Kishotenketsu: a literary genre to create thinkers, or does it matter?

Kishotenketsu: a literary genre to create thinkers, or does it matter?

Kyōto : Japan | Jul 03, 2012 at 2:43 PM PDT
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Japanese writers are trained in a literary technique called kishotenketsu that is entirely different in structure from stories written in the Western literary model with conflict and pronounced outcome. In kishotenketsu the supporting points loop around the main point without creating a linear argument. The points are intended to only obliquely reference the main point, it is up to the reader to infer how this relates to the implied main thesis.

There is no firm conclusion, only an ambiguous ending that might point to several possible outcomes. Again, it is up to the reader to form their own conclusion. Perhaps one of the best examples of kishotenketsu is the Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon. The movie explains a crime from the point of view of four different people, each of them claim to have committed the crime. We see the crime repeated four times with subtle variations, but in the end there is no clear indication of who really is the criminal, and the viewer must decide. But is that possible given in this case four variables? I saw the movie a long time ago, and honestly I could not decide, but many might have believed they could.

Another movie incorporating this genre is Woman in the Dunes critically acclaimed and said to be ahead of its time, but in fact it radiates the ancient genre kishotenketsu.

This is the poetic beauty of kishotenketsu. It lets the reader or viewer join the writer, which is the ultimate consummation of any reader/writer relationship. Eudora Welty called this the “confluence of minds” moving each of us to discover and experience meeting points when separate journeys converge.

The poetry of kishotenketsu also relies many times on an elliptical thematic structure which is evoked in Woman in the Dunes metaphorically and confounds by challenging the ability of the viewer to discern information in uncertainty. The reader must use their intellect to derive conclusions, but is this reliable to presume?

How do humans make decisions?

Psychologists believe the human mind has two systems for decision-making: intuitive and reasoning. The intuitive system is emotional, fast, automatic but slow-learning, while the reasoning system is emotionally-neutral, slow, controlled, and rule-governed. Neither, of course, is always right, but there are certain simple problems that reveal flaws in intuition.

A classic example that scientists have often use is this math problem: A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Your intuitive system may quickly tell you that the ball costs 10 cents. That would be an easy solution, but it would also be incorrect. See the answer here.

Humans are good at lower-level, nonlinguistic tasks, while perhaps not so good at higher-level probability problems involving words, according to studies.

The reader-writer relationship

Still, kishotenketsu as a literary genre is provocative and the focus is the journey the reader and writer take together. Kishōtenketsu consists of just four basic stages: Introduction, Development, Twist, and Conclusion. Stories using the kishōtenketsu structure convey seemingly disconnected events that are tied together by the conclusion of the story. The distinguishing feature of kishōtenketsu is the element of surprise brought on by the twist.

In addition to the movie Rashomon, one short story is an interesting Western example to apply the kishōtenketsu story structure to is Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour (1894). In Chopin’s short story, considered unconventional when published, the reader becomes an intimate witness to Louise’s inner emotional struggle upon learning that she has been widowed by a train wreck. As she regains her composure and even acceptance of her new situation, the twist is revealed:

1. Introduction

Louise hears that her husband died in a train crash.

2. Development

Louise comes to terms with the death and pictures a less constricted future for herself.

3. Twist

Louise’s husband walks in the front door.

4. Conclusion

Louise falls down dead


Kishotenketsu is found in both ancient Japanese and Chinese writing and originated from four line poem structure. It is considered high art in many languages and is called a quatrain in English, Spanish and Persian et al writing, but the genre maintains the four part structure through which a theme develops.

The great Russian writers like Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky might take issue with the uncertainty of kishotenketsu as their search for revelation demanded a well routed story with a beginning, middle and end. Kishotenketsu, however, weaves back into itself and challenges the reader to enter the story knowing they cannot rely on linear development, for the beauty and poetry is the unknowable.


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maple tree
The human imagination is the most beautiful landscrape.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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  • Paraversum: Kishotenketsu
    For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishōtenketsu.


  • 	The human imagination is the most beautiful landscrape.

    maple tree

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