Sōseki’s – Kokoro (The Heart of Things) A Review by Asher Jael

Kokoro, The Heart of Things

Kokoro, The Heart of Things.

“I believe that words uttered in passion contain a greater living truth than do those words which express thoughts rationally conceived. It is blood that moves the body. Words are not meant to stir the air only: they are capable of moving greater things.”

Natsume Sōseki (夏目 漱石, 9 February 1867 – 9 December 1916), born Natsume Kin’nosuke (夏目 金之助), is a great author to begin with when starting to explore modern Japanese literature. His works include KokoroBotchanI Am a Cat and his unfinished work Light and Darkness. Alongside novels, he was a prolific writer of haiku and kanshi (a less popularised form of Chinese and Japanese poetry amongst western audiences). Sōseki’s writing and voicing is archetypical of many Japanese styles, and his work is often accredited as a profound influence on wider modern Japanese culture. So ingrained into the collective national identity, Sōseki’s portrait found its way onto the 1000 yen banknote between 1984 – 2004.

Sōseki’s literary career began in 1903, at the age of 36, when he began to produce haiku, renku (haiku-style linked verse), haitaishi (linked verse on a set theme) and literary sketches to literary magazines, including the highly reknowned Hototogisu. However, it was the public success of his satirical novel I Am a Cat (吾輩は猫である / Wagahai wa Neko de Aru) in 1905 which won him wide public admiration as well as critical acclaim. It wasn’t until 1914, at the age of 47, he would come to write Kokoro (The Heart of Things).

Kokoro was written 2 years before Soseki’s death in 1914, and was first published in a series format in the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. During the novel’s initial serial run, from April 20 to August 11, 1914, it was printed under the title Kokoro: Sensei no Isho (心 先生の遺書, Kokoro: Sensei’s Testament). When later published in novel form by Iwanami Shoten, its title was shortened to Kokoro; the rendering of the word “kokoro” itself was also changed from kanji (心) to hiragana (こころ). Sōseki’s used his literature to reflect something of the times and the social changes which surrounded him. Kokoro therefore, is best understood by noting the era it was written in.

He lived during the Meiji era. This began in 1868 with the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate which had been long period of isolationism for Japanese society and culture, their political economy was feudalistic in structure and had evolved gradually from the 12th century onward. New pressures began to emerge in 1953, involving the threat of violence from USA who sought to access Japanese territory and develop markets for trade and their own economic interests. The opening up of Japanese borders to outsiders, led to rapid changes in Japanese culture and society. The Meiji era ushered in a series of reforms for a new society which was breaking away from its feudalistic history, the structural changes became known as the Meiji Restoration.

Sōseki had loyal ties to the traditional moral-education of Japan, and was reluctant to watch his country pulled from beneath his feet. He documented his emotions and thoughts in Kokoro’s character Sensei. Sōseki himself was raised with the moral standards and cultural norms of Confucianism. For both Sōseki and Sensei the shift from Confucianism to Western concepts of individualism would prove extremely uncomfortable.

Whilst the title literally means “Heart”, the word contains shades of other meanings, and can be translated as “The Heart of Things” or “Feeling”. Kokoro’s essential meaning is simple, it is book about loneliness. Yet the beauty of Kokoro is in its exploration of different forms of loneliness and the wider impact of feelings of secrecy and guilt. Equally, this is a book about reflection of individual experiences alongside global political shifts.

The theme of isolation was developed in Sōseki’s preceding works, here in the context of interwoven strands of egotism and guilt, and how those experiences lead to loneliness. Whilst in previous novels of his, Sōseki had explored how a person’s sense of shame leads to isolation. Kokoro touches on some other themes too, including the roles and ideals of women in Japanese society, the intergenerational change in social values, the role of family in our lives, and the sacrifice of the self for the needs of our communities.

“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”

Traumatised by the holding fast to his secrets (which I will not spoil here), Sensei has grown into a lonely person with deep set thoughts. After a chance encounter with a young man, who is the novel’s narrator, Sensei begins to reveal his wisdom. As readers we develop a sense of a secret story behind Sensei and we are left to wonder, what has left this man emotionally paralysed, incapable of trusting himself to engage with the world or maintain many interpersonal relationships.

Only when Sensei chooses to die by his own hand, and writes a letter to the narrator, do we hear his back story. One involving love, betrayal and a death. One which has led to this life of solitude and seclusion.

It is through this novel, that Sōseki reconciles two distinct types of isolation or loneliness. The isolation of Japan from the international community, and the isolation of individuals who are reluctant to social change, and are left behind in the advent of so-called Western modernity.

The story is told in three parts. The first two are told from the young narrator’s perspective as he comes to know Sensei, and as he begins to grow increasingly distant from his family despite deep emotional ties.  

The third section is a final testament and confessional letter from Sensei to the young man, after Sensei has decided to take his own life. This part makes up the latter half of the story. In this letter Sensei reveals, in keeping of an earlier promise he made to the narrator, the full of his shadowy past. The young man reads this letter whilst onboard a train to Tokyo, the new capital of Japan.

This journey is one of symbolism and metaphor, as the narrator travels towards the new capital,  the reader is propelled along into the new and burgeoning Japan of 1968 with the narrator, simultaneously leaving behind Sensei who would rather take his life than partake in the new world. This metaphor is emphasised by that fact the novel starts in an old Capital of Japan, Kamakura, which had witness an array of anti-Buddhist violence (haibutsu kishaku) in 1868 and had been transformed into a popular holiday location thereafter. The narrator seems oblivious to this violence which took place in Kamkura, where he takes a holiday on the opening pages. It is here he first meets Sensei as a man who looks oddly out of place in Kamakura, yet strangely at home too.  

It is during the latter section that we learn of Sensei’s philosophy and psychological disposition, and experiences which have culminated in his taking of his life.  We learn of the complex drama which took place and led him to give up his life in sacrifice and why he ritualistically visits a grave every month.

“I believe that words uttered in passion contain a greater living truth than do those words which express thoughts rationally conceived. It is blood that moves the body. Words are not meant to stir the air only: they are capable of moving greater things.”

Sensei believes there are two ways of speaking, one which is intuitive, spontaneous and full of passion and another which involves the conception of rational thoughts and is less powerful. According to Sensei it is the former which is of greater value in creating social change.

For Sensei, who represents the views of Sōseki too, Japan is shifting from Confucianist cultural norms towards Western ones. Confucius himself claimed to have achieved an effortless flow, an absolute absorption with whatever task was in front of himself, this state of flow is what the Chinese named Wu Wei. Sensei therefore is describing a Wu Wei of speaking.

Sensei is draw parallels between the cultural shifts of the Meiji Era with the ways in which spoken language has changed. He is reminiscing to a different way of speaking which for him is much more intuitive and passionate. For Sensei, the economic imperialism of the United States has sacrificed the ideals of Confucianism down to the way people speak. Although Japan has ended a long period of isolationism, individuals such as Sensei have slipped further into loneliness, immersed in observing the most subtle of changes. Although as readers we never know for sure, if what Sensei talks of is true. Perhaps he is mad, perceiving things which are false or exaggerated on his part. Yet how can we tell when we are not a Sensei? Therefore he treads in the way of an archetypal mad-genius or heretic character.

 “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.”

For Sensei there is a great paradox in the new era. This is the emergence of loneliness in Japanese society, simultaneous to the new connections Japan was making as a nation whilst emerging from 250 years of isolation. As Japan became more interconnected with the world, its citizens became lonelier.

This is what Sensei means when he describes the modern age as one of both freedom and egotistical behavior. For Sensei, the liberties of so-called modernity have come at a cost. The tragedy is that for people such as himself, this was not a deal which he chose. Rather it was forced upon him because of the age he lived in. Out of resentment for this situation, Sensei finds no other option than to accept loneliness, because to resist it would create further loneliness and unhappiness in the future. Likewise, he seeks to remain independent of other people’s opinions, good or bad, because he knows they will inevitably switch in time. This philosophy is in the heart of Confucianism.  

There is a link between a certain demographic of society being left behind in the Meiji era, still embracing the morality of Confucianism, and Sensei being trapped in his personal past due to regrettable events and remorse in his life and relationships. These he comes to reveal in the latter half of the novel.

“No matter how fierce was the passion that gripped him, the fact is he was paralysed, transfixed by the contemplation of his own past. Only something so momentous as to drive from his consciousness all thoughts of before and after could have propelled him forward. And with his eyes fixed on the past, he had no choice but to continue along its trajectory.”

The former commentary is made by the narrator. It portrays the philosophical yet logically organised prose, tokenistic of Kokoro and Sōseki’s other works. The protagonist is explaining Sensei’s integrity and unmovable morality grounded in Confucianism which was eroding quickly from Japan’s cultural landscape. In hindsight, this quote has a nihilistic foreboding of Sensei’s death, although much of the foreboding prose will pass readers by without notice. It is in hindsight, we think, there were many signs he was going to take his own life. This reflects a realistic thought for a person in grief after someone they know takes their own life all of a sudden. As humans we inevitably think, could we have known that it was going to happen?

As readers we revel in Kokoro’s philosophical interjections, yet sometimes they are nihilistic in their perspective. Sensei as a person is deeply troubled because he cannot change. His eyes are fixated on his mistakes and misjudgments in his past. He lives in hindsight and remembrance. It is only as the novel progresses do we grow conscious of the turmoil and drama which left him in this paralysed state. It is almost as though Sōseki is warning his readers, “do not live in the past as Sensei has, and as I have too, it will be your gravest mistake.”

Sensei has chosen, to keep his integrity over any collective sense of comradery or security, which for him would be a fallacy. Sensei has chosen Confucianism with his heart and not his head. He will not and he cannot budge or adopt the future if it means sacrificing the traditional way. For Sensei truth is within tradition, rituals and honoring the past gives his life purpose. Whilst for the new emerging Japan, this world view clings unnecessarily to history and does not embrace the future. Whilst for some this may seem like an incredible burden, for Sensei there is no other life worth living than the one of upmost integrity. For the protagonist and many readers this will seem Nihilistic, however if you revel in this novel you may find it is equally nihilistic a view as it is liberating and full of hope. That will depend of your disposition as a person.

Kokoro is as much a commentary about a arrogant and lonely individual as it is of an individual’s perspective of his rapidly transforming nation state. It is equally about nihilism, as it is about liberation. It is equally cold and descriptive of turmoil and existentialist world perspectives, as it is a heart warming novel about love and integrity.  

Without this book, modern Japanese literature would not have flowed the same course. It is through this exploration in the meaning of loneliness, that we are left feeling more connected to our humanity than ever before. We realise how we all share a need for integrity and self-preservation and that is what makes us all humans together. With Kokoro, a book written at the turning point of Japanese history, literature in Japan was changed forever. This novel stands as a testament, that traditions are not simply about the past but they generate the creative energy which produces the illusion that we are moving forward towards a future.

“Anyone without spiritual aspirations is a fool”
― Sōseki Natsume, Kokoro