Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Soseki: The Question of Japanese Modernity
By Hoang Nguyen
Introductory Remarks: The following article is primarily a review of the novel Kokoro, considered the most important work written by the famous Japanese author Natsume Soseki (1867-1916). Soseki is highly regarded in his native Japan; his works are considered one of the nation’s cultural treasures, his books are required reading in Japanese schools, and his portrait even appears on Japan’s currency. His book Kokoro, in particular, is seen as one of the best representations of the traditional Japanese soul, and as Nguyen’s review reveals, was important in warning the Japanese people against excessive Westernisation. We should note to our readers that another, similar but more in-depth academic analysis of Kokoro was made by Koji Nakamura in his article “Soseki’s Kokoro as a Cross-Cultural Study for Exchange Students from North America and Europe” (alt.), and it will be useful to read that as well to gain a fuller understanding. However, as is evident from most studies on Soseki’s critiques of and warnings against Westernisation, Soseki’s view was limited by his time period (the Meiji era) and preceded the process of true “modernisation without Westernisation,” which manifested itself most clearly over a decade after his death (although it is clear that Westernisation had many limitations even during the Meiji period).
By the 1930’s, Japan began to reassert its ethno-cultural and religious identity and combined it with economic and scientific modernisation, and although this process was disrupted by their defeat in World War II and the ensuing troubling time period (the late 1940s up to the early 1970s), by the later 20th Century (the late 1970s and beyond) they began reasserting their cultural identity once again in a new way. Essentially, despite still facing some cultural problems today which need to be overcome, modernisation without Westernisation is mostly successful in Japan, as Nguyen notes in the beginning of her review, and as Alexander Dugin had also observed in his article “In the Country of the Rising ‘Do’.” However, even if some of Natsume Soseki’s approaches or statements are outdated, this doesn’t mean that Soseki’s literature is irrelevant today. Quite the contrary, by being so ingrained into the culture, Soseki’s works help constantly remind the Japanese to defend their ethno-cultural identity against disintegration by globalisation. Europeans would do well to learn from this. – Daniel Macek (Editor of the “New European Conservative”)
“Perhaps you will not understand clearly why I am about to die, no more than I can fully understand why General Nogi killed himself. You and I belong to different eras, and so we think differently. There is nothing we can do to bridge the gap between us.” (Sensei from Kokoro)
Japanese Modernity has often been equated with Westernization. The significance of this equation is that it constructs an assumption that modernity is solely based on the Western values. As Japan became a modern nation, assertions were made that the process of modernization was actually the process of Westernization. However, Natsume Soseki, in his most accomplished novel Kokoro, criticized this equation by exposing the modern Japan in conflict with Western values. However, it failed to give a satisfactory alternative solution to the concept of Japanese modernity.
Modernization is by definition a technological process. Although modernity is the result of modernization, modernity necessarily includes not only technological but also social and economic factors. The definition of modernization can be derived from the results of industrial evolution and technological advances which were prevailing in Europe one time in history. However, the definition of modernity should in no way be connected to Western influence since not all countries should follow the same path of economic and social development as the West did. Therefore, it is obvious that Japan has modernized based on the technological achievements of the West but it is still open to debate whether the modernity of Japan should be the modernity represented by Western countries. Japanese modernity is equal to Western modernity in terms of technological developments, but not necessarily so in social and economic realms.
In Kokoro, Natsume Soseki told a story happening at the time Japan was modernizing and mentioned a variety of Western influences which were alienating to the Japanese society, at least the society of the Meiji Era. In doing this, Soseki showed us the short-comings of the Western modernity equation, which tries to predetermine a model for the modernity of Japan without any concerns for Japanese long history of traditions. Japanese modernity is a complicated concept and reducing it to a simple Western modernity equation is an eliminating process that sets aside important social and cultural factors.
There are various factors of Western modernity that were criticized in the text. Modern education and capitalism were the two major factors that surfaced in the story. Viewed from a Western modernity viewpoint, these are the necessary factors of modernity. However, throughout the text, Soseki made it clear that trying to attach these factors to Japanese society and the Japanese spectrum of modernity will only create social alienation and miscommunication. Incorporating all these factors into the contrasts between the past and the present, the old and the new, the traditional and the non-traditional, and finally, the dead and the alive, Soseki drew a spectacular picture of the Japanese society struggling in vain to adapt to Western modernity.
In “Kokoro,” modern education was not helpful in dealing with the reality of life. At this point in history, the Japanese school system had been westernized; therefore, studying activities, especially in higher education, followed strictly the Western model of education. Both the character “I” and Sensei were involved in intellectual activities. However, they do not find any significance value in their studies.
I opened the window of my room, which was on the second floor and, pretending that my diploma was a telescope, I surveyed as much of the world as I could see… Then I threw the diploma down on the desk… In that position, I thought back over my past and tried to imagine what my future would be. I thought about my diploma lying on the desk and, though it seemed to have some significance as a kind of symbol of the beginning of a new life, I could not help feeling that it was a meaningless scrap of paper too.
The diploma, a thing that represents the honor of intellectual activities, has been a symbol of education and reason. The act of “pretending my diploma was a telescope” can be interpreted as the author’s attempt at viewing the world through the knowledge he acquired from school, from the lectures and from his professors. However, that was a failed attempt since he himself admitted that “I could not help feeling that it was a meaningless scrap of paper…” He found no use in the kind of knowledge he acquired. That is why he “threw the diploma down on the desk…” Besides the author who was doubtful about the usefulness of his study, other characters in the story also expressed disbelief in the significance of modern education. Both Sensei and his wife did not know where Sensei’s diploma was even though a diploma is supposed to be important for an intellectual person like Sensei. For Sensei, at a point of great depression in his life, he felt that “the professors who stood on the platforms seemed very far away, and their voices faint.” That was his disappointment in modern education which is far away from the reality of life. When Sensei sought to be guided in life by the knowledge he acquired from school, he found nothing but faint voices from far-away professors. Modern education based its teachings on Western thoughts; therefore, it does not speak truth to the Japanese society.
As a result, those who received modern education were lost in the gap between the Japanese world and the Western world. Sensei’s wife commented, “I see that higher education has made you adept at empty rationalization.” Ojosan spoke this sentence when she was explaining to the author about her relationship with Sensei. The author kept using his modern reasoning to analyze the relationship between Ojosan and Sensei while Ojosan seemed to insist that “empty rationalization” does not help when it comes to explaining people’s motives.
But sometimes I was inclined to regard his reserve unfavorably. I liked then to think that his reluctance to discuss such a matter was due to timidity born of the conventions of a generation ago. I thought myself more free, in this respect, and more open-minded, than either Sensei or his wife.
The author assumed that his education has made him “more free” and “more open-minded” than Sensei who had the “timidity born of the conventions of a generation ago.” This goes to show that “empty rationalization,” the kind of modern reasoning that the author studied at school, was actually at odds with the Japanese traditional way of thinking, which values human passion more than cold unbiased reason. Reason, in the Japanese way of thinking, is inferior to passion, as Sensei asserted, “I believe that words uttered in passion contain a greater living truth than do those words which express thoughts rationally conceived.” Throughout the whole story, the author kept on analyzing people’s behavior by his modern reasoning. However, as Sensei pointed out, there is something else that the author does not know. “”You have never thought seriously of the reality of death, have you?” I became silent.” Only people of the previous generation could understand “the reality of death.” Both Sensei and the author’s father reacted in a melancholic manner to the death of Meiji Emperor. The author himself could only understand the news as the death of an influential figure. For Sensei and the author’s father, death has a special meaning. Equipped with university knowledge, the author may be good at his field of study but he could never understand the people. However much he studied, he could not understand the spirit of the previous generations (Sensei, Ojosan, his father…). The author’s brother, who also had a university degree, also did not understand Sensei. He said, “That’s the trouble with egoists … They are brazen enough to think they have the right to live idly. It’s a crime not to make the best use of whatever ability one has.”
Obviously, his reasoning was fair. Nevertheless, it is not persuasive because he could not understand that people like Sensei could have a reasonable motive behind their behaviors. It is not what education can teach him. Education could not bridge the gap between different generations. That is also the gap between a traditional Japan and a Westernized Japan that modern education could never fill. Even though Japan has begun to Westernize, to begin “a new life,” the author kept wondering what identity he would absorb in that new life: “… I thought back over my past and tried to imagine what my future would be.” The author thought that with his diploma, he could be sure about his future. However, modern education did not give him the answer to his identity. What will the modern Japanese society? And what is the significance of modern education in shaping such a society and the individuals in that society? These questions remained unanswered to the author as he threw his diploma on the desk and wondered about the future of the society he was living in.
Alienation is the effect of forcing Western modernity on Japanese society. Individualism, originally not associated with modernity, has become so popular in European societies that it entered the spectrum of Western modernity. However, as Japan modernizes, it is not suitable to assume that Japan will absorb individualism the way the West did. When Sensei commented that “… loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egoistical selves,” the author “could not think of anything to say.” Members of the modern society enjoy the benefits of individualism. However, the traditional Japanese society itself upholds strong values of communal relationships and several aspects of individualism like independence and self-reliance clash with these values. Therefore, the loneliness that both Sensei and the narrator experienced is the alienation that resulted from the rapid development from the Japanese communal space to a modern individualistic society. K, who acquired many aspects of Western modernity like education and intellectual thoughts, had the same fate. K was alienated from his own society. He did not have any close friends since no one could understand his modern thoughts, which he diligently studied from Western texts. By following his study without concerning his family’s opinions, he became the representative of Western individualism. It was his individualistic tendency that drove him away from his own family and society.
Alienation was described more clearly through the miscommunications of the characters in the story. Western societies value the voice of the individual and encourage conversations in constructing a relationship. However, there are things that cannot be conveyed by words and those belong to the traditional sphere that Western ideals seemed to interfere with. Conversations seemed to only disturb the understanding between people. “It was wrong of me. I had intended to make you aware of certain truths. Instead, I have only succeeded in irritating you.”
When the Sensei tried to explain to the narrator his idea about love, he did not manage to express himself clearly. The narrator only got more confused after listening to Sensei’s explanation.“I was trying to explain my earlier remarks because I thought they had irritated you. But in trying to explain, I find that I have upset you once more.”
The constant misunderstanding and miscommunications between the author and Sensei throughout the first two chapters of the story revealed how far people of different generations were from each other. The author belonged to the modern world while Sensei is forever associated with the past. Sensei always lived haunted by his past. Therefore, not understanding the past, the author could not figure out the meaning of Sensei’s behaviors. Western modernity, the kind of “borrowed” modernity, was not valued by Sensei:“True, my ethics may be different from those of the young men of today. But they are at least my own. I did not borrow them for the sake of convenience as a man might a dress suit.”
Western modernity was not meant forJapan. It was like a suit that Japanese people put on in order to modernize but it will never fit. Sensei valued his own ethics even though it is “different from those of young men of today.” It is that difference that forever separated the traditional, the past and the modern, the present. The title of the story is “Kokoro,” which can be translated as “feeling,” the kind of feeling that words cannot easily convey. The story, then, can be interpreted as the author’s journey to understand “kokoro,” to grasp the deepest feelings of Sensei who, to him, was a “half-hidden figure.” At the same time, it is a journey to understand the past and to figure out what is the meaning of the past to the future of his society. In the Japanese spirit, “kokoro” is a sacred realm and a key element of a communal space. Western modernity, whatever benefits it may bring, did not suffice to become the future of Japan simply because it neglects “kokoro.” Miscommunication between Sensei and the narrator was just one example of the many miscommunications between Japanese traditional spirit and Western modernity spirit.
The unsuitability of Western modernity for Japanese society was emphasized by the difference between different generations and between the past and the present.
But you must not think that K’s inability to discard his old ways and begin his life anew was due to his lack of modern concepts. You must understand that to K, his own past seemed too sacred a thing to be thrown away like an old suit of clothes. One might say that his past was his life, and to deny it would have meant that his life thus far had been without purpose… he was forced to look back and remind himself of what his past had meant. And in doing so he could not but continue along the path that he had so far followed.
The influence of the past on K was so great and so “sacred” that even though K has been immersed in modern concepts in his intellectual activities, he could not help but continue his “old ways.” This is the dilemma of Japan. Wanting to move on and to modernize,Japan has adopted Western ideas. However, the shadow of the past and the traditions are still there and Western modernity provided no means to overcome that shadow.
Perhaps you will not understand clearly why I am about to die, no more than I can fully understand why General Nogi killed himself. You and I belong to different eras, and so we think differently. There is nothing we can do to bridge the gap between us.
Both Sensei and the author were helpless in their attempts to understand each other. It is not only the gap between generations. Even though they are living in the same society, Sensei and the author each belonged to a world of his own. Sensei’s world is the Japan of Meiji emperor and General Nogi. The author’s world is the modern, individualistic and capitalistic Japan. Western modernity assumed that those two worlds can coexist peacefully at the same time within Japanese society. However, that was a misconception. Japan can modernize technologically but it does not necessarily absorb all the social aspects of a Western modern society. Western modernity forced onto Japanese communal space only created clashes and conflicts which cannot be solved.
One example of those conflicts is the negative effect of capitalism on Japanese society.
If there is any property in your family, then I do think you should see to it that your inheritance is properly settled now… But don’t you think that, while your father is alive, you should make sure that you will receive your proper share? When a man dies suddenly, his estate causes more trouble than anything else.
Sensei saw “estate” as troublesome. And he was honest. Inheritance is a highly valued concept in Japanese society. It is through inheritance that traditions can be passed down from generation to generation, and the glory of the past, as a result, would be preserved. However, capitalism attached monetary value to inheritance, thus turning it into a troublesome thing. In a capitalistic world, money and capital are favored over relationships and humans themselves. It was money that ruined the relationship between Sensei and his uncle. It was also money that exacerbates K’s relationship with both his foster family and his real family. K’s only connection with his foster family is the money he received for his study. When they stopped offering to sponsor his study, K’s relationship with them also ended. All the relationships that were abandoned in the story were due to material conflicts. Money and capital has grown to become so important in that modern society that people could not but give in to its power and neglect their relationships. K had no time to worry about his family problems because he had to worry about money matters first:
Whether he should return to his original family because of the unhappy incident, or whether he should consider some way of compromise and remain with his adopted family, was a problem for the future, but what required his immediate attention was the question of how he was to pay for his education.
Moreover, money has been described by Sensei as something “evil.” Sensei expressed his contempt for money, “Give a gentleman money, and he will soon turn into a rogue.” Those people who got controlled by money became, in Sensei’s mind, “the personification of all those things in this world which make it unworthy of trust.” The goal of modernity is not, and should not be, a society where people cannot trust each other. The Japanese spirit that has always valued honor and trust will not be able to wholly accept the concept of capitalism and materialism.
Soseki tried to give an alternative to the problem by using the concept of a hybrid. In other words, he wanted the modern Japanese people to inherit the traditions and the social spirit of the past while still moving on with the technological developments introduced by the West. In this solution, He focused on the tradition of inheritance as the key to defining Japanese modernity. Inheritance was used as a means to transporting the social spirit from generation to generation. A series of inheritance were broken in the story all due to the intervention of Western modernity. Sensei lost part of his inheritance because of his capitalistic uncle. K lost his “inheritance” from the foster family because he decided to follow his individualistic dream. However, those were cases of inheritance defined by money value. The kind of inheritance that is more important in the story is the sacred inheritance of the social spirit, which helps to create the hybrid of traditional values and modern tendencies. K is the perfect example of such a social hybrid. He was born in a temple and seemed to embody the important part of Japanese social spirit, the “concentration of mind.” However, at the same time, he was interested in studying the Bible and the Koran. He also likes to talk about subjects like religion and philosophy, which were obviously full of Western thoughts. K kept on living with his “concentration of mind” while constantly updating himself with Western intellectual knowledge through modern education. He succeeded in keeping the Japanese traditional attitude and the Western modern tendencies in dealing with life. His death has a big influence on Sensei. After K’s death, Sensei became another “K.” In this case, death is a kind of sacred inheritance, as the story unfolded.
The kind of social hybrid that K represented was passed down to Sensei when K died, and at the end of the story, it was passed down to the narrator when Sensei committed suicide. Such was Soseki’s approach to the problem of Japanese modernity. However, it was not a perfect solution. K’s reason for studying the Bible is because “one should read a book so highly valued by others.” This explanation somehow hinted that Japan is adopting Western modernity just because this model has been accepted as universal in the Western world. By making this statement, K lost his own identity. Moreover, when he was struck by the Western platonic love for Ojosan, K could not keep his traditional “concentration of mind” anymore and eventually committed suicide. This clash between Western modernity and Japanese traditions has remained unsolved and there was no answer to it other than death.
The novel Kokoro criticized Western modernity by depicting modern education and capitalism in a negative tone. It also showed us the social alienation resulted from the act of forcing a Western model of modernity onto Japanese society. The story itself was filled with darkness and helplessness, which appropriately reflects the atmosphere of a society gradually losing its own identity. The answer given was death, and only hopeless death could end the tension brought about by the clash between Western and Japanese values.
Nguyen, Hoang. “Kokoro (1914) by Natsume Soseki: The Question of Japanese Modernity.” East Asian Pop Culture, 27 March 2012. <http://easdiary.wordpress.com/2012/03/27/kokoro-by-natsume-soseki-the-question-of-japanese-modernity/ >.
Notes on Further Reading: A great deal of Natsume Soseki’s works – mostly novels – have been translated into English (and numerous other languages). His most significant works are I Am A Cat, Botchan, Kusamakura/The Three-Cornered World, Sanshiro, Sorekara/And Then, The Gate, and Kokoro.
For those interested in reading and studying other Japanese literature (which is also useful for the study of Japan’s culture, history, and religious attitudes), we recommend the following two anthologies which were edited by Donald Keene: Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Grove Press, 1955), and Modern Japanese Literature: From 1868 to the Present Day (New York: Grove Press, 1956).
Concerning important modern classic Japanese authors (other than Natsume Soseki) whose works have been translated, we can note the following for readers who are interested: Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kyoka Izumi, Osamu Dazai, Junichiro Tanizaki, Eiji Yoshikawa, Edogawa Rampo, Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Fumiko Enchi, Yasushi Inoue, Shuhei Fujisawa, and Hisashi Inoue.