Importance of Obligation, Differences in Traditional and Western Thinking, and Importance of Marriage, Mentorship, and Vengeance in Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro
Carnegie Mellon University – Japanese Studies
Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro details the story of a relationship between an older man and a young student. Throughout their discussions about life, love, and philosophical topics, they develop a deep bond despite their difference in ages. The final chapter details Sensei (the protagonist’s mentor) as a child and the struggles he faces. Kokoro reveals the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations, the traditional and Western thinking in Japan, the usage of marriage as a marker to adulthood, the different roles of mentorship that authority figures take in life, and the vengeance a person feels when they feel something they deserve has been taken away from them.
What does Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro reveal about Japanese culture? It reveals the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations, the traditional and Western thinking in Japan, the usage of marriage as a marker to adulthood, the different roles of mentorship that authority figures take in life, and the vengeance a person feels when they feel something they deserve has been taken away from them. Sensei feels internal pressure to take care of his wife because of his commitment to her. He tries to give her financial and mental stability. Furthermore, he cares for her family and treats her family like his own because of his commitment to her. The novel highlights Sensei’s thinking as philosophical and Shizu’s thinking as emotional. Thirdly, amongst all generations, after marriage, life does not change dramatically. Fourthly, Sensei takes on a philosophical mentor and Father emphasizes practical aspects of life. They mentor the protagonist in different things. Finally, when Sensei thinks he will lose something that is his, he lashes out in anger vengefully.
Natsume Soseki was born in 1867 and died in 1916 (McKinney 2010, p.vii). He was from the generation of Trail-Blazers (Goossen 1997, pp. xii-xiv). Kokoro was published in 1914 (McKinney 2010, p.vii). Kokoro’s first legacy is Stories of the Self because Sensei and the narrator spend much time debating philosophical ideas of how to live. The second legacy is Stories of Social and Political Commentary because Sensei lived through the Meiji era and reflects the Westernization of Japan. There is a clear division between what Sensei thinks and what other characters (like the narrator’s father and Sensei’s wife think). The third legacy is Stories of Love and Obsession because there was a love triangle between K, Sensei, and Shizu (Goossen 1997, pp. xii-xiv).
- Obligation, Differences in Thinking, Marriage, Mentorship, and Vengeance in Kokoro
Kokoro reveals the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations, the traditional and Western thinking in Japan, the usage of marriage as a marker to adulthood, the different roles of mentorship that authority figures take in life, and the vengeance a person feels when they feel something they deserve has been taken away from them.
2.1. Importance of Obligation
Kokoro reveals the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations. The first piece of evidence is "I nursed her devotedly, both for her own sake and for the sake of the wife I loved" (Part III, ch. 108, p.309), Despite his depression, nurses his wife’s mother through death out of a sense of obligation to the family. Duty and obligation is also an ideal from the Meiji era (Fukuchi 1993, 470). The second piece of evidence is "I will be leaving my wife behind, but fortunately, she will not want for the necessities of life" (Part III, ch. 110, p.315). His duty to his wife forces him to ensure her material happiness and her ability to support herself without working after his death. The third piece of evidence is "the lord I was following to the grave would be the spirit of the Meiji era itself" (Part III, ch. 110, pg. 315). Sensei is devoted to the Meiji spirit. He sees his death as an obligation to the Meiji era (Komari 2017, 1).
2.2. Differences of Western and Traditional Thinking
In Kokoro, Sensei and the narrator represent Western thinking, while Sensei’s wife represents traditional thinking. The first piece of evidence is “She was not one of those modern women who takes a certain pride in calling attention to the fact that she is intelligent. She seemed to value far more the heart that lies deep within us” (Part I, ch.16, p. 55). Instead of valuing practical thinking, Shizu values emotional thinking and intuition. The second piece of evidence is "We who are born into this age of freedom and independence and the self must undergo this loneliness" (Part I, ch. 14, p. 50). Western thinkers, due to their freedom and independence, often feel sad and lonely. This is different from traditional thinkers (Hearn 2017, 243). While Sensei respects traditional ideas like duty highly, he often thinks and lives by Western philosophy. The third piece of evidence is "She always appeared perfectly normal, and I almost never saw her without Sensei" (Part I, ch. 15, p. 52). The fourth piece of evidence is “That is not to say that she wasn’t special in any way. Rather, she had had no opportunity to reveal her particular qualities to me. I treated her as a kind of appendage to Sensei, and she welcomed me as the young student who visited her husband” (Part I, ch.8). This piece of evidence highlights Shuzi’s way of interacting with people. She does not feel a need to flaunt her personality and acts in a way that is appropriate to society. The narrator does not find her remarkable because she has no desire to mark herself as remarkable. The fifth piece of evidence is “He told me a lot of other things about him, then remarked that it was odd that he, who had few social contacts even with his fellow Japanese, should have become friends with such a person” (Part I, ch. 3). This piece of evidence highlights the first conversation between Sensei and the narrator. Because it is the first chapter, very little background knowledge is known about Sensei. In this first meeting, he presents himself as highly intelligent. More interestingly, he presents himself as isolated and has a self deprecating air. Because Sensei essentially describes himself as friendless, he initially characterizes himself as a lonely intellectual. This is different from the way Shizu presents herself. She characterizes herself as a doting wife who is content with being quiet and allowing Sensei to talk. Shizu exemplifies traditional thinking by not having the depressive moods Sensei (the Western thinker) is prone to. Instead, she is calm and devoted to her husband.
2.3. Importance of Marriage
In Kokoro, entering a marriage is entering adulthood. The first piece of evidence is "By present day standards, he was far too young for marriage" (Part I, ch. 1, page 20). As a young college student, the narrator’s friend is afraid of marriage because he feels he has not left his youth. He is scared to become an adult. The second piece of evidence is "They simply wanted me to make an early marriage so that I could come back to live in the house and become my father's heir" (Part III, ch. 59, p. 172). Sensei’s uncle sees Sensei’s marriage as his acceptance of becoming an adult and running his father’s affairs. Marriage marks his ability to be an adult in society. The third piece of evidence is "Soon after this, I moved into the house where I still live" (Part III, ch. 105, p. 300). After Sensei’s marriage, his life stays static. Sensei lives in the same house with his wife until his death.
The fourth piece of evidence is “To digress for a moment, it seems to me that this kind of jealousy is perhaps a necessary part of love. Since my marriage, I have been aware that my jealous impulses have slowly faded; at the same time, I no longer feel that early fierce passion of love” (Part III, ch. 88). Sensei’s ability to feel emotion has faded since he has gotten old. After his marriage to his wife, he does not feel the same jealousy that he used to when she was around K, but he does not love her the same way he used to. The fifth piece of evidence is “On the face of things, I could congratulate myself on all having gone according to plan. Both Okusan and Ojosan seemed wonderfully happy, and so indeed was I. But a black shadow hovered behind my happiness. This very happiness, it seemed to me, could well be a fuse that drew the flame of my life toward a bitter fate” (Part III, ch. 105). Sensei (by the end of his life) appears to have everything he could ever want. He does not have to work. He has a beautiful wife and is well educated. He is also deeply unhappy. Sensei retains the state emotional and mental state that he had after he was married until his death. This thinking about marriage transcends Western and traditional thinking because both Shuzi and Sensei’s life did not change after their marriage to each other until death.
2.4 Different Roles of Mentorship that Authority Figures Take in Life
Throughout Kokoro, the protagonist has many different authority figures as mentors that treat him differently based on their past experiences. The first mentor (and most prominent in the book) was Sensei. Sensei encouraged the narrator to live in a similar manner as he did. He prioritized intellectualism and curiosity. The first piece of evidence is “A man who knows the satisfaction of love would speak of them more warmly. But, you know… love is also a sin. Do you understand?” (Part I, ch. 12). Sensei picks up on philosophical topics in the narrator’s perspective and only rarely asks about practical subjects. He is an intellectual and asks broad questions about life. The second piece of evidence is “When I read this, I had the impulse to help in some way… But I must confess that I made absolutely no effort in response to your request. Living, as you know, not so much in a confined social milieu as entirely cut off from the social world, I simply had no means of doing so,” (Part III, ch. 55). Sensei clearly does not prioritize the protagonist’s financial stability through work. He does not care for his career too much. Sensei wishes to respond to his letter because of the fondness they feel for each other. The third piece of evidence is “My brother was assuming that since I so evidently respected this man I honored with the name Sensei, he must be someone of distinction in the world, at the very least a professor at the university. What could be impressive about someone who had made no name for himself and did nothing?” (Part III, ch. 51). Sensei is not distinguished in his career. He is not significant in any way except for the protagonist’s attachment to him. Sensei can’t help the protagonist in his career and does not have important connections. His value to the protagonist is in his thought provoking questions and in his intellectualistic view on life.
The second mentor was the protagonist’s father. The father prioritized financial stability and independence and wanted his son to have a monetarily stable life. The first piece of evidence is ““You must realize how it pleases me that this son of mine, whom I raised with such love and care, should graduate while I’m still alive and well to witness it. Having someone make such a fuss about a mere graduation must seem boring to you, with all your aspirations—I can see that. But stand in my shoes, and you’ll see it a bit differently. What I’m saying is, it’s a fine thing for me, if not for you, don’t you see?” (Part II, ch.37). His father views his son as a source of pride based on his accomplishments and less so because of his personality. The protagonist’s father loves him and is proud of him, but this love seems to be conditional on his graduation from college and him obtaining a good job. Sensei, on the other hand, does not care about either of these things. Sensei cares about the protagonist’s critical thinking ability. The second piece of evidence is ““We don’t have to invite them,” my father put in, “but if we don’t, there’ll be talk.” He was concerned about what would be said behind his back. And true enough, these people were inclined to gossip and criticize at the slightest provocation if things weren’t done as they believed they should be in such situations,” (Part II, ch. 39). Father is worried about his social status as well as his son’s. He tends to worry about practical matters like supporting oneself and their appearances in society. This is a different kind of mentorship from Sensei because Sensei pushes for curiosity in philosophical topics, while Father emphasizes financial stability and a large social circle.
2.5 Feeling Vengeance when What Someone thinks is Deserved is Taken Away From Them
Although Sensei often appears to be a calm, rational person, he exhibits displays of vengeance seeking when he feels something that is his is going to be taken away from him. The first piece of evidence is “Looking back, I now think that if my parents had not died when they did—if one of them, it does not matter which, had continued to be there to support me—I would have remained as generous and easygoing as I was in those days” (Part III, ch.57). Sensei acknowledges that the betrayals he has faced in the past has made him cynical and angry. Without this cynicism and anger, he would have no desire for revenge.The second piece of evidence is” To put it simply, my uncle cheated me out of my inheritance. He did it with ease, during the three years that I spent in Tokyo. From a worldly perspective, I was an absolute fool to have left everything in my uncle’s hands without a thought. …that foolish credulity makes me grind my teeth” (Part III, ch. 63). Sensei’s uncle cheated him out of the money that was (legally) his. He felt entitled to this money and regrets not watching it further. The third piece of evidence is “I had only two options: to accept this accounting without complaint, or to take my uncle to court. I was angry, and I was confused. If I sued him, I feared the case might continue for a long time before it was settled.... I had decided to leave my native home forever. I vowed that I would never lay eyes on my uncle again” (Part III, ch.63). This is the greatest revenge that Sensei can think of without harming himself. He wants to hurt his uncle and feels vengeance over the lost of his inheritance (which he thought was his). His perceived ownership of the money and his loss of that money led him to commit the act of vengeance of never seeing his family or childhood home again. It is unclear if this is an effective vengeance against the uncle, but in Sensei’s eyes, it was.
Sensei feels a similar propriety over Shizu (his future wife). The first piece of evidence is “I felt for her a love that was close to pious faith. You may find it odd that I use a specifically religious word to describe my feelings for a young woman, but real love, I firmly believe, is not so different from the religious impulse.” (Part III, ch.68). After their first meeting (and before K’s arrival), Sensei falls in love with Shizu. He loves her deeply and wants to continue to see her. The second piece of evidence is “On Monday no sooner did I arrive at the university than a classmate asked me teasingly when I’d gotten myself a wife, and congratulated me on marrying such a beauty” (Part III, ch. 71). Here, Sensei appears proud to be thought of Shizu’s husband. He feels that this may happen in the future and this is the beginning of his feeling that she will be his (and is his). The third piece of evidence is “In retrospect, I see that my jealousy of K was already showing its horns” (Part III, ch.81). As soon as K began to express an interest in Shizu (who Sensei felt a proprietorship over), Sensei’s temper began to rage in the form of jealousy. He did not want K to take Shizu away from him. The fourth piece of evidence is “. But I was delighted at how decorously she behaved. She devoted the greater part of her innate kindness to me in a way that only I would notice. K therefore remained oblivious and unconcerned. A gleeful song of victory sang in my heart” (Part III, ch.86). With Shizu spending more time with Sensei instead of K Sensei feels as though he has “won” her and is victorious in the battle for Shizu. He has beaten K and Shizu will be his. The fifth piece of evidence is “If the person at issue had not been Ojōsan, I could have poured such a balm of soothing reassurances upon those poor tortured features. I flatter myself that I was born with a compassionate sympathy for others. Just then, however, I was a different person…My answer was cruel. I leaped like a wolf upon the lamb’s throat.” (Part III, ch. 94-96). Because K wanted Shizu (and Sensei believed she was his), he was angry at K for trying to take her away from him. His vengeance was his cruelty. He did not help K with his emotional affliction but made things worse. The sixth piece of evidence is “A voice whispered in my ear that it was time for me too to be decisive, and I unhesitatingly complied. I gathered my courage for a final resolve. I must act before K did, and without his knowledge, I decided. Silently I awaited my chance” (Part III, ch.98). His final act of vengeance against K thinking about proposing to Shizu was to silently propose to her by himself. This was an act borne out of jealousy and anger at K taking Shizu away from him.
What does Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro reveal about Japanese culture? It reveals the importance of fulfilling one’s obligations, the traditional and Western thinking in Japan, the usage of marriage as a marker to adulthood, the different roles of mentorship that authority figures take in life, and the vengeance a person feels when they feel something they deserve has been taken away from them. Sensei fulfills obligations to his wife throughout his life and beyond his death. Sensei is sullen and philosophical due to his Western thinking, while Shizu is calm and content due to her traditional thinking. The narrator’s friend and Sensei both view marriage as becoming an adult, with Sensei having very little changes in his life after his marriage. Sensei asks the narrator about philosophical topics and Father pushes financial stability and a good social circle on the protagonist. Finally, Sensei exacts vengeance on his uncle and K after they betrayed him financially and romantically (respectively).
Literary or Filmic Work
Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro. Trans. Meredith Mckinney. London: Penguin Classics, 2010.
Fukuchi, Isamu. (1993) Kokoro and ‘the Spirit of Meiji’. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 48, No. 4, 469-488. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2385293?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Goossen, Theodore W. (1997) Introduction. In Goossen ed. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (pp. xi-xxxi). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hearn, Lafcadio. Kokoro: Hints and Echoes of Japanese Inner Life. Tuttle Publishing, 2017.
Komari, (2017) Natsume Soseki Kokoro. Honcierge. Retrieved from https://honcierge.jp/articles/shelf_story/4280
McKinney, Meredith. (2010) Introduction. In Natsume Soseki Kokoro (pp. vii-xii). London: Penguin Classics.