Kokoro: Sensei no Isho
by Natsume Soseki
reviewed by Peter Grabas
Penguin Books translation by Meredith McKinney
This book is a classic of early 20th century Japan and is read today by all who seek an
understanding and appreciation of Japanese Literature. Love, friendship, loyalty, guilt, betrayal, honor and cultural clash are woven into the fabric of this story of an unhappy older man and an admiring younger one. The literal translation of Kokoro is heart, or heart of the matter. Written in 1914 during a period of great social and cultural change it transcends that period of time and speaks to one’s soul, or heart and since there is little reference in the story that overtly dates it or makes it feel out of sync with today, it makes it relevant to contemporary issues within us.
The story written in three parts
• The first part of the book is the student meeting Sensei and his wife and his growing
fascination with the older man.
• The second is the students return to home to his ailing father and family, and his
fathers and Emperor’s subsequent death. The student receives a long letter, a testament,
•The third is a testament or explanation written by Sensei for his actions and reveals
the mystery why he was the kind of man he is.
This story is principally between a young university student, and his much older
friend whom he calls Sensei*, sensei’s wife and a few additional characters of family
and friends. The substance and quality of the story is achieved on the repeated instances
where Sensei projects himself as an withdrawn (and unhappy) man, a misanthrope, creating a mystery as to why a fine man such as he is has such attitudes. All is made clear by the third part in which he reveals why he has become the way he is and places a tremendous moral decision upon the student. This style creates a story within the story and gives the magnificent strength to the first two parts.
Although the wife is a secondary character but central to the story the focus is primarily
between the student and Sensei. The names of people are mostly substituted by titles such as wife and honorifics like Sensei that have the subtle effect of merging individual characters into archetypes representing young and old generations with their different values. Written about love, friendship, loyalty, guilt, betrayal and morality there is the additional backdrop of cultural transition that parallels an individuals conflict between self interest and the aforementioned feelings today. This is significant because it addresses the eternal changing values of generations and also the very specific change in values that occurred at the turn of the century when ‘old’ Japan was replaced by the ‘new’ Japan. The end of that remnant of Confucian mindset of feudal Japan with the advent of the Western modern individualistic self or egocentric mindset had dramatic stress on society, is briefly and specifically mentioned in the story, and is reflective of contemporary internal stresses of duty to self and duty to clan, company, country. Although Soseki was writing about emotions mentioned earlier he wrote it in and that era’s changing social climate which held a great deal of significance for readers at that time. For a deeper understanding of the book, its interplay with that era and with modern values it helps to understand a little historical background of that time. For those who are familiar with Japanese history and the Mejie period feel free to skip the next historical section.
A brief history (This is just an overview and I invite the reader to pursue actual
Japan is an island nation, and island cultures tend to be more isolated and ideocentric
in thinking and culture (more polite too) than mainland cultures that are without the major barriers of oceans. Because of constant political and military threat Japan’s contact with their Korean and Chinese neighbors was always strained and reticent. Contact with the west In the late 1500’s had dramatic influence upon the feudal system with the introduction of Christianity and gunpowder.
In 1639 after decades of political and social problems that challenged the power of the
Shogunate and the ruling class foreigners foreigners were tossed out, Christianity banned and Japan was closed from contact with the west (except to the Dutch who were restricted and monitored to Nagasaki, as well as China/Korea) this stayed so for about two hundred years until a Western military fleet (American Admiral Perry) arrived in the harbor and would not leave, demanding relations and trade.
This event triggered an understanding that Japan was militarily, technologically and
industrially inferior and ‘too isolated’ making the Shogunate decide that it was a necessity to embrace the industrial techniques and engineering of the west to meet this challenge. This process led to Japan’s leadership in these fields today, but the process of acquiring new methods also had an influx of foreign cultural and political ideas that were diametrically opposed to traditional Japan. Japan had the Confucian way of life which stressed sacrifice of self for the group, lord or the state which worked very well for the feudal Samurai Shogunate, and the West had its stress on the individual and sacrifice for self. Somehow over half a century it all got sorted out (with the terrible side effect of extreme militarism which led to 30 years of war and conflict). But the transition was difficult as the younger generations always seemed to embrace more of self in opposition to the ways of group for the older. (Although this is a mantra of all older generations–everywhere–it had greater relevance in that time in Japan).
At the time of the writing of Kokoro the Emperor Mejie was the last vestige of ‘old Japan’
and when he died, figuratively old Japan did as well. One of his trusted generals a remnant
of feudal/traditional thinking committed ritual suicide
‘seppeku’ to die with his lord.
These deaths are used in the book as a trigger that causes profound effects upon the characters and gives the story its structure. I do recommend this book with the caveat that the impact of the book comes from reading the third part which gives the first two parts their substance.
*Sensei is an honorific title bestowed on someone who is a teacher or whom one learns from and is in deference to.