Friday, December 9, 2016

A giant of Japanese literature

Natsume Soseki, one of the greatest and most important novelists of modern Japan, died a century ago today - events celebrating this anniversary in Japan are ongoing, not least the unveiling of a Soseki android! By contrast he is little known in the West, although he did, in fact, spend two years in the UK, and, on returning to Japan, became a leading scholar in English literature. Two diaries he kept while in London were put on display recently as part of an exhibition of his life and works. However, there are no published editions of his 12 diaries, and only occasional references to them in various biographies.

So seki was born in the Edo region of Japan (now Tokyo) in 1867, but his parents, with five older children already, gave him up for adoption to a childless couple. That couple looked after him until they divorced, when Soseki was 9, and he was returned to his parents. His mother died a few years later. In 1884, he entered Tokyo Imperial University with the intention of studying to become architecture, but, encouraged by his friend Masaoka Shiki, he became increasingly interested in literature, switching to the English literature department in 1890. On graduating, he continued to study but also teaching part time. In 1895, he left Tokyo to teach in Ehime and then in Kumamoto. In 1896, he married Kyoko, who gave birth to their first daughter in 1899; they would have five more but one would die very young.

From 1900 to 1902, Soseki lived in London - one of the first government-sponsored scholars to be sent abroad - attending lectures at University College (UCL) and doing research that would lead later to his Japanese monographs (Theory of Literature in 1907, and Literary Criticism in 1909). From 1903 to 1907, he was back in Tokyo, teaching at the university; however, he was also writing poetry and literary sketches for magazines, and producing his first novels, such as I am a Cat, Little Master (Botchan), and Grass Pillow. His literary reputation grew rapidly, and by 1907 he was able to give up teaching and become a professional novelist.

The Embassy of Japan in London has this assessment of why Soseki is important in Japan today: ‘Many of the novels of Soseki analyse the human psychology in depth, such as jealousy and love, or loneliness and friendship, so they are applicable even today. At the same time, the very clear style of his prose is now considered the standard for the modern Japanese language. In addition, he pointed out the need for the Japanese people to establish a sense of “individualism”, while at the same time being critical of the tendency toward the superficial “Westernisation” (meaning modernisation) of Japanese society. Such assertions and criticisms are still considered relevant for Japanese society and its people today.’

In 1909, Soseki travelled to Manchuria and Korea. The following year he was hospitalised for the first time with stomach problems, but continued writing, completing one or two more works (such as Kokoro, Grass on the Wayside) each year until his death - on 9 December 1916. According to The Japan Times, events to celebrate this 100th anniversary have been ongoing in Japan throughout 1916 (a university has even unveiled a Soseki android!), and will continue in 2017 with celebrations for the 150th anniversary of his birth. Indeed, The Japan Times begins a long article on Soseki as follows: ‘Fascination twinned with veneration of Soseki is exceptionally high in Japan. The Asahi newspaper has been serializing installments of his novels on a daily basis for several years, while a new Soseki museum is scheduled to open next year in the Tokyo district of Shinjuku, where the writer once lived. On television, meanwhile, a drama series titled “Soseki’s Wife” has attempted to show the revered author from his spouse’s perspective. By a considerable margin, Soseki is the most analyzed Japanese author in modern literature. Hundreds upon hundreds of books have been written about him and thousands upon thousands of academic papers published.’

There is some further information about Soseki at Wikipedia, The New World Encyclopedia or Encyclopaedia Britannica. Some translations of his works can be found at Internet Archive (Botchan, for example), and a 1957 translation of Kokoro can be read at ibiblio.

There appear to be twelve extant volumes of diaries kept by Soseki (see this librarians 1978 workshop report), and held by the Natsume Soseki Collection at Tohoku University Library. As far as I can tell, these have not been published in Japanese, and certainly not in translation. Donald Keene, writing in Rethinking Japan Vol 1: Literature, Visual Arts & Linguistics (Routledge, 2014), says he finds the diaries of Natsume Soseki ‘especially disagreeable’, but without further explanation.

In late 2013, UCL Library Services and Tohoku University Library held a collaborative exhibition in London - Natsume Sōseki, the Greatest Novelist in Modern Japan - to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of UK-Japan Academic Interaction. Some artefacts from this were then put on display by the Embassy of Japan in early 2014. Both exhibitions included the two diaries written in London - named as Diary of Drifting across the Sea and Diary from England in 1901. According to the Embassy of Japan: ‘These diaries are extremely important academic source materials, not only because they describe his student life but also because they contain a number of his unique thoughts on the difference between the Japanese and British societies from his own viewpoint of  civilisation theory.’

A brochure to accompany the UCL exhibition is freely available online, and contains photographs of the diaries, as well as translated quotes from each, as follows.

12 September 1900
‘When waking from a dream, I am far away from my familiar mountains. The vast and limitless ocean surrounds me.’

28 October 1900
‘Left Paris for London. There was a hard and bitter wind on board. I arrived at London in the evening.’

23 January 1901 [Queen Victoria had died the previous day]
‘Flags are hoisted at half-mast. All the town is in mourning. I, a foreign subject, also wear a black-necktie to show my respectful sympathy. “The new century has opened rather inauspiciously,” said the shopman off whom I bought a pair of black gloves this morning.’

Otherwise, various biographies of Soseki make occasional reference to his diaries.

The following two extracts are taken from Reflections in a Glass Door: memory and melancholy in the personal writings of Natsume Sōseki by Marvin Marcus (University of Hawaii Press, 2009).

18 July 1909
‘Oppressive heat. Daughters running all over the house, totally naked. Not a normal thing to do, the heat notwithstanding. The master of the house goes about writing his fiction, surrounded by barbarians.’

8 December 1911
‘This morning, my wife accuses me of being totally antisocial. “People come over for Hinakos wake, and you tell them not to bother, that they should just go home. Well, when I die, be sure not to plan any wake for me.” “But in that case the mice will come out in the middle of the night and gnaw at the tip of your nose.” “Fine with me - the pain would bring me back to life!” ’

And the following extract is taken from Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Soseki by Angela Yiu (University of Hawaii Press, 1998)

‘I carried my manuscript with me as notes. My stomach has been troubling me since yesterday, but since this is the last of the lectures, I took some medication and tried to hold out. My lecture was followed by Honda Setsudos “The Fundamental Problems in Finance and Economics” and Ishibashi Hakuyo’s “The Revision of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.” The series ended at twenty past eleven. (There were four thousand seven hundred or eight hundred people in the audience, including fifty women. Since it was so packed, admission was restricted three times, and after seven o’clock no one else was allowed in the hall.) Staying in the Shiunro, despite not having eaten anything, I vomited blood.’ [Subsequently, Soseki was hospitalised again]

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