said that Japanese literature is conscious of the fact that it gives a glimpse within a certain timeframe. A contrast to the more holistic feeling an English novel would provide.
Within the pages mentioned above, the audience is aware that the book covers the six month Go match played and lost by Master Syusai. His death less than a year later leaves the narrator with regret, he writes in those first pages, and yet the reader realizes that this event has brought insight on the character of the man the narrator so revered. The Master of Go’s short chapters are not a chronological account of the game. Rather, Kawabata discusses different moments that brought awe to the game, knowledge on the Master or his opponent or some social observations. Certain Chapters were so alive with thought and question yet nothing conclusive is written even though the narrator presents it as such on occasion. This is the magic that Japanese fiction holds that Western novels generally do not embody as well. And that is that the tale is more of a suggestion rather than a particular message. (This is where Mishima’s Patriotism provides an ideal counter argument but I have to leave something for the comments, don’t I?) Case in point: Chapter 28 explores the foreigner who plays Go. The narrator, Uuragami, becomes unsettled after the first game.
Recommendation: I recall reading that Snow Country (also by Kawabata) is the novel most recognized by the Western world and The Master of Go by the Japanese. Having now read both of these novels, the surprise was that this is the case simply because The Master of Go is more understandable to the Western reader. The characters in this novel are clean-cut with Kawabata providing a framework for us to work with. Snow Country and most other Japanese novels leave much of the characters personality, even when written in the first person (such as Oe’s The Silent Cry), unsaid. My recommendation for anyone who wishes to begin reading Japanese Fiction it would be this one.
Fun Facts: Kawabata (b. 1899 d.1972) was orphaned at the age of two and by the age of fifteen had lost his only sibling and his grandparent. He killed himself in 1972 by gassing himself though certain family members consider his death to be an accident.
In 1968, Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. The only other Japanese author with such an honour is Kenzaburo Oe who received his award in 1994.
Kawabata was Mishima's mentor. Mishima is an author discussed in this blog many a time and happens to be a personal favourite. It is said that the Nobel Prize was originally issued to Mishima but when he learned of this, insisted that it be given to his teacher and mentor, Kawabata (source: Wikipedia. They provided no citation). Mishima was nominated three times but never won.