Botchan is one of the best-loved novels in Japan and a true comic masterpiece. Written at the beginning of the 20th century by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), the novel tells the story of a gauche middle school teacher. Botchan, or “little master,” is a 23-year-old Tokyoite who takes a teaching job in Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands. Botchan quickly gets into a series of diffi culties with students and fellow teachers, to whom he unabashedly gives his own private nicknames. In part these diffi culties arise from his lack of social skills, which is to say his unwillingness to play social games. He is overly straightforward and honest in his encounters with students and fellow teachers.
The protagonist’s bluntness, as well as an ardent passion for justice, is refreshing, especially when it affects his personal well-being. For instance, Botchan likes to frequent bathhouses and to indulge in his favorite dishes at dumpling restaurants. Although these activities are offi cially frowned upon, he believes that they are small compensations for his immurement in a remote provincial town. He also gets into a running battle with a group of students who play practical jokes on him in an effort to get rid of the “new teacher.” However, the centerpiece of the novel is a quarrel between Botchan and the politically powerful, hypocritical Redshirt. So named because he wears a red fl annel shirt all year, Redshirt has been plotting to steal the fi ancée of Koga, the self-effacing, good-natured teacher of English. To achieve this, he bullies Koga into accepting a transfer to a school in a distant province. This leads to a battle of wills between him and the head of mathematics, Porcupine, who in a meeting with Redshirt tells him that he must repeal the transfer. To further this intrigue, Redshirt invites Botchan out on a fi shing trip with him and his ally, the sycophantic art teacher named Clown. On the boat, while Botchan is napping, the two men hold a conversation meant to be overheard and insinuate that Porcupine had instigated the students to put grasshoppers in Botchan’s bed while he was off taking a bath during a recent nightduty stint at the school dormitory. Botchan and Porcupine fall out as a result, for in the interim Clown has also been scheming behind the scenes. Porcupine, who is Botchan’s immediate superior, had helped him fi nd lodgings when he fi rst arrived in town. Hoping to take over these lodgings, however, Clown has pressured the landlord to tell tales to Porcupine and lie to him about Botchan’s supposed rowdiness and insolence. Botchan and Porcupine are similar in temperament. Both are forthright and fi ery, and for a moment there is a real danger that their altercation will be explosive. Fortunately, however, they discover Redshirt and Clown’s machinations in the nick of time and quickly agree to patch up their differences.
Nevertheless, matters come to a head when Redshirt, through his brother, gets Botchan and Porcupine embroiled in a fi ght between rival school contingents at a ceremony commemorating a military victory. Not only are they hurt, they are wrongly implicated as instigators of the fi ght, and thus they will have to leave their positions at the school. In response, Botchan and Porcupine decide to teach Redshirt a lesson. Redshirt had rebuked Botchan at a staff meeting for indulging in essentially innocuous recreational activities. However the two men know about Redshirt’s hypocrisy in these matters. They rent a room overlooking a brothel that they know he frequents. After a wait of several nights, they catch Redshirt and Clown leaving the premises. In a comic scene, they give the two groveling cowards a sound thrashing and a scolding. Fearful that his reputation will be ruined, Redshirt does not dare to tell the police; and with that the novel closes. Botchan and Porcupine leave Shikoku. Although they have lost their jobs, they are happy that they have won a great victory over the Redshirts and Clowns of the world. Botchan returns to Tokyo, where he takes up a job at a transport company.
In a sense, Botchan is an idyll. It allows one to remember with affection the idealism that perhaps came easier at an earlier stage in life, before the compromises of adulthood set in. The novel produces a feeling of spiritual renewal through the picture of Botchan speaking his mind without fear or favor. His passion for the truth, his disregard for convention, and his disdain for self-advancement are hugely admirable qualities. Not surprisingly, they help the book transcend its historical and cultural setting, allowing it to win new readers with each subsequent generation.
Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. Tokyo and New York: Kodansha, 1993.
Natsume, Soseki. My Individualism and the Philosophical Foundations of Literature. Translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu. Boston: Tuttle, 2004.
———. Rediscovering Natsume Soseki. Translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu. Folkestone, Kent, U.K.: Global Oriental, 2000.
Yiu, Angela. Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Soseki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.
Categories: Japanese Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis
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