Society changes constantly. How do we respond to the alienation and loneliness that result from these changes?
Kokoro, which can be translated as The Heart of Things, is a novel written by Natsume Soseki in 1914, at the end of what is known as the Meiji period in Japan. It is full of insight into how changes in culture can exacerbate rifts between family and friends while human nature remains, at the heart, the same. Emotions like jealousy, loneliness, awe and love are felt by everyone, but upbringing, personality and experience shape the expression of those emotions, sometimes rendering them unrecognizable.
Soseki was no stranger to the cruelties of society. At the time of his birth, his mother was 40 and his father was 53, which was considered disgraceful, especially since they already had five children. His parents disowned him out of embarrassment and he was adopted by a childless couple who divorced when he was 9. He was then forced to return to a mother who pitied him and a father who found him a nuisance, something that would set the stage for both a frustrated life and a flourishing literary career.
Kokoro is in three parts. The first deals with the friendship between a student and an older man, referred to as Sensei, or elder. The second explores the relationship between this young man and his own family. The last is a flashback to Sensei’s youth and the turmoil that wounded him for life. The novel is a slow moving, understated psychological drama that builds up a surprising amount of suspense before the revelation of its last few pages and its abrupt ending. Its form perfectly reflects its subject matter.
The Meiji, or Enlightened Rule, era extended from 1868 to 1912. During those 44 years, Japan transformed itself from a feudal society to an industrialized one. Rather than looking to China for guidance, Japanese leaders turned their gaze to the West, adopting a Prussian style government and sending young men and women to Europe and America to learn how to be competitive. The abrupt shift from a culture derived from the Asian mainland, which relied heavily on strict Taoist and Confucian codes for behavior, to a culture influenced by Western society, at best liberating and at worst cruelly opportunist, was earth shattering. The very meaning of being civilized changed within a generation.
Our narrator, the student, looks to Sensei for guidance, despite some serious red flags: this older gentleman has never held a job, has a strained relationship with his wife, and visits an old grave once a day which he refuses to discuss. It’s the undecipherable nature of Sensei that keeps the reader and the narrator engaged throughout the first part of the novel. There is something undeniably modern and nonconformist about him, despite his reserved exterior.
In the second part, the narrator’s father grows ill and dies, revealing conflicting visions of the future. He is pressed to go to Tokyo and get a job or to stay in the countryside and care for his aging mother. The first option is terrifying and severs his connection to his roots, while the second is stultifying and wastes the opportunities provided him by his education. This quandary is the same choice presented to Japan at the end of the Meiji Period, an ominous choice which Soseki does not attempt to answer. The novelist, a man squarely in line with Meiji thought, like Sensei himself, knows his time is passing. It is the youth who must change the paradigm.
Finally, in the third part, narrated by Sensei, we are allowed to see the emotions moving beneath the calm surface of the older man’s persona. We learn that he, too, experienced the disconnect between modern education and traditional upbringing, something which is by no means unique to early 20th century Japan. A stranger in his own home, he sought to make a new home, living as a boarder with an older woman and her daughter. After losing many of their rights during the Edo period (1615-1868), women were just beginning to own property once more. This was a new phenomenon and not socially acceptable, particularly since he was not related to these women. Things became truly uncomfortable when he invited a male friend to live with them.
Sensei’s difficulties have been exacerbated by his inability to allow his wife, or anyone else, for that matter, into his thoughts. Young women of the Meiji period were encouraged to get an education, something which was, during the later Edo period, reserved for geisha, women who were unsuitable for the higher purpose of marriage and motherhood. While Sensei is not so conservative, he isn’t modern either. He’s afraid that acknowledging the ugliness he has lived through would destroy her, who is to him so spotlessly beautiful, and so he has kept her at a distance. Insulating her from the darker parts of his character costs not only her humanity and perhaps even the fulfillment as a mother that she once desired, but condemns him to a lonely existence. If there is any lesson in Sensei’s experience, it is that neither tradition nor competition will bring fulfillment in the absence of communication and empathy. The correctness of our views is far less important than how we engage others.