Natsume Soseki and his Time

The Imperial Diet, Japan’s national legislature, established in the Meiji Period

“I am not as hard as I seem. For the right person, I too could shed a few tears.”

-Natsume Soseki, Grass on the Wayside

“Reflection may be essential to a scholar, but it’s taboo in social intercourse.”

-Natsume Soseki, Light and Darkness

If one studies the history of Japanese literature, one will find it rich in quality and populated with unique and creative voices. The greatest Japanese writer is generally considered to be Lady Murasaki Shikibu, her magnum opus being Genji Monogatari. While there is an endless amount to consider with regard to Classical Japanese Literature, this essay will focus on perhaps the greatest modern Japanese writer: Natsume Soseki (1867–1916). If one studies the Meiji Restoration, history texts do a great job illustrating changes Japan underwent. However, reliance on primary-source documents and historic monographs has significant limitations. A common response to literature is that fiction lies to us in the most truthful possible way.[1] In this article, I will analyze Natsume Soseki and his works as a window into the Meiji period.

Natsume Soseki (1867–1916)

Natsume Soseki was born a year before the restoration and had an insecure childhood. Adopted in 1868, he was sent back to live with his biological parents after his foster parents divorced. His mother died a few years later and his father thought the boy a nuisance. At university, he was attracted to literature and began studying English. He also met the haiku poet Masaoka Shiki. Soseki began his teaching career in the 1890s. From 1901–1903 he studied in Great Britain (though, by all accounts, had a miserable time in that country).

While Western scientific and technological knowledge had been trickling into Japan for centuries, the policy of national seclusion had severely limited the extent to which Western ideas could spread within the country itself. The political struggles which erupted into civil war and the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate emerged out of a debate between political realists and fundamentalists. The former were more pragmatic with regard to dealing with Western powers whereas the latter wanted to maintain Japanese isolation. In 1853 and 1854, American naval forces under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Japan. Perry wanted to open the country for trade and brought an intimidating fleet to encourage the Japanese to agree. While Japan officially ended isolation, struggles between realists and fundamentalists continued until the shogunal government was brought down in 1868. Many of the Meiji reformers were actually on the side of the fundamentalists. Future prime minister Ito Hirobumi actually took part in the burning of the British legation. Several years later, he was studying in London. The leaders of the Meiji Restoration utilized fundamentalist dissatisfaction with the Tokugawa Government to bring about its overthrow. Thus, the ‘original sin’ of the modern Japanese nation-state was the valorization of radical militants (something which would re-emerge in the 1930s and 1940s when militarists called for a Showa (Hirohito) Restoration, claiming that the Meiji Restoration was incomplete due to the fact that the emperor was not truly restored to power).

As Natsume Soseki grew up, Meiji oligarch initiated a series of reforms in the name of the emperor: abolition of feudalism, abolition of the samurai class, establishment of a centralized government in Tokyo, land and tax reforms, and industrial growth. The Meiji period can be broken into sub-periods. The early Meiji period (1868-c.1885) was a period of reform and experimentation. A popular slogan was ‘civilization and enlightenment.’ Western ideas and experts poured into the country. Japanese students were sent abroad to study in Western institutions. Prominent intellectual Fukuzawa Yukichi advocated an individualism based in personal responsibility and utilitarian knowledge. The late Meiji period (c.1885–1912) was characterized by massive industrialization, military expansion, and conservatism. Zaibatsu, massive business conglomerates, dominated the Japanese economy as the government sought to build warships and railroads as fast as possible. Japan flexed its military muscle by defeating China in 1895 and Russia ten years later. Japan annexed Formosa (Taiwan) in 1895 and Korea in 1910. After defeating Russia, the Japanese Empire expanded to include the southern half of Sakhalin Island. The idealism of early Meiji by and large did not last. Japanese conservatism came to dominate the government as the Meiji oligarchs became older. The Meiji Constitution of 1889 uses Neo-Confucian language toward nationalistic ends. Meiji leaders drew on traditions to bolster the legitimacy of the Meiji Government. This also included invented traditions. For example, the Meiji oligarch had Emperor Meiji visiting factories and making public appearances. This was unknown in Japan before the Meiji period. The Japanese emperor had previously been a kind of high priest of Shinto who was seen by very few of his subjects.

“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.”

-Natsume Soseki, Kokoro

Natsume Soseki captured the mood of late-Meiji in his novel Kokoro. Kokoro translates as ‘heart.’ This is a novel which has two main characters: a narrator and an older man he is drawn to (simply called sensei). The novel is divided into three parts, with many short chapters (the text was originally published serially in a Japanese newspaper in 1914). The narrator is the speaker in the first two sections of the book and sensei is the ‘I” in the third portion. The novel is set very specifically in 1912, with death as a dominant theme. News came out that Emperor Meiji was not well. The novel mentions the emperor’s death, after which his loyal general Nogi commits ritual suicide with his wife, an act of loyalty following one’s master in death as in life. Much of the novel is concerned with Sensei’s background. I will not get into that in this article only because I do not wish to reveal too much of the plot details for those who plan to read it.

Funeral of Emperor Meiji (1912)

The death of Emperor Meiji marked the start of a new era in Japan: Taisho. Emperor Meiji’s son Emperor Taisho came to the throne as Japanese power and influence increased. Indeed, by the end of World War I (in which Japan was on the winning side) Japanese diplomats were sitting alongside those of major Western countries at the Palace of Versailles. Natsume Soseki did not live to see this. In fact, he was very much against militarism. He was very wary of groupthink and zealous nationalism. In 1914, he delivered a famous speech (and perhaps his most read nonfiction work) titled My Individualism.[2] In it, Natsume Soseki explores individuality by juxtaposing it with notions of social cohesion. He stressed the need for self-expression rather than merely running blindly after others.

“Use your intellect to guide you, and you will end up putting people off. Rely on your emotions, and you will forever be pushed around. Force your will on others, and you will live in constant tension. There is no getting around it — people are hard to live with.”

-Natsume Soseki

“People really didn’t change very much, he thought; they only decayed.”

-Natsume Soseki, Grass on the Wayside

“You have a fine scholar’s way with words, I must say. You’re good at empty reasoning.”

-Natsume Soseki, Kokoro

[1] Many intellectuals, such as Jordan Peterson place great emphasis on this point.

[2] Watakushi no Kojin Shugi (1914).



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