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Kokoro by Natsume Soseki

Kokoro (original 1914; edition 1957)

by Natsume Soseki

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1,445295,190 (3.93)1 / 132
Authors:Natsume Soseki
Info:Gateway Editions (1957), Paperback
Collections:Your library, To read
Tags:Japanese fiction

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Kokoro by Natsume Soseki (1914)


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Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
Something to read in conjunction with Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday, I think. ( )
  KatrinkaV | Jul 3, 2015 |
Natsume Soseki truly made a great novel when he wrote Kokoro. It is the story of a young Japanese college student and his interactions with an old man, whom he calls Sensei. It is a story of the influence of the past, the feelings of loss and regret, and the importance of friendship. Soseki created a very distinct novel and is able to dive deeper into the deeper lessons of life.

The novel is broken up into two sections. The first follows the point of view of a young college student. Soseki chronicles his ups and downs as the college student tries to get to know Sensei better, manage his school, and deal with the reality of a dying father. It was a very moving section, but I did not feel very invested into it.

What I really got hooked on was the second section. This section is a letter from Sensei to the young college student explaining his past and his pessimistic outlook on life. It's a flashback to his old life, but the fact that it is describing it as a letter years in the future gives it greater clarity and and introspective tone. The tension builds up perfectly through this section and it really is the perfect way to end the novel.

Soseki does a wonderful job creating a realistic world with relatable characters. He also does a good job reflecting the world and time period he came from. This book reflects the end of the Meji period, both literally and figuratively. Within the novel itself, the death of Emperor Meji and his general mark a changing point in the story. However, the actions and characteristics of all major characters play out the very drama within themselves. It's a perfect layering that adds depth to the story.

I really enjoyed Kokoro. Even though it was a little bit slow at first, I still loved every minute of it by the end. ( )
  Plyte | Jun 26, 2015 |
A tragedy that grips the reader right from the beginning, it’s somber elegiac mood slowly unwinds a story that leads inexorably to a conclusion that has been signposted nearly from the start. It is set in around Tokyo Japan at the start of the 20th century when Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) was leading a rapid drive to Westernise his semi-feudal country. The effects were keenly felt at the universities and students and teachers had to adapt quickly in rapidly changing times, some could not and Kokoro is the story of two individuals who were out of step with the modern world and found themselves cast adrift, in a world in-between the old and the new.

The story is told in the first person by a young student who is studying for his graduation at the University in Tokyo. He has few friends and does not want to return home to the country house for his holidays and goes on vacation to the coast. On a crowded beach he first spies Sensei a middle aged Japanese man in the company of a Westerner. The student is curious and engineers a chance meeting on the beach a few days later when Sensei is on his own. He finds someone who seems to be a kindred spirit in that he also has few friends and has an inner life that is rarely revealed, but who has a wisdom and conversation on issues that particularly appeals to the young student. He assiduously courts Sensei’s company and eventually gets invited to his home after the vacation where he meets Sensei’s wife. He becomes Sensei’s friend and soon discovers that he is his only friend and he gradually becomes aware of a tragic event in Sensei’s earlier life that has shaped his current situation and left him with a melancholia that prevents him from working and from participation in normal life. Sensei is enigmatic and like the student, the reader is almost afraid to find out his terrible secret:

Sensei “I do not have the right to expect anything from this world”

Sensei “there is guilt in loving” he insists more than once.

Sensei “it is not you in particular that I distrust, But the whole of humanity”

Sensei "You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves”

The student is called away from Tokyo to attend to his father who is slowly dying of a disease of the liver and he cannot get away to see Sensei. The students own problems take over his thoughts, but he is worried when a telegram arrives from Sensei followed shortly after by a long letter. Sensei has decided to unburden himself to his only friend and he starts by relating how his relations have cheated him out of his inheritance, but there is so much more and slowly the tragedy unfolds.

How can a sensitive, intelligent man like Sensei become so embittered and so isolated and the answer to this question goes to the core of the human condition; love, death, honour, friendship, family and betrayal are themes played out against the clash of the old country culture and modern city Westernisation. Above all this is a very human story of people unable to fit into a world in which the ground seems to be shifting away from under them and it is the old values which trap them, but which they cling to nevertheless.

Apart from an unforgettable story Soseki takes the reader into the milieu of pre first world war Japan. We glimpse a culture and a tradition that is told to us by an insider in such a way that we are soon immersed in it. Natsume Soseki has been labelled Japan’s first truly modern writer and this book published in 1914 is his masterpiece and enough to see him included in many lists of classic 20th century fiction, however don’t take the critics word for it, explore this mesmerising book yourself. From the first page to the last I was hooked and could not put it down. A five star read. ( )
2 vote baswood | Feb 28, 2015 |
Soseki's Kokoro explores the theme of the demise of the traditional Japanese way of life, a theme that seems all but omnipresent in Japanese literature of this period. Kokoro, however, seems to adopt a less damning stance with regards to the demise of the old ways than some other works of Japanese fiction. Soseki doesn't use this book to condone the death of traditional Japanese life by any means, but he does not identify it as something to struggle against either, identifying both virtues and flaws in the old ways.

Dealing with this book out of order, the second half of this book consists of the life story of a character identified only as Sensei, who inherited from his parents the role of a country nobleman, but who was cheated out of this inheritance and gave up the countryside for a life in Tokyo. There he lives with a mother and daughter, slowly falling in love with the latter, and eventually convincing his friend K to move in with him. K also falls in love with the daughter, in direct contradiction to the values that K had previously espoused, and Sensei uses this hypocrisy and K's inability to abandon his old perspective to intentionally inflict pain, while simultaneously swooping in and becoming engaged to the daughter without his friend's knowledge. K commits suicide, and Sensei lives the rest of his life tormented by his role in the matter.

The first half of the book deals with how an unnamed narrator befriends Sensei, who has lived an idle life with his wife, slowly withdrawing more and more from society and other people as he finds his guilt growing harder and harder to deal with. The narrator, largely oblivious to all of this, sees Sensei as a great man despite his lack of accomplishments and spends a significant period of time trying to get to know him and emulating his lifestyle. Eventually the narrator must return home after graduating from university to take care of his dying father. His father, a provincial who lives in the country, seems to have inflated expectations compared to what the narrator actually believes he can achieve, and as his condition slowly deteriorates the narrator indulges him in several fictions to ease his passing. Just before his father is apparently going to finally die the narrator receives a letter from Sensei detailing his life (as set out above) and claiming that he will have committed suicide by the time the letter arrives. Distraught, the narrator leaves his father on his deathbed to return to Tokyo and find Sensei.

It seems very difficult to interpret Sensei as anything other than largely symbolic of the transition of Japanese life from the traditional (country nobleman whose hobbies include things like flower arrangement) to the modern (urban living, attendance at a Western style university, associating with a Westerner at the beach). With this in mind, I took the narrator's interaction with Sensei to be a reflection of Soseki's beliefs about his era's attachment to the old ways of life, which were still viewable but fading every day in early 1900s Japan. The narrator feels an innate affinity for Sensei and his more traditional way of life, but Sensei is largely unable to reciprocate. The narrator would even like to emulate Sensei, but with the economic realities of the day it seems unlikely that the narrator would actually be able to carry those ambitions out. Finally, the fate of Sensei raises the question of whether such emulation is desirable at all. Sensei's ties to the past have seemed to give him nothing but trouble, and his inability to let go of it has tormented him. The traditional aspects of his life have not seemed to give him any special strength with which to deal with the modern world.

This was my interpretation at least, and it makes Kokoro a much more neutral stance towards modernization than I'm used to seeing in Japanese literature. It's of course possible to interpret the book differently, but the narrator's final actions taken for Sensei's sake seem to be strong evidence that an infatuation with the past leads to more harm than good. Ultimately, however, Kokoro provides little concrete information about the ultimate fates of its characters. We never actually find out happens to the narrator's father, or what the fallout is for the narrator's decision to return to Tokyo. We don't even really know what befalls Sensei, we are merely informed by Sensei of what he claims he's going to do if he has the strength for it. Ultimately, the only thing we are left knowing for sure is that the old era is over. An appropriately open ended message for a Japanese book of that time.

With all that being said, I didn't love this book. Symbolism aside, you had a story about a couple characters that weren't particularly sympathetic dealing with problems of their own design, and dealing with them poorly. As already stated, we don't even find out how it all plays out, the novel ending before any definitive action is reached. The minimalist prose worked for this book, but it rarely had that beauty in sparseness sometimes captured by minimalist writing (though that might be due to the translation). The characters likewise didn't feel particularly distinct, as the narrator and Sensei were the only ones given depth and they read as very, very similar (though that may well have been intentional on Soseki's part given their symbolic roles). This was one of those books that was more fun to analyze than it was to read by a noticeable margin, while great works pull off both. Give this a try if you're interested in pre-WWII Japanese literature.

A note on the edition Edwin McClellan translated: the minimalist prose he adopts seems appropriate, but I'm not sure how much faith I have in the translation given the note on page 49 describing go as "a kind of checkers." The use of the word "excited" on page 64 and 65 also seems a bit strange to me, and I suspect the connotation of the original word would be different, but I can't read Japanese well enough to take a stab at an independent interpretation. I'm not saying there's a better translation out there, but if you're thinking of picking up a copy you might want to compare a couple editions online before making your choice. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
This novel, one of Natsume Soseki’s last and written on the cusp of Japan’s epochal rise to becoming a world power, reflects the author’s preoccupation with conflicting cultural attitudes in the transition from the feudalist Late Tokugawa Shogunate to the capitalist, more modernized Japan it would become during the Meiji Restoration. Of course, this period wasn’t just marked with bureaucratic, political, and military reforms; it also trickled down into the personal lives, families, and friendships, and this intensely personal impact is what Soseki looks at here.

“Kokoro” tells the story of a narrator who sees a man walking down a beach one day; he eventually befriends this man who we only come to know as “Sensei.” The development of their relationship and growing friendship forms the first part of the book’s tripartite structure. The narrator repeatedly emphasizes his own naiveté in contrast with the worldliness and cynicism of Sensei. Sensei is a guarded man who is old enough to work but chooses not to (we never get the impression that this is out of laziness), has few close friends, and doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. While the innocent young narrator initially sees Sensei as the stereotypical older wise man, he slowly begins to realize that he has something unique to teach him.

When the Emperor dies, his beloved General Nogi commits junshi, ritual suicide after the death of one’s feudal lord or master. Being a man of the old Tokugawa era, this act evokes more of a reaction in the Sensei than it does in the younger narrator – another sign that Soseki is telling the story of a generational and cultural divide. When Sensei sees General Nogi kill himself out of loyalty for the Emperor, he realizes that he doesn’t feel comfortable in this new Meiji dispensation, with the “modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves.”

The second part, “My Parents and I,” sees the narrator’s father’s health start to decline, which leaves his future as a very recent college graduate very uncertain. He and his brother are both curious about what the will has in store for them, but the recent manner in which General Nogi died brutally underscores the new era’s selfish interest in material things. The last part consists of a very long letter that Sensei wrote to the narrator before he too decides to commit suicide. We learn of his youth, his family, and an episode during his time as a student (that I won’t reveal here) that ties together all the facets of Sensei’s personality and finally completely reveals who he is.

Throughout the novel, the prose is spare, sharp, lean, and clear. Even Sensei’s voice, in his extended letter, varies very little stylistically from that of the narrator. This spare quality adds a sense of quiet distance between the reader and the story, which perhaps for more harmonious reflection. The language may just be the product of a particularly good translation, but I found the writing well suited to describing the characters and the Soseki’s themes: human frailty, the inevitability of the culture clash, the unrelenting quality of modernity, and confrontation with one’s troubled youth. ( )
  kant1066 | Sep 26, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Soseki, Natsumeprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
McClellan, EdwinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKinney, MeredithTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McKinney, MeredithIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I always called him “Sensei.”
Could that delicate and complex instrument that lies in the human breast ever really produce a reading that was absolutely clear and truthful, like a clock's hands pointing to numbers on its dial?
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0895267152, Paperback)

Nineteenth-century Japanese novel concerned with man's loneliness in the modern world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:02:28 -0400)

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"No collection of Japanese literature is complete without Kokoro, the last novel Natsume Soseki complete before his death in 1916. Published here in the first new translation in more than fifty years, Kokoro--meaning "heart"-is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls "Sensei". Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student's struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century" --Cover, p. 4.… (more)

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