Sôseki’s Kokoro

Sôseki Natsume  (1867-1916) was the most influential Japanese novelist of the Meiji period, the span of which was almost the same as Sôseki’s (1868–1912). Emperor Meiji’s death is more than noticed in the tripartite novel that is widely considered Natsume’s mature masterpiece (if less loved than his early I Am a Cat and Botchan), Kokoro, which was serialized in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun between April and August 1914.


The newish (2010) Penguin Classics translation by Meredith McKinney (who also translated the Pillowbook of Sei Shônogon and Sôsekis Kusamakura for them) retains the Japanese title, Kokoro, which means “heart” in the sense of heartfelt feelings.

In the first, and IMO most compelling part, “Sensei and I,” a never-named narrator who is a Tokyo university student relates his relationship with a married university graduate who has no official position or any admirers or followers other than the narrator. The older and seemingly wiser man is embarrassed to be called “sensei” (master, or at least someone who is looked up to for his mastery), but advises the open-hearted younger admirer, even while trying to guard himself against the later disappointment he is certain will come when the younger man revolts and throws off his admiration, which will make the older one even lonelier than he was before the stimulus of a young admirer. Living in a “new age of freedom” has left the sensei a superfluous man, educated but idle.

Feudalism is further in the past for the student, though he also has difficulty finding footing, in relation to his family and society, but also to the sensei with a sorrow he refuses to share or explain. In an era that especially prized sincerity (particularly in judging fiction) but also valued self-restraint, the younger man is frustrated, by his family’s inability to understand him and the times, but also at the sensei’s circumspection, which the youth interprets as withholding the key to the sensei’s ideas.


It does not take much perspicacity from the reader to suspect than the sensei’s monthly visits to a grave is related to his sadness and ennui. Other than buying books, the sensei lives frugally but comfortably on his inheritance with a devoted wife who is saddened by her inability to make her husband happy.

In the brief second part, “My Parents and I,” after his graduation, the narrator returns to his rural home, where his father is dying of kidney disease. The sensei urged him to get his father to specify division of the estate and cautions the very unworldly youth that when money and land ownership are involved, heretofore good-seeming people often act ignobly.

It is no surprise to learn in “Sensei’s Testament,” a very long manuscript the graduate receives in the countryside, that the sensei had personal experience of a family member cheating him out of much of his inheritance. The cause of the older man’s self-doubt or self-hatred becomes obvious far in advance of its full revelation, but this did not discourage me from forging on for the full picture.

The book proceeds in installments (turned chapters) of 800±125 words. I would have been frustrated reading it over the course of 110 days (instead of two) and am unsure why Natsume did not combine some installments into longer chapters, though going on to the next chapter is no effort.

The book is a document of shocks of rapid modernization with a modicum of individualism (though, as with Botchan, it debunks rural virtue and has the urbanized more innocent than crafty rural folk). Neither the sensei nor his dead friend lived up to their ideals. In that Japan is the prototypical “shame culture,” I was struck by how both the sensei and his long-dead friend K were guilt-ridden. Both were haunted by personal failures that were not publicly known, thus not occasions for shame.

Though self-critical, the narrator remains pretty guileless and does not return with any comment after opening the sensei’s apologia pro vita sua, addressed to his young admirer. The reader of the novel has no basis for judging what, if anything, the narrator learned and applied from the cautionary text of which he was the first reader. Having understood how burdensome carrying guilt is, there is no guarantee he will escape it.

I gather that betrayal is a Sôseki leitmotif. It is certainly central to the two Natsume novels I have read, his second (Botchan) and penultimate completed one (Kokoro). The betrayals are not solely of cultural codes for righteous behavior and honor, but of their own self-concepts, however unrealistic and priggish these seem. (Botchan’s were also unrealistic, perhaps, but not as rigorist).

BTW, the novel has been adapted to the screen by two great Japanese masters of cinema, Ichikawa Kon in 1955 and Kaneto Shindo in 1973. I’d wonder how much of the sensibility of the narrators was filmable, but Ichikawa wrought wonders with Mishima’s Temple of the Gold Pavilion as “Enjo” (1958).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The orgami of a thousand-yen note with Natsume on it is an homage to his first hit, I Am a Cat.



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