Natsume Soseki, “Kokoro” (1914)


(Conclusion. Continued from part 2.)

Kokoro was finished two years before Soseki’s death, and is representative of his late work. It has become his signature, certainly in the English-speaking world, and to some extent in Japan as well (although in schools they prefer to teach his early novels). The style and atmosphere of the novel elicit bewilderment and fascination, which parallel the feelings of the protagonist.

The story of Kokoro is simple. A young university student meets, by complete chance, an older man whom he calls “Sensei,” who lives with his wife in isolation and idleness. Sensei is clearly well-educated, but does not work and (unlike Professor Hirota in Sanshiro) seems to have lost his interest in intellectual pursuits. From a few fragmentary insinuations, it appears that some sort of tragedy occurred in Sensei’s life many years ago, but the young man (and narrator) is not able to learn all the details in time — just after graduating from university, he has to urgently return to his hometown in the country when his father falls gravely ill. There, he receives a long and unexpected letter from Sensei, and is about to set it aside when he notices the lines, “By the time this letter reaches you, I shall probably have left this world — I shall in all likelihood be dead.” (122) In a panic, he jumps aboard the next train to Tokyo, abandoning his parents, and is never mentioned again; the remainder of the book consists entirely of the text of Sensei’s letter.

Most of Soseki’s writing (even his poetry) is about everyday life. Granted, he never saw realism as an end in itself; John Nathan writes, “Soseki deplored what he called ‘the gray skies of Naturalism.’ …He was critical of what he perceived in naturalist fiction as an absence of intellectual interest and emotional power that resulted from portraying reality unalloyed.” A few of his experiments venture outside plain “reality” and explore fantastic or dreamlike subjects. For instance, in 1908, he wrote Ten Nights of Dreams (concurrently with Sanshiro!), a set of disconnected, surreal scenes indulging his morbid romantic side:

After a little while the woman spoke again.
‘When I am dead, please bury me. Dig a hole with a large shell, a shining shell of mother-of-pearl. Mark my grave with a fragment of star, with something broken that fell from heaven. Then, by the graveside, wait for me. I’ll come to you again.’
I asked her when she would come and see me… The woman raised the tone of her quiet voice and said with resolution, ‘Wait for me a hundred years. For a hundred years, sit waiting at my graveside. For, without fail, I’ll come again to see you.’
I answered simply that I would be waiting. At that moment my image, so vividly reflected in her jet-black pupils, began to dim and crumble; to crumple as reflections in still water crumple with the wet’s disturbance. The woman’s eyes began to flow and, the next instant, closed with a snap. Tears, oozed through the long shut lashes, fell onto her cheeks. She was already dead.”

from Ten Nights of Dreams, “The first night”


As late as 1990, this work inspired a film by Akira Kurosawa (Dreams) based on the same idea. Even in Sanshiro, where Soseki is at his most down-to-earth, there is a very odd scene in which Sanshiro, house-sitting for Nonomiya, hears a distant cry coming from a young woman about to throw herself in the path of an oncoming train:

The night had just begun, but a stillness had descended on the suburbs. Insects murmured in the garden. Alone, Sanshiro felt the melancholy of early autumn. Suddenly a voice cried in the distance.
‘Oh, oh, just a little longer.’
It seemed to come from the rear of the house, but he could not be certain. It was too far away and had ended too quickly. But this single cry had sounded to Sanshiro like a true soliloquy, the solitary utterance of one who had been abandoned by all, who sought an answer from none. An eerie feeling came over him…in a sudden flash, he brought together the cry he had heard and the roar of the train. A shock ran through him when he saw what a frightening connection he had made.”

(Sanshiro, 41-42)

Nonetheless, these are all clearly architectural ornaments, not the structure itself. For the most part, Soseki describes ordinary settings and situations; even during these more fanciful diversions, he uses precise, documentary-style prose (so punctilious that it can sometimes feel a bit dry) and does not allow pure imagery to overtake his narrative. His world is built on common sense, and his characters have too much of it to feel any urge to succumb to the irrational. Even his dreaming character’s reflection, seen in the eyes of the illusory dying woman, momentarily “dims and crumbles,” instead of growing into an entire unreal world, as in the opening of Kawabata’s Snow Country.

On the surface, there is nothing in Kokoro that deviates from Soseki’s usual realistic plots and everyday concerns. But never has realism been so flimsy and insubstantial. The narrator first meets Sensei on a public beach — a completely ordinary place, crowded on a summer day. There are even some mundane details given about how the narrator happened to visit this place during vacation. The meeting itself is described as follows:

The next day, I followed Sensei into the sea, and swam after him. When we had gone more than a couple of hundred yards out, Sensei turned and spoke to me. The sea stretched, wide and blue, all around us, and there seemed to be no one near us. The bright sun shone on the water and the mountains, as far as the eye could see. My whole body seemed to be filled with a sense of freedom and joy, and I splashed about wildly in the sea. Sensei had stopped moving, and was floating quietly on his back. I then imitated him. The dazzling blue of the sky beat against my face, and I felt as though little, bright darts were being thrown into my eyes. And I cried out, ‘What fun this is!’

(Kokoro, 6)

In an instant, the crowded beach is gone, everyone else has disappeared. The narrator and Sensei are alone in an unreal sea. No one and nothing else exists; perhaps the sea itself blurs into silent nothingness just outside our field of vision. Even the main characters themselves have a certain unreality. For example, Sensei (“Teacher”) is never given a name:

I always called him ‘Sensei.’ I shall therefore refer to him simply as ‘Sensei,’ and not by his real name. It is not because I consider it more discreet, but it is because I find it more natural that I do so. Whenever the memory of him comes back to me now, I find that I think of him as ‘Sensei’ still. And with pen in hand, I cannot bring myself to write of him in any other way.”

opening lines (Kokoro, 1)

The narrator likewise remains anonymous, and the other characters in the novel are called “Sensei’s wife,” “my father,” “my mother,” “my brother,” and later in Sensei’s letter, “Okusan” and “Ojosan” (generic forms of address meaning something like “madam” and “young lady”). The friend of Sensei’s youth is named “K.” The narrator, as we have said, is a university student, but we never learn what he is studying. The entirety of what we are told about his academic activities is the following:

I was due to graduate in June that year and, according to the rules, my thesis had to be finished by the end of April. I counted the number of days left to me, and I began to lose confidence. While the others, it seemed, had been busy for some time collecting their material and accumulating notes, I alone had done nothing except promise myself that I would start work on my thesis in the New Year. I did indeed begin in the early part of the year, but it was not long before I found myself in a state of mental paralysis. I had fondly imagined that, by merely thinking vaguely about a few large problems, I was building up a solid and almost complete framework for my thesis. I discovered my folly as soon as I began to work seriously. I was in despair. I began to narrow down my thesis topic. And in order to avoid the trouble of having to present in a systematic manner my own ideas, I decided to compile relevant material from various books, and then add a suitable conclusion.
From then on, my thesis hung over me a curse, and with bloodshot eyes, I worked like a madman. I rushed to friends who had graduated the year before for advice on all matters. One of them told me that only by catching a rickshaw to the university offices did he succeed in handing in his thesis before the deadline. Another told me that he handed in his thesis fifteen minutes late, and it would not have been accepted but for the intervention of his principal professor. Such stories made me uneasy, but at the same time they gave me confidence. Every day, I worked as hard and as long as I could. If I was not at my desk, I was in the gloomy library, hurriedly scanning the titles on the high shelves, as though I were some kind of curio-hunter.”

(Kokoro, 53-55)

Formally, this description resides comfortably within the framework of realism, but in truth, it is completely perfunctory, devoid of any real content. The author just does not care about his character’s background or daily life, and does not bother to give more than the most general outline. Compare this with Sanshiro’s excursions to the library, where he pores over notes left in the margins of various books by previous readers. Student life in Sanshiro is described with diverse and vibrant detail — student gatherings, sporting events and plays, Yojiro’s harangues, lectures of varying degrees of coherence — and can be vividly imagined as a living world. In Kokoro, the surrounding world has been reduced to thin contours, ready to disappear at any moment. From the beginning, the setting is half-mythical.

From the viewpoint of pure literary technique, this makes Kokoro somewhat inelegant. Its structure relies on the contrivance that Sensei’s past is revealed only after his death, in a massive letter that takes up half of the entire novel. Of course, people do not write letters of this length, whether in Meiji Japan or the present day, nor do they give, in such letters, moment-by-moment accounts of their thoughts during critical times from years ago. I wonder how the work might have been received if the third section had been omitted — never written, perhaps, or deliberately left unpublished and only discovered by archivists years later. I suppose Soseki was still too much of a realist to have left the story so radically open-ended.

But the deliberate unreality of the setting does not carry over to Soseki’s psychological portraits. The middle section, in particular, is a straightforward account of the decline and death of the narrator’s father. As often happens in such cases, at first it seems like there is hardly anything wrong:

What surprised me when I got home was that my father’s health seemed not to have changed much during the months I had been away.
‘So you are back,’ he said. ‘I’m glad that you were able to graduate. Wait a minute, I’ll go and wash my face.’
I had found him in the garden. He was wearing an old straw hat, with a slightly soiled handkerchief attached to the back to shield his neck from the sun. The handkerchief swayed in the breeze as he walked towards the well behind the house.”

(Kokoro, 81)

And, for a short time, the narrator stays with his parents in a semblance of normal life. His father still takes an active interest in his future, leading to a few minor arguments and misunderstandings. Yet, during this time, “My father’s health grew steadily worse. The old straw hat with the handkerchief attached to it, which had so amazed me when I first saw it on my father, now was laid aside. And every time I saw it lying on the smoke-blackened shelf, I felt pity for him. Before, when he had been active, I had wished that he would not move about so much. But I hated to see him lose his old vigor and to find him sitting about the house so quietly.” (90) Before long, his father faints in the bath, and soon becomes bedridden. The house immediately fills up with relatives and neighbors visiting the dying man to fulfill their social obligations, all the while chattering about how they are sure everything will be fine, and so forth. The family begins to exclude the father from any serious discussion of his own condition, and the tone of these well-intended conversations soon becomes dehumanizing:

‘I am glad to see you looking so well,’ said my brother to my father. ‘I came here thinking that you must be really ill, but you look very well indeed.’
My brother seemed to me too cheerful, and his bright tone a little out of place. But later, when he had left my father and was alone with me, he seemed more depressed.
‘He shouldn’t be reading the paper like that, should he?’ he said.
‘No, I don’t think he should either, but what can I do? He insists on being allowed to see it.’
My brother listened to my excuses in silence. Then he said, ‘I wonder if he understands what he is reading?’ He seemed to have decided that my father’s mind had been considerably dulled by his illness.
‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘He understands perfectly well. Why, only a short time ago, I talked to him about all sorts of things for about twenty minutes, and it was obvious then that he was in full possession of his faculties. At this rate, it is possible that he will be with us for quite a while yet.’

(Kokoro, 106-107)

Viewed from this angle, Kokoro suddenly begins to exhibit a photographic realism, whose verisimilitude is only intensified by the stylization of the setting. The breakdown of the family takes place somewhere out of time. Conversations like this will repeat, almost unchanged, for as long as human beings continue to live in families (a few more decades, it looks like). Practically overnight, the same fabric of everyday life that had previously given structure and meaning to the family’s time together becomes a burden that nobody knows what to do with:

My brother and I met in the morning room… ‘Do you think you can settle down here, and take over the house?’ he said. I said nothing. My brother continued:
‘Mother can hardly manage things by herself, can she?’ The prospect of my slowly crumbling away with the odor of earth clinging to me bothered him very little. ‘If all you want to do is read books, you can do that well enough here. Besides, you won’t have to do any work. I should think the life would suit you very well.’
‘It would be more proper if you, being the elder brother, came home,’ I said.
‘How can I do a thing like that?’ he said crossly. My ambitious brother, I knew, was quite convinced that his promising career had just begun.”

(Kokoro, 116-117)

At times, this pragmatic cynicism recalls Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where the title character’s family members and co-workers similarly go through the motions of caring. But Tolstoy tries to turn dying into a kind of spiritual experience for Ivan Ilyich himself, not only separating the dying man from his family members but also elevating him above them in some way, granting him meaning that his life had never had. Of course, such an experience can only be one that follows Tolstoy’s own brand of spirituality:

He had a thought that what had previously seemed utterly impossible — that he had not lived his life as he should have — that this might be the truth. He had a thought that his barely perceptible, feeble impulses to struggle against what was believed to be good by those higher up, the feeble and barely perceptible impulses that he had always immediately brushed away — that only they might have been real, and everything else might have been wrong. His public service, the arrangement of his life, his family, and all these interests of society and service — all these might have been wrong.”

from The Death of Ivan Ilyich, part XI

There is nothing admirable about bland conformism, but when you think about it, “struggling against those higher up” is equally shallow as a deathbed consolation, at the moment when one is standing at the doorstep of the most central, most daunting experience of human life. In Tolstoy’s interpretation, “worse than his physical suffering was his moral suffering, and that was his greatest torment,” but Ivan Ilyich’s review of his life contains surprisingly little moral reflection, even as far as his “feeble impulses to struggle” are concerned (when? how? against what? on whose behalf?), and toward his family he feels only irritation and hostility. In that respect, Soseki shows much more compassion for humanity by allowing the narrator’s father to “say something quite unexpectedly gentle, such as: ‘I’ve given you a lot of trouble, haven’t I, Omitsu?’ And my mother’s eyes would suddenly fill with tears.” (Kokoro, 118) But this spontaneous, half-expressed contrition still cannot reduce the gulf between life and death, or bring about some kind of profound moral rebirth. The depersonalized secular “light” that waits for Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy is replaced, in Soseki, by sheer oblivion: “It seemed that my father’s understanding, like a white thread running through black material, was continuous though broken at intervals by patches of total darkness.” (119) Whether there is any enlightenment or reconciliation in death or not, the family will in any case never exist again, and the narrator turns his back on it, dissolving permanently from our view in an anonymous train carriage.

His “desperate desire to act” (124) is not only callous, it is pointless — he is rushing off only to find another death. One would expect the first section of the book, which describes how he got to know Sensei, to shed some light on the reasons for such a strong attachment. During a previous visit to his parents’ house, he says, “I compared my father with Sensei. Both were self-effacing men… They were, from the point of view of the public, complete nonentities. But while my chess-loving father failed even to entertain me, Sensei, whose acquaintance I had never sought for amusement’s sake, gave me far greater intellectual satisfaction as a companion. Perhaps I should not have used the word ‘intellectual’… I should perhaps have said ‘spiritual’ instead.” (49-50) But Soseki deliberately avoids anything that might make Sensei look like a “spiritual” or even an “intellectual” person. On the contrary, Sensei’s infrequent dialogue in the first section tends to be earthy and material in character, which even bothers the narrator, who is expecting something more rarefied:

After we had walked a few hundred yards beyond the gate, I suddenly said to Sensei:
‘What did you mean, Sensei, when you remarked that if tempted, any man may suddenly become evil?’
Sensei began to laugh, as if he no longer wished to discuss the matter seriously.
‘Money, of course. Give a gentleman money, and he will soon turn into a rogue.’
Sensei’s trite answer disappointed me. Sensei refused to be serious, and my pride was hurt. With a nonchalant air, I began to walk more quickly, leaving Sensei behind. ‘Hey!’ he called to me.
‘You see?’ he said.
‘What, sir?’
‘One simple remark, and your whole attitude towards me, you see, has changed.’ I had turned around to wait for Sensei and, as he spoke, he looked straight into my eyes.”

(Kokoro, 63-64)

The narrator is forced to admit, “I should like to say here that I profited considerably from my conversations with Sensei. Many times, however, I found Sensei very unsatisfactory as a mentor.” (67) And yet, at the end of the “money” exchange, one cannot help but feel, together with the narrator, that something much deeper is somehow still contained in Sensei. One now wants to look for it, even in Sensei’s most unimaginative statements:

When Sensei said this, I remembered the remark his wife once made to me that though Sensei was once an avid reader, he had since lost his old interest in books. Forgetting my thesis for a moment, I said to Sensei:
‘Why is it, Sensei, that you are not as interested in books as you once were?’
‘There is no particular reason…Well, perhaps it is because I have decided that no matter how many books I may read, I shall never be a very much better man than I am now. And…’
‘This is not very important, but to tell you the truth, I used to consider it a disgrace to be found ignorant by other people. But now, I find that I am not ashamed of knowing less than others, and I am less inclined to force myself to read books. In short, I have grown old and decrepit.’

(Kokoro, 54)

Sensei is a poor role model, but at the same time, it is possible to see how this outlook might seem liberating to the narrator. By giving up his status as a man of learning, Sensei has nothing else to be but himself. From the outside, such a self-contained existence seems somehow uniquely complete, and this quality fascinates the narrator: “Sensei, who went his solitary way without saying very much, seemed to me to be a greater man than those famous professors who lectured to me from their platforms.” (28-29) Perhaps seeing it has made him perceive his own emptiness for the first time — he has only just now discovered his own mediocrity (through working on his thesis), and he has nothing within himself on which to fall back. In some way, he makes Sensei’s self-awareness into something to lean on, something that somehow makes up for his own lack of individuality. Around this same image of Sensei, the first movements of his own consciousness then come into being.

In the third section, Sensei explains how he came to such a state. In his own student days, he was in a love triangle with “Ojosan” (his future wife) and his friend “K.” Soseki had a fascination with this situation and wrote many variations on it, each time experimenting with a different outcome. In And Then, for example, the introverted protagonist chooses friendship over love (or thinks he does), only to regret it years later; but, in Kokoro, Sensei plucks Ojosan from K’s grasp in a somewhat underhanded manner. Upon hearing of their engagement, K says nothing, but commits suicide that same night. Sensei and Ojosan marry, but Sensei is left with a feeling of guilt that he is never able to overcome. Every month, he visits K’s grave in Zoshigaya Cemetery — which, as though an afterword to the novel, eventually became Soseki’s own resting place.


I felt very strongly the sinfulness of man. It was this feeling that sent me to K’s grave every month, that made me take care of my mother-in-law in her illness and behave gently toward my wife. It was this sense of sin that led me to feel sometimes that I would welcome a flogging even at the hands of strangers. When this desire for punishment became particularly strong, I would begin to feel that it should come from myself, and not others. Then I would think of death. Killing myself seemed a just punishment for my sins. Finally, I decided to go on living as if I were dead.”

(Kokoro, 242-243)

Again, from a purely literary point of view, one might ask how well the third section really serves the novel. Perhaps Soseki just wanted to make it clear that there was never much that was “spiritual” or “intellectual” in the narrator’s enigmatic mentor. In a sense, his life experience had been cut short by K’s death, which had happened when Sensei was still very young. There is a certain poverty in his narrow vision of the world — and lest we forget, he decides to commit suicide knowing full well that this will traumatize his wife, who has also been subjected to his self-imposed isolation this whole time with no choice in the matter, and therefore has never even had the chance to get to know anyone else who might now help her. Soseki himself had a strong sense of duty to his family, so he may have seen this as a way to avoid romanticizing Sensei. But, in any case, the third section often feels like a laboriously detailed answer to questions that never had or needed one.

There is, however, one important and oft-quoted passage close to the end:

Time and again, I wondered what had caused K to commit suicide. At first, I was inclined to think that it was disappointment in love. I could think of nothing but love then, and quite naturally I accepted without question the first simple and straightforward explanation that came to my mind. Later, however…I became aware of the possibility that K had experienced loneliness as terrible as mine, and wishing to escape quickly from it, had killed himself. Once more, fear gripped my heart. From then on, like a gust of winter wind, the premonition that I was treading the same path as K had done would rush at me from time to time, and chill me to the bone.”

(Kokoro, 240-241)

Individuality is not a higher form of existence, to be achieved through hard work and training. Nor is it something to aspire to or be proud of. Awakening happens through tragedy, which in turn happens more or less by chance. One then has to live with the knowledge that one is alone, even if, like Sensei, one is ill-equipped to handle it. Solitude acquires weight and reality. The outside world is less corporeal in comparison. In her afterword to And Then, which in many ways is still the most perceptive English-language academic piece on Soseki after over 40 years, Norma Moore Field calls this “the individual who is burdened with an acute awareness of the impossibility of existence such that nonexistence appears more real and more natural[.]” (And Then, 272) Perhaps we should only remove the qualifier “who.”


For other Soseki protagonists, this experience begins just as arbitrarily. For Daisuke Nagai in And Then, it apparently starts with a feeling of impermanence that takes on a literal, physical character. Living in idleness thanks to his father’s wealth, he has enough time on his hands to become attuned to the most minute sensations, which his mind magnifies beyond proportion:

Then, as if he had just thought of it, he put his hand to his heart and once again began to study its beat. It had become a habit with him lately to listen to his heart’s pulsation while lying in bed. As usual, the palpitation was calm and steady. With his hand still on his chest, he tried to imagine the warm, crimson blood flowing leisurely to this beat. This was life, he thought. Now, at this very moment, he held in his grasp the current of life as it flowed by. To his palm it felt like the ticking of a clock. But it was more, it was a kind of alarm that summoned him to death.”

(And Then, 1)

Three or four years ago he had tackled the question of the process whereby his waking mind entered the realm of dreams. At night, when he had gotten under the covers and begun to doze off nicely, he would think, this is it, this is how I fall asleep. No sooner had he thought this than he was wide awake. When he had managed to doze off again, he would immediately think, here it is. Night after night, he was plagued by his curiosity and would repeat the same procedure two or three times. In the end, he became disgusted in spite of himself…at that rate, it stood to reason that he would never again be able to sleep. He knew all this, but when night came, he still thought, now…

(And Then, 51-52)

It is a very fine awareness of one’s existence, if only on a physical level, that can notice the precise moment between wakefulness and sleep. Daisuke feels his way into individual consciousness. Interestingly, although he has a university education, speaks multiple languages and collects art albums, Daisuke is never seen engaging in any intellectual activity (even reading). There are several times when he is said to be thinking, but no clear thought process is shown. On the contrary, Soseki explicitly states that Daisuke’s thoughts have no specific content: “There was nothing concrete in Daisuke’s head at the moment. It was just quietly at work, almost like the weather outside. But an infinite number of undefinable particles were pushing against each other in the back of his mind.” (61) It is not necessarily the exercise of reason that awakens individuality. Consciousness can perceive the world outside itself in great detail, but in a certain sense it is powerless to interact with it. Might that not be the logical conclusion of Aristotle’s “thought which has itself for its object“?

Daisuke’s decisions are made on impulse. In this way, he originally allowed his friend/rival Hiraoka to marry the woman whom he had loved more, and in the same way he decides to take her back from Hiraoka years later. The outcome is, and can only be, disastrous. But his decision is motivated by compassion for Michiyo, which also suddenly dawns on him out of nowhere:

The color had finally returned to her cheeks. Taking a handkerchief from her sleeve, she wiped her mouth and began to talk — usually, she took the streetcar from Dentsuinmae to Hongo to do her shopping, but she had heard the prices were a good 10 to 20 percent higher in Hongo than in Kagurazaka, so she had tried coming out here once or twice… But the weather had turned bad and just as she was going up Waradana, it had begun to sprinkle. She hadn’t brought an umbrella so she had hurried, not wanting to get too wet. But this immediately hurt her; she didn’t know what to do, it was so hard to breathe — ‘But I’m used to it, so it didn’t surprise me,’ she said, and gave Daisuke a lonely smile.”

(And Then, 123)

And it is his (and her) decision — perhaps the only conscious choice he has ever made. Field sees in this some sort of death drive: “In the very act of returning to his original self, Daisuke is embracing death. In fact, he was never seriously interested in existence… There are a number of indications…that nonbeing was always attractive to him. Even his obsession with health is the other side of the coin of a fascination with death,” (And Then, 273) this last observation certainly sounding highly plausible when one remembers Mishima. But Daisuke does not return to an earlier state — rather, it is a new sense of awareness that drives him to do what he couldn’t before. And it is not the same Michiyo to whom he attempts to “return,” but an older woman, seriously ill, beaten down by an unhappy life, whose resolve to die with him also reflects a new sense of purpose within herself. Daisuke’s willful self-destruction is pointless, but it elicits much more respect than his previous identity as a lightweight social butterfly dealing in such flippant excuses as, “Of course, if Japanese society were in sound spiritual, moral, and physical health — if it were just in all around good health, then…there would be plenty of incentive to shake me out of my inclination to just loaf.” (73) The thrifty, workaholic Soseki would have despised this sentiment, but he takes Daisuke’s decision very seriously, making him into one of his most sympathetic protagonists.


The Gate is a kind of inverted sequel: in his youth, Sosuke also stole his friend’s wife Oyone, but unlike Daisuke, he was strong enough to live through the consequences. This time, the fatal affair was the product of pure passion, not will — it just seemed to happen by itself, to the astonishment of everyone involved. “A furious wind had blown up from nowhere and struck down the unwary couple. When they finally picked themselves up off the ground, they saw that they were covered with dirt from head to foot… But when and how they had fallen, neither could say.” (The Gate, 153) Sosuke, like Daisuke, is disowned by his family; he and Oyone become pariahs, and Sosuke’s uncle appropriates Sosuke’s inheritance, another Soseki subject that we see reprised in Kokoro. By the time the novel begins, Sosuke is working as a low-ranking government clerk in Tokyo, after several years in “exile” in Hiroshima and Fukuoka (the latter being about as remote as Kumamoto). He rents a tiny house at the foot of a cliff, “which seemed to press down upon the eaves of the house…so that even the morning sun, which should have come streaming in, could not easily disperse the shadows.” (7) Sosuke and Oyone are not exactly penniless, but they live from one paycheck to the next, with no prospects for improving their situation. They also have no children, which Soseki all but invites the reader to interpret as divine punishment (again like in Kokoro).

According to Soseki’s description, Sosuke and Oyone can hardly be thirty — “In the six long years [Sosuke was a university student when they first met. -FL] they had spent together there had never been even half a day in which their relationship had been strained” (134) — but they act much older. Their life, for all intents and purposes, is over. At the end of the novel, Sosuke survives a wave of layoffs and even receives a raise, but the closing lines do not leave much room to anticipate any substantial change for the better: Oyone remarks, “It’s a good thing, isn’t it. Spring is finally here,” but Sosuke replies, “But it will soon be winter again.” (213)

Sosuke has had to bear more disdain, bordering on open mockery, from Western critics than even Sanshiro. The primary reason is that, towards the end of the novel, Sosuke visits a Buddhist temple in an effort to make some sense of his life, but fails to make progress in the Zen koan that he is given to study. (In fact, this is one of the most autobiographical moments in all of Soseki’s writing — as John Nathan writes, “Between December 23, 1894, and January 7, 1895, Soseki spent two weeks meditating at the Enkaku-ji Zen temple in Kamakura and receiving instruction from a Zen monk,” and in the process received exactly the same assignment as Sosuke, the koanyour inherent face before the birth of your parents,” which he likewise couldn’t solve.) This failure is then interpreted as a lack of enlightenment, a condition of unreasoning existential fear. Even Norma Moore Field does not do much better than, “Both [Sosuke] and Oyone want to escape from their past, and, by extension, from themselves. They are stray sheep lost not only to society but to their own souls… The seemingly irrelevant koan assigned to Sosuke was in fact directing him to think about…the essence of his being, indeed, of life; but Sosuke’s unexamined fear blinds him and he does not know that he must look into himself to right his skewed universe.” (And Then, 276)

But ostracism and failure can have a greater effect on individuality than any meditation. Solitude is the first and central philosophical experience, and it is constantly present in the background of Sosuke’s life. Here he is thinking about the upcoming New Year’s holiday:

He visualized the cheerful, celebrating crowds that would throng the streets, but among all these people there would not be one to take him by the elbow and make him a member of his party. Like an outsider not invited to the banquet, he was not allowed to drink the wine… It was appropriate to the general tone of his life, then, that he should spend the liveliest hours of the year in silent solitude, watching over a deserted house.”

(The Gate, 157)

Nor is Sosuke a total stranger to intellectual effort — he is familiar with Confucius, and mentions trying to read the Analects in Chapter V, he just doesn’t find any meaningful answers there. Field and others apparently think that he should have persevered at the Zen temple until some unambiguous revelation, with all the clarity of a slogan, descended upon him. But, tellingly, no one ever says anything specific about the possible content of “the essence of his being, indeed, of life,” perhaps because there is none. Sosuke may be less cerebral than Sensei in Kokoro, but they both arrive at the same “loneliness.” Ultimately — unfortunately — there is nothing else to find inside oneself.

Sosuke lives in the most straitened circumstances of any Soseki protagonist, but in a certain strange sense he is also free of them. His landlord even notices this: “Forgive me for saying this, but…you seem to have so little to do with the world and all this New Year’s commotion. In short — this may be an awkward way of putting it, but I wanted to talk to someone who was, well, above it all.” (162) The cliff that looms over Sosuke’s house actually only serves to emphasize “the beautiful, clear sky, blue all over. Viewed from the tiny veranda, it seemed extremely vast.” (5) When Sosuke keeps watch over Oyone during her illness, “the sun, giving an orange flush to the earth, rose unhesitatingly into a blue sky that offered it no resistance.” (115) Sosuke is far more self-contained than his younger brother Koroku, who thinks that others are obligated to fund his studies, for which he has shown little tangible aptitude. And, by stoically accepting and enduring the consequences of his youthful transgression, Sosuke shows himself to be far stronger than either Daisuke (who gives in to madness or death) or Sensei (who commits suicide, abandoning his wife). For this he is rewarded with a quiet life together with Oyone — the only happy marriage in all of Soseki’s work.

Soon it was dark. Even during the day few sounds from the street found their way here, but now at night it was perfectly still. Husband and wife took their usual places beside the lamp. It seemed to them that in this wide world only the place where they sat was light. And in this circle of light Sosuke was conscious only of Oyone, and Oyone only of Sosuke. They forgot all about the dark world which the light of their lamp did not illumine. Spending all their evenings in this way, they had come to discover their own life.”

(The Gate, 61)

In Kokoro, every relationship, whether between husband and wife or parent and child, has been destroyed by the end of the novel. Yet the final effect is less devastating than this might suggest. Although the second half of the book is told from Sensei’s point of view, nonetheless the nominal protagonist is not Sensei, but the young narrator, who remains alive. He has nothing left, but this also allows him to start anew. Perhaps he will eventually go down the same road as Sensei — that is one popular reading, arising naturally from Sensei’s own “premonition that I was treading down the same path that K had done” — but no one knows. The world is still open to him; telling the story from his point of view has the effect of a fresh breeze disrupting the funereal stillness of Sensei’s wasted life. Like Sanshiro standing in front of Mineko’s painting, the narrator has been changed by having known Sensei, but there are still many directions in which he could go. John Nathan dutifully reports that some Japanese critics have apparently developed a theory that the narrator is rushing off to marry Sensei’s widow. As far as the actual content of the book goes, this is bizarre nonsense, but at least it is perversely life-affirming, a response to the possibility of harmony inside the world of Kokoro.

And where, in all this, is Soseki himself? I imagine his characters in vivid detail, but all that is left of their creator is a handful of faded photographs.

Soseki and wife-to-be Kyoko. 1894.

To some degree that can be explained by the times — Mishima was able to make every aspect of his life (and death) public, with films, photo sessions and political displays, but Soseki lived sixty years earlier, when the mass media were still nascent. But then, Tolstoy had made himself into a public figure in a still earlier time. The fact is that Soseki was simply too normal to leave much trace of his non-literary life. His occasional efforts to write more documentary-like essays, such as the 1915 collection Inside My Glass Doors, were surprisingly unrevealing — a few unfocused sketches of everyday life, grumbles at minor annoyances, fragments of conversations. Soseki’s house was destroyed by a bomb in May 1945, but if it had been preserved to the present day, it would surely appear modest and anonymous, saying little about its onetime occupant.

After Kokoro, Soseki completed one more novel — Grass on the Wayside, a more overtly autobiographical story about a resentful scholar with an unhappy childhood who feels alienated from his family. Although many events in the novel are taken directly from Soseki’s life, one should not go too far in identifying the author with the protagonist. After all, unlike Kenzo, Soseki was doing work that he loved. Yet, it is true that the novel also clearly has a certain self-pitying streak that makes it appear to be more one-dimensional than his other major works. Thereafter, Soseki started a new project, Light and Darkness, a very long, ambitious and somewhat muddled novel whose serialization in the Asahi Shimbun was cut short (after installment #188) by the author’s death. In many places, Light and Darkness feels like a transitional work, but it is impossible to know where Soseki was planning to take it.

Perhaps he was just too ill to continue. But even if one views Kokoro as his last will and testament, the resulting body of work says enough for an entire culture. Throughout all of this work there is always a certain understatement, an openness hinting at multiple directions, not only for the characters but also, ultimately, for the reader. After all, Sanshiro, Daisuke, Sosuke and Sensei — and Soseki — are all gone; it is the reader who now looks, sometimes for the first time, with open, clear eyes at an equally open, clear world. And if, in our reality, the last echoes of that world should have departed, surely that only gives greater reality to another, eternal Japan, whose serene sky remains vast enough for the wandering mind.


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