Natsume Sōseki (夏目漱石, 9 February 1867 - 9 December 1916), born Natsume Kinnosuke (夏目 金之助), was a novelist and a scholar of English literature whose works focused on the transformation of Japan from a backward country to a modern nation by scrutinising its civilisation and society and describing the plight of Japanese intellectuals caught between the contradictions of tradition and modernism. His most famous novels I Am A Cat, Botchan, and Kokoro have attained international fame. He is seen as one of the most eminent novelists in modern Japanese literature.

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Sōseki was born in Ushigome (modern-day Shinjuku, Tōkyō) the fifth son and the eighth and last child of Natsume Kohyōe Naokatsu, a nanushi (名主, village headman) and his wife, Chie. Unwelcome by his parents who saw his late birth as a social embarrassment, he was sent to a foster family, the Shiobara, former servants of the Natsume who were childless.

Due to marital issues between the Shiobara, Sōseki went back and forth between the two houses, only to return to his birth parents when the Shiobara got divorced at last. His mother passed away when he was 14 years old, and his two brothers died of pneumonia five years later, in 1887, contributing to his sense of insecurity.

His early education included intensive studies of Chinese poetry and fiction from the Tang and the Song periods. It was his encounter with classical Chinese literature that first sparked his interest in becoming a writer. In September 1884, he was accepted at the college of Tokyo University, and in 1888, he enrolled in English literature at the First Upper Middle School (later to be known as Tokyo Imperial University).

It was there that he met Masaoka Shiki (正岡子規, 14 October 1867 - 19 September 1902) who had entered the university at the same time and would influence Sōseki and encourage his literary aspirations. Masaoka taught him how to compose haiku.

Although he felt tormented by "a feeling of insecurity as if deceived by English literature," he stayed on two more years as a graduate student and part-time teacher. In 1895, he taught at Matsuyama Middle School in Ehime, and in the following year at the Fifth Higher School in Kumamoto.

In 1900, Sōseki went to England as a government student. He studied at University College London but soon suffered serious bouts of depression because of poverty and solitude. He later recalled his two years in London as the most unpleasant in his life. As a result of his torments, however, he gradually formed the framework of his work Bungakuron (1907, Literary Theory) which described as being based "on the resolution to think of oneself first". He returned to Japan in 1903 and replaced Lafcadio Hearn at the First Higher School and Tōkyō University lecturing on literary theory and literary criticism.

Sōseki continued to contribute haiku, renku (haiku-style linked poetry), haitaishi (similar to renku but with a set theme), and shaseibun (literary sketches) to Hototogisu (ホトトギス), a haiku periodical founded by his friend Masaoka Shiki in 1897 that still exists to this day. During that period, the first part of his novel Wagahai wa neko de aru (1905, I am a Cat) completed in 1904 was well received by other members of Hototogisu and printed in the January issue. This encouraged Sōseki to write more fiction. He continued to release the novel in instalments and wrote short stories such as "Rondon Tō" (1905, London Tower). In 1906, he released Botchan (Little Master) and Kusamakura ("Grass Pillow", published in English as The Three-Cornered World) which established his reputation as a novelist. A year later, he decided to devote himself completely to writing and quit all his teaching jobs. He joined the Asahi newspaper and wrote approximately one novel a year during that time.

During a summer vacation at the Shuzenji hot springs in 1910, Sōseki started to vomit blood from a gastric ulcer. He remained bed-ridden until the following year. During his illness, he wrote Omoidasu koto nado (1911, Things I Recall, Etc) which deals with his experiences of being close to death. Despite his ill health, he continued to write. He took a strong interest in the new generation of writers supporting members of the Shirakaba School (白樺派) and other literary circles.

In Sōseki's final years, writers such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke (芥川龍之介, 1892-1927), Kume Masao (久米正雄, 1891-1952), and Matsuoka Yuzuru (松岡譲, 1891-1969) became followers of his literary principles. They created a circle later generations called the "Sōseki mountain range". Sōseki died in 1916, and it was noted that his obituaries in the press were much longer than those of Field Marshall Ōyama Iwao, one of the founders of the Imperial Japanese Army who had died one day later.

Works:


  • I Am a Cat (1905, 吾輩は猫である Wagahai wa Neko dearu): a humorous narrative and a biting satire on human lives distorted by civilisation, written from the perspective of a cat.
  • Yōkyoshū (1906, 漾虛集): seven short stories about fantasies in a more restrained and elegant style than "I Am a Cat".
  • Uzurakago(1906, 鶉籠, "Quail Basket"), a collection of short stories:
    • Botchan (坊っちゃん)
    • Kusamakura (草枕, "The Three-Cornered World", lit: "The Grass Pillow")
    • Nihyakutōka (二百十日, "The 210th Day")
  • Nowaki (1907, 野分, "The Tempest")

These works make up the early period of Sōseki's literary life and focus on journeys and idealized main characters. The adventures of Botchan, in particular, appealed to the popular taste of that time. His literary style developed further when he started publishing his serial works in the Asahi Shinbun:
  • Gubijinsō (1907, 虞美人草, "Red Poppy"): a critique of modern civilization by depicting various types of youths.
  • Sanshirō (1908, 三四郎): in Sanshirō and other Meiji-era works Sōseki employ the "stream of consciousness" technique describing the shifting psychological state of the main character who studies in Tokyo where he encounters a bewildering array of individuals and intellectuals in a modern city, experiences the plight of lost love and understands - by comparing his youth with that of his mentor Hirota - how the times are changing.
  • Kōfu (1908, 坑夫, "The Miner")
  • Sorekara (1909, それから, "And Then"): Nagai Daisuke, the main character, seems an evolution of Sanshirō. Daisuke becomes involved in an illicit relationship with a married woman that jeopardizes his intellectual purity to the point of destruction.
  • Mon (1910, 門, "The Gate")
Other famous works of his middle period include short pieces on dreams and psychology written in a more polished and versatile style.
  • Bunchō (1908, 文鳥, "The Paddy Bird", lit: "Java Sparrow")
  • Yumejūya (1908, 夢十夜, "Ten Nights of Dreams")
  • Eijitsu Shōhin (1910, 永日小品, "Spring Day's Small Pieces")

His serious illness at Shuzenji indicates the beginning of Sōseki's late period when his criticisms of civilization intensified. His analyses of contemporary intellectual thinking became more meticulous, focusing on the solitary, intense, and sometimes demented minds and the plight of his protagonists who lived isolated from the world while still emotionally tied to their time, the Meiji era.
  • Higansugi Made (1912, 彼岸過迄, "Until After the Spring Equinox")
  • Kōjin (1913, 行人, "The Wayfarer")
  • Kokoro (1914, こころ)
  • Michikusa (1915, 道草, "Grass on the Wayside"): a novel with striking autobiographical elements in which Sōseki further expands on the theme of intellectuals' sufferings in the light of changing human relationships and ultimately criticises himself.
  • Meian (1916, 明暗, "Light and Darkness"): Sōseki's unfinished grand œuvre in which he describes the transforming relationship between Tsuda Yoshio and his wife, Onobu. Despite his progressing disease, Sōseki managed to finish 188 instalments for the Asahi Shinbun, but the novel breaks off when Tsuda departs for the hot springs to meet his old lover Kiyoko.
Meian has been described as the peak of Sōseki's creative powers. It is a thorough survey of Meiji society that probes the impact of social and historical factors on human consciousness. Sōseki died just before completing what became his longest novel. While he worked on Meian, he composed one poem in classical Chinese every day. Most of these poems revolved around the Zen concept of sokuten kyoshi (則天去私, "to adhere to Heaven, remove the ego"), an appeal to entirely transcend egocentric individualism and to become a true person by establishing essential "betweenness of individuals" (人と人との間柄 hito to hito no aidagara), a theme commonly found in his late novels.

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1000-yen bill depicting Natsume Sōseki (1984)

References:

  • Gessel, Van C., Three Modern Novelists: Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Kodansha 1993
  • Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric, Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard 2005

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