“I do not want your admiration now, because I do not want your insults in the future. I bear with my loneliness now, in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead. 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.” ― Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro
This is a classic of Japanese literature. It is the last novel Natsume Soseki finished before his death in 1916. Divided into three parts, it describes the relationships between the narrator, his Sensei, and a few other characters as they try to understand their selves and each other. While the title literally means "heart", the word contains shades of meaning, and can be translated as "the heart of things" or "feeling". The work deals with the transition from the Japanese Meiji society to the modern era, by exploring the friendship between a young man and an older man he calls "Sensei" (or teacher). It continues the theme of isolation developed in Sōseki's immediately preceding works. Other important themes in the novel include the changing times (particularly the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era), the changing roles and ideals of women, and inter-generational change in values, the role of family, the importance of the self versus the group, the cost of weakness, and identity.
As Kokoro begins, Soseki is a young man bored by life. He befriends the older Sensei, who believes the young man has sought him out of loneliness. He sees himself as unworthy of society and having no help to offer. Although Soseki is often confused by Sensei, he learns more about the old man by talking to Sensei’s wife, Shizu. The two become closer, and Soseki learns that a friend’s sudden death led Sensei to isolate himself from society. The narrator often feels like Sensei disappoints him. This has been compared 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” (p. 10).
He returns home after graduation and helps his father in the garden, but soon his father takes ill at the same time that Emperor Meiji does. Soseki gets a letter from Sensei. He reads it and learns that Sensei has decided to kill himself. He races to the train, praying that both his father and Sensei will live long enough for him to help. He continues to read Sensei’s story, which reveals his life story as promised.
Sensei's story is one of bitterness and betrayal. He has a relationship with a woman, but he is not confident enough to reveal his feelings to her. Sensei is concerned about his friend K, a deeply religious man with an obsession with torturing the body to glorify the soul. Although Sensei and Ojosan marry and have many happy years together, both admit to Soseki in their private moments that they are not as close as they could be due to the barrier Sensei has erected. There is a lot that goes unsaid between them, and Sensei buries his guilt by losing himself in alcohol and books. However, neither gets rid of his pain for long. Seeing that the times are changing, Sensei decides it is time to share his life story and requests Soseki visit. However, Soseki cannot come due to his father’s illness, so Sensei writes down his life as a testament to his closest friend. He states that he hopes his life story will be a guide to those who have much to learn about life.
Natsume Soseki, born Natsume Kinnosuke, was a Japanese novelist, scholar of British literature, and composer of Japanese poetry. One of the most famous Japanese novelists of all time, his major works were released in an eleven-year period between 1905 and his death in 1916. Many of his works dealt with the modernization of Japan. For twenty years, he appeared on the Japanese one thousand yen note. His works are still widely read and discussed worldwide.
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki. Penguin Classics, 2010 (1916).