Kokoro by Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) is one of the great classics of Japanese literature. A translation of the title produces a wide range of meanings: “heart,” “soul,” “spirit,” “feelings,” and “the heart of things.” Kokoro is divided into three parts: “Sensei and I,” “My Parents and I,” and “Sensei and his Testament.” The first part describes the initial meeting and growing friendship between the young narrator and the sensei, an honorific term meaning master or teacher. The second part traces the relationship between the narrator and his family. The last part is a lengthy letter written to the narrator by the sensei in which he describes his past, his involvement in the suicide of a friend years earlier, and his present decision, partly for atonement, to kill himself.
A meditation on love, friendship, and the mysteries of the human heart, Kokoro brings together with great simplicity and drama many of the recurrent themes of Sōseki’s fiction, including human isolation, the perils of modernization, and the paradox of individuality. These themes are skillfully adumbrated in an early exchange when the sensei, speaking to the narrator, states that “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.”
A large part of the novel’s appeal lies in Sōseki’s adroit use of mystery as the author depicts the growing friendship between the two men. Although their acquaintance happens by accident, the narrator nonetheless feels a mysterious attraction to the elderly sensei. The more the narrator knows about the sensei and his beautiful wife, the more attached he grows to them, yet he is unable to get the sensei to reveal the reasons for the misanthropic attitudes that make him shun all social intercourse. The mentor appears to despise himself and to reject all intimacy; he tells the youth that loving always involves guilt, and yet he also states that “in loving, there is something sacred.”
The second part of the novel deftly sets the scene for the concluding section. It describes the narrator’s return home upon graduation, his estrangement from his older brother, and the course of his father’s illness as he lies dying from a kidney disease. With his father on the verge of death, however, the narrator receives a long letter from the sensei in Tokyo. As he leafs absentmindedly through the letter, he catches the following sentence: “By the time this letter reaches you, I shall probably have left this world.” In desperation, the young narrator deserts his dying father and rushes to Tokyo to find his old friend.
The letter is both dignified and affecting. In it the sensei describes how he was cheated of a large portion of his patrimony by a rapacious uncle. He further describes his determination to finish his education and never to return to the provinces. The letter explains how in Tokyo he came to live with a respectable widow, Okusan, and her pretty daughter, Ojosan. The sensei, falling in love with Ojosan, found that his close friend and fellow student named K was also in love with the daughter. Finally, the sensei reveals how he had capitalized on K’s simple honesty and betrayed him by stealthily importuning the young girl’s mother for Ojosan’s hand.
K subsequently killed himself, and the sensei married Ojosan upon graduation. Although devoted to his wife, the sensei never reveals to her his complicity in K’s death. Furthermore, he can never wholeheartedly accept her love for him, and over the years this impasse causes his wife great distress. To assuage his gnawing sense of guilt, he tries many ways to hide his sense of responsibility and complicity in his friend’s death, including alcohol for a time. He makes monthly visits to K’s grave and has tended dutifully to his mother-inlaw, Okusan, as she lies critically ill before dying. Eventually he decides to take his own life.
In a number of ways, Kokoro delineates the cultural and social dislocations of the Meiji era (1868– 1912), when Japan in one generation hauled itself out of feudalism and plunged precipitously into the 20th century. The death of the narrator’s biological father underscores the sensei’s surrogate or spiritualfather status, but, as he himself puts it, he and the narrator belong to different eras—nothing will bridge the gap. The ancient Japanese regime emphasized honor, loyalty, and collective human relationships, but the new social atmosphere favors robust selfassertion. The sensei’s death highlights the scale of the task facing the narrator. In a period of accelerated change, he—and by implication, the country— have been cut adrift without cultural or ethical moorings. With great sensitivity and economy, the novel broaches these issues. And more important, Sōseki’s work sheds a perspicacious light on such critical social concerns.
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Natsume Sōseki. 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, U.K.: Global Oriental, 2000.
Yiu, Angela. Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Soseki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998