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by Bamber Gascoigne

Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916)


Japanese novelist and essayist, a master of psychological fiction. Sōseki's best-known works include Kokoro (1914), a story about loneliness and friendship of a young student and his mentor, referred to as the honorific title of "Sensei". Also Botchan (1906) has been one of the most read novels in Japan. Several of Sōseki's books examined problems of the modernization of his country. Along with Ogai Mori (1862-1922), Sōseki is considered to be the father of Modernism in Japanese literature. His portrait appeared on the 1000 yen note from 1984 to 2004.

"I always called him "Sensei." I shall therefore refer to him simply as "Sensei," and not by his real name. It is not because I consider it more discreet, but it is because I find it more natural that I do so. Whenever the memory of him comes back to me now, I find that I think of him as "Sensei" still. And with my pen in hand, I cannot bring myself to write of him in any other way." (from Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, translated from the Japanese and with a foreword by Edwin McClellan, Gateway Editions, 2022, p. 1)

Natsume Sōseki, usually referred to as Sōseki, was born Natsume Kinnosuke in Edo (nowadays Tokyo) into a minor samurai family. He was the last of six childred, born when his father, Naokatsu, was relatively old, fifty-three, and his mother, forty. Soseki's father, a well-to-do townsman, had held the administrative position of nanushi (neighborhood magistrate); it had been passed down in his family for several generations.

Just before Sōseki's birth, the position of nanushi had been abolished, but he was appointed kuchō, the mayor of Shinjuku ward. His parents did not want to raise an unwanted child, and at the age of two, Sōseki was placed with a childless couple named Shiobara Shōnosuke, and his wfe, Yasu. At the age of six, he contracted smallpox; this scarred his cheeks and nose. "My master's face is pockmarked," said the feline narrator in I Am a Cat. (Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist by John Nathan, 2018, p. 5)

Seven years later Sōseki was sent back to his real parents. "They did not pet me as parents do their youngest children," Sōseki recalled. "I remember particularly that my father treated me rather harshly". (Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Sōseki by Angela Yiu, 1998, p. 167) His mother died when he was fourteen. Later in his books Sōseki often dealt with the relationship between parents and their children.

Sōseki grew up in period of great changes in Japan's culture and society. Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in Edo Bay in 1854 had marked the "opening" of Japan by the West. Sōseki's family lost its former position as a result of the Meiji Restration, which aimed to create a more centralized and westernized state. Declining interest in traditional culture was accompanied by the rise of modern Japanese language.

Sōseki attended schools in Tokyo. His early career was marked by relative ambivalence toward English. "When I was at high school," Sōseki once wrote, "my specialty was idling: I did very little work." ('An Introduction to Sōseki' by Edwin McClellan, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 22, Dec., 1959, pp. 150-208)

At the age of nineteen, Sōseki met the writer Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who encouraged him to write. He also adopted the pen name Sōseki, which replaced his given name. Ill from tuberculosis, Masaoka convalesced in 1895 at Natsume Sōseki's two-storied cottage in the city Matsuyama, adjoined by a celebrated hot spring resort. Sōseki spent there a year as a middle-school teacher of English language.

Sōseki studied English at Tokyo Imperial University. As a student he was extremely scrupulous and dutiful, and suffered during this period his first nervous breakdown. "For three years I studied, and at the end I still did not know what literature was." ('My Individualism,' translated by Jay Rubin, in Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings by Sōseki Natsume, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy, 2009, p. 248)

In 1892 Sōseki became a staff member of Tetsugaku Zasshi. After graduating in 1893, he worked as a teacher at Tokyo Normal College (1894-1895) and in a middle school in Matsuyama. In 1896 he married Kyoko Nakane, the daugter of a high civil servant, and settled in Kumamoto.

Leaving a pregnant wife and daughter, Sōseki went to England in 1900 on a government scholarship. He stayed in London two and a half lonely years, in run-down boarding houses, eating miserable meals in cheap cafés. Hins countrymen in London rumored that he had gone mad. Nevertheless, his time Sōseki spent usefully, writing, reading, and starting to develop a literary theory in which he tried to combine Japanese tradition with western psychological approach.

On returning to Japan, Sōseki realized that his relatives believed that he was still insane. Succeeding the American writer Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), he became professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, where he lectured on literary theory and English literature. In compiling Bungakuron (1907, Theory of Literature), Sōseki made use of various sources, including William James's Principles of Psychology (1890), which he had purchased in London. The  work originated from Sōseki's lectures at the university (1903-5). His reflections of  England were published in the Asahi newspaper in 1909.

Sōseki's first major work of fiction was the anecdotal Wagahai wa neko de aru (1905, I Am a Cat), written from the viewpoint of a former alley cat; "it was thanks to my neurasthenia and to my madness that I was able to compose Cat, produce Drifting in Space, and publish Quail Cage." (A Fictional Commons: Natsume Sōseki and the Properties of Modern Literature by Michael K. Bourdaghs, 2021, p. 51) Mr. Kushami (Mr. Sneeze) the owner of the pet, is a self-ironic portrait of the writer. The story, which first appeared in the literary magazine Hotoguisu between 1905-06 and was then expanded into a novel, gained a huge success. Soseki himself had during his lifetime several feline companions.

In Botchan, which takes place in Matsuyama although the city is not named explicitly, Sōseki reviewed to his experiences as a teacher. "Ever since I was a child, my inherent recklessness had brought me nothing but trouble," reveals the bumbling young protagonist in the beginning. His mother favors his elder brother and his father never shows him any affection, saying "he'll never amount to anything." The novel takes its title from the nickname of the narrator, who has a rebellious spirit and who is as determinant in his rejection of petty pretensions as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. Botchan can be translated as "the young master" or "sonny." All the other major characters have a nickname, too, exept Kiyo, who is the devoted maidservant of the family; her name in itself means "pure, clean".

As a type - the misfit - Botchan appeared in different roles in several following novels. In Nowaki (1907) he is a poor young man dying of tuberculosis, in the partly humorous Sanshiro (1908) a shy provincial youth, and in Kofu (1908) a young man who runs away from home. Yume juya (1908, Ten Nights of Dream) consisted of ten poetic stories purpoting to be dreams. It has been said, that modern Japanese fantasy began with these tales.

In 1907 Sōseki retired from his university post - a decision which shocked his contemporaries. He then worked as the literary of editor of the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. His early works had been satirical and humorous, but from Kofu (1908, The Miner) his tales began to have dark tones, and his attachment to the pre-modern (Edo) period became more evident.

Between 1905 and 1916, Sōseki wrote 14 novels. One of his central themes was the conflict between individual needs and the demands of society. Often his characters suffer from feelings guilt and of alienation after acting against the wishes of their family and traditional values. His later stand towards these dilemmas Sōseki expressed in the slogan sokuten kyoshi (following heaven and abandoning self).

When the Ministry of Education offered him a doctoral degree, Sōseki refused to accept the honour. In 'My Individualism' (Watakushi no Kojinshugi), a lecture delivered on 25 November 1914 to the students of the Gakushuin, an elite academy, he said: "... a nationalist morality comes out a very poor second when compared with an individualistic morality. Nations have always been most punctilious over the niceties of diplomatic language, but not so with the morality of their actions." ('My Individualism,' translated by Jay Rubin, in Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings by Sōseki Natsume, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy, 2009, p. 263)

Natsume Sōseki died of stomach ulcer on December 9, 1916 in Tokyo. Before his lecture, Sōseki had said in a letter that he believed "death to be man's last and greatest happiness." ('Sōseki on Individualism: 'Watakushi no Kojinshugi'' by Jay Rubin, Monumenta Nipponica, Spring, 1979, Vol. 34, No. 1, p. 23) His last work, Meian, was left unfinished. Michikusa (1915, Grass on the Wayside) was an autobiographical work dealing with marriage problems.

Sōseki is still widely read and his major works of fiction have been translated into English, some of them several times. Kokoro was first published in serialized form in Asahi Shimbun. Four of his earlier novels had appeared in the literary journal Hototogisu between 1905 and 1907.

The important characters in Kokoro, in which Soseki used multiple narrators, do not have full names. They are abstractly referred as K, who is Sensei's friend, or Ojosan, Young Lady, the daughter of a widow who runs a boarding-house. Sensei, a term of respect, can be translated as a "teacher" or "master." The characters are representatives of a certain period but at the same time they are individuals, with distinct personalities. "Kokoro" may be translated in many ways, from "heart" or "mind", to "soul," "spirit," and "intention."' Lafcadio Hearn rendered it "the heart of things."

The first two sections are narrated by a young man referred to as "I". At the beginning of the story he sees the Sensei with a foreigner on a beach. "I was a bored young man then, and for lack of anything better to do, I went to the tea house the following day at exactly the same hour, hoping to see Sensei again." Although the narrator gets to know Sensei and his wife better, Sensei's cryptic remarks remain an enigma to him. "But remember, there is guilt in loving," Sensei says once to him. "And remember too that, in loving, there is something sacred." The second part focuses on the narrator and his father, who is dying. The narrator has graduated and his father confesses, "I am glad, not so much for your sake, as for my own." In the third part Sensei, an embittered intellectual, tells in a letter about his past and uncovers events that culminate in K's suicide. To his young friend he writes: "You and I belong to different eras, and so we think differently. There is nothing we can do to bridge the gap between us." Sensei has been betrayed by his relatives, and he betrays K. For decades he has lived as if he were dead. Eventually Sensei decides to follow the example of General Nogi Maresuke - General Nogi killed himself in the old samurai fashion after the death of his master, the Emperor Meiji, who reigned from 1868 to 1912. All this cast its shadow on the story of the era with which Sōseki identified himself.

For further reading: Beauty Matters: Modern Japanese Literature and the Question of Aesthetics, 1890-1930 by Anri Yasuda (2024); 'Suomentajan jälkisanat', teoksessa Unta kymmenen yötä ja muita kertomuksia, suomennos Aleksi Järvelä (2023); A Fictional Commons: Natsume Sōseki and the Properties of Modern Literature by Michael K. Bourdaghs (2021); Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist by John Nathan (2018); Natsume Soseki and English Men of Letters by Kenshiro Homma (2010); Reflections in a Glass Door: Memory and Melancholy in the Personal Writings of Natsume Sōseki by Marvin Marcus (2009) ; Parallelisms in the Literary Vision of Sin by Tsutomu Takahashi (2003); A Readers Guide to Japanese Literature by J. Thomas Rimer (1999); Rereading Soseki by R.E. Auestad (1999); 'Natsume Soseki' by Kohl W. Steogeb, in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, edited by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Soseki by Angela P. Yiu (1998); 'Natsume Soseki 1867-1916' by Dennis C. Washburn, in Encyclopedia of the Novel, vol. 2, ed. by Paul Schellinger (1998); Dilemma of the Modern in Japanese Fiction by Dennis Washburn (1995); Complicit Fiction: The Subject in the Modern Japanese Prose Fiction by James Fujii (1993); The World of Natsume Soseki, ed. by Takehisa Iijima and James M. Vardaman Jr. (1987); The Psychological World of Natsume Soseki by by T. Doi (1976); Die Beziehungen Natsume Soseki's zuem Kreis der Shaseibun-Schrifteller by K. Walzock (1975); Accomplices in Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel by M. Miyoshi (1974); Natasume Soseki by B. Yu (1969); Two Japanese Novelists: Soseki and Toson by E. McClellan (1969); Japanese Thought in Meiji Era by M. Kosaka (1958); Japanese Literature in the Meiji Era by Y. Okazaki (1955) - Note: In some souces Natsume's birthdate is January 5, 1867; in this Authors' Calendar February 9, 1867)

Selected works:

  • Eibungaku Keishiki Ron, 1903
  • Rondon tō, 1905
    - Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London (translated and introduced by Damian Flanagan, 2005)
  • Shumi no iden, 1905
    - The Heredity of Taste (translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu, 2004)
  • Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1905-06
    - I Am a Cat (translators: Katsue Shibata and Motonari Kai, 1961; Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson, 1972; Kanichi Ando, 1989)
    - film: Wagahai wa neko de aru, 1975, dir. by Kon Ichikawa, screenplay by Toshio Yasumi, starring Tatsuya Nakadai
  • Nihyaku toka, 1906
    - 210th Day ( translated by Sammy Tsunemalsu, 2002)
  • Yokyoshu, 1906
  • Uzurakogo, 1906
  • Botchan, 1906
    - Botchan (translated by Yasotaro Morri, rev. by J.R. Kennedy, 1919; Umeji Sasaki, 1922; Alan Turney, 1972; Joel Cohn, 2005)
    -  films: Botchan, 1935, dir. by Kajirô Yamamoto, starring Kamatari Fujiwara, Toshiko Itô, Sadao Maruyama; Botchan, 1953, dir. by Seiji Maruyama, starring Ryô Ikebe, Mariko Okada, Hisaya Morishige, Eitarô Ozawa
  • Kusamakura, 1906
    - Unhuman Tour (translated by Kazutomo Takahashi, 1927) / The Three-Cornered World (translated by Alan Turney, 1965) / Kusamakuru (translated by Meredith McKinney, 2008) 
  • Nowaki, 1907
    - Nowaki (translated and with an afterword and chronology by William N. Ridgeway, 2011)
  • Bungakuron, 1907
  • Yume juya, 1908
    - Ten Nights' Dream (translation and notes with comments by Takumi Kashima and Loretta R. Lorenz, 1908) / Ten Nights' Dreams & Our Cat's Grave (translated by Sankichi Hata and Dofu Shirai, 1949) / Ten Nights of Dream (translated by Ayako Into and Graeme Wilson, 1974)
    - Unta kymmenen yötä (suom. Aleksi Järvelä, teoksessa Unta kymmenen yötä ja muita kertomuksia, 2023)
    - film: Yumejuya: Kaizokuban, 2006, dir. by Jissoji Akio, Shimizu Atsushi, Toyoshima Keisuke, Ichikawa Kon, Nishikawa Miwa, Yamashita Nobuhiro, Matsuo Suzuki, Shimizu Takashi, Amano Yoshitaka, Yamaguchi Yudai
  • Gubijonso, 1908
    - film: Gubijinsô, 1941, prod. by prod. Toho Eiga (Tokyo), dir. by Nobuo Nakagawa, screenplay by Hanzô Sakurada
  • Kofu, 1908
    - The Miner (translated by Jay Rubin, 1988)
  • Sanshiro, 1908 (translated by Jay Rubin, 1977)
  • Bungaku Hyoron, 1909
  • Eijitsu Shohin, 1909
    - Spring Miscellany and London Essays (translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu, 2002)
    - Kevätvalon tarinoita (suom. Aleksi Järvelä, teoksessa Unta kymmenen yötä ja muita kertomuksia, 2023)
  • Sorekara, 1910
    - And Then (translated by Norma Moore Field, 1978)
    - film: Sorekara, 1986, dir. by Yoshimitsu Morita, starring Yûsaku Matsuda, Miwako Fujitani, Kaoru Kobayashi, Morio Kazama, Chishû Ryû
  • Mon, 1911
    - The Gate (translated by Francis Mathy, 1972; William F. Sibley, introduction by Pico Iyer, 2013)
  • Higan Sugi made, 1912
    - To the Spring Equinox and Beyond (translated by Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein, 1985)
  • Shakai to Jibun, 1913
  • Kojin, 1914
    - The Wayfarer (translated by Beongcheon Yu, 1967) / The Wanderer (tr. 1967)
  • Kokoro, 1914
    - Kokoro (translated by Ineko Sato, 1941; Ineko Kondon, 1950; Edwin McClellan, 1957; Meredith McKinney, 2010)
    - Kokoro (translated into Finnish by Kai Nieminen, 1985)
    - films: Kokoro, 1955, dir. by by Kon Ichikawa, starring Masayuki Mori, Michiyo Aratama, Tatsuya Mihashi; Kokoro, 1973, dir. by Kaneto Shindô, starring Noboru Matsuhashi, Kazunaga Tsuji, Anri
  • Michikusa, 1915
    - Grass on the Wayside (translated by Edwin McClellan, 1969)
  • Garasudo no naka, 1915
    - Within My Grass Doors (translated by I Matsuyhara and E.T. Iglehart, 1928)
  • Meian, 1917
    - Light and Darkness (translated by V.H. Viglielmo, 1971) / Light and Dark: a Novel (translated, with an introduction by John Nathan, 2014)
  • Soseki Zenshu, 1917 (14 vols.)
  • Ten Nights' Dream, and Our Cat's Grave, 1934
  • Ten Nights' Dreams & Our Cat's Grave, 1949 (translated by Sankichi Hata and Dofu Shirai)
  • Zenshu, 1956-59 (34 vols., edited by Komiya Toyataka)
  • Soseki zenshu, 1965-67 (16. vols)
  • Ten Nights of Dream, Hearing Things, The Heredity Taste, 1974
  • Zen Haiku: Poems and Letters of Natsume Soseki, 1994 (translated by Soiku Shigematsu)
  • Rediscovering Natsume Soseki, 2001 (translated by Sammy Tsunemalsu)
  • Kusamakuru, 2008 (Penguin Classics; translated with an Introduction and Notes by Meredith McKinney)
  • Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings, 2009 (edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy)
  • Ten Nights Dreaming; and, The Cat's Grave, 2015 (a new English translation by Matt Treyvaud; foreword by Michael Emmerich; introduction by Susan Napier)
  • Kokoro, 2022 (Gateway Editions; translated from the Japanese and with a foreword by Edwin McClellan; originally published 1957)

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