The years between 1868 and 1912 span an era in Japan known as the Meiji Period. A time of great social and political reform, during this period Japan shifted gears rapidly from being a closed country clinging to tradition, to one which strove to be recognised as a modern global power. This is a time which produced one of the most famous and influential writers in modern Japanese literature – Sōseki Natsume.
From a young age enamoured with Chinese literature, since his youth Sōseki had dreamed of becoming a writer. Born ‘Kinnosuke Natsume’, he first used the pen name ‘Sōseki’ when he was around 20. Even to this day, it’s quite common for Japanese artists, writers and entertainers to use a pseudonym as a sort of public persona, but the name ‘Sōseki’ – which references a Chinese idiom used to describe a person who stubbornly refuses to admit they have been proven wrong – seems inspired by both his passion for Chinese literature and his affinity for scathing humour.
However, despite his love for Chinese literature, Japan was changing – and it was clear to Sōseki that the English language held significant value in the modern world. Thus, Sōseki studied English at university, later joining the English Literature department. He dabbled in translation, and upon graduation chose to pursue post-graduate studies while part-timing as a teacher, before eventually moving on to teach full-time, writing haikus and Chinese poetry on the side.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government was aggressively pursuing modernisation by studying everything the West had to offer, and in 1900, gave Sōseki a scholarship and sent him to Great Britain to make a study of English literature. All in all, Sōseki suffered deeply from culture shock and found the experience utterly miserable, but his time studying English literature in London inspired a deep fascination with the fundamental dissimilarity between English and Chinese literature, causing him to ask: “What is literature?”
This question influenced his work strongly, and through his exploration of the nature of literature, Sōseki developed a literary style containing elements of both Chinese and English literature, as well as a perspective which is uniquely Japanese – a style formed in a changing age, and which still influences Japanese writers today.
Upon his return to Japan in 1903, Sōseki began work as a lecturer and professor of English Literature at his alma mater, Tokyo Imperial University. But in 1905, his biting humour brought him to the attention of the masses, with the beginning of his satirical novel ‘I Am a Cat’. Originally intended as a short story, in the end ten instalments were published in a popular literary magazine. The tale is presented as a window into Japanese society as it was at the time – still negotiating a balance between traditional ‘Japanese’ and modern ‘Western’ culture – through the eyes of a self-important house cat, who naturally considers human behaviour to be quite ridiculous.
Sōseki proceeded to solidify his reputation in the world of literature, writing short stories as well as two more novels – ‘Botchan’ and ‘Kusamakura’ (which has been translated as ‘The Three-Cornered World’) – until finally he was able to resign from the university and join a newspaper called Asahi Shimbun as a full-time writer. During the course of his career, he wrote several other novels which are today considered some of the finest works in modern Japanese literature, in particular the dramatic work ‘Kokoro’. Although it was his humorous work which first attracted attention, by this time his style had evolved to become more dramatic and serious, often revealing a pessimistic view of human behaviour and Japanese society.
Sadly, Sōseki’s time as a professional writer lasted only a little more than 10 years. In 1916, at only 49 years of age, he passed away, leaving his final work incomplete – ‘Light and Darkness’, which during its serialised production still managed to become his longest novel.
Despite the relative brevity of his literary career, Sōseki’s work left a profound impression on the evolution of modern Japanese literature, and his stories have also found popularity globally. Many of his works have been translated repeatedly, with ‘Kokoro’ alone published in no fewer than ten different languages since 2001. His image was also featured on the Japanese 1000 yen note for 20 years from the mid-80s.
Coming from a humble beginning in 1867 as an unwanted child, as a writer Sōseki influenced Japanese culture while impacted in turn by the changing world around him. He was undeniably a great writer, but much of what ultimately influenced him was uniquely a product of his time – from the traditional values and hardship of his youth, to the literary contrast highlighted by his time in London and his study of great English literature, which was only made possible by the outwardly-focused gaze of a country in a revolution of modernisation.