Saturday, June 27, 2009

KOKORO, Natsume Soseki

So I've just finished the first of a number of Japanese classics I put on my Fill-in-the-Gaps list. I was kind of horrified when I was making up my list and realized that despite 10 years of studying Japanese, I really didn't know much about the Japanese literary canon. Hence Kokoro and several other choices.

Of course this meant that most of my very interesting reading was not the book itself but the introduction and Wikipedia articles on Natsume and the book. Natsume is apparently in the highest tier of Japanese cultural celebrities--his face was on the 1000Y ($10ish) bill from 1984-2000, which says something very interesting to me. Kokoro was written in 1914, only two years before he died of a stomach ulcer at age 49.

The book itself was (to me) more interesting as a reading experience than it was as a book, which may be a terrible thing to say about myself as a reader, but I'm being honest. The composition is unusual for what you expect of a novel--it's in three pieces, the first of which describes the nameless shiftless and self-indulgent main character's friendship with his nameless older friend, whom he calls "Sensei." The second third is about the main character's time at home over summer vacation with his family, while his father slowly dies of kidney failure and the main character puts off finding a job. The entire third third is a letter Sensei wrote the main character. Sorry for the spoiler, but at the end the story doesn't even retun to the narrator--it just signs off with the end of the letter, which runs about 80 pages.

The thing that struck me most about the actual story was probably the very casual misogyny. The story is ultimately about the sacred bonds between men, even though the problem between characters boils down to a betrayal over a woman. There are several of these sacred manly friendships throughout the book, which is also strewn with comments like "Although it's true that women are generally incoherent, my mother is especially loquiacious with her incoherence" etc etc.

**SPOLER**
The part that gets to me the most about the misogyny is Sensei's eventual choice to commit suicide to avenge K, the friend from whom he stole his wife. The desicion is so selfish, having to do with his personal feelings of guilt, and totally ignores a fact that actually comes up in the book several times--his death leaves his wife, the Object, destitute and alone. Why was her interest never taken into account?
**END SPOILER**

Has anyone else read Kokoro? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

9 comments:

Emily Cross said...

wow. that sounds like an interesting read but i suppose you have to think about the culture and time that this novel was written in. I'm sure a novel around 1900's anywhere would have been the same. Although i do agree with what you said about the spoiler.

Steven said...

Kokoro is on my list, but I haven't read it yet. However, several years ago I read his earlier book I Am a Cat, which I loved. It is a satire, told from the perspective of the family cat, about Japanese trying to adopt Western attitudes and values.

Leigh Russell said...

This is amazing. It's like a whole different world. I've taught English to Japanese students and once tried to learn Japanese. I found it really complicated, and discovered there's a whole hierearchy of registers. As a woman, I'd be expected to used one way of speaking to a man and virtually a different language when addressing another woman. Talking to a child is different again. At that point I'm afraid I gave up. I can just about say 'How do you do' and that's it!
If you want a little light relief, please check out my new crime thriller Cut Short, described by one reviewer (in the Watford Observer) as a "taut, slick, easy to read thriller".

moonrat said...

thanks for commenting, guys.

Emily--I thought the same thing. But I *do* think there's something different than there would have been in, say, an English-language book from the same period. I think there's a lot of implied misogyny in a lot of literary traditions, but this was flat-out and addressed. I wonder if it's something characteristic of Japanese literature at the time, or Japanese literature during that particular period, or maybe of Natsume.

moonrat said...

Steven--yes, there's definitely an important thread of how "Westernism" has affected Japanese culture in KOKORO. That was probably pretty important to Natsume; in my reading about him I discovered (without too much research) that he was an English major, an attache to England for three years, and an English professor. Clearly at the very least *English* literature and culture was a preoccupation for him.

I'll look forward to seeing your review for KOKORO when you come to it!

moonrat said...

Leigh--yeah, I loved learning Japanese, but one of the harder speaking patterns for me at least to wrap my head around was that as a woman I am supposed to use a separate (and more polite and respectful) set of verbs/nouns/grammar. There's something about really getting out of your own head and assumptions in order to speak another language well--and when part of that includes abandoning some of your own personal morals, it's a little tricky.

I_am_Tulsa said...

Ah, I have no idea where to begin...I hope you don't mind if I rant a bit...
Women in Japan "won" their right to vote in 1945 ...it took a world war to let that happen....

Although times have changed and we seem to be living in a society where there are equal rights for women and men, to be honest, what is written in literature hasn't really changed.

My mother-in-law who was born in the 1920s is my textbook for all things "womenly" in Japan. She does not fail to shock me every time we talk...
Women in Japan from her generation are obviously not all the same, some were at the head of revolution for women and some, like my m-i-l look upon those women with disdain.

Since my father-in-law passed away, my m-i-l has complained about how "single women" are looked at as if they were fools.
...
and she says she understands it too! "Women who are living alone are pitiful" were her words that knocked me over.
(These words did not mean that she missed her husband. She doesn't think a woman can take care of herself..she still doesn't understand why I HAVE to work...and I why I don't have a baby yet etc...)

I know that this is only a fragment of Japanese society but it is the pieces that are put together that make the final big picture. (Language is another aspect that you have keenly mentioned.)

Soseki is an author that sheds light on those details in his own way... and sometimes he leaves out the details (I think) on purpose...

Many authors of this time and before have misogynistic ideas in their literature too because, well, that's a big part of Japanese society past and sometimes present.

However, I am happy to say that we now have a five thousand yen bill with female author Higuchi Ichiyo's portrait on it!

moonrat said...

Thanks, Tulsa. I love hearing your perspective--I've been following your blog and reading your very interesting posts on Japan for awhile now, and eventually I'd love to see more of your chronological biography so I can understand the whole arc.

And I didn't know that about Higuchi--better put some of her on my list!!

I_am_Tulsa said...

Oh, Moonrat, thank you...

My "bio" is perhaps the hardest thing for me to write! (lol) I am going to try to weave it into my posts more, hopefully that will "cure" me of my "I can't write about me disease"...

Higuchi Ichiyo is on my list too, I admit I haven't read anything by her yet!