It’s time to learn a little something about the man who was on the 1000 yen bill for twenty years.
Natsume Sōseki (1867 – 1916) is unarguably one of Japan’s most well-loved novelists. He is so well-loved, in fact, that Kokoro, his most famous novel, is taught across Japanese middle schools. Most Japanese citizens will have read a Sōseki novel at least once in their lifetime.
I first encountered Sōseki as a university undergraduate student learning Japanese history. Sōseki’s work is key for understanding modern Japanese history; his works capture the soul of the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) like no other. From his earlier, lighter novels like I Am a Cat and Botchan to his later, more somber works like Kokoro and Sorekara, Sōseki’s writing displays extraordinary depth and insight into a rapidly modernising Japan. Sōseki was one of the early modern Japanese novelists who was part of the Civilization and Enlightenment movement (bunmei kaika). Through his travels and studies, he became very familiar with Western ideas and literature. His keen interest and ambivalence about the tensions between Western and Japanese cultures would play a part in all of his major works.
Yet although Sōseki was a highly educated man who understood Western literature better than perhaps any other novelist in his day, his greatest accomplishment as a writer was something much more deeply personal: he understood loneliness.
It was this quality of his writing that drew me to his work. Those who have read him may understand how I felt the first time I read Kokoro. I could feel loneliness etched across every word and sentence. I could feel it in the sparse prose and I could hear it in the conversations. Kokoro is a haunting story that will likely leave a deep impression on some readers.
Given the enormous influence and resonance of Kokoro, it’s not surprising to see it referenced in pop culture from time to time. There’s even an anime adaptation, for those so inclined.
What prompted me to write this post, though, was translating volume 4 of Oregairu, which contains a book report about Kokoro. Several aspects of it will need explaining for those who haven’t grown up with Kokoro or studied it. I think Sōseki is of more general interest, though, so I hope you’ll get something out of this short essay even if you’re not an Oregairu reader.
To start with, here’s some of the book report in question:
Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro is clearly a novel about loners.
Triggering a flag does not lead to a happy ending. Someone may understand you, but you cannot achieve true intimacy. Love and friendship cannot soothe loneliness.
Even without context, you might get the impression that the writer of this book report is a pretentious brat in middle school. After all, what is life but a dating sim?
He goes on:
There is nothing that can be done about feelings of alienation. Sōseki referred to it as sabishisa (loneliness of the heart), but we of this modern era have grown accustomed to this sabishisa. We have accepted it as a fact of life. Or perhaps one ought to call it the building block of the individual spirit.
At this point, Sōseki’s ideas need some explanation.
For those of you who know Japanese, sabishisa is a commonplace word. It’s ordinarily spelt as 寂しさ. Sōseki spelled it as 淋しさ. In the various English translations of Kokoro, it’s rendered most commonly as “lonely”, but also as “sad”, “forlorn” and “melancholy”.
寂しさ and 淋しさ are almost interchangeable meaning-wise, though 淋しさ refers more specifically to inner loneliness rather than physical loneliness. Every main character in Kokoro describes themselves as 淋しい at least once, from the protagonist and his father to Sensei and Okusan. Loneliness in the world of Kokoro is something everyone has experienced intimately, though naturally it is Sensei’s deep, unending loneliness that takes center stage. This culminates eventually in his suicide.
Sōseki was particularly fixated on inner loneliness as a product of the modern era. This, to him, was inextricably tied to what he deemed the “individual spirit”. In his famous speech “My Individualism”, he states thus:
Simply stated, individualism is a philosophy that replaces cliquism with values based on personal judgement of what is right and wrong. An individualist is not forever running with the group, forming cliques that thrash around blindly in the interests of power and money. That is why there lurks beneath the surface of his philosophy a loneliness unknown to others. As soon as we deny our little groups, then I simply go my way and I let the other man go his, unhindered. Sometimes, in some instances, we cannot avoid becoming scattered. That is what is lonely.
In life, Sōseki was always a reclusive man. Though he travelled to London in 1900, he generally kept to himself and actively loathed much of London city life. It was rumoured among his writing colleagues that he went mad.
Unlike Sensei, however, Sōseki never killed himself. He eventually died of a stomach ulcer. After a near brush with death in 1910, Sōseki must have been keenly aware of his own mortality. In Kokoro, Sōseki presents us two people who are eventually driven to death through their unhappy circumstances: Sensei and the friend he betrayed, K. Yet as clear and lucid as Sensei sounds in his testimony, his ultimate motives for suicide remain slippery. It is a topic that has been hotly debated among critics since the novel’s publication.
My personal reading of Kokoro is that there was no specific reason for Sensei’s suicide. It was deep loneliness that killed him, a loneliness that he could not even quite bring himself to articulate. And yet he understood it enough to know that this was what killed K as well.
I became aware of the possibility that K had experienced loneliness as terrible as mine, and wishing to escape quickly from it, had killed himself. Once more, fear gripped my heart. From then on, like a gust of winter wind, the premonition that I was treading the same path as K had done would rush at me from time to time, and chill me to the bone.
This is the reason Kokoro is considered a novel of great psychological insight. Through various framing techniques, it accurately describes a suicidal man without ever providing a true reason behind his loneliness. In Part One, we see Sensei through the point of view of an unnamed narrator, who is strongly implied to follow in Sensei’s footsteps after the ending of the novel. Then we read Sensei’s testimony and try to reconcile our impressions of him. How much is what he saying really truth? How much about himself is unknown even to him?
Perhaps one reason for Sensei’s loneliness is that he was part of an old, dying generation, one that was rapidly losing its place in a changing world. Sensei cites General Nogi’s suicide after the funeral of the Emperor Meiji as the trigger for his own suicide. He claims to want “to die with his lord”, a motive that would certainly feel lofty and even noble to some Japanese readers, but it also rings of defeatism.
In his book report, Hachiman claims that the loneliness of the Meiji period is “a fact of life” in the modern era, though whether his cynical ideas are true or not is something best left to the individual reader. I personally think that the narrator’s sincere efforts to understand and empathise with Sensei show that we may not truly be able to understand the human heart (or kokoro), but we can attempt the next best thing. “Now,” Sensei writes to the narrator. “I myself am about to cut open my own heart, and drench your face with my blood. And I shall be satisfied if, when my heart stops beating, a new life lodges itself in your breast.”
It was Sensei’s lack of trust in other human beings that caused him to become so deeply isolated and paranoid, which is why Hachiman’s out-of-context quote from Sensei is actually quite amusing:
There is no such thing as a stereotype bad man in this world. Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary. But tempt them, and they may suddenly change. That is what is so frightening about men. One must always be on one’s guard.
This is one of the most famous lines from Kokoro. In his testament, Sensei claims that he was thinking of his uncle who betrayed him for money, but he also makes his self-loathing quite clear. Sensei hates and despises the part of himself that is capable of changing at the drop of the hat. And this is precisely what happens when he betrays K. Sensei is not a moraliser. He is not above the “ordinary” man. That is why his lack of trust is fatal, both for himself and for others.
Hachiman’s book report might be easily dismissed as the ramblings of an immature teen, although if there’s one thing the Oregairu novel does do particularly well, it’s in portraying the loneliness of self-absorption. In that sense, Hachiman is not so different from Sensei and the other characters of Kokoro. Hachiman’s pain might be something he will eventually grow out of, but his loneliness is still deeply felt.
The novel also quotes Kokoro again in chapter 4 to describe the situation of Rumi, a girl in elementary school, after she has been betrayed by her friends. Rumi is unable to clearly articulate the reasons behind her loneliness; she can only say confidently that she is “different” from the others. Yet her loneliness is something the older characters immediately understand. “We’re all equally human, after all,” Yukino says.
Even a bad essay, then, can shed some light on the universality of Sōseki’s writing. Perhaps my loneliness is different from your loneliness, but both of us can certainly point to something within ourselves we find unsettling, even if it is difficult to express clearly in words. We’ll never truly understand the inner workings of our souls, but that’s no matter. We’ll carry on as best we can.
I’ve been vague about the plot of Kokoro, but if you haven’t read it already, I definitely think you should. The English translation by Edwin McLellan (which I’ve been quoting in this post) is easy to read and accessible. You can read it online for free here. There’s also a more updated translation by Meredith McKinney published by Penguin Classics. I’ve read both translations and can recommend them.
Sōseki’s other novels are great too, though Kokoro remains my personal favourite. I recommend Botchan and Sanshiro.
In any case, I hope this could have piqued some interest in Sōseki and Japanese literary fiction. If you have any questions about Sōseki and Kokoro, feel free to ask me about it here. I’d like to write more posts about (non-light novel) Japanese literature sometime, so stay tuned to this blog. If you want to see what else I’ve written about Japanese literary greats in the meantime, you can read these two posts about Miyazawa Kenji.
Until then, see you later!