Writing as Tea Ceremony: Kawabata's Geido Aesthetics

Peter M. Carriere, Georgia College & State University

In his article "Alternative Modernity? Playing the Japanese Game of Culture" (1994), Andrew Feenberg suggests that Yasunari Kawabata's novel The Master of Go (1954) embodies the Zen Buddhist principle that playing Go in traditional Japan constituted a quest for self-realization and a path to spiritual unity-in effect, a "Tao," or "Way," the Way of Go. [1] The goal of the contest was not victory but spiritual enlightenment: as a momentary refugee from culture, the self was reduced by subjection to rule and struggle to the nothingness of Zen, and the game became an agent of consciousness effacement, the Zen "no-mind" that is a prerequisite for spiritual unity. This insight, that immersion in Go constituted a Way in traditional Japanese culture, suggests that Kawabata's immersion in the aesthetics of religion and culture was an attempt to create an aesthetic Way in the spirit of cha-no-yu, or tea ceremony, which he described in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 12 December 1968 as "sad, austere, autumnal," concealing "a great richness of spirit." [2] The object of the tea ceremony is to awaken or reinforce in the participant a sense of cultural identity and spiritual connection through its ritualized aesthetics. The object of other forms of aesthetic rituals, such as the art of fiction, for instance, might do the same. Indeed, such a connection between art and religion flourished during Japan's medieval period (950-1400), when "religious and aesthetic values became virtually co-terminous in what was called geido-the 'Tao' (or Way) of aesthetics." [3] This essay will examine the aesthetic, cultural, religious, and historical contexts out of which Kawabata's prewar masterpiece Snow Country (1947) and his last novel, Beauty and Sadness (1961), emerged in order to show that geido was an abiding element of Kawabata's fiction.

The phrase "alternative modernity" implies that Kawabata's modernism differs from traditional understandings of the term. By definition, however, the art of modernism is subjective, recondite, esoteric, and avant-garde. Furthermore, the symbolist aesthetic often noted in Kawabata, with its emphasis on spirituality and culture, informs the works of modernism's most celebrated writers, including T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and W. B. Yeats. Yeats's well-known affinity for Japan originated in his symbolist perception that Japan supported a culture infused with myth, legend, and a hazy kind of spirtualism arising out of a unique blending of Shinto and Buddhism.

Because of geido's similarity to the symbolist writing of some modernists, critics often suggest that Kawabata's art tends toward the symbolic. Gwen Boardman relates that in Kawabata's rewriting of Snow Country, his characterizations went from "more 'realistic' and straightforward to 'lyrical' and symbolic." [4] According to Paul St. John Mackintosh, Snow Country "does the native spirit good by going back to the oldest Japanese literary traditions," and yet the novel is "modern in its narrative discontinuity and almost symbolist imagery." [5] And Kawabata's involvement with other young artists in the Shinkankaku-Ha and its publication Bungei Jidai (1924) was, according to Boardman, "a reaction against the naturalistic writing and the 'proletarian' literature of their time." [6] When this same reaction in Europe takes a spiritual direction, it is labeled symbolist, though the difference is that symbolism is subjective and somewhat occult, whereas geido uses aesthetics as a Way within Buddhism, an established religion.

Western discussions of Kawabata's art imply that his fiction may be grasped either in terms of unique Japanese aesthetic categories or Western existentialism. In "Elements of Existentialism in Modern Fiction," Mita Luz de Manuel suggests that Kawabata's modernism originates in the pervasive existential personality of his characters, that he "may well have connected Buddhist 'emptiness' or 'nothingness' with the nihilism of Western philosophy." [7] Those who interpret Kawabata through Japanese aesthetic categories usually point out that his art contains yugen (mysterious or shadowy essence), mono no aware (poignant melancholy), sabi (refined, seasoned simplicity), or wabi (a calm, clear state of mind perfected in the tea ceremony). Wabi and sabi also suggest the quiet sadness Kawabata spoke of in reference to the tea ceremony. Kawabata used all of these aesthetic labels as keys to his art in the Nobel speech (though in his English translation Edward Seidensticker used descriptive phrases rather than these esoteric terms).

Enlightening as these efforts may be, however, analyses based on Japanese aesthetics leave Western readers unsatisfied as to the real purpose of Kawabata's art. We may see mono no aware as an abiding element in The Sound of the Mountain (1954) or Beauty and Sadness, but we still want to know what purpose it serves. The fact that Snow Country may illustrate wabi or sabi does not tell us what these two aesthetic qualities achieve. The existential model is at odds with Kawabata's symbolist propensities as well as his Nobel speech, in which he insists that it would be a mistake to confound the nihilism of Western existentialism with the nothingness of Zen: "This is not the nothingness or emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless" (JBM 56). Kawabata is insistent on this point and he returns to it at the close of his address: "My own works have been described as works of emptiness," he notes, "but it is not to be taken for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundations would seem to be quite different" (JBM 41).

A unique feature of Japan is what Steve Odin refers to as "the primacy of aesthetic value experience or artistic intuition as the distinguishing feature of Japanese culture." [8] This primacy of aesthetics permeates even the most mundane conditions of life in Japan, to the extent that ordinary store purchases are wrapped with painstaking attention paid to their final aesthetic presentation, or food is prepared and served with a focus on its aesthetic appeal. Even behavior-bowing and sitting, for example-has aesthetic as well as social components. The dominance of aesthetics in a culture infused with the traditional spiritual mysteries of Shinto and Buddhism means that a complex layering occurs in Japanese artistic expression as aesthetics, religion, and culture merge. Hence Kawabata's fiction must be seen as an expression of what it means to be Japanese: the self living in harmony with nature, culture, and spirituality through the disciplined application of aesthetics.

In the Nobel address, which is a discussion of Japanese aesthetic principles and their meaning and importance to the writer, Kawabata alluded to significant and abiding figures from Japan's literary history in his artistic development. Writers such as Dogen (1200-1253) and Myoe (1173-1232) were not just early inspirations. Their art and the eras in which they wrote epitomize the geido aesthetics Kawabata adopted as he strove to achieve the same degree of harmony with nature, art, spirituality, and culture that he perceived in their work. Dogen suggested to Kawabata "the deep quiet of the Japanese spirit" (JBM 69), while Myoe inspired the severe beauty and austere cold of Snow Country.

Kawabata began his Nobel speech by quoting a poem by Dogen called "Innate Spirit," followed by one by Myoe on the winter moon. These two poems set the tenor of the rest of Kawabata's address. Both poems illustrate yugen. Dogen's poem seems like a simple, four-line expression of the four seasons: "In the spring, cherry blossoms, / in the summer the cuckoo. / In autumn the moon, and in / winter the snow, clear, cold." But Kawabata's explanation of it sheds light on the poem's embodiment of yugen, in which that which is described becomes simply the foreground to the greater essence that lies behind: "The snow, the moon, the blossoms, words expressive of the seasons as they move one into another, include in the Japanese tradition the beauty of mountains and rivers and grasses and trees, of all the myriad manifestations of nature, of human feelings as well" (JBM 68).

Myoe's poem, three short lines on the cold wind and winter moon, evokes the same ephemeral sensations. The winter moon becomes the simple foreground for "the myriad manifestations of nature, of human feelings," even spiritual feelings, since it was a session of Zen meditation that evoked the poem: "Winter moon, coming from the / clouds to keep me company, / Is the wind piercing, the snow cold?" The austere beauty of nature in winter, the cold, clear air and moonlit night, suggest that which is not part of the scene: "When we see the beauty of the snow," writes Kawabata, "it is then that we think most of those close to us, and want them to share the pleasure. The excitement of beauty calls forth strong fellow feelings, yearnings for companionship, and the word 'comrade' can be taken to mean human being" (JBM 68).

Kawabata's evaluation of later writers, those whose historical moments were closer to his own, clearly suggests that geido became for him an artistic goal. For example, Ryokan (1758-1831) was important because in his work "one feels … the emotions of old Japan and the heart of a religious faith as well" (JBM 65). To Kawabata, Ryokan suggested that Japanese artists must be guided by the aesthetic purity of the past rather than the vulgar present: "Ryokan, who shook off the modern vulgarity of his day, who was immersed in the elegance of earlier centuries … lived in the spirit of these poems.… The profundity of religion and literature were not, for him, in the abstruse" (JBM 65). Behind this description of Ryokan lies Kawabata's self-portrait: the twentieth-century author rejecting the vulgarity of a decadent present through immersion in the elegance of traditional Japanese aesthetics. Speaking of his novel A Thousand Cranes (1959), Kawabata declared it "a negative work, an expression of doubt about and a warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen" (JBM 68). In this context "tea ceremony" may be seen as a metaphor for Japanese culture.

Kawabata's preference for the geido aesthetics of earlier writers makes it clear that he saw life in contemporary Japan as vulgar. Some critics have observed that he turned away from it. [9] Kawabata's declaration following Japan's defeat in World War II that he would never write again reinforces such observations and suggests that the author interpreted the war's outcome as a destruction of the potential of geido to merge nation, culture, and spirituality through art.

Kawabata did write again, of course, but his fiction now warned against the vulgar intrusion of Western culture into Japanese life. These warnings sometimes appear as the insertion of foreign elements into moments focused on Japanese tradition. The Sound of the Mountain, whose theme contrasts the animism of Japan's Shinto past with life in the fragmented and vulgar present, is set near Tokyo, where the daily routine of the protagonist, Shingo, immerses him in the conditions of life in a contemporary industrial city while his traditional house and the mountain that speaks to him provide a cultural refuge. The ambiguous animism of the mountain-evoking the traditional Japan of Myoe and Dogen-coexists with Shingo's daily business existence in modern Tokyo, where Shingo's son is having an affair with his secretary. This contemporary setting serves as a metaphor for the intrusion of foreign elements into Japanese life and contributes to the novel's mono no aware or melancholy tone.

Beauty and Sadness begins with Oki Toshio traveling to Kyoto by express train on December 29 in an undefined year, perhaps the late fifties or early sixties, in order to participate in the ceremony of the New Year's bells, whose "lingering reverberations held an awareness of the old Japan and of the flow of time." [10] During the trip, an American couple photograph Mount Fuji as the train passes. Mount Fuji's status as a sacred mountain creates a severe contrast with the superficial act of the American tourists, who see the mountain as a mere photographic object to be venerated for its crude aesthetic rather than its sacred spiritual essence. When Oki arrives in Kyoto he does not go to a traditional ryokan, but straight to the Miyako Hotel, one of the better Western hotels in Kyoto. The discordant note sounded by Oki's preference for a non-Japanese hotel during a trip to recover the "old Japan" creates an inescapable irony and reveals a degree of ambivalence in his quest to recover tradition. Both incidents are projections of Kawabata's conservative artistic and cultural attitude and create ironic juxtapositions that serve as moral warnings against the decadence into which contemporary Japanese culture has fallen.

While the Kyoto of Beauty and Sadness may boast Japan's most traditional cultural environment, the novel reads less like an attempt to revisit traditional Japan than a story concerned with the tangled web of relationships between Oki, his wife, his former mistress, and the children of these relationships. In the course of the novel, Oki's son has an affair with the young protégée of Oki's former mistress and drowns in a motorboat accident on Lake Biwa. Despite the novel's traditional title which proclaims a principle of Japanese art-only that which is sad or tragic can be truly beautiful-its subject is infidelity and involves the intrigues of unrequited love, and the setting could be any modern country. Motorboat accidents, fast trains, Western-style hotels, cafés and coffee shops, even the suggestion of a lesbian relationship between Oki's former mistress and her young protégée all give the novel a contemporary feeling. Beauty and Sadness is an elaborate presentation of the tragic consequences of life in a tainted culture, making the novel yet another "negative work," a powerful artistic expression of the decadence of postwar life in a battered nation.

But the moment responsible for Snow Country was the prewar 1930s, Japan's modern Nationalist period, when the fervor for tradition and cultural unity became intense. This historical moment, in contrast with the sixties era that produced Beauty and Sadness, was permeated by "government efforts at national spiritual mobilization." [11] The direct effect on art and culture of this spiritual mobilization may be seen in the translation project involving The Manyoshu, whose more than 4,500 poems were compiled during the eighth century. Begun in 1934, the same year that saw the publication of the first part of Snow Country, [12] the project marked the first attempt by Japanese scholars to produce an English translation of The Manyoshu. As the introduction indicates, the project arose out of the need to assert traditional Japanese culture and the superiority of Japan's organic social structure against encroaching influences from the West: "But filial piety [and by extension devotion to culture, nation, and emperor], so sincere, intense and instinctive as shown in the Manyo poems is not likely to be duplicated by any other people and under any other social order." [13] According to Donald Keene, the spirit of The Manyoshu, which was republished in 1940, was "constantly invoked by literary men" during the war years between 1941 and 1945 because certain works contained expressions of clan unity and therefore a sense of filial obligation to country and emperor. [14] There is a spiritual condition in this appraisal, since Japan has always traced the origins of both country and emperor to its mythological past.

What immediately strikes the reader of Snow Country is that the story takes place in Niigata Prefecture, away from Tokyo, the city that represents in the Japanese mind all that is modern and Western in Japanese culture. "Tokyo is Japan, but Japan is not Tokyo" the saying goes, with the obvious implication that visitors wanting to know the "real" Japan must venture into rural areas. These form the setting of Kawabata's novel, which, not so coincidentally, was also the home of Ryokan, who "lived his whole life in the snow country," as Kawabata noted enthusiastically in his Nobel speech (JBM 64). The two major characters of the novel are the Tokyo visitor Shimamura and the snow-country native Komako, who says at one point in the novel, "Tokyo people are very complicated. They live in such noise and confusion that their feelings are broken to little bits." [15] Komako's feelings are intact and vibrant, unlike those of Shimamura, the Tokyo refugee she is destined to love.

The novel's snow-country setting is a northerly region of the main island of Honshu in what is known as the reverse side of Japan, the area close to the Japan Sea that is swept by cold winds from Siberia during the winter. Whereas Tokyo embodies Japan's contemporary, industrial, Eurocentric energies, the reverse side of Japan represents the Japan of unbroken tradition, of life close to nature, life rich with aesthetic and spiritual potential far removed from the bustle of life in the twentieth century. In the Japanese mind the region evokes the shadowy cold of winter, which makes it the perfect embodiment of yugen. Less complicated by Western intrusions into the story than The Sound of the Mountain, Beauty and Sadness, The Lake, and some of Kawabata's short stories, Snow Country embodies the innate spirituality of Dogen and the severe beauty of Myoe. Begun during a time of hope, when recovery of tradition seemed possible, the novel epitomizes Kawabata's twentieth-century triumph over what he described in reference to A Thousand Cranes as "the vulgarities into which the tea ceremony has fallen" (JBM 68).

The novel's setting recalls Myoe's poem on the winter moon in which that which is foregrounded in the poem becomes the spartan expression of all things not seen-summer, grass, trees, and close friends and fellow human beings-forming a literary counterpart to the traditional sumie inkwash drawing. Rendered in monochrome black ink on a white or pale background, sumie drawings contain three planes: a clear foreground, a midground, and a distant background, "which fades into the mystery and depth of enveloping pictorial space." [16] The transitions among the planes occur in "an atmospheric haze of concealing mists and vapors ... further enhancing the quality of yugen in its sense as 'hidden depths.'" [17] This spartan art evokes in the Japanese mind a rich sense of unity with those things not expressed, both cultural and spiritual, and becomes an embodiment of the opposite of itself. Taken to an extreme, this artistic concept suggests in the empty character of Shimamura precisely those things he lacks and those things missing in the austere, snowy region that serves as the novel's setting. Rather than being precisely defined and enumerated, however, that which is missing, as in the sumie drawing, must remain intuitive and ephemeral, though one would naturally expect a Japanese reading audience to agree, at least to some extent, on what is missing, since geido merges spirituality and culture.

Kawabata's use of geido as a principle of the novel's development, and the intricate layering of some of its cultural conditions, creates for readers a refined cultural ritual similar to the tea ceremony. Yukio Mishima recognized this principle in the introduction to Kawabata's collection The House of Sleeping Beauties and Other Short Stories, where he noted that in the works of great writers, there are those whose meaning is culturally obvious, and "we might liken them to exoteric ... Buddhism. In the case of Mr. Kawabata, Snow Country falls in [this] category." [18] Mishima was referring to the novel's merging of culture, religion, and aesthetics as an expected and predictable characteristic of Japanese art, especially the art of the Master intended for Japanese readers. Such readers would instantly recognize that the love affair between Shimamura and Komako is both a literary allusion to Tanabata, a festival from mythology that celebrates the story of the Oxherd and the Weaver Maid, and an expression of mono no aware, defined by Mackintosh in a reference to Snow Country as "the pathos of things, the sadness of their transience," a Buddhist concept at the heart of Japanese life and thought. [19]

Symbolized by the cherry blossom, which flowers for a brief moment then fades, impermanence defines the relationship between Shimamura and Komako. Both know their affair is doomed from the start: the Japanese male visits hot springs more for momentary relief from the monotonous patterns of his organized life at home than to discover anything of lasting value or importance. [20] Shimamura is no different, and both he and Komako know why Shimamura visits each year. Their mutual awareness that the affair is fated to flower only briefly casts over the story a feeling of recurring poignancy, or mono no aware. But the love affair becomes a foreground vehicle for the expression of deeper cultural perceptions. Paradoxically, the transitory love affair between Shimamura and Komako reinforces a sense of cultural unity, particularly in Japanese readers, who would be expected to grasp Kawabata's aesthetic motives.

Tanabata is a national festival celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month every year. Though the myth was originally Chinese, it found its way into Japanese cultural mythology and became such an established feature of the literary landscape of early Japan that 120 songs about it found their way into The Manyoshu.

The story is simple. The Oxherd star and the Weaver Maid star love each other so much that they are constantly together and neglecting their duties. So the Ruler of Heaven separates the two young stars: they will exist for eternity on opposite sides of the Heavenly River, or Milky Way, being allowed to meet one day a year, the seventh day of the seventh month. The ubiquitous references to the Milky Way in the last chapter of the novel and Shimamura's once-a-year visit to Komako's snow-country village, with his side trip to the Chijimi cloth weaving region famous for its weaver maidens, reinforce the novel's connection to this traditional myth.

The allusion to the Tanabata myth in Shimamura's side trip to Chijimi, and the connection between it and the love story of Shimamura and Komako, suggest that the world of Shimamura and Komako retains its ancient mythological roots: "the land of Chijimi [symbolically the land of weaver maidens] was very near this [Komako's] hot spring," writes Kawabata (SC 125). But Shimamura is disillusioned by Chijimi. Seeking the ancient cloth-weaving villages and weaver maids engaged in their personal weaving rituals, he finds instead villages mostly deserted, where an old woman smiles knowingly at his suggestion that the maidens of the village might occupy themselves during the winter by weaving Chijimi cloth. Shimamura remembers that his guidebook had told him that weaving cloth in the old way was impractical and too labor-intensive for modern times, and during his visit he thinks about leaving Komako. Chijimi predicts the novel's final outcome as Shimamura, disillusioned by the intrusion of the contemporary industrial present into this isolated rural environment, transfers his disillusionment to the affair with Komako. When he returns to Komako's village the end of their relationship is near. But it is not a final, existential end, for even as Shimamura's connection to Komako and her snow-country village is terminating, Shimamura is being spiritually absorbed into the region of the snow country, where "generation after generation of his ancestors had endured the long snows" (SC 128).

His absorption is so intense that it becomes a religious experience, a Way, in which, as he loses connection with Komako's material world, he finds himself drawn up into the Milky Way with the sparks of the cocoon warehouse fire that ends the novel: "The sparks spread off into the Milky Way, and Shimamura was pulled up with them. As the smoke drifted away, the Milky Way seemed to dip and flow in the opposite direction" (SC 139). Shimamura stumbles, and Kawabata ends the novel with Shimamura's head falling back and the Milky Way flowing down inside him with a roar (SC 142).

In the last few pages of the novel, references to the Milky Way occur nineteen times. While it is easy to see the symbolic connection between the love affair and the Tanabata myth, the ending seems too saturated with aesthetics, spirituality, and culture for these geido qualities to be mere coincidence. The Milky Way is often referred to in Japanese mythology as the Bridge of Heaven, the path taken to earth by the country's founding deities. Each mention of it in the novel tends to merge the Tanabata myth with the spiritual origins of Japan's mythical past. These expressions are typical: "the Milky Way came down to wrap itself around the earth" (SC 136) or, referring to Shimamura, the Milky Way "like a great aurora flowed through his body to stand at the edges of the earth" (SC 137).

"Snow Country is perhaps Kawabata's masterpiece," writes Seidensticker in the introduction to the novel's English translation. [21] And it is not incidental that both the setting and the story evoke the cultural, artistic, and spiritual sensitivities of the tea ceremony and become an embodiment of the traditional Japanese aesthetic principles designated by geido. Snow Country's final scenes constitute both a rejection of the vulgar and decadent present and an apotheosis of geido, of Kawabata's insistent demand for the traditional Japanese unity of spirit, culture, and self through art.


[1] Andrew Feenberg, "Alternative Modernity? Playing the Japanese Game of Culture," Cultural Critique 29 (1994-95): 111-14.
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[2] Yasunari Kawabata, Japan the Beautiful and Myself, trans. Edward Seidensticker (New York: Kodansha, 1968) 52. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text in parentheses with the abbreviation JBM.
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[3] Steve Odin, "The Penumbral Shadow: A Whiteheadian Perspective on the Yugen Style of Art and Literature in Japanese Aesthetics," Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 12.1 (1984): 63.
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[4] Gwen Boardman, "Kawabata Yasunari: A Critical Introduction," Journal of Modern Literature 2 (1971): 88.
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[5] Paul St. John Mackintosh, "The Warm Heart of Japan's Snow Country," The Contemporary Review 262.1527 (1993): 204.
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[6] Boardman 90.
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[7] Mita Luz de Manuel, "Elements of Existentialism in Modern Asian Fiction," Likhãa 11.2 (1989-90): 32.
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[8] Odin 63.
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[9] See Sidney DeVere Brown, "Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972): Tradition Versus Modernity," World Literature Today 62 (1988): 379.
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[10] Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness, trans. Howard Hibbett (1961; rpt. New York: Knopf-Berkley, 1975) 2.
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[11] Brown 376.
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[12] Snow Country was published piecemeal between 1934 and 1947.
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[13] The Manyoshu, trans. Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai (1940; UNESCO Collection of Representative Works-Japanese Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965) lvi.
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[14] Donald Keene, foreword, The Manyoshu v.
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[15] Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, trans. Edward Seidensticker (1947; UNESCO Collection of Contemporary Works. New York: Knopf-Berkley, 1956) 99. Subsequent references are to this edition and are cited in the text in parenthesis with the abbreviation SC.
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[16] Odin 79.
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[17] Odin 79.
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[18] Yukio Mishima, introduction, The House of the Sleeping Beauties, trans. Edward Seidensticker (New York: Ballentine Books, 1969) 7.
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[19] Mackintosh 204.
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[20] Edward Seidensticker, introduction, Snow Country 5.
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[21] Seidensticker 8.
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