The Old Capital

The Old Capital (Koto)
Yasunari Kawabata

cover of The Old CapitalChieko is an adopted child, found one winter morning on the doorstep of Takichiro and Shige. Now Chieko is 20 and settled into the life and routines of a kimono wholesaler’s in Kyoto’s Nishijin area. But on a visit to a shrine during Gion festival, a young girl she has never seen before excitedly begins a conversation with her. It is Chieko’s twin sister Naeko who was raised by a poor family in Kitayama after the death of both their parents. Their unexpected meeting brings inner turmoil and outward complications to both sisters. But also the obi weaver Hideo, Chieko’s childhood friend, must choose between the two.

The book is set in Kyoto in the 1950s, and it provides interesting insights into the life of that time, where many people still wore traditional kimono when riding the modern tramway. What I found particularly interesting was the rigid class distinctions that existed between the girls, and which especially Naeko could not overcome – she keeps calling her sister “Miss” throughout the novel. In typical Japanese manner the ending is left open, but as Naeko departs from Chieko one still hopes for a happy ending for both sisters.

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was the first Japanese to win the Nobel prize in Literature, in 1968. This book, Koto, was one of only three cited by the Nobel committee for their decision – and that although the first (official?) translation into English was published only in 1987. Kawabata was orphaned at an early age and eventually lived with his mother’s extended family. When he graduated from university in 1924, he had already published some stories and quickly rose to fame; still he worked part-time as a newspaper reporter. He died under unclear circumstances, most people consider his death a suicide though.

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