Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro is a fiction novel written in 1914, two years after the end of the Meiji era and the death of Emperor Meiji. This historical event assists Soseki in creating a contrast between tradition and modernity. The narrator for most of the novel is a young student living in Tokyo who starts a relationship with a man he saw on the beach, Sensei. As the novel progresses, the reader finds that there are three main characters that help to illustrate the Meiji era and its place in history as a transitional period between pre-modern and modern Japan. This paper will analyze the symbolism of its characters and aim to prove that the novel attempts to depict generations affected by Japan’s modernization during the death of the Meiji era.
The Meiji era (1868-1912) brought forth the restoration period, in which the government was restructured. During this time known as the “enlightened rule,” many people had high hopes for the new government. This period, however, was difficult for older generations that were torn between modernization and tradition. In Kokoro , Sensei represents an individual struggling with this conflict: “I am an inconsistent creature. Perhaps it is the pressure of my past, and not my own perverse mind, that has made me into this contradictory being. I am all too well aware of this fault in myself. You must forgive me” (Soseki 122). By describing himself an “inconsistent creature,” Sensei is illustrating that he cannot be classified as a representation of neither old nor new customs. Rather, he is representative of a generation that is torn between inevitable modernity and idealized tradition, much like the spirit of the Meiji era itself.
The narrator often feels like Sensei disappoints him. Similar to the attitudes of the Japanese people during the Meiji era, the narrator has hope that Sensei will ultimately bring change to his life: “Sensei frequently disappointed me in this way…whenever some unexpected terseness of his shook me, my impulse was to press forward with the friendship. It seemed too that if I did so, my yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer would someday be fulfilled” (Soseki 10). The “Enlightened Rule” idealized modernity and attempted to stay loyal to traditional values, yet, modernization was inevitable in Japan during this period. Sensei represents the conflict between old and new.
Although Sensei sometimes follows traditional norms, he is portrayed as a character who often accepts modernity: “Whenever I dined at Sensei’s, the chopsticks and bowls were placed on this white linen that seemed to have come from some Western restaurant; the cloth was always freshly laundered” (Soseki 67). Sensei adapts Western customs, as the image of linen promotes in this quote. In this same quote, he preserves tradition through the use of chopsticks. These two images lead the reader to believe that he is neither a representation of traditional or modern Japan, but rather a hybrid of the two.
The Meiji era (1868-1912) brought forth the restoration period, in which the government was restructured. During this time known as the “enlightened rule,” many people had high hopes for the new government.
Despite his distaste for some modern customs and industrialization, Sensei also illustrates the need for modernity.
Sensei is greatly affected by the death of his friend, K, who commits suicide after being informed about Sensei’s engagement.
Sensei is clearly a representation of the Meiji Era, conflicted between modernity and tradition. Contrastingly, the narrator’s father tends to have similar characteristics to traditional Japan.
Throughout the novel, Soseki illustrates Sensei’s connection to the spirit of the era, the narrator’s relationship to modernity and his father’s resemblance to traditional Japanese culture.
Although Sensei accepts certain modern customs, he shows a distaste for modernity in the following passage: “That area has changed completely since the streetcar line went in; back then the earthen wall of the Arsenal was on the left, and on the right was a large expanse of grassy vacant land, something between a hillside and an open field…Just to see the deep, rich green of all that foliage soothed the heart” (Soseki 139). The streetcars are a common theme throughout the novel and they represent industrialization. Sensei constantly complains about these cars throughout the novel, because they change the traditional environment of Japan and represent his fear of modernization.
Despite his distaste for some modern customs and industrialization, Sensei also illustrates the need for modernity. When describing his past to the narrator, he shows the difference in the behavior of old and young individuals:
…no one around me ever spoke about private matters of the heart. No doubt quite a few had nothing to confide, but even those who did kept silent. This must seem peculiar to you, in the relative freedom of your present age. I will leave it to you to judge whether it was a lingering effect from the Confucianism of an earlier time or simply a form of shyness. (Soseki 178)
In this passage, Sensei describes that in the book’s present, people were becoming more open with their emotions. This openness is something Sensei engages in before his eventual suicide. He writes a long letter to the narrator describing his past. Through this letter, we are seeing his potential to evolve, his acceptance of new culture and his unexpected death, much like that of the Meiji era.
Sensei is greatly affected by the death of his friend, K, who commits suicide after being informed about Sensei’s engagement. When Sensei describes K’s suicide, he discusses K’s attachment to traditional values:
These were the days before ‘the new awakening’ or ‘the new way of life,’ as modern slogans have it. But if K failed to toss away his old self and throw himself into becoming a new man, it was not for want of such concepts. Rather, it was because he could not bear to reject a self and a past that had been so noble and exalted” (Soseki 206).
Sensei describes K’s desire to live traditionally. He honored tradition in a way that Sensei could never do.
Sensei is clearly a representation of the Meiji Era, conflicted between modernity and tradition. Contrastingly, the narrator’s father tends to have similar characteristics to traditional Japan. He honors the Emperor and has a traditional position in society as a rural landowner and farmer, illustrating that the narrator’s father values tradition. When the narrator returns home from Tokyo, he feels disconnected from his father after being influenced by Sensei:
…each time I came home from the city, I brought a new aspect of myself that was strange and incomprehensible to my parents. It was an element that was fundamentally out of harmony with both of them—rather as if, to make a historical analogy, I had introduces into a traditional Confucian household the disturbing aura of forbidden Christianity. (48)
The narrator makes the analogy that compares his father’s home to “a traditional Confucian household.” This detail proves that the narrator’s father represents traditional Japan.
The father compares his illness with that of the Emperor in the following passage: “‘It’s a presumptuous thing to say, but His Majesty’s illness is a little like my own” (Soseki 86). The father should not be mistakenly related to the Meiji Emperor; the passage above shows the similarities between their deaths. Since the narrator’s father is a representation of traditional Japan, this quote shows that tradition is vanishing in Japan and modernization is taking effect.
Throughout the novel, the narrator compares his father to Sensei: “Since Sensei and my father seemed exactly opposite types, they easily came to mind as a pair, through both association and comparison” (Soseki 94). The narrator describes the two men as a pair because tradition (the father) was still idealized during the Meiji era (Sensei). However, the narrator sees that these two characters are not the same: “Sensei, I thought, was more cultured and admirable than my father, with his unashamed delight. In the final analysis, what I felt was displeasure at the reek of country boorishness in my father’s innocence” (Soseki 81). In this quote, the narrator describes that he is in favor of modernity. His distaste for his father’s “innocence” and “country boorishness” illustrates that he finds his father’s traditional tendencies and lack of culture to be naïve. This illustrates the narrator’s position on the modernization of Japan.
While his father is on his deathbed, the narrator finds himself at home after college, without a job or plan for the future. Being in this transitional period causes him to wish his father would pass away in order for the narrator to move forward in his life: “Essentially we were awaiting our father’s death, but we were reluctant to express it that way. Yet each of us was well aware of what the other was thinking” (Soseki 107). Symbollically, this illustrates the narrator’s desire to accept modernity and the death of traditional Japan.
As his father’s life comes to an end, the narrator is also confronted with Sensei’s suicide. In the third part of the novel, Sensei describes his past and compares his death with the death of the Meiji era:
And then, at the height of the summer, Emperor Meiji passed away. I felt that as the spirit of the Meiji era had begun with him, so it had ended with his death. I was struck with an overwhelming sense that my generation, we who had felt Meiji’s influence most deeply, were doomed to linger on simply as anachronisms as long as we remained alive. (Soseki 231)
This passage describes Sensei’s connection to the Meiji Era—not to be confused with the death of the Emperor. Sensei is part of a generation that accepts modernity while struggling to keep traditional values. He is not connected to the Emperor, but rather to the Meiji era itself. This era was much like the transitional period in the narrator’s life, a time between pre-modernization and modernization.
As the Meiji Era came to an end, Sensei also feels that he has completed his life: “Reminded of it by my wife’s jest, I replied that if I were to die a loyal follower’s death, the lord I was following to the grave would be the spirit of the Meiji era itself” (Soseki 232). Sensei compares himself to the spirit of the Meiji era, a time in which modernity was desired, but traditional values were somewhat restored.
Kokoro is a novel that uses concrete character symbolism to depict the tension between tradition and modernity during the Meiji era. Throughout the novel, Soseki illustrates Sensei’s connection to the spirit of the era, the narrator’s relationship to modernity and his father’s resemblance to traditional Japanese culture. This novel focuses on the attitudes of many Japanese people at the time that were conflicted between accepting modernity and preserving traditional Japanese values. Soseki beautifully depicts a young man’s transitional period after college to the Meiji era itself: a time that separated pre-modern Japan and modern Japan.
Natsume, Sōseki. Kokoro. Trans. Meredith McKinney. New York, NY: Penguin, 2010.
Travis from New Jersey on May 03, 2015:
Great article! Have you read "The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa? I read it last semester and found him wonderfully enigmatic and ahead of his time. I followed you :D
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on February 13, 2015:
I just finished a few Japanese novels and in each of them, there is this conflict between tradition and modernity. It looks like this is constantly felt in Japan.
LetitiaFT from Paris via California on June 18, 2012:
Fascinating analysis. I believe America is currently experiencing a similar form of fear in the face of a changing world. Hopefully bringing attention to the fact modernisation can be a source of personal & societal anxiety can help alleviate it. Thanks for sharing.
htodd from United States on May 06, 2012:
Thanks a lot,Traditional works great
Derdriu on October 31, 2011:
BrittanyTodd: Thank you for such a cogent, intelligent analysis of this important novel. Your points and your supporting evidence are compelling, fascinating and persuasive.
Voted up, with all categories also,