Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro is a sad book. Written in 1914, two years after the death of Japan’s Emperor Meiji, the story follows the lives of a handful of people living near the end of that imperial era. The Meiji Restoration—a set of society-transforming reforms initiated by the emperor—brought Japan from its traditional pre-industrial hierarchical system into a new form that sought to emulate Western norms. Kokoro expresses some of the isolation and loneliness that stems from being caught in the middle of this transformation.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
This isolation is immediately clear in the naming of the book’s major characters: they have none. The narrator befriends an older man whom he calls Sensei. Sensei is married to Ojosan (a description instead of a name), who had lived with her mother (Okasan, or “Mother”), and so on. The only character with a name is K, the narrator’s friend, and it is only a pseudonym so Sensei can talk about him, and perhaps keep him at an emotional distance. While titles are a common form of appellation in Japan, the complete lack of names is indicative of the human distance the characters have inside them and in the larger culture.
The story is in three parts. In the first, the narrator builds a friendship with Sensei while the former is a university student in Tokyo. In Part 2, the narrator returns home his family in the countryside to spend time with his dying father. The third part consists of a long letter written by Sensei to the narrator. Although the first two parts consume more than half the book, the core story really exists in Part 3. In it, Sensei tells his own life’s story just before he commits suicide.
Read from a Western perspective, Kokoro is difficult to process. Sensei’s suicide stems from the shame he feels over an incident from his own university years. What is most striking about his shame, though, is his inability to deal with it in a way that could help him or others. In fact, many of the characters have a similar inability to cope with anything that has even the slightest tinge of shame tied to it.
Having spent some time in Japan myself, I have been taught about the differences between “shame cultures” (like Japan and other Asian societies) and “guilt cultures” (America and much of the West). In America, sin is bad, but it can be forgiven, as exemplified through the dominant religion, Christianity. But in a shame culture, sin (or actions that have significant negative impacts for individuals or groups) carries a lasting stigma. In the story, Sensei believes the only way to expiate for his shame is through suicide—the shedding of his own blood—an action that is paralleled in the book and in history by the ritual suicide of General Maresuke Nogi during the funeral of Emperor Meiji.
The story is a hopeless one. The book ends abruptly at the end of the letter in Part 3. This sudden stop lefts many other aspects of the story incomplete, paralleling the incomplete feeling of someone separated from humanity. The narrator’s father is left dying, but to what conclusion? Even the narrator’s response to Sensei’s letter and suicide are missing, although one can ponder the narrator’s own eventual suicide at the shame he feels in not being available to Sensei at his demise. “Kokoro” means “heart” in English—the emotion term, not the medical one. In Kokoro, the reader will only find one that is isolated and broken.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.