What made Sosekis Kokoro a Japanese classic

A hundred years of trinity

As an author, you can't be closer to the people: The portrait of Natsume Soseki adorns the Japanese 1000 yen note. He wrote literary history with his novel "Kokoro", published in 1914.

The novel "Kokoro" (Heart, Mind) by the writer Natsume Soseki is one of the masterpieces of Japanese literature of the 20th century. It was published from April to August 1914 as a serial in the Asahi newspaper and soon after as a book. This form of publication is still common in Japan today, as a glance at newspapers and magazines of all genres shows, where well-known authors such as Miyabe Miyuki, Satoshi Kon and Kirino Natsuo present their latest stories as serial novels. For the 100th anniversary, "Kokoro" is currently being reprinted in the "Asahi" newspaper, partly in accordance with the original proofs, together with numerous comments, interpretations and biographical details from Soseki's life.

Two men and one woman

Actually, it's not a tricky plot: a love triangle between two men and a woman who are torn between friendship and love in an era of radical social upheaval. A young student meets a man whom he calls the sensei (teacher) on Kamakura beach during the summer vacation. Impressed by his views and way of thinking, he continues the acquaintance even after returning to Tokyo. The Sensei lives as a couple with his beautiful wife, the couple has no children. The first-person narrator soon begins to suspect that the past of Sensei holds a dark secret and that this must be related to his monthly visits to a certain grave in the Zoshigaya cemetery in Minami-Ikebukuro (where Natsume Soseki's grave is now also is located).

The secret is revealed in the second half of the novel, which consists of letters from Sensei to the young man who has meanwhile returned to his hometown in the country. In it he describes the depths of the human heart in the conflict between loyalty to family and friends and the feelings of the individual. At a young age, the sensei had betrayed his friend K by being the first to ask for the hand of his current wife. Soon after, K, who had also been in love with her, committed suicide. Since then, the sensei has been plagued by guilt and he does not allow himself to enjoy life with joy, but vegetates as if dead. Unable to trust himself and others, his only way out of isolation seems to be to tell his life story to the young student.

However, the Sensei's letters are more than private testimonies. You are also the voice of a bygone generation of the Meiji period, when Japan underwent rapid modernization. The attitude towards life of this era is passed on through the storytelling, as if the childless sensei could pass on his blood to the next generation in this way. After the last letter, the sensei commits suicide, torn between the old and new values.

Natsume Soseki was born under the real name Natsume Kinnosuke in 1867, one year before the beginning of the Meiji period. Like few other Japanese authors, he represents this transition period from feudal to modern times with their political system. Equally versed in Western literature as in the Japanese and Chinese classics, he is an outstanding thinker, literary critic and writer of his era. He died in 1916, shortly after the publication of «Kokoro».

Government criticism by Oe Kenzaburo

Soseki's work is now compulsory in school, and you come across his face on the 1000-yen note almost every time you reach for your wallet in today's consumer world in Japan. The inner isolation that Soseki describes in "Kokoro" may come from another era, but it is not entirely alien to the Japanese even today, when the younger generation is constantly being advised to break out of the tendency to become introverted ("datsu-uchimuki" ) and to represent their country in the world with pride, as one of the current bestselling titles suggests, written by the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Hyakuta Naoki, a right-wing journalist.

In his remarks on "Kokoro", Nobel Prize Laureate Oe Kenzaburo explains the story as a document of the past Meiji period, in which the interests of the individual had to subordinate themselves to the national collective. In the same breath he draws a parallel with the efforts of the current government to overturn the peace article in the Japanese constitution. A reinterpretation of the collective right of self-defense would make it possible to use military force without directly threatening the country. For a long time Article 9, the so-called Peace Article, was understood as a prohibition of any military aggression. In the meantime, however, the Japanese self-defense forces have grown to considerable strength. Added to this is the increasing tendency towards a new nationalism since the noughties. The security policy reorientation could therefore also be interpreted to mean that the peace article as an indirect admission of guilt in relation to the aggressions in World War II has had its day from the Abe's perspective.

The debate refers to the area of ​​tension in which the young generation of Japan moves today. It is important to weigh up the need for peace and well-being and the question of how the security structure in the East Asian world can be kept stable in the future.