Yasunari Kawabata June (1899 –1972) was a Japanese writer whose was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 for his auxiliary, poetic and ingeniously colored style of writing. No Japanese author had received the award prior to Kawabata. Besides fiction he also worked as a reporter for Mainichi Shimbun of Osaka. The war and the fact that all of Kawabata’s relatives passed away while he was young had a profound impact on his life. Kawabata committed suicide in 1972. Many speculations have been made about his reasons, which include poor health, a likely failed love affair, or the distress caused by the suicide of his friend Yukio Mishima in 1970.
HISTORY OF ASAKUSA
Asakusa was mostly a city for commercial enjoyment, but it also preserved its local vivacity. It was this mixture of barefaced pleasure and intrinsic worth that fascinated the throngs of people who came to visit Asakusa. It was surely this fusion that was most lamented, subsequent to the 1923 earthquake, however Asakusa regained its former glory and up to its final days, was able to hold on to somewhat of its former appeal.
LIFE IN ASAKUSA
Primarily the plot circles around The Scarlet Gang, which is a gang formed by some young people in Asakusa, many gangs like these existed in Asakusa at the time, the gang’s various endeavors are narrated in first person, the narrator himself is never identified by Kawabata, the accounts of the gang’s various activities are used to describe life in Asakusa, the narrator himself wanders around Asakusa and relates the gang’s activities, the primary focus in the book is not the gang itself but rather the account of the narrator, who moves from one place to another following the Scarlet Gang, the narrator also implies that the gang is involved in illegal actions but does not specify the kind of illegal activities. Only a few characters appear throughout the book which are actually related to the gang. Kawabata’s main purpose clearly was to give an account of life in Asakusa, which he manages to accomplish in a very rough yet poetic manner mostly due to his choice of first person narrative.
With its corporeal and sexual appeal, Asakusa prospered in every way, Tanizaki writes that Asakusa’s attractions included “plays, operettas, comedies, movies from the West and Japanese productions, Douglas Fairbanks and Onoe Matsunosuke acrobats balancing on balls, bareback rider Naniwa bushi singers, chanters, the merry-go-round, the Hanayashiki Amusement Park, the Twelve Story Tower, shooting galleries, whores, Japanese restaurants, Chinese restaurants, and Western restaurants, the Rairaiken, won ton mein, oysters over rice, horsemeat, snapping turtles, eels, and the Café Paulista.” (Donald Richie 2005 )
Asakusa was also famous for its Opera, where at first some opera was actually sung. An early show Rigoletto, and “La donna é mobile” became a success with the locals, later however, the shows became more diverse.
This rough and unsightly but vivacious and energetic Asakusa was soon after ruined. The 1923 Kanto earthquake destroyed it, as it flattened much of Tokyo and Yokohama. Among the more well-known catastrophe was the destruction of the Asakusa’s, Twelve Story tower also known as the Cloud Surpassing Pavilion, a building which had become the symbol of Asakusa.
The old neighborhood was also destroyed, the sense of belonging to a society, that had attracted so many people was also in no way completely regained. Since it was a city of enjoyment, an amusement capital, a city with one of the best night life in the world, however, rebuilding began at once. And now, representing the new Asakusa, instead of the Twelve Story Tower there is the Subway Tower building, with its observation platform. Kawabata writes that all the floors are in the Osaka style, except the top ones as they have been turned into restaurants. (Tokyo essentials 2006)
COMPARASION WITH OTHER URBAN CENTRES
Throughout the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, Asakusa was the most important pleasure hub of Tokyo. From the 1840s to the 1940s, it was comparable to Montmartre in Paris, and Alexanderplatz in Berlin (Donald Richie. 2005)
This region of Osaka was recognized for trade rather than its customs, commonly mourned after the earthquake. “Why, it’s gotten just like Osaka,” complains a character in one Kawabata story. Writing about The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, Kataoka Yoshikaze, writing in 1939, illustrates the new Asakusa as that, “Human market, where the pleasure resort of the Edo period, the vestiges of the crude, semi-enlightened curiosity of the Meiji era, and the over-ripeness . . . of the present era of capitalist corruption, are thrown together in a forever disordered state or organized in a manner peculiarly like the place itself. Eroticism and frivolity and speed and comic-strip humor; the bare legs of dancing girls and jazzy revues; kiss-dances, foreign girls, ground-cherries and popular songs; the movie, the circus, the fake, dilapidated aquarium and insectariums. (Donald Richie 2005)
In The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa Kawabata quotes Soeda Azenbo’s fine depiction: “In Asakusa everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end”.( Donald Richie 2005). Asakusa was kept alive by all these varied attractions, one of the most well-liked attraction was the cinema, a type of activity early linked with Asakusa for the reason that the first Tokyo movie house, “the Denkikan”, had opened there in 1903.
Kawabata relates that by 1930, Asakusa had fourteen cinemas. He also affirms, however, that it had even more theaters. In the summer of 1930, his assessment calculated half a dozen vaudeville, or yose, halls, one kabuki theater, a large number of pawnshops and beggars in the city, around eight hundred were living in Asakusa Park, although Kawabata did not trust this social estimation and retained that there were a lot more. (Donald Richie 2005)
Life in Asakusa in its golden period is described by Kawabata as one big party, where the primary concern for its citizens and its visitors was entertainment, in its golden period Asakusa was considered one of the biggest entertainment center in the world and every visitor affirmed this fact, a life full of entertainment was considered normal in Asakusa Kawabata writes about Asakusa at its prewar stage.
The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa captures the area in its golden period, when hundreds of people came to visit the city, the variety of attractions like theatre, cinema, restaurants, geisha houses made the city a commercial entertainment center. According to Kawabata “Asakusa is like a specimen in the Bug House, something completely different from today’s world like a remote island or some African village” (Kawabata 2005)
- Yasunari Kawabata (2005) The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa .1st edition Published by University of California Press
- Donald Richie (2005) “Foreword: The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata”. Accessed on 12th November 2006 from :
- Tokyo Essentials (2006) “ Asakusa” Accessed on 12th November 2006 from: