Natsume Sōseki

Natsume Sōseki

Sōseki in 1912

Sōseki in 1912
Native name 夏目 金之助
Born Natsume Kinnosuke
(夏目 金之助)
(1867-02-09)9 February 1867
Tokyo, Empire of Japan
Died 9 December 1916(1916-12-09) (aged 49)
Tokyo, Empire of Japan
Occupation Writer
Genre novels, short stories, poetry
Notable works Kokoro, Botchan, I Am a Cat
In this Japanese name, the family name is Natsume.

Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, February 9, 1867 – December 9, 1916), born Natsume Kinnosuke (夏目 金之助) was a Japanese novelist. He is best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, I Am a Cat and his unfinished work Light and Darkness. He was also a scholar of British literature and composer of haiku, kanshi, and fairy tales. From 1984 until 2004, his portrait appeared on the front of the Japanese 1000 yen note. In Japan, he is often considered the greatest writer in modern Japanese history. He has had a profound effect on almost all important Japanese writers since.

Early years

Born in 1867 as Natsume Kinnosuke in the town of Babashita in the Edo region of Ushigome (present Kikui, Shinjuku), Sōseki began his life as an unwanted child, born to his mother late in her life, forty years old and his father then fifty-three.[1] When he was born, he already had five siblings. Having five children and a toddler had created family insecurity and was in some ways a disgrace to the Natsume family.[1] A childless couple, Shiobara Masanosuke and his wife, adopted him in 1868 and raised him until the age of nine, when the couple divorced.[1] He returned to his family and was welcomed by his mother although regarded as a nuisance by his father. His mother died when he was fourteen, and his two eldest brothers died in 1887, intensifying his sense of insecurity.

Sōseki attended the First Tokyo Middle School (now Hibiya High School),[2] where he became enamored with Chinese literature, and fancied that he might someday become a writer. His desire to become an author arose when he was about fifteen when he told his older brother about his interest in literature.[1] However, his family disapproved strongly of this course of action, and when Sōseki entered the Tokyo Imperial University in September 1884, it was with the intention of becoming an architect. Although he preferred Chinese classics, he began studying English at that time, feeling that it might prove useful to him in his future career, as English was a necessity in Japanese college.[1]

In 1887, Sōseki met Masaoka Shiki, a friend who would give him encouragement on the path to becoming a writer, which would ultimately be his career. Shiki tutored him in the art of composing haiku. From this point on, he began signing his poems with the name Sōseki, which is a Chinese idiom meaning "stubborn". In 1890, he entered the English Literature department, and quickly mastered the English language. In 1891 he produced a translation into English of the classical work Hōjōki.[3] Sōseki graduated in 1893, and enrolled for some time as a graduate student and part-time teacher at the Tokyo Normal School.

In 1895, Sōseki began teaching at Matsuyama Middle School in Shikoku, which became the setting of his novel Botchan. Along with fulfilling his teaching duties, Sōseki published haiku and Chinese poetry in a number of newspapers and periodicals. He resigned his post in 1896, and began teaching at the Fifth High School in Kumamoto. On June 10 of that year, he married Nakane Kyoko.

Natsume Sōseki's lodgings in Clapham, South London

In the United Kingdom, 1901–1903

In 1900, the Japanese government sent Sōseki to study in Great Britain as "Japan's first Japanese English literary scholar".[4] He visited Cambridge and stayed a night there, but gave up the idea of studying at the university because he could not afford it on his government scholarship.[5] He studied instead at University College, London (UCL). He had a miserable time of it in London, spending most of his days indoors buried in books, and his friends feared that he might be losing his mind.[6] He also visited Pitlochry in Scotland.

He lived in four different lodgings, only the last of which, lodging with Priscilla Leale and her sister Elizabeth in Clapham (see the photograph), proved satisfactory. Five years later, in his preface to Bungakuron (The Criticism of Literature), he wrote about the period:

The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years in my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves.[7]

He got along well with Priscilla, who shared his love of literature, notably Shakespeare and Milton (his tutor at UCL was the Shakespeare scholar W. J. Craig),[8] and who also spoke fluent French, much to his admiration. The Leales were a Channel Island family, and Priscilla had been born in France. The sisters worried about Sōseki's incipient paranoia and successfully urged him to get out more and take up cycling.

Despite his poverty, loneliness, and mental problems, he solidified his knowledge of English literature during this period and returned to the Empire of Japan in January 1903.[9] In April he was appointed to the First National College in Tokyo. Also, he was given the lectureship in English literature, subsequently replacing Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn) and ultimately becoming a professor of English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University,[9] where he taught literary theory and literary criticism.

Literary career

Sōseki's literary career began in 1903, when he began to contribute haiku, renku (haiku-style linked verse), haitaishi (linked verse on a set theme) and literary sketches to literary magazines, such as the prominent Hototogisu, edited by his former mentor Masaoka Shiki, and later by Takahama Kyoshi. However, it was the public success of his satirical novel I Am a Cat in 1905 that won him wide public admiration as well as critical acclaim.[10]

He followed on this success with short stories, such as Rondon tō ("Tower of London") in 1905 and the novels Botchan ("Little Master"), and Kusamakura ("Grass Pillow") in 1906, which established his reputation, and which enabled him to leave his post at the university for a position with Asahi Shimbun in 1907, and to begin writing full-time. Much of his work deals with the relation between Japanese culture and Western culture. Especially his early works are influenced by his studies in London; his novel Kairo-kō was the earliest and only major prose treatment of the Arthurian legend in Japanese.[11] He began writing one novel a year before his death from a stomach ulcer in 1916.

Obverse of a 1984 series 1000 Japanese yen banknote

Major themes in Sōseki's works include ordinary people fighting against economic hardship, the conflict between duty and desire (a traditional Japanese theme; see giri), loyalty and group mentality versus freedom and individuality, personal isolation and estrangement, the rapid industrialization of Japan and its social consequences, contempt of Japan's aping of Western culture, and a pessimistic view of human nature. Sōseki took a strong interest in the writers of the Shirakaba (White Birch) literary group. In his final years, authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Kume Masao became close followers of his literary style.


In the 21st century, there has been a global emergence of interest in Sōseki.[12] Soseki's Kokoro has been newly published in 10 languages, such as Arabic, Slovenian and Dutch, since 2001.[12] In South Korea, the complete collection of Soseki's long works began to be published in 2013.[12] In English speaking countries there has been a succession of English translations since 2008.[12] About 60 of his works have been translated into more than 30 languages. Reasons for this emergence of global interest have been attributed in part to Haruki Murakami who said Sōseki was his favorite writer.[12] Political scientist Kang Sang-jung, who is the principal of Seigakuin University, said, "Soseki predicted the problems we are facing today. He had a long-term view of civilization." He also said, "His popularity will become more global in the future".[12]

Sōseki appears as a character in Dai Gyakuten Saiban: Naruhodō Ryūnosuke no Bōken, where he is charged with stabbing a woman in the back, and defended by the protagonist. In the game he has a pet cat called Wagahai, a reference to I Am a Cat.[13]

Major works

Sōseki's major works include:

Year Japanese title English title Comments
1905 吾輩は猫である Wagahai wa Neko dearu I Am a Cat
倫敦塔 Rondon Tō The Tower of London
薤露行 Kairo-kō Kairo-kō
1906 坊っちゃん Botchan Botchan
草枕 Kusamakura The Three-Cornered World
(lit. The Grass Pillow)
latest translation uses Japanese title
趣味の遺伝 Shumi no Iden The Heredity of Taste
二百十日 Nihyaku-tōka The 210th Day
1907 野分 NowakiNowakiTranslated in 2011
虞美人草 Gubijinsō The Poppy
1908 坑夫 Kōfu The Miner
夢十夜 Yume Jū-ya Ten Nights of Dreams
三四郎 Sanshirō Sanshirō
1909 それから Sorekara And Then
1910 Mon The Gate
思い出す事など Omoidasu Koto nado literally Random Memories Translated in 1997 as Recollections by Maria Flutsch
永日小品 Eijitsu shōhin literally Long (Spring) Days, Small Pieces Translated in 2005 as Spring Miscellany
1912 彼岸過迄 Higan Sugi Made To the Spring Equinox and Beyond
行人 Kōjin The Wayfarer
1914 こころ Kokoro Kokoro
私の個人主義 Watakushi no Kojin Shugi My Individualism A famous speech
1915 道草 Michikusa Grass on the Wayside
硝子戸の中 Garasu Do no Uchi Inside My Glass Doors English translation, 2002
1916 明暗 Meian Light and Darkness (novel)
Light and Dark

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 McClellan, Edwin (2004). Two Japanese Novelists: Sōseki & Tōson. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 0-8048-3340-0.
  2. Takahashi, Akio (2006). 新書で入門 漱石と鴎外 (A pocket paperback == introduction: Natsume and Ōgai). Shinchosha. ISBN 4-10-610179-3.
  3. Keene 1998 : 308.
  4. Brodey and Tsunematsu p.7
  5. Brodey and Tsunematsu p.8
  6. Introduction, p.V Natsume Soseki (2002). I Am A Cat. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8048-3265-6.
  7. Theory of Literature, May 1907, introduction
  8. Natsume, Sōseki; Tsunematsu, Ikuo (2002). Spring miscellany and London essays. Rutland, VT: Tuttle. p. 80. ISBN 0-8048-3326-5.
  9. 1 2 McClellan (1959) p.164
  10. Mostow, Joshua S. The Columbia Companion to modern East Asian literature, Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-231-11314-4 p88
  11. Takamiya, Toshiyuki (1991). "Natsume Sōseki". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, p. 424. (New York: Garland, 1991). ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Yusuke Takatsu; Mariko Nakamura (April 20, 2014). "Meiji-Taisho Era novelist Natsume becoming trendy across the world 100 years later". The Asahi Shimbun. Retrieved April 28, 2014.
  13. "Dai Gyakuten Saiban/Great Ace Attorney scans from Weekly Famitsu 07/02".


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