Sanshiro’s old stomping grounds.
(Continued from part 1.)
But so far, it is only 1908, and Soseki has just completed Sanshiro. Quite unlike the solitary, introspective atmosphere of The Three-Cornered World, the new novel takes place in the midst of Tokyo university life. Its world is much bigger and wider, full of dialogue and social situations whose participants have diverse points of view and frequently appear to be deeper and more fully realized than the protagonist, rather than serving as vessels for his aesthetic appreciation. Regardless of how much actually happens on its pages, it certainly feels like it takes place in an active, energetic world where things are happening all around.
The title character, Sanshiro Ogawa, enters Tokyo Imperial University from the distant province of Kumamoto, where Soseki himself once taught (whenever Soseki wants to introduce a character from the countryside, that person will invariably be from Kumamoto). He is twenty-three years old; in fact, that is the literal meaning of his first name. He has been admitted to the Faculty of Law and Letters, where he apparently plans to study English literature; he approaches his studies seriously, at least at first, but without much of a long-term plan. Very quickly, he falls in with an unusual group through the acquaintance of fellow student Yojiro Sasaki. The group is loosely gathered around one Professor Hirota, an opinionated intellectual who teaches at a nearby high school and is obviously one of Soseki’s parodic self-representations. Aside from Hirota and Yojiro, the group also includes Sohachi Nonomiya, a former student of Hirota’s who now conducts research in physics at the university, as well as Nonomiya’s sister Yoshiko and her friend Mineko Satomi. Hirota serves as a kind of unofficial authority figure for the group, being idolized by Yojiro and highly respected by the others. The plot, such as it is, gradually forms out of the group’s interactions: Yojiro concocts a complicated scheme to get Hirota a position on the university faculty, while Sanshiro unexpectedly finds himself falling for Mineko. There is very little overt drama in any of this — the book maintains an amiable, laid-back tone from the beginning — but, as is often the case with Soseki, the sudden ending somehow suggests that Sanshiro has passed some kind of momentous turning point in his life. For this reason, Sanshiro is often described as a “coming-of-age novel” by Western critics and translators.
The most lasting impression left by the book, the feeling that you may remember even if you forget all the details of what happens, is one of freshness, newness, and freedom. The choice of a young college student as the protagonist is a good way to personify this impression, because, indeed, most of us only remember feeling this way back when we were around Sanshiro’s age (whether or not these memories are accurate), and that perception makes it easier for the book’s atmosphere to seep into one’s mind, as if one had actually been this earnest, somewhat faceless young man coming to Tokyo in 1908. Although Sanshiro’s personality is not sharply defined, that actually makes him more likable; he is refreshingly normal, especially by the standards of Japanese literature. If Tanizaki or Mishima had attempted to write such a story, they would undoubtedly have put a pathological bent on Sanshiro’s vague crush on Mineko, seeing this as the main source of literary interest. Many of Soseki’s contemporaries also had similar decadent tendencies, so, again, Japanese literature was really very fortunate to have been created by someone who could rise above this level.
But Sanshiro’s normality also means that, in his first year of university, he does not demonstrate any great talent; he does not “discover himself,” or find his “calling,” just as none of us ever did. He is not a bad student (certainly no worse than others), but it quickly becomes apparent that he is not really cut out for a life of scholarship: “He had concentrated too hard on the lectures at first, until he could barely hear them well enough to take notes, but now he listened only moderately well and there was no problem. He thought about all sorts of things during the lectures. It no longer worried him if he missed a little. The other students did the same, he noticed, Yojiro included. This was probably good enough.” (52) He does a fair amount of introspection, but it is of a naive sort, mixed with daydreams and detached from any realistic conception of his future, which is after all only a couple of years away:
Western critics — for example, Jay Rubin in his 1976 article “Sanshiro and Soseki,” appended to the edition of Sanshiro that I am using for page numbers (Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2002) — read into this some sort of heavy-handed allegory for the cultural upheaval of the Meiji era. That is, the “first world” of Sanshiro’s hometown represents traditional Japan, while the “third world” represents the allure of modernization, and so forth. But, in Sanshiro’s day, Japanese tradition was just as exciting and novel as Japanese modernization, because both were being created at the same time by the same people (in particular, by the author of Sanshiro). It is wrong to identify traditional Japanese culture with rural life, since the latter actually tends to be quite similar across many different cultures. And no one was ever really torn between these “worlds.” Sanshiro himself, like practically anyone his age, has no real interest in his mother’s “drowsy” and “tranquil” world — a bit later, Soseki calls back to the “three worlds” passage in noting that, “Sanshiro felt that his present life was becoming a thing of far deeper meaning than his life in Kumamoto had been.” (86) The extent of his disinterest in past generations is made very clear in Chapter 12 when he watches a play with historical themes and it turns out that, “His study of Japanese history was itself a thing of the distant past, and Iruka, who figured in the most ancient part, he had forgotten entirely.” (199)
While we are on the subject, Western critics have a strange tendency to patronize Sanshiro. To hear them tell it, he is a gullible Simplicissimus, a laughable hick who feels threatened by Tokyo’s emancipated women, an infantile mama’s boy who cowers under the bed at the first sign of difficulty. According to Rubin, “What [Mineko] has done, of course [Of course! -FL], is vent her anger against the Hirota-like figure for having demonstrated Sanshiro’s inability to be a forceful, modern man who can disregard the older generation’s censure.” (239) As for Sanshiro, “When threatened by the flames of the real world, [he] flees to a comforting green refuge.” (219) Evidently, such unmanly conduct is quite different from that of literary critics, whose charm and savoir faire are well-documented in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, that widely acclaimed manual of social etiquette. But if one actually thinks about it, there is no way that any of these stereotypes could possibly apply to Sanshiro. For one thing, the fact that he was admitted to Japan’s top university straight from the Kumamoto countryside most likely makes him the top student in his province. During the train ride to Tokyo, he is reading Francis Bacon, so we are not talking about someone with no prior experience of intellectual activity or exposure to Western culture — yes, Soseki adds that this was “a book he found nearly unintelligible,” (9) but any Western student would (and does) have the same reaction. Rubin writes, “Sanshiro is an adolescent,” (236) but this is literally not true. Sanshiro is twenty-three, a college graduate by contemporary standards. (In fact, a Japanese “high school” of the time was comparable to a contemporary college, and the Tokyo program that Sanshiro enters has more similarity to graduate school.) His thoughts about his life are earnest, even if they don’t have much substance, and he is disarmingly sincere, unable to make himself out to be someone that he isn’t, or to bluster his way through every situation the way his friend Yojiro does. If anything, he is uncommonly thoughtful and mature. He never once tries to look down on the girls in the group (as one might expect a stereotypical country boor to do), and at one point admits to himself, unexpectedly and strikingly: “It was then that Sanshiro knew somewhere inside: [Mineko] was too much for him.” (93)
Thinking about the “three worlds,” Sanshiro finally decides that, “The best thing would be to bring his mother from the country, marry a beautiful woman, and devote himself to learning.” Nothing ever comes of this idea; it was never more than a daydream, and Soseki sums it up as, “It was a terribly mediocre conclusion.” But he also tempers this judgment by adding, “But a lot of thinking had gone into it, and from the point of view of the thinker himself…it was not so mediocre.” (64) The mediocrity of Sanshiro’s analysis is not a sign of any problem with Sanshiro specifically. Rather, any attempt at such analysis, by anyone, will inevitably be mediocre. People have too little control over their lives to “decide” things like this. There is never enough information, and no way to know which part of it is truly important. Any “decision” will later turn out to have been arbitrary; the most far-reaching consequences arise from events that happen by pure chance. Our plans are never much more than daydreams.
So, the feeling of freedom in Sanshiro certainly does not come about as a result of the protagonist’s great success in self-mastery. In a certain sense, the novel derives part of its charm from the fact that Sanshiro is so ill-equipped to shape his own future. There is something refreshing about not being enslaved to the cynical, pandering cliché of a cool and confident protagonist who “expresses himself” in various ways that never fail to attract beautiful women, exactly as in Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a book that clearly demonstrates the fatal exhaustion of Japanese culture. Sanshiro, at least, has much more reality than this.
When you think about it, the other members of the group are not far ahead of Sanshiro. Their social roles are totally conventional and arbitrary, and do not seem to constrain or define them at all — in fact, Soseki absolutely refuses to explain how or why these people ever found Professor Hirota in the first place and selected him as their role model (yes, Nonomiya was his student, but I’ve never heard of a single person who stayed in touch with a former high school teacher), or why Hirota, who is a bit of a misanthrope, is willing to give them free access to his house. Their backgrounds are somewhat similar, but only at first glance: there are hints that Mineko’s family is very wealthy, while Yojiro’s seedy lifestyle places him below the others. It is almost as if their social status is not fully real.
The most well-established among them is Nonomiya, who works very hard and has achieved international recognition for his research: “He was a devoted scholar and had published a good deal. Everyone in his field was acquainted with the name of Nonomiya, even in the West.” (38) But while Nonomiya’s dedication is genuine, all of his hard work seems to occur in some other world that is completely disconnected from the real one. Yojiro comments: “Nonomiya shines brightly in foreign countries, but in Japan he’s pitch dark, not a soul knows who he is. He shuts himself up in that cellar for hours on end and gets a miserable salary in return.” (56) This might almost seem to be a social criticism by Soseki — those Meiji upstarts, obsessed with international prestige and yet unable to appreciate real talent, or something like that — but at one point Sanshiro visits Nonomiya in the “cellar,” in a scene described as follows:
Of course, this is just Sanshiro’s reaction, but since we are seeing the world through his eyes, we can only share his impression that Nonomiya’s activities are elaborate and precise, and at the same time completely meaningless. The subject of his research is “the pressure exerted by light.” (20) On one hand, this is scientific work of the highest order, focused on the most fundamental laws of nature. On the other hand, it is also very far removed from anything recognizable as reality, as Hirota points out:
Hirota draws an analogy between Nonomiya’s research and literature — in other words, Nonomiya’s identity as a scientist has a strange “fictional” quality. Again, a Western critic may prefer to narrowly associate this quality with Meiji Japan, the idea being that the country was in such a rush to Westernize that its people still fit all of these imported Western roles awkwardly at best. But we have read Homo Ludens and know better: there is a certain artificial quality at the very heart of science, and Western physicists are also playing a game whose rules are largely arbitrary. In the process they may also improve humanity’s understanding of nature, but that is a byproduct of the game, not its purpose. So who is more free, then: the Western physicist, whose sense of reality is defined by the conventions of this role, or the Japanese one, for whom such a reality is a work of fiction to begin with?
Professor Hirota is even stranger. His first appearance, in which his name is not mentioned, occurs in the very first chapter and is very striking. Sanshiro meets him by chance on the train to Tokyo and is immediately subjected to the following speech:
Sanshiro is quite pleasant overall, so this sudden prophecy of doom stands out very sharply (even more to a contemporary reader, who realizes with horror that it was true after all). It has a comic lack of proportion, and comes across as ridiculous in a chapter that is otherwise full of cheerful anticipation. When we get to know him later, Hirota is much less ominous, but he still talks in these long declarative paragraphs that are really addressed to himself, past his young interlocutors. He has his moments, like the dinner party where he makes the connection between science and literature (the sympathetic audience seems to inspire him). But for the most part, his pronouncements are out of place, even when he is trying to make himself understood. In his last conversation with Sanshiro, he suddenly reveals what seems to be, and is usually read as, a deeply personal detail of his biography:
Sanshiro appears not to pick up on the subtext (or pretends not to), but in any case he has been placed in a ridiculous situation, in which nobody could reasonably have any idea what to say. There is no way, in either Western or Asian culture, that a respected professor can say this to a young student whom he barely knows without making a fool of himself. If understanding was what Hirota wanted, demanding it of this near-stranger has caused him to lose face and shown that he is unfit for the role of detached arbiter.
In fact, Hirota is never shown doing anything. Over time, it becomes clear that his comments and aphorisms are never going to coalesce into any coherent system of thought. Presumably he reads a lot, but his disconnected statements can just as well be a sign of dilettantism as of serious intellectual work. Thus, from the beginning, Yojiro’s inept plans to get him hired by the university take on a note of buffoonery. Yojiro writes a ludicrously hyperbolic essay titled “The Great Darkness,” apparently full of “pronouncements like these: ‘Only old men tell us that baldness is something to be proud of.’ ‘Venus was born of the waves, but men of vision are not born of the University.’ ‘If the University has only Ph.D.’s to boast of, then the beach at Tago-no-ura has only jellyfish.” Soseki wryly notes that “the essay had nothing else to offer.” It is curious, however, that Hirota himself is perfectly content with his low-key life. Yojiro has completely misread him when he writes that, “Here is a man…who would contribute to the new trends in the scholarly world and relate to the vital forces of society.” (101) Hirota does not really have anything to say, and does not want any kind of responsibility. But, at the same time, his unwillingness to play the part that Yojiro wants to pick for him is also a form of integrity — his distaste for Yojiro’s scheming (where a lesser man might have been quick to play along) gives him the dignity that he failed to acquire as an intellectual. The imaginary character of his professorship turns into his main redeeming quality.
Yojiro is a walking one-man comedy of errors. It is noteworthy that no one else in the novel is bothered by Sanshiro’s country origin; all of the other Tokyoites are sufficiently well-mannered to avoid causing him unnecessary embarrassment. Only Yojiro finds it amusing, which is ironic, since he turns out to be far less self-aware than Sanshiro. He apparently sees himself as a clever schemer and social busybody, but not only do these efforts fail, at no point does he ever derive any benefit from anything that he does. His essay is published anonymously, but its authorship is no mystery to anyone, and other students view him, rightly, as an idiot:
In fact, Yojiro is not even a real student: “He said he had just started taking courses at the University as a special student after graduating from a private college.” (33) The “college” in question is more like a high school, possibly the one where Hirota teaches. It is not clear what a “special student” is — he may be sitting in on a few courses or taking them part-time — but in any case, no one is fooled by his attempts to ingratiate himself with the students. At the same time, “real” studentship is also mostly fictional; Soseki sarcastically describes Sanshiro’s first day of classes as follows: “First Sanshiro learned that the word ‘answer’ came from the Anglo-Saxon ‘andswaru.’ Then he learned the name of the village where Sir Walter Scott had gone to grammar school. He carefully recorded both facts in his notebook.” (30) At least Yojiro is right that such a curriculum is not worth much.
When your occupation and social status are meaningless, your last recourse is to be yourself. All of the members of Hirota’s group are in this situation; only their selves have any reality or significance in this jumble of conventions. It makes sense that the person who has the most reality is the one who has no occupation and plays no social role — that is, Mineko.
Both Western and Japanese critics have expended a great deal of paper writing about Soseki’s “antipathy toward women,” as John Nathan put it in his 2018 biography. His book actually has a separate index item for “misogyny of Soseki,” and makes many comments such as, “The most disturbing aspect of the misanthropy that colors I Am A Cat is the misogyny embedded in it. Throughout, women are the butt of most of the mean-minded joking.” (Ironically, the passage from I Am A Cat cited as evidence for this conclusion does the opposite, mocking the Soseki-like professor character by pointing out “how deluded he is to conclude that the coldness he receives from his wife is merely due to something…beyond his control.”) In truth, Soseki’s own marriage was not very happy, and some of his books are about men in cold, failed marriages to overbearing (Light and Darkness) or indifferent (Grass on the Wayside) women. At the same time, one has to try very hard not to see that his most sympathetic characters are also women, some of whom (Michiyo in And Then, Nao in The Wayfarer, and Sensei’s wife in Kokoro) are clearly shown being made to suffer by self-absorbed men. The characters of Sanshiro are still too young for this kind of experience, but regardless, Mineko is the most fascinating character in the novel, with an implied depth that is simply not present in anyone else.
Whenever she appears, Mineko gives the impression of having a lot on her mind, but unlike practically everyone else, she keeps it to herself. Even Hirota cannot resist the urge to tell Sanshiro about his family history. Next to Hirota’s endless but ultimately tiresome aphorisms, Mineko’s silence feels far more serious and thoughtful — it is as if, unlike Hirota, she actually does have something to say, but chooses not to, perhaps because she knows that no one around her would understand. The things she says to Sanshiro are so bewildering to him because they are continuing some unseen inner thought process, which may be going on for a long time, whose origin may date back to long before she had ever met Sanshiro. A central, famous moment in the book is the following exchange:
In this and similar situations, Mineko’s words often have a note of abstracted, lightly ironic melancholy, as if she already knows that meaningful communication will not be possible. Sanshiro often feels that she is “toying” with him, but he can also see that these moments are far too unusual to be a form of coquetry. Their irresistible fascination comes from the feeling that there is something else behind them. But neither Sanshiro nor the reader will ever learn what that is.
Curiously, in Chapter 12, just before the end of the novel, it turns out that Mineko is a Christian. Soseki himself had no interest in any kind of religion (he respected Buddhism, but felt no inclination to actively practice it), certainly not Christianity. I think that, from his point of view, this was not an ethical characterization (“good” or “bad”) so much as a sign of a certain independence of character, which someone of his disposition would value very highly. Whatever Soseki might have thought of Christianity itself, someone who decided to openly profess it in 1900s Japan would not be the kind of person to blindly follow trends or try to look good in others’ eyes. Mineko, evidently, has the ability to choose for herself, which, when you think about it, is quite lacking in Hirota, Yojiro, and Sanshiro.
Around the same time, Sanshiro also learns that Mineko is engaged. According to Yojiro, “Both Yoshiko and Mineko…had been offered proposals of marriage. That in itself was nothing, but it was apparently the same man in both cases.” (205) This odd detail has led critics to see Mineko’s marriage as either some sort of social criticism by Soseki, or as his gleeful “punishment” of her. (These two explanations contradict each other, but when has that ever stopped a true critic?) Norma Moore Field, translator of And Then, commented, “In any case, we cannot miss the punitive quality of her fate, for she is quickly married off to a man whom her less independent, less attractive friend Yoshiko had refused.” (And Then, 268) In fact, Sanshiro is present during Yoshiko’s refusal, which is described as follows:
But if the “less independent” Yoshiko just casually laughs off this proposal with no repercussions whatsoever (other than making Nonomiya mildly annoyed), there is no reason why Mineko wouldn’t be able to do the same. As Sanshiro observes, with the underappreciated perception that is characteristic of him, “[Mineko] must have been brought up to have her own way. And now, as a young woman, she doubtless had more freedom at home than most others and could do anything she pleased… She could do it because she had no parents and because her elder brother, a young man himself, put no restrictions on her. If she were to try this in the country, though, she would not have it so easy. How would Mineko react if someone told her to live like Miwata Omitsu?” (141) If Mineko “quickly” agreed to this marriage, the only possible explanation is that she chose to do so, and simply did not explain the reasons. For all we know, this choice may have had a long prehistory — at least, there is one occasion when Sanshiro catches a glimpse of Mineko’s social life outside Hirota’s group:
Readers tend to take it for granted that Mineko ever had any sort of romantic interest in Sanshiro at any point, which is why Jay Rubin writes, “He disappoints her by insisting that they find their ‘chaperones,’ and she responds by calling him a helpless ‘stray sheep’…as a stray sheep, Sanshiro cannot be loved by Mineko. In her disappointment, she reveals herself ‘distinctly, a woman.’” (238-239) In light of Rubin’s disdain for Sanshiro, it is ironic that he should repeat Sanshiro’s mistake of believing that there was ever any opportunity for him to miss. In fact there is no indication that Mineko ever considered Sanshiro seriously enough to have been “disappointed” by him. It is clear that she has no shortage of other male acquaintances, many of whom may be far more interesting and impressive than this quiet and ungainly student from Kumamoto. Perhaps, during the “stray sheep” conversation, she had been thinking about one of them the entire time. Or maybe there was something else that so occupied her mind that Sanshiro’s consternation barely registered.
Nonetheless, there is one thing that Mineko and Sanshiro have in common, which might indeed have led her to notice him. Sanshiro is the only other character in the novel who thinks and observes much more than he says out loud; as we have seen, he is more sincere and more real, in the sense of being true to himself, than most of the people he meets. All of these qualities are much more developed in Mineko, and so she is able to notice them in others. Perhaps that explains why she feels compelled to show friendliness to Sanshiro, even if she is already planning her marriage at that very moment (why not?), and even if Sanshiro is so obviously unsuitable for her that even he realizes it on some level.
In her afterword to And Then, Field writes, “Mineko is clearly a new type of woman, and this is reason enough to make her stray. In her reaching out to Sanshiro, she is seeking something… Her portrayal is incomplete and ambiguous, thus we cannot specify what she is seeking — perhaps simply some form of meaningful communion, some sympathetic understanding of what it means to be an intelligent young woman in a society that tantalizes her with new horizons but will not permit her to explore them.” (And Then, 268) But the true difficulty facing Mineko is shared by many of Soseki’s male protagonists — after one’s individuality has awakened, the impossibility of communicating it to another becomes clear. One is left alone in a crowd of “stray sheep,” other individual worlds that are similarly self-contained and inaccessible. The individual consciousness can neither provide nor receive any “meaningful communion” or “sympathetic understanding” that would satisfy it. The best proof is the fact that generations of the most sympathetic readers and critics have failed to understand Mineko in spite of their most well-intentioned efforts: by not making her the protagonist, and thus not allowing readers into her head, Soseki made her unreadable. The closest analog to Sanshiro’s awkward relationship with Mineko in the rest of Soseki’s work is the similarly baffling relationship between Sensei and the narrator in Kokoro. And, just as that young man is profoundly affected by having known Sensei, so too Sanshiro has been transformed, in some unknown way, by having briefly met Mineko: “Sanshiro did not answer him, but to himself he muttered over and over, ‘Stray sheep. Stray sheep.’” (Sanshiro, 212)
Just outside the University.
One almost expects to see Sanshiro walk by,
lost in thought.
Sanshiro ends right there, with a vague sense of loss gently clouding its usual optimistic tone. We will never see its protagonist again, but Soseki’s next two novels can be seen as a kind of response to this open ending, to the point where Sanshiro, And Then, and The Gate are often grouped together into a “trilogy.” This is more of a critical device than an intentional connection by the author, but as Field writes, “After Sanshiro had appeared in the newspaper, Soseki explained in an advance notice that he was titling the next work And Then, first, because Sanshiro was about a university student, and the new work would be about what ‘then’ happened; second, because Sanshiro was a simple man, but the new main character would be in a more advanced stage; and finally, because a strange fate was to befall this character, but what ‘then’ followed would not be described. The Gate, the last novel in the trilogy, is about what ‘then’ might have followed.” (And Then, 266) There is a clear progression in the stages of the protagonists’ lives: Daisuke in And Then is about thirty years old, having graduated from university several years ago, while Sosuke in The Gate has settled down to a routine, middle-aged married life. In terms of literary style, the three novels are also closer to each other than to what came after — The Gate was the last book Soseki wrote before his brush with death in 1910. After that, he must have known on some level that he didn’t have much time left, and his writing changed.
There are some ways in which the other two novels make a deeper impact than Sanshiro. But what is missing from them is the light touch. The world in Sanshiro is big and inviting; for its young characters, nothing is final yet, there is still the possibility of going in some new, unexpected direction. Even for Mineko, her “punitive” marriage is hardly the end — in And Then, Daisuke’s sister-in-law, married to a Tokyo businessman, is not left wanting for either social or aesthetic delights. If one thinks about it, even Hirota’s “darkness” is not particularly “great.” He is, after all, living exactly as he wants, and his incongruous disciples give him the comfort of an audience that, in a sense, is even better than a “real” one at the University. Regret and loneliness are just one part of life, softened by fresh air and bright sunshine. Sanshiro was the last time Soseki’s writing showed its comic side, but where the jokes in I Am A Cat became somewhat laboured after a while (and had a bit of a mean streak, it is true), here the laughter is mostly gentle and helps to take away the sting of isolation. Soseki’s later work gained depth, but lost this sense of harmony.
(Conclusion: part 3.)
2 thoughts on “Natsume Soseki, “Sanshiro” (1908)”
Thank you for your wonderful analyses.
Glad to have you with us.