Snow Country Summary

Yasunari Kawabata

Snow Country

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Snow Country Summary

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A winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country (in Japanese, Yukiguani) was first published in various forms from 1935 through 1947, and comprises a significant part of his body of work. It initially appeared as a short story in a literary journal. Subsequent related stories were released in various journals over several years. Eventually, nine pieces were published and later integrated into the final novel, which was published in 1948. The title refers to a mountainous region of Japan that receives a large amount of snow from the north winds of the Sea of Japan. The snow, which accumulates up to five meters, at times separates towns and villages from surrounding areas. A sense of loneliness pervades the area and influences the mood of the book.

The novel opens on a train with the central character, Shimamura, traveling to a small town in Japan’s snow country. Shimamura is a wealthy ballet critic from Tokyo who in reality lacks any depth of knowledge in his field. He hears, and is enthralled by, the voice of a woman, Yoko, who is with an ailing man named Yukio. Yukio’s mother is a music teacher in the village to which Shimamura is traveling. Shimamura’s destination is a hot spring resort where he hopes to find the geisha whom he encountered on an earlier visit. In this region the economy is supported by the presence of the geishas who, unlike their counterparts in the major cities like Tokyo, are essentially prostitutes whose lives rarely end well. The geisha for whom Shimamura is looking is Komako, who was unlicensed as a geisha at the time they first met. At that point in time Shimamura was taken with her, but he now feels that he would prefer to maintain a friendship rather than to partake of her services as a geisha. He spurns the offer of a different geisha and ultimately develops a relationship with Komako.

Komako is conflicted in her relationship with Shimamura, which becomes inconsistent and uncertain over time. Shimamura is concerned that Komako is becoming too attached to him but at the same time continues to visit in order to spend time with her. Sometimes when they are together she is drunk and cannot seem to decide whether she wants to be with Shimamura or not. She spends time with him but then quickly departs. Their relationship is very different from what tradition dictates, as a geisha is supposed to meet the needs of a man but is expected to do so without any emotional connections. Shimamura accepts Komako’s unpredictable mood swings and periods of anger. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Komako lives with Yukio’s mother. Yoko, the woman from the train, cares for Yukio for the remainder of his life and then finds employment at the inn where Shimamura stays when in the village.

Yoko and Komako do not get along for undisclosed reasons. Shimamura learns that Komako and Yukio were once engaged and that when he fell ill, she began working as a geisha in order to pay for his care. Komako tells Shimamura that this is not true, but he is not convinced. He imagines that Yoko became Yukio’s lover and that the animosity between Yoko and Komako stems from jealousy. By the time Shimamura returns to the village for a third time, Yukio has died. His mother, too, has passed on, and Yoko and Komako are not living in the same house any longer. Yoko tells Shimamura that she wants to leave with him when he returns to Tokyo. On this visit, Komako and Shimamura become closer to each other than they had been previously. She feels, however, that Shimamura will never fully be able to understand the position she is struggling with. As a geisha, no matter how much she might want to be able to love another, it is not possible for her. The author gives Komako a few interests, such as reading and writing about the characters in books, and collecting cigarettes, but nothing that serves to suggest she will ever find a different station in life. Shimamura, for his part, realizes that he cannot continue his relationship with her.

Shimamura gets ready to take his leave one night. In the village a burning building is seen and Komako and Shimamura go to see what is happening. A warehouse that is being used as a movie theater is on fire. When they arrive they see Yoko falling from a balcony. Komako carries Yoko’s body from the fire. It is not clear whether she is unconscious or dead. Shimamura slips and falls backwards, leaving him staring in awe at the beauty of the night sky.