Kokoro

Kokoro

Title: Kokoro
Japanese Title: こゝろ
Author: Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石)
Translator: Edwin McClellan
Publication Year: 1957 (America); 1914 (Japan)
Publisher: Regency Publishing
Pages: 248

When I first started studying Japanese literature in college, Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro was one of the first modern novels I read. I remember being disappointed and a bit confused by it, however. Sōseki is one of the major figures in the Japanese literary canon, if not in fact the major figure. His early novel Botchan (坊っちゃん, 1905, recently translated by Joel Cohn) has been required reading for generations of Japanese schoolchildren, and his portrait used to grace the one thousand yen bill. A quick search on Google will turn up numerous syllabi for courses in Japanese literature that all begin with Kokoro. In short, this novel is kind of a big deal.

So why then, when I first read it, was I so disappointed? In short, I couldn’t help thinking, “Is this it?” Kokoro contains few lyrical passages, few descriptions of landscape, season, architecture, interior, or dress. Perhaps as a result, there is also no overt or sustained system of imagery. No light, no sound, no water, no heat. Of course I am exaggerating a bit (there are two memorable passages that occur in a tree nursery and by the seashore, respectively), but this novel boasts none of the opulent attention to detail that, in my mind at least, characterizes a great deal of Japanese literature.

There is also very little plot. The novel is divided into three sections. The first, “Sensei and I,” details the meeting and deepening friendship between an unnamed narrator (“Watakushi”) and an older man who he calls “Sensei.” In the second section, “My Parents and I,” the narrator has graduated from college in Tokyo and returns to his home in the countryside to be with his dying father. The third section, “Sensei and His Testament,” consists of a letter that Sensei has sent the protagonist explaining his past, his melancholy, and his decision to commit suicide after the death of the Meiji emperor. Kokoro ends with the conclusion of Sensei’s letter, and the reader is given no indication as to whether the narrator of the first two sections is able to make it to Tokyo in time to save Sensei or whether his father dies during his absence.

Although every single character in the novel is otherwise fully fleshed out as a believable human being, none of them seem to reflect archetypes familiar to a Western reader. In fact, Kokoro offers very little in terms of allusions and therefore might tend to come off as a bit shallow and one dimensional. Sure, there are some topical references to the death of the Meiji Emperor and the death of General Nogi, who committed suicide to “follow his master” out of an anachronistic sense of honor, but I wonder how deeply the reader is supposed to consider these references. The theme of the passing of an age is intriguing, but far from fully developed in the novel.

So why this novel one of the great classics of Japanese literature? Although I was frustrated the first time I read it, I think I am finally beginning to understand its appeal. Much of the literary writing in the Meiji period (1868-1912), such as Tayama Katai’s “The Quilt” (布団, 1907) and Shimazaki Tōson’s Broken Commandment (破壊, 1906), was concerned with the literary philosophy of Naturalism, which in Japan took the form of an attempt to realistically depict the psychology of a modern individual. The narrative style of such works was often stilted and noticeably stylized (despite their claims of realism). To me, Kokoro is an amazing work in that the narrative style actually feels quite “natural” in a Western way; at no point is the reader made aware of the fact that he or she is reading a novel. In other words, Sōseki was able to take the Japanese language and the concept of Japanese literature and do with them something that no one had done before.

What will appeal to the reader, then, are passages that a first time reader (such as myself in college) might not notice simply because they are so natural. When the narrator returns to his parents’ home, for example, he remarks that coming home from school is nice for the first week or two, but then the novelty wears off both for the student, who misses his friends, and for the parents, who begin to nag him. I couldn’t help smiling a bit when I read this. Moreover, the tragic past revealed by Sensei is his letter is believable but also, perhaps because it is so low-key, quite heart-wrenching. I feel that takes a master writer to avoid melodrama when working with such material, and Sōseki handles his subject matter beautifully.

All in all, Kokoro is worth reading not merely because it is a monument of Japanese literature but because of the sheer quality of the writing (and McClellan’s excellent translation). In any case, I found it very satisfying, and I’m glad I re-read it.

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