[REVIEW] Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist

{Written by Angela Qian, this review is part of Issue 42 (January 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

John Nathan, Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist, Columbia University Press, 2018. 344 pgs.

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The great Japanese novelist Natsume Sōseki’s[i] life began as an unhappy fairytale might: born to parents old enough to pass for his grandparents and given away as a baby, he was “parked in a small bamboo basket along with the used junk and left unattended on the main street of Yotsuya” by his poor adoptive parents until one of his older sisters took him home. From these inauspicious beginnings, things hardly got better: he was soon given to another adoptive family, and when he was finally returned to his original parents at the age of nine, he initially believed them to be his grandparents, until one night, a kindly maid whispered the truth to him.

By the end of his life, however, Sōseki has engineered the apparently redemptive happy ending—during his lifetime, he was recognised as the preeminent novelist of his period in Japan as was the author of popular works such as I Am a Cat and Kokoro. He commanded a large readership, critical adulation and a close circle of admirers. His popularity endures: today he is often referred to as Japan’s “first modern novelist.” His works are taught in Japanese schools; his face, for a time, was on the 1000-note and, in 2016, a Sōseki robot was developed which spoke and recited excerpts of his works. The intellectual and creative capabilities that distinguished him and helped him rise to this stature turn the fairytale into something of a moral parable—work hard and ye shall be rewarded.

Yet Sōseki himself would resist such an easy conclusion and be the first to recognise one’s past can never be so easily resolved. In John Nathan’s excellent and very readable new biography, Sōseki: Modern Japan’s Greatest Novelist, the first English-language biography of the writer’s life in fifty years, we are given a portrait of a complex, troubled individual who spent his career resisting black-and-white interpretations. Born in 1868, one year before the Meiji Restoration, Sōseki came of age in a Japan whose doors had been forced open after over two hundred years of isolationism by the American Commodore Matthew Perry. When faced with American warships and technology, Japan realised how far it had fallen behind other countries and undertook a period of reform.

The Meiji Restoration created enormous change in Japan, among them the restoration and consolidation of power to the emperor, rapid industrialisation and the transition from a feudal society into the beginnings of a constitutional government. As a nation, Japan was grappling with how to implement Western culture, thought and values into a deeply traditional society suddenly unsure of itself. This social revolution manifested itself in a national project to understand Western institutions, emphasising books such as Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Biology, architecture modelled after Victorian ballrooms and English, English, English.

Nathan describes Sōseki’s “frightening” linguistic skills and early mastery of classical Chinese, before testing into the First Special Higher school at age seventeen, then the most prestigious preparatory school in Japan, and then going on to Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo). Evidently seeing that mastery of English was the future, by the time Sōseki had graduated, he had a superlative command of the language and an early reputation as a literary critic on English writers such as Whitman and Wordsworth.

The question of English literature and just what, precisely, it was dogged Sōseki. In a speech he gave many years later, “My Individualism,” he said: “At the university, I majored in something called English literature. You may ask what is meant by English literature; all I can tell you is that I spent three years as a student obsessed with finding an answer to that very question.” It was much more than just a three-year project: in 1900, at the age of thirty-three, Sōseki, who was by then well-established as an English teacher and married, left Japan by order of the Japanese government to travel to England for two years. Sōseki was sent alone, as part of an ongoing national initiative, as Nathan describes, “dedicated to elucidating the darkest corners of the Western mystery.” He determined his project would be to master English literature.

The two years that followed were miserable, filled with isolation and penury. In a characteristically sardonic, self-lacerating letter from that time period, Sōseki wrote:

When I was in Japan, while I didn’t consider myself exactly white, I did feel certain I was a colour more or less human, but living in this country over time has made me realise that my complexion doesn’t come within a country mile of human—a yellow man mingling with the crowd …

This sentiment must be familiar to all who have grown up in a colonised nation.

In another letter, Sōseki wrote:

These days I am become a bizarre creature, half Westerner and half Japanese. When I write in Japanese, English spills crazily onto the page. When I use English, I am quickly stymied and long to switch to Japanese.

His obsession with the so-called mastering of English literature reflected a greater insecurity of identity, born of the social revolution occurring in Meiji Japan. As Nathan writes, “Every Meiji gentleman—and Sōseki was the very model of a modern Meiji gentleman—lived his life astride two worlds, one grounded in national history and the other adopted and frequently uncomfortable.”

Throughout his most significant novels, Sōseki writes poignantly of individuals unable to connect with one another, paralysed and isolated by the egoism—the so-called individualism—imported from the West. In Kokoro, for instance, a young student becomes acquainted with an older man he calls Sensei, who lives a withdrawn and quiet life. Despite the young student’s attempts to get close to him, Sensei does not open up about his past. The young student also senses a chasm dividing Sensei from his melancholy, beautiful wife. At one point, Sensei remarks, “You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence and our own egotistical selves.”[ii]

And Then perhaps more directly grapples with the dilemma of the Meiji citizen. The novel follows Daisuke, an intellectual who lives off his family income and spends his days reading translated works and pursuing aesthetic hobbies. Though he considers himself an enlightened Meiji intellectual, he frequently clashes with his father, who retains group-think values from the feudal Japan of only one generation past. When he falls in love with an old classmate’s wife, his dependence on reason and rationale are tested and he is paralysed with inaction, unable to know what to do.

As I have already mentioned, Sōseki is often granted the epithet Japan’s :first modern novelist.” From Nathan’s treatment, we can understand that here, “modern” means Sōseki is credited with a psychological interiority and realism not seen before in Japanese fiction. His realism and the great attention to psychology with which he crafted his characters was unprecedented in Japanese literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but did accord with the Western canonical realism developed through the history of the novel. (Contemporary novelists in England at the time included Thomas Hardy, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, among others). Certainly, we may infer, then, that the “modern” quality of Sōseki’s novels was due in large part to his long years of exhaustive study of English literature, trying to pinpoint just what it was. That he applied those techniques to a Japan rapidly transforming in front of his eyes was what gave his works their particular incisive, melancholy, utterly humanistic quality.

Indeed, a certain Sōseki fever swept the nation. Eventually, he was able to leave teaching to write full-time for the newspaper Asahi Shinbun in an unprecedented post created solely for him, where he produced serialised novels with almost complete freedom over quantity, length, content and title, and which reached a national readership of 500,000.

As Nathan’s biography makes clear, however, though Sōseki was beloved by the public, he was by no means a cuddly personality. We learn of the paranoid delusions that beset him throughout his life and that led to outbursts against his family. In one instance, newly returned from England, Sōseki slapped his young daughter because of a halfpenny he found near her and which he suspected implicated her in a plot to spy on him devised by his British landlady. The children that survived him remembered him with little love and no small amount of fear, recalling him as cold, distant and unpredictable. Nathan describes Sōseki’s coldness towards his family, his unceasing criticisms of his wife and his sharpness with his students. He was rigorous, exacting and melancholic, an attitude he hardly spared himself.

At the same time, he was incredibly warm with his protégés and circle of friends and fellow literati, and unflinching in his work ethic towards the tasks he set himself. Some of the most charming details emerge in Nathan’s descriptions of the “Thursday Salon,” a gathering of young writers and scholars eager to be taken under Sōseki’s wing. They became an integral part of his family circle, and each had their own unique personalities, from the impetuous Morita Sōhei, who once took to the mountains intending to commit a lovers’ suicide with a girlfriend—then wrote a novel about it—to the earnest, innocent Komiya Toyotaka, suspected to be the basis of Sōseki’s novel Sanshirō. That Sōseki took great pains with his protégés and was remarkably free with them is clear. Mixed in with his harsh criticisms were great efforts to encourage and improve his young charges. In a letter to a younger writer, he exhorted: “Once you have started something, you are obliged to finish it as beautifully as you can.”

Natsume Sōseki passed away on December 9th, 1916, after years of struggle with gastrointestinal disease and hemorrhage. He produced fourteen books during his eleven-year novel-writing career, which began in 1905. It does not escape notice that in his youth, he began his study in English wanting, at least in part, to contribute to the Japanese national project—that is, to be a useful citizen in delving Western principles. But later in life he became more concerned with his own legacy and career, perhaps an assertion of the very Western egoism Japan had adopted.

Today, many Japanese novelists of the modern and contemporary era enjoy popularity and status in their home country and abroad. Particularly in the wake of World War II, titles such as The Makioka Sisters, Snow Country and Confessions of a Mask echo themes of a vanished way of life, a country once again grappling with its identity in the face of defeat to a Western power. These great novelists—Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, to name merely a few of the best known—as well as contemporary novelists, such as the ubiquitous Haruki Murakami, writing along the themes of isolation and lack of social connection labour under Sōseki’s legacy. It was he who came of age into and grappled with the question of how to deal with the incursion of a transplanted culture into one’s home country. For the writer of social change, of confusion, of modernity, of the intrinsic sadness of being caught in a world leaving us behind, Sōseki remains a sharp and clear-eyed companion with a gaze like no other’s today.


[i] The author was born Natsume Kinnosuke, Natsume being his family name. Sōseki was his is pen name, which he used for almost all of his writing life, and also the name by which he is best known.

[ii] This quote is taken from the more well-known Edwin McLellan translation of the novel, rather than Nathan’s partial translation in the biography.


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Angela Qian is a New York-based writer. She has published work in Catapult, The Common, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Cosmonauts Avenue, Bodega Magazine, The Millions and elsewhere. She is the recipient of honours from the Norman Mailer Foundation. Her website can be found at www.a-qian.me and her Twitter handle is @anqchan.


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