"The Pomegranate," by Kawabata Yasunari

Kawabata Yasunari (1889-1972) was the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. It was awarded in 1968, and coincided with the centennial celebration of the Meiji Restoration.

Japanese authors of the modern period have been well aware of both their own long, rich literary tradition and new ideas about content, form, and style available from the West. Kawabata was no exception; his work has been influenced by both traditions, and is widely read in the West as well as in Japan.

Kawabata is best known in the United States for novels such as Snow Country, A Thousand Cranes, and The Sound of the Mountain, but he also wrote many very short stories — a form he called tanagokoro no shôsetsu ( "palm-of-the-hand stories"). These short narratives are less concerned with plot, or story line, than with depicting momentary experiences and feelings that have wider meanings.

As you read the following story, written in l945 just at the end of World War II, try to think about what each little incident means to the main character, Kimiko.

"The Pomegranate"

In the high wind that night the pomegranate tree was stripped of its leaves.

The leaves lay in a circle around the base.

Kimiko was startled to see it naked in the morning, and wondered at the flawlessness of the circle. She would have expected the wind to disturb it.

There was a pomegranate, a very fine one, left behind in the tree.

"Just come and look at it," she called to her mother.

"I had forgotten." Her mother glanced up at the tree and went back to the kitchen.

It made Kimiko think of their loneliness. The pomegranate over the veranda too seemed lonely and forgotten.

Two weeks or so before, her seven-year-old nephew had come visiting, and had noticed the pomegranates immediately. He had scrambled up into the tree. Kimiko had felt that she was in the presence of life.

"There is a big one up above," she called from the veranda.

"But if I pick it I can't get back down."

It was true. To climb down with pomegranates in both hands would not be easy. Kimiko smiled. He was a dear.

Until he had come the house had forgotten the pomegranate. And until now they had forgotten it again.

Then the fruit had been hidden in the leaves. Now it stood clear against the sky.

There was strength in the fruit and in the circle of leaves at the base. Kimiko went and knocked it down with a bamboo pole.

It was so ripe that the seeds seemed to force it open. They glistened in the sunlight when she laid it on the veranda, and the sun seemed to go on through them.

She felt somehow apologetic.

Upstairs with her sewing at about ten, she heard Keikichi's voice. Though the door was unlocked, he seemed to have come around to the garden. There was urgency in his voice.

"Kimiko, Kimiko!" her mother called. "Keikichi is here."

Kimiko had let her needle come unthreaded. She pushed it back into the pincushion.

"Kimiko had been saying how she wanted to see you again before you leave." Keikichi was going to war. "But we could hardly go and see you without an invitation, and you didn't come. It was good of you to come today."

She asked him to stay for lunch, but he was in a hurry.

"Well, do at least have a pomegranate. We grew it ourselves." She called up to Kimiko again.

He greeted her with his eyes, as if it were more than he could do to wait for her to come down. She stopped on the stairs.

Something warm seemed to come into his eyes, and the pomegranate fell from his hand.

They looked at each other and smiled.

When she realized that she was smiling, she flushed. Keikichi got up from the veranda.

"Take care of yourself, Kimiko."

"And you."

He had already turned away and was saying goodbye to her.

Kimiko looked on at the garden gate after he had left.

"He was in such a hurry," said her mother. "And it's such a fine pomegranate."

He had left it on the veranda.

Apparently he had dropped it as that warm something came into his eyes and he was beginning to open it. He had not broken it completely in two. It lay with the seeds up.

Her mother took it to the kitchen and washed it, and handed it to Kimiko.

Kimiko frowned and pulled back, and then, flushing once more, took it in with some confusion.

Keikichi would seem to have taken a few seeds from the edge.

With her mother watching her, it would have been strange for Kimiko to refuse to eat. She bit nonchalantly into it. The sourness filled her mouth. She felt a kind of sad happiness, as if it were penetrating far down inside her.

Uninterested, her mother had stood up.

She went to a mirror and sat down. "Just look at my hair, will you. I said goodbye to Keikichi with this wild mop of hair."

Kimiko could hear the comb.

"When your father died," her mother said softly, "I was afraid to comb my hair. When I combed my hair I would forget what I was doing. When I came to myself it would be as if your father were waiting for me to finish."

Kimiko remembered her mother's habit of eating what her father had left on his plate.

She felt something pull at her, a happiness that made her want to weep.

Her mother had probably given her the pomegranate because of a reluctance to throw it away. Only because of that. It had become a habit not to throw things away.

Alone with her private happiness, Kimiko felt shy before her mother.

She thought that it had been a better farewell than Keikichi could have been aware of, and that she could wait any length of time for him to come back.

She looked toward her mother. The sun was falling on the paper doors beyond which she sat at her mirror.

She was somehow afraid to bite into the pomegranate on her knee.

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, in Contemporary Japanese Literature, edited by Howard Hibbett (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1977), 293-295. Reprinted by permission of the translator.

Discussion Questions & Writing Exercise

  1. Early in the story the solitary pomegranate in the tree "made Kimiko think of their loneliness." Why? Is there anything later in the story that tells why they — Kimiko and her mother — feel lonely?
  2. What does the pomegranate symbolize in the story? Why do you think Kimiko "was somehow afraid to bite into" it? Is there any connection between that and her mother's recollection about combing her hair?
  3. Remember that Keikichi was "going to war"; does anything else in the story indicate that it takes place during wartime?
  4. Try to think of some small incident in your own life that was unimportant in itself, but made you think about more significant things. See if you can write a short "palm-of-the-hand" story about it.