Loneliness, Junshi, the Spirit of Meiji, Mentorship, and Internal Conflicts in
Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro
Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro provides valuable insights into Japanese culture. We evaluate the literature and explore the key values and cultural phenomena, specifically, we investigate Loneliness, Junshi, the Spirit of Meiji, Mentorship, and Internal Conflicts as presented in Kokoro, with direct evidences from the book and building off of the observations and definitions from Bargen (2006) and Fukuchi (1993). We also categorize the work into the Love and Obsession, and Political and Social comment category in terms of legacy (Goossen, 1997).
What does Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro reveal about Japanese culture? It reveals Loneliness, Junshi, the Spirit of Meiji, Mentorship, and Internal Conflicts. Loneliness was prevalent in modern Meiji era Japan. People enjoyed more freedom and individualism, but they also inevitably suffered from loneliness for various reasons (Ch. 14, p. 49). Junshi, the notion of dying along with the master as the subordinate, had a lasting impact on the Japanese people and their culture. The Spirit of Meiji refers to the assertion that "natural human desire, namely egotism, is ugly" and must be placed under control of values that transcend ganshū (self-adherence), such as "the nation, public, or heaven" (Fukuchi, 1993, p. 480). Sensei and the protagonist form a mentorship relationship that is closely knit, but also distant in some ways. Sensei is hesitant about telling the protagonist about his past and directly lectures him on the matter of inheritance out of personal experience. Most stories unfold through external conflicts between parties and their constituents, but Kokoro does so with the internal conflicts within its characters. Sensei, K, and the protagonist have conflicted feelings that influence their seemingly irrational decision making process and move the story forward in subtly inexplicable ways.
Natsume Sōseki was born in 1867, a year before the Meiji era started, and died in 1916 (Wikipedia, 2021, Natsume Sōseki). He belongs to the Trail-Blazer generation and is among the first to embrace western culture and the ideas of individualism and love (Goossen, 1997, p. xii). His work Kokoro was published in 1914 (Wikipedia, 2021, Kokoro) and features a microcosm of the Meiji era. This piece of work fits into Goossen's Love and Obsession category for legacy (Goossen, 1997, p. xxiii), as the core of this narrative lies within Part III, when Sensei reveals his love triangle with Ojōsan and K (Ch. 65, p. 153). The signs of love and obsession become more clear as Sensei and K struggle to stay at peace with their feelings, with K eventually becoming so conflicted between his beliefs and his feelings towards Ojōsan that he commits suicide (Ch. 96, p. 215). Another legacy of Kokoro is its Political and Social Comment (Goossen, 1997, p. xxviii). While the book makes no mention of politics, its obsession with the Spirit of the Meiji era and its associated social issues makes it a candidate for this legacy.
- Loneliness, Junshi, the Spirit of Meiji, Mentorship, and Internal Conflicts
Mentioned through the novel, Kokoro demonstrates the prevalence of loneliness in Japan during the Meiji era. The first evidence is that Sensei, whom the protagonist admired so much to give the name, was lonely himself. As a student, Sensei experienced the freedom of love but also committed great sins by indirectly killing his friend K, or so he believes. As a result, he had chosen to isolate himself from society and live without much interaction with other people. "No time is as lonely as youth", exclaims Sensei, while discussing loneliness with the protagonist (Ch. 7, p. 36), which can be taken to mean that loneliness had caused him to make the grave mistake that he committed. The second evidence is that in the countryside, the protagonist did not fit in and instead had to hide his "element that was fundamentally out of harmony with them" (Ch. 23, p. 68) because he had been influenced by Sensei and his philosophy. He repeatedly wrote letters to Sensei while staying in the countryside out of boredom and loneliness as well (Ch. 40, p. 102). The third evidence is that Okusan and Ojōsan, despite Okusan's strength observed through her "upright, plainspoken air" (Ch. 64, p.152), also felt the loneliness living on their own after Okusan's husband had died (Ch. 64, p. 151), which led to Okusan and Ojōsan taking on the protagonist as a lodger.
The traditional Japanese practice of Junshi that dates back to the 7th century refers to the act of following the lord's death as a subordinate by committing seppuku (Wikipedia, 2021, Junshi). It has had a lasting influence on Japanese culture all the way up to the end of the Meiji era and reflects in the action and decision-making of many characters in Kokoro. The spirit of Junshi first shows through the protagonist's father when he suffered from delirium. Before hearing about the news on General Nogi, the protagonist's father still had much faith in recovering from the illness, but afterwards, his condition and attitude both worsened. " 'General Nogi fills me with shame', he mumbled from time to time. 'Mortified to think of it - no. I'll be following His Majesty very soon too.' " (Ch. 52, p. 126) Given his mental state, he was likely saying whatever that was on his mind, which means he had abandoned his hopes to recover and had instead turned to the true and instinctive desire to die with the emperor. Though his death was not Junshi, the thought of it very much influenced his attitude towards recovery. The second evidence is that Sensei's wife also mentioned dying with the lord in passing, perhaps as a joke, when Sensei felt the people in his generation also lost their era (Ch. 109, p. 241). This shows the cultural relevance of Junshi even though it was told jokingly. But more importantly, General Nogi's Junshi influenced Sensei's decision of suicide. Bargen (2006, p. 164) highlights the parallels between General Nogi and Sensei and claims that while General Nogi committed Junshi following Emperor Meiji, Sensei committed suicide following K's suicide. Indeed, Sensei did not commit suicide to die with the Emperor, instead he committed "Junshi" for the Spirit of the Meiji era, for reasons we will explore in the next section, and General Nogi's Junshi only served as a catalyst that contributed to Sensei's eventual suicide. In the novel when Sensei learned the news of General Nogi's death, he pondered the suffering General Nogi went through all these years waiting to be able to die with the lord, and he reflected upon the years he has lived after the death of K (Ch. 110, p. 243). This was the last straw that broke the camel's back since both General Nogi and Sensei wanted to atone for the sins they had committed, one for the Satsuma Rebellion and the other for causing the death of K.
2.3. The Spirit of Meiji
Mentioned towards the end of the novel, the phrase "the Spirit of the Meiji Era" begs the question: What exactly represents the Spirit of Meiji? Fukuchi (1993, p. 480) in his analysis agrees with Etō that the Spirit of Meiji is the assertion that "natural human desire, namely egotism, is ugly" and must be placed under control of values that transcend ganshū (self-adherence), such as "the nation, public, or heaven" (Fukuchi, 1993, p. 480). Under this definition, Kokoro exudes the Spirit of Meiji throughout the story, beginning with Sensei's claim about the modern age with its "freedom and independence and our own egotistical selves" (Ch. 14, p. 49). Sensei did not feel his egotistical self was valuable enough for the protagonist to learn from. In fact, he felt that everyone in the Meiji era suffered from this egotism and thus had to bear loneliness. Sensei was the opposite of the Spirit of Meiji, he was the egotistical kind who did not submit to values that transcend ganshū. The protagonist's brother also expressed his loathing for egotism (Ch. 51, p. 124), claiming that "egoists are worthless types" and that "a man's talent amounts to nothing if he won't set it to work and do all he can with it". Though he makes no mention of greater values like heaven or the nation, he does claim that people like Sensei should not just idle for his entire life, and instead he should work to his fullest potential. Sensei's friend K took a more extreme route and surrendered to what he calls "the chosen path" (Ch. 73, p. 169). In a sense, he wishes more than anyone else in the story to transcend human desires and be freed from egotism. It was revealed that K's "true way" consisted of the denial of desires, love, and egotism (Ch. 95, p. 213). In essence, K symbolized the Spirit of Meiji, putting the natural human desires under the greater cause. After General Nogi's Junshi, Sensei, who blamed himself for K's death all throughout his life, considered committing suicide, so it is indeed fitting for Sensei to claim to have died with the Spirit of Meiji. The discussion centering around the Spirit of Meiji also makes Kokoro a book of Political and Social Comment (Goossen, 1997, p. xxviii), since it revolves around people's interaction with egotism, and how it should be dealt with. These three characters, Sensei, the protagonist's brother, and K all have their own views on egotism as a social issue and acted in accordance with their own beliefs. While the book does not argue for any one of these interpretations or actions, it lays out the options.
One of the more prominent features of Kokoro is mentorship, which also happens to be the bulk of Part I and Part II. The mentorship between Sensei and the protagonists shines through the pages and provides us with a subtly interesting relationship. The protagonist learns from Sensei mostly by speaking to him directly about various subjects without Sensei directly teaching or lecturing him, and thus it is fitting to call this relationship mentorship. The first evidence for mentorship is their exchange about trust and enthusiasm. "Being young, I was prone to blind enthusiasms... But conversing with him[Sensei] seemed to me more beneficial than attending classes." (Ch. 14, p. 49) The blind enthusiasm Sensei was speaking of here refers to the protagonist's enthusiasm for following Sensei. Natsume Sōseki established Sensei early on as a wise character, but this is where Sensei began to hint at his backstory which explains his concern about the protagonist being so attached to Sensei. It shows that Sensei tried to maintain some kind of a gap within the mentorship. The second evidence is when Sensei mentored the protagonist in his thesis. "He willingly told me all he knew and even offered to lend me two or three books. But he made absolutely no move on the task of actually advising me." (Ch. 25, p. 71) This remark further underscores the subtleties of the Sensei-protagonist mentorship. On one hand, Sensei was willing to provide all the help he could, but on the other hand he did not want to be held accountable for his mentorship, and he did not seem to have high regards for his own opinions either. The third evidence is when Sensei explicitly lectured the protagonist on matters of inheritance. "... If there's anything to inherit you should make sure the matter's completely attended to before it's too late. Why not arrange things with your father now, while he's still well?" (Ch. 28, p. 77) This is also the only matter that Sensei tried to pass on to the protagonist explicitly, and everywhere else in the book Sensei talked about his past experience and opinions on things without any confidence in its value or correctness. "Country people are actually worse, if anything, than city folk." (Ch. 28, p.77) He took on a tone of certainty and asserted these statements without giving away his past experiences or any evidence until Part III, and this makes the mentorship relation more interesting as it is an exception to the norm. Overall, the mentorship between the protagonist and Sensei turned out to be mostly casual discussions without lecturing, but Sensei had very strong opinions on some subjects and chose to lecture the protagonist on them.
2.5 Internal Conflicts
Stories usually unfold due to conflicts between people or factions, but in Kokoro, these conflicts usually stem from within - very fitting for the title of the novel. Many characters in the book have conflicting feelings about the matters in life, but Sensei, K, and the protagonist exemplify them and provide some insights into the conflicting nature of Japanese society.
The first evidence is Sensei's conflicted feelings towards the protagonist. "I'm a lonely man, ... so I'm happy that you come to visit. That's why I asked why you come so often." (Ch. 7, p. 35) On one hand, Sensei felt lonely living a secluded life with his wife and enjoyed the protagonist's company. "Did my wife tell you whose grave I've come to visit?" (Ch. 5, p. 31) Sensei asked the protagonist whether he knew about K's grave as if he were afraid of him learning about his past. "I shall speak, then. I'll tell you the story of my past and leave nothing out... But no... You may be better off not hearing about it[Sensei's past]. Besides, I can't tell you right now..." (Ch. 31, p. 83) As much as they hang out together, Sensei also wished to hide his past from the protagonist and did not allow him to learn about his story until he committed suicide. Sensei contemplated telling the protagonist about his past but decided against it, and this marks Sensei's internal conflict on how he should handle the protagonist.
The second evidence is K's struggle with his "chosen path" (Ch. 73, p. 169). K had chosen to pursue "the true Way": "following the path was not only a question of self-denial and abstinence - even selfless love, beyond the realms of desire, was conceived as a stumbling block." This had been K's belief since his childhood days, and now it has come under fire from his "ponderous confession of his agonized love for Ojōsan" (Ch. 90, p. 203). At this point, K did not know what to do and turned to the protagonist for help. "He was ashamed of his weakness, he replied in an unusually dejected voice. He was at a loss, no longer had a clear sense of things, so all he could do was see a fair assessment from me." (Ch. 94, p. 211) K was so lost that he had to rely on someone else for help, but unfortunately as for help he did not receive much, and this conflict of belief pained him so much that it eventually cost him his life as he wrote "he was weak and infirm of purpose, and because the future held nothing for him" (Ch. 102, p. 227). Both K and Sensei's affection and obsession towards Ojōsan and their internal conflicts contribute to this story being in Goossen's legacy of Stories of Love and Obsession (Goossen, 1997, p. xxiii).
The third evidence is the protagonist's attitude toward inheritance. Early on in the story, Sensei advised the protagonist to settle any inheritance deals while everyone is still able to, "What I'd like is for you to make sure, while your father is still alive, that you get a decent inheritance" (Ch. 33, p. 87). Throughout the protagonist's visit home, he did everything but settle inheritance with his family. He even discussed it with his brother about coming home and managing the place (Ch. 51, p. 124), but made no effort to actually talk to his father about it. Later on, his uncle summarized everyone's conflicted feeling, "It would be a great pity if he died leaving things he wanted to say unsaid, but on the other hand, it doesn't seem right to press things from our side." (Ch. 52, p. 126) This internal conflict within these family members made them irresolute and hesitant to reach a conclusion while the protagonist's father is still alive.
What does Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro reveal about Japanese culture? It reveals Loneliness, Junshi, the Spirit of Meiji, Mentorship, and Internal Conflicts. Sensei, the protagonist, and the Okusan and Ojōsan that Sensei stayed with during University all felt lonely in their time and seeked other people's company. The protagonist's father's attitude towards recovery worsened after hearing about General Nogi's Junshi and subconsciously thought of dying with the emperor himself; Sensei decided after General Nogi's Junshi to also commit suicide after K and the Spirit of Meiji, which is also a topic that permeates throughout the novel. Sensei, who exudes egotism, is an icon for what the Spirit of Meiji discourages. The hatred towards egotism is expressed by the protagonist's brother, who dislikes Sensei for not putting his skills to work. The Spirit of Meiji is symbolized by Sensei's friend K, who wished to take on the "chosen path" and denied his own human desires. The mentorship between Sensei and the protagonist is subtly distant, yet close at the same time, as the protagonist mostly learns by following Sensei's philosophy and on occasion Sensei lectures him on important life lessons. The internal conflicts within Sensei, K, and the protagonist pushed the story forward with a strange sense of distance, suicide that resulted from conflicting feelings, and indecision and irresolution. The relevant discussions around Spirit of Meiji and the internal conflicts in Sensei and K also highlight the book's legacies of Love and Obsession and Political and Social Comment (Goossen, 1997, p. xxviii).
Filmic and Literary Works
Natsume Sōseki, Kokoro. Trans. Meredith Mckinney. London: Penguin Classics, 2010.
Bargen, D. (2006). Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro: Living as Though Dead. In Suicidal Honor: General Nogi and the Writings of Mori Ogai and Natsume Soseki (pp. 159-188). Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. Retrieved March 2, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt6wr436.12
Fukuchi, I. (1993). Kokoro and `the Spirit of Meiji'. Monumenta Nipponica, 48(4), 469-488. doi:10.2307/2385293
Goossen, Theodore W. (1997) Introduction. In Goossen ed. The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories (pp. xi-xxxi). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wikipedia. (2021) Junshi. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junshi
Wikipedia. (2021) Kokoro. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kokoro
Wikipedia. (2021) Natsume Sōseki. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natsume_S%C5%8Dseki