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Culture and Education

The Message Found in Sōseki’s Work:
The “Kokoro” (Heart) We Should Search Now

Makoto Ichikawa
Assistant Professor, Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, Waseda University

Some are saying that Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro is seeing a boom in sales now, 100 years after it was first published. In any case, it has continued to appear in at least one high school textbook ever since it was first used in Japanese textbooks over fifty years ago. Thus, the percentage of people in Japan who know about the book is substantial (although not to the degree of Osamu Dazai’s Run, Melos!, which has appeared in nearly all the junior high school textbooks that have been adopted in the last 25 years).

Hegel and other philosophers have argued that people’s desires are an imitation of the desires of others. In other words, providing information that “other people desire this” is an effective way to elicit human desire. (You can’t desire an object you know nothing about, and an object that is too familiar merges with the self so that it is no longer an object of desire—speaking of which, this idea could also be applied to love, etc.) With books like Kokoro, it is the sense of distance one gets from not having properly read the book but knowing it by name and hearing that a lot of people read it that makes it most appealing.

So what kind of novel is Kokoro? It is the story of a man who falls in love with the same woman as his close friend “K”—a man with no other friends who (to use a modern term) has a communication disorder—betrays him, and feels so much remorse over it that he becomes a “NEET” (young person Not in Education, Employment or Training) of sorts, living off his inheritance from his parents despite the fact that he is in his mid-thirties and has a wife. The young and inexperienced narrator of the story (“I”) idolizes this man and calls him “Sensei,” which gives the book a kind of personal development feel (If historical masterpieces were interpreted this way, they might be a bit more accessible for modern readers).

The main passage used in school textbooks, however, is a small portion of Part III in which Sensei looks back on his relationship with K in a suicide note sent to the narrator. It’s the part in which the young Sensei is falling in love with Ojosan, the daughter of the landlady of the boardinghouse where he is staying, when K, unaware of this, reveals that he has feelings for her. This discovery pushes Sensei to get a head start on K by asking the mother for Ojosan’s hand in marriage. He is successful and gets engaged to Ojosan. When K learns about this, he smiles and congratulates him and then kills himself a few days later. From that point onward, Sensei is haunted by guilt at having betrayed K—who had trusted him as his one-and-only close friend and confided his feelings in him—and driven him to suicide.

Sensei’s letter goes on to describe how he heard the news that Nogi Maresuke, who could not forget his failure in the Satsuma Rebellion, had committed suicide in the wake of Emperor Meiji’s death and understands how difficult it is to live with a lot of regret. The letter ends with the announcement of his own impending death. The appeal of Kokoro as a literary work, however, lies in the way countless (temporary) “lapses of memory” are woven throughout the book, including Parts I and II that do not appear in textbooks, enhancing its “unforgettableness.”

Part I starts with a scene in which the narrator meets Sensei for the first time at a swimming beach and senses that he “knew him from somewhere but could not remember where” (trans. by Meredith McKinney). This turns out to be a mistake, or rather a “fanciful memory lapse.” From this point onward, the narrator and “Sensei” discuss various life problems like love, money, vice, life and death, repeatedly shelving each topic as they move onto the next. You could say that the bigger and weightier a topic is, the more they are compelled to take up another one before reaching a conclusion, or that since Sensei is haunted by the unforgettable incident of K’s suicide, he lets other matters pass by. There is the narrator’s brief shelving of his father’s illness when he gets caught up in a conversation with Sensei, the brief shelving of Sensei’s ominous “if I die” forewarning when the narrator returns home to care for his sick father, and above all, Sensei’s decisive shelving of his consideration for his good friend due to his feelings for Ojosan—in this repetition, we can detect the same consciousness as that found in a verse Sōseki later wrote in “Danpen” (“A Fragment”): “Two objects cannot occupy the same space.”

Kokoro excels at allowing the reader to virtually experience this shelving/forgetting. As I wrote earlier, Kokoro is organized into three parts, with Part III composed entirely of Sensei’s letter (“testament”). Thus, there is no mention of what happens to the narrator-protagonist “I” from Parts I and II or his ill father whom he was so worried about. It’s the kind of thing that would usually leave readers scratching their heads, but they are so drawn into Sensei’s monologue that they feel satisfied when they finish the book, thinking only of him and K. Textbooks merely summarize the sections with the narrator at best, effectively ignoring his existence. Kokoro (as symbolized by its title) tells us that this shelving/forgetting is the fate or nature of our “kokoro” (hearts/minds).

Thus, reading Kokoro at this moment in time is not unrelated to, say, our awareness of the constitutional interpretation of the right of collective self-defense. Behind the current administration’s attempt to half-forcibly shelve/forget the pacifist will of the Japanese people, which has been preserved for more than fifty years due to regret and remorse over past wars, lies their concern over the advancement of China and other new world powers and the changing military balance accompanying this development. This connection is obvious, even if they do not verbalize or explain it that way. (In short, the system in which the U.S. tries to singlehandedly police the world may be coming to an end.) There are also those who feel an urgency to prepare against this military threat. However, the fact remains that by getting caught up in what’s going on right in front of us, we are pushing more essential, long-term concerns out of the “same space.”

As for the constitutional issue, twisting the words and interpreting them as best suits one at the time (there’s no way the proponents of this interpretation are oblivious to the fact that they are forcing things out of context, but their sense of emergency shuts their eyes to it) turns a blind eye on past regret and remorse, as well as the fundamental principle that these words represent a self-imposed restriction rarely found in the world “not [to] use military force as a means for settling international disputes” and the ideal of “striving for a state of peace in which countries agree to lay down their arms rather than pointing guns at each other.” This does not mean “losing the battle to win the war,” so to speak, but an attitude that we as a nation can find more happiness by seeking (peace in the form of) a more universal, extensive happiness for all mankind (hence represents regret for the wars we have caused) than by seeking simple, short-term profit (i.e. the settling of disputes).

The shelving/forgetting of this ideal due to immediate convenience closely resembles Sensei’s forgetting of his friendship with K in his haste to win the affections of Ojosan in Kokoro. This strategy may work well for a while. For example, we may feel momentary relief at having used force in a conflict with another country. However, just as Sensei felt remorse for K’s death and the loss of his friendship for the rest of his life and was finally driven to kill himself, we will surely come to regret having abandoned our ideal when an even greater sense of remorse greets us after resolving the transient conflict through force. Changing the way the Constitution is interpreted may protect our national interests in the short term. But we (or our descendants) will one day realize that this meant willfully abandoning the possibility for lasting peace in the long term—a possibility that may not have been within the reach of any country but our own. It will be too late to take it back once we get ourselves into a war that changes everything.

In “My Individualism,” Natsume Sōseki has this to say about cheap nationalism and a sense of impending danger: “Japan today is not a country that is about to collapse. Nor is it at all threatened by annihilation. Therefore, it is not necessary for us [to] all go around making a noise about it and chanting ‘The country, the country!’ This is like running about town in fire-proof clothing and being uncomfortable when there is no fire” (trans. by Sammy I. Tsunematsu). We need to put our efforts into figuring out how to prevent fires and refrain from putting on our fire-proof clothing until it is absolutely necessary, as he says, “today” (On that note, we post-war Japanese have been somewhat complacent about the “no war” clause in our pacifist Constitution and failed to spread this principle among other countries. We cannot establish peace through the renunciation of war if we are the only pacifist nation, so we should have found some way to expand the ring of pacifism. In that sense, we are on the brink of a truly critical moment, when the phrase “the Japanese people forever renounce...[the] use of force as [a] means of settling international disputes” survives but has been backed into a corner through a reinterpretation (but not a constitutional amendment) and we face the prospect of the Constitution being amended on the pretense that it is already a “done deal.” At the same time, there will surely be an opportunity to push back, based on this sense of crisis). Reading Sōseki at this moment in time is not simply a matter of hopping on the bandwagon, but a valuable opportunity for people to think about these things.

Makoto Ichikawa
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Professor Ichikawa is a literary critic. He graduated from the School of Literature I, Waseda University and received his Master’s degree in Literature, Arts and Cultural Studies from Kinki University. He became a faculty member at Waseda University in 2013, specializing in modern Japanese literature and media theory. He has been involved with Waseda Bungaku from 2000 onward, where he has worked on the conversion of the journal into a literary review magazine and a free magazine, the first-ever inclusion of CD-ROMs in a literary magazine, and other projects. His publications include Why Hasn’t Haruki Murakami Been Awarded the Akutagawa Prize? [Akutagawa Shō wa Naze Murakami Haruki ni Ataerarenakatta ka] (Gentosha Shinsho). He has also served as a book commentator on the TBS information program King’s Brunch.