Authors: Sōseki Natsume

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Japanese novelist

February 9, 1867

Edo (now Tokyo), Japan

December 9, 1916

Tokyo, Japan


Sōseki Natsume (soh-seh-kee naht-soom-ee)—against tradition, he is usually referred to as Sōseki—is generally regarded as the most popular twentieth century Japanese novelist. The son of a ward chief, he was born Kinnosuke Natsume in Tokyo on February 9, 1867. Sōseki later referred to himself as a “spiritual orphan” during his childhood, for he was given up for adoption at birth, having been an unwanted fifth child of aging parents. He was sent to several private schools, where he became interested in Chinese and English. Later he entered the University of Tokyo and graduated in 1893 with a degree in English; he was only the second Japanese person to complete such a degree. Sōseki taught English at a number of schools until 1900, when, desiring to improve his already excellent English and do research in literature, he accepted an opportunity to go to England for two years on a government scholarship. The stay proved to be a nightmare for Sōseki. He was lonely, developed feelings of inferiority toward English people, and decided that no Japanese could ever compete with an Englishman as a scholar of English literature.

Sōseki Natsume.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Back in Japan by 1902, increasingly unhappy with his career and doubting his cultural identity, Sōseki tried creative writing and found a new career. The enormous success of his first two novels, I Am a Cat and Botchan, prompted him to retire from teaching the following year and devote his energies to the novel. He signed an agreement with a Tokyo newspaper, Asahi, whereby one novel each year would be serialized in the daily, an arrangement which lasted to the end of his life. These first two novels were lighthearted and somewhat satirical in tone, but almost immediately he made a turn to the more serious, moralistic stance that would be the hallmark of all of his later novels. The Three-Cornered World, written in 1906, is a transitional novel marking his new direction in subject matter; it is far more serious in tone and experimental in style.

Drawing upon his own legacy of alienation and lack of identity in childhood, Sōseki produced Nowaki, Sanshiro, And Then, and Mon. Meanwhile, his marriage, never very happy, was causing him much pain. He had married Nakane Kyoko in 1896. She had never understood her husband’s academic inclinations; now she was suffering from attacks of depression and hysteria and had to live with her parents most of the time. By 1910, Sōseki was hospitalized with his first attack of stomach ulcers, an affliction that would eventually cause his death. His novels became increasingly pessimistic but more assured in technique, and the last three years saw the appearance of his masterpiece Kokoro, along with his autobiographical novel Grass on the Wayside, detailing his early tribulations. His last novel, Light and Darkness, although incomplete upon his death in Tokyo on December 9, 1916, was published and achieved great success with the reading public.

The theme that runs throughout Sōseki’s work, produced during ten years of intense dedication to writing, is the difficulty of communication between individuals, a difficulty exacerbated by social changes wrought by Japan’s sudden Westernization. Lack of communication is usually expressed by Sōseki in terms of human vulnerability in love relationships, which frequently take the form of triangles. Such is the case in And Then and Mon, where the guilty feelings of the lovers, who are already alienated from society, are the only things that keep them emotionally connected. Sōseki’s vision of life steadily darkened; in later novels, such as Grass on the Wayside and Light and Darkness, the characters are entirely hemmed in by walls of noncommunication. This alienation and insecurity, for Sōseki, was made worse by Westernization—with its attendant depersonalization, industrialization, and material progress—which threatened traditional spiritual values.

Sōseki expressed his ideas in an amazing variety of styles and techniques. While his earlier novels employ omniscient narrators, some later works use two and sometimes three first-person narrators to express conflicts of value in the corresponding characters. His first two novels are comic in tone, while the transitional novel, The Three-Cornered World, uses a poetic, imagistic narration with little plot. As Sōseki probed the minds of his characters more deeply, he ventured into the psychological novel and its techniques with The Wayfarer, Kokoro, and Light and Darkness. Although not an autobiographical novelist, he did employ this approach late in his career in Grass on the Wayside, when he desired to show the reasons for his estrangement from the world and from his wife. Sōseki, more than any other early-modern Japanese writer, strove to match style with content.

Sōseki lived at a time when almost all Japanese writers wrote in the naturalistic and autobiographical style then current, a style that virtually ignored fictional art and put a premium on unadorned true-life confessions. He showed other writers that much more effective results could be obtained through employment of various fictional devices, most of which were little used or entirely unknown in Japan. After Sōseki, there was a gradual shift away from autobiographical fiction and naturalism to other styles. Sōseki also, more than any other writer of his generation, served as the mouthpiece of those who were caught in the wrenching conflict between East and West. He gave fluent voice to those who were lonely and socially alienated and felt a lack of purpose in life. His was a necessary voice that still strikes responsive chords.

Author Works Long Fiction: Wagahai wa Neko de aru, 1905-1906 (I Am a Cat, 1906-1909; 3 volumes) Botchan, 1906 (English translation, 1918) Kusamakura, 1906 (Unhuman Tour, 1927; better known as The Three-Cornered World) Nowaki, 1907 Gubijinso, 1907 Kofu, 1908 (The Miner, 1988) Sanshiro, 1908 (English translation, 1977) Sorekara, 1909 (And Then, 1978) Mon, 1910 (The Gate, 1972) Higansugi Made, 1912 (The Spring Equinox and Beyond, 1985) Kojin, 1913 (The Wayfarer, 1967) Kokoro, 1914 (English translation, 1941) Michikusa, 1915 (Grass on the Wayside, 1969) Meian, 1916 (Light and Darkness, 1971) Nonfiction: Garasudo no Naka, 1915 (Within My Glass Doors, 1928) Bibliography Brody, Inger Sigrun. “Natsume Sōseki and Laurence Sterne: Cross-cultural Discourse on Literary Linearity.” Comparative Literature 50, no. 3 (1998): 193-220. Explores Sterne’s stylistic influence on Sōseki. Doi, Takeo. The Psychological World of Natsume Sōseki. Translated by William Jefferson Tyler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976. An excellent treatment with a somewhat specialized focus. Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kandosha International, 1993. A general introduction. Keene, Donald. “Natsume Sōseki.” In Dawn to the West. 1984. Reprint. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998-1999. Sōseki is included in this study of the Japanese novel in the modern era. McClellan, Edwin. “A Scene from Sōseki’s Meian.” Journal of Japanese Studies 25, no. 1 (1999): 106-120. A close reading of a single scene in one of Sōseki’s novels reveals themes found throughout his work. McClellan, Edwin. Two Japanese Novelists: Sōseki and Toson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969. A general introduction. Matsui, Sakuko. Natsume Sōseki as a Critic of English Literature. Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies, 1975. A work examining an aspect of Sōseki’s thought. Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “The Agonies of Individualism: Natsume Sōseki.” In The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. A brilliant and succinct analysis of Sōseki’s thought. Yiu, Angela. Chaos and Order in the World of Natsume Sōseki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. An analysis of themes in Sōseki’s works and his place in Asian literature. Yu, Beongcheon. Natsume Sōseki. 1969. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1984. This groundbreaking English-language study of Sōseki is a very detailed work.

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