The list of notable Japanese writers is virtually endless. From those of the modern era to those of ancient times, it is not challenging for one to find an interesting author to obsess about. Out of the many names that pop up from a quick search on the internet, Natsume Soseki is among the top.
Basic Facts about Natsume Soseki
Born as Natsume Kinnosuke during the year 1867, Natsume Soseki came into the world as an unwanted child of his 53-year old father and 40-year old mother. Prior to his birth, his parents already had five children to take care of, which made the addition of Natsume Soseki a source of insecurity and disgrace for the family.
In 1868, he was adopted by Shiobara Masanosuke and his wife. Having no child of their own, the couple happily raised Natsume Soseki up until they got a divorce about eight years later.
Natsume Soseki then returned to his own house where his mother warmly welcomed him back, while his father saw him as a nuisance. Not feeling completely accepted by his family, Natsume Soseki grew up to be quite insecure. This sense of self-doubt only grew more intense as his mother passed away in 1881.
As he started attending the First Tokyo Middle School where he was introduced to Chinese literature, he began to feel a sense of hope for himself and his potential of becoming a writer. Unfortunately, the members of his family were not supportive of his budding interest in literature and persuaded him to pursue something he could easily make a living out of.
As such, he enrolled at the Tokyo Imperial University in 1884 with the goal of becoming an architect in mind. Simultaneously, he started studying the English language in the hopes that it might be useful to his career someday.
About three years after, he crossed paths with and befriended Masaoka Shiki, or better known as Masaoka Noboru in the world of Japanese poetry. Masaoka Shiki actively encouraged Natsume Soseki to become a writer and even taught him the fundamentals of composing a Japanese haiku poem. Interestingly, Natsume Soseki first started using his pen name, which means “stubborn” in English, to sign his poems.
During the year 1890, he joined the university’s department of English literature. He showed great mastery in the language in just a short span of time and was even able to translate the classical piece known as Hojoki into English in 1891.
After graduating in 1893, Natsume Soseki enrolled at the Tokyo Normal School to pursue a graduate degree course, while working as a part-time professor. Two years after, he then taught at the Matsuyama Middle School, which served as the main setting for one of his most popular novels, “Botchan”.
Natsume Soseki also spent some time studying outside of Japan, particularly in the United Kingdom. He was sent there by the Japanese government during the year 1900 as the country’s first English literary scholar. He spent about two years of his life in the foreign land where he, unfortunately, lived an unpleasant life of loneliness and poverty.
He came back to his home country in 1903 and became a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University. Simultaneously, he finally began pursuing a career as a writer by creating different types of Japanese poetry, literary sketches, and novels. The success of “I Am a Cat”, a satirical novel he finished in 1905, resulted in him being widely admired by the reading public and critics.
In 1907, he left the university and began working as a full-time writer for Asahi Shimbun, a national newspaper of Japan. Most of Natsume Soseki’s works featured themes revolving around the struggles against economic challenges, duty vs desire, freedom, individuality, loyalty, Japan’s industrialization, and human nature.
Natsume Soseki wrote at least one novel every year until he died of a stomach ulcer in 1916.
Birth Name (Japanese): 夏目金之助
Birth Name (English): Natsume Kinnosuke
Date and Place of Birth: February 9, 1867; Tokyo, Japan
Date and Place of Death: December 9, 1916; Tokyo, Japan
1905: Wagahai wa Neko dearu (I Am a Cat), Rondon To (The Tower of London), Kairo-ko
1906: Botchan, Kusamakura, Shumi no Iden (The Heredity of Taste), Nihyaku-toka
1907: Nowaki, Gubijinso (The Poppy)
1908: Kofu (The Miner), Yume Ju-ya (Ten Nights of Dreams), Sanshiro
1909: Sorekara (And Then)
1910: Mon (The Gate), Omoidasu Koto nado (Recollections), Eijitsu Shohin (Spring Miscellany)
1912: Higan Sugi Made (To the Spring Equinox and Beyond, Kojin (The Wayfarer)
1914: Watakushi no Kojin Shugi, Kokoro
1915: Michikusa (Grass on the Wayside), Garasu Do no Uchi (Inside My Glass Doors)
1916: Meian (Light and Darkness)
Kokoro by Natsume Soseki
Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro” was initially published as a series known as “Kokoro: Sensei no Isho” in the Asahi Shinbun during the year 1914. The title “Kokoro” literally translates to mean “heart” in English but is also understood as a term to refer to “feeling” or “the essence of things”.
It tackles the Japanese society’s transition from the Meiji Period to the modern age. It primarily follows the friendship of two men – a young man and a relatively older one who the other calls sensei (teacher).
Major themes Natsume Soseki used in Kokoro include isolation, guilt, egoism, ideals of women, the importance of family, individualism, modernization, and the consequences of being weak.
Later on, the series was published as a novel by Iwanami Shoten. Kokoro has also been adapted into two different films, one by Kon Ichikawa in 1955 and another by Kaneto Shindo in 1973. The novel has also made its way into Japanese pop culture, being adapted into two episodes of the anime series Aoi Bungaku and into mangas by Nariko Enomoto and Manga de Dokuha.
I Am a Cat Series by Natsume Soseki
I Am a Cat, or known as Wagahai wa Neko de Aru in Japan, is a satirical novel that Natsume Soseki wrote from 1905 to 1906. It makes use of an unwanted and unloved, wandering cat to talk about the troubling mix of Japanese traditions and Western cultures during the Meiji Period.
The cat, which is nameless hence the title of the novel, spends his life observing humans and their innate personalities.
Initially, I Am a Cat was published in the Hototogisu, a Japanese literary magazine. Natsume Soseki only wanted to finish the series as a short story but an editor at the Hototogisu convinced him to keep it going. It ended up being a ten-part series, each of which could easily be considered as a stand-alone story.
At present, the novel is available in a numbered series (I Am a Cat: I, I Am a Cat: II, and I Am a Cat: III), a compilation, and several manga adaptations. It is available in different countries and is known under the following titles:
France: Je Suis Un Chat
Germany: Ich der Kater
Italy: Io Sono un Gatto
Poland: Jestem Kotem
Portugal: Eu Sou Um Gato
Romania: Eu, Motanul
Spain: Yo, El Gato / Soy Un Gato
Ten Nights’ Dreams by Natsume Soseki
Yume juya, also known as Ten Nights’ Dreams or Ten Nights of Dreams, is a collection of short stories written by Natsume Soseki for the Asahi Shimbun. Each dream of the series is set in its own time period, which includes the Meiji Period, the Kamakura Period, and even the era of the gods.
It is unknown whether or not these dreams were actually dreamt by Natsume Soseki or were simply works of fiction. Some of them are described to be interestingly weird, while the others disturbingly comical. Four of the ten dreams start off with the phrase “This is the dream I dreamed…”
The main plot of each dream is as follows:
The First Night – A story about a dying woman and her request from the dreamer
The Second Night – A story about the dreamer’s struggle with attaining enlightenment and nothingness
The Third Night – A story about the dreamer carrying a blind child on his back
The Fourth Night – A story where the dreamer is portrayed as a young child who follows a peculiar old man to a willow
The Fifth Night – A story about the dreamer’s upcoming death, his last request to see the love of his life, and the trouble caused by the mischievous goddess known as Amanojaku.
The Sixth Night – A story about Unkei being alive during the Meiji Period and the dreamer’s curiosity of him
The Seventh Night – A story where the dreamer is set on a large sheep speeding through the waves and finds himself getting frustrated with regret and fear
The Eighth Night – A story that starts off as a normal day being observed by the dreamer from a barber shop but then slowly becomes empty and motionless
The Ninth Night – A story about a mother and her relentless visits to the shrine to pray for her husband’s return. The story is narrated by the dreamer who reveals the mother is actually his own.
The Tenth Night – A story about a kind fellow named Shotaro who has an odd pastime of watching women
In 2007, a film known as Yume Juya was released as a collection of ten different films by various novices and veterans of the industry. The director for each dream was:
The First Dream – Akio Jissoji
The Second Dream: Kon Ichikawa
The Third Dream: Takashi Shimizu
The Fourth Dream: Atsushi Shimizu
The Fifth Dream: Keisuke Toyoshima
The Sixth Dream: Matsuo Suzuki
The Seventh Dream: Masaaki Kawahara and Yoshitaka Amano
The Eighth Dream: Nobuhiro Yamashita
The Ninth Dream: Miwa Nishikawa
The Tenth Dream: Yudai Yamaguchi
Other Books by Natsume Soseki
Botchan by Natsume Soseki
Botchan is among the most popular novels Natsume Soseki ever wrote, so much so that it is included as a required reading material for many Japanese schools. Morality serves as the main thematic matter of the novel and is creatively discussed with hints of sarcasm and humor.
Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki
Sanshiro was initially published in the Asahi Shimbun as a serialized work during the year 1908. A year after, it was published by the Shunyodo Shoten Company as a full-length novel consisting of thirteen chapters.
The book is best described to be a coming-of-age novel that tells the story of a young person named Sanshiro Ogawa who moves from the countryside to urban Tokyo. It serves as the first book of one of Natsume Soseki’s trilogies, followed by “And Then” and “The Gate”.
And Then by Natsume Soseki
And Then, known as Sorekara in Japan, follows the story of Daisuke, a university graduate who comes from a wealthy family. Regardless of his education, he remains unemployed at the age of thirty and primarily depends on his family’s money to get by.
The novel plays on themes such as tradition, isolation, economic hardships, and family, among other concepts revolving the Japanese society’s shift from the Meiji period to the modern era.
A film of the same name was produced by Yoshimitsu Morita and released in 1985.
The Gate by Natsume Soseki
The Gate, or Mon, is another one of Natsume Soseki’s widely successful novels on an international scale. Several English translations of it have been done since it was published in 1910.
Following the preceding novels Sanshiro and And Then, The Gate tells the story of Sosuke and Oyone, a middle-aged married couple who fell in love with each other when they were just students.
Similar to the two other books of Natsume Soseki’s trilogy, themes such as responsibility, accountability to the society, and isolation are tackled in the novel.
The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Soseki
The Three-Cornered World also goes by the titles “Kusamakura” and “Grass Pillow”. It follows the story of an artist who goes to the mountains to find subjects he could use as inspirations for his paintings.
An English translation of the novel was done by Alan Turney in 1965 and another by Meredith McKinney in 2008.
“Tsugi ga Kirei” (The Moon is Beautiful) - Famous Quote by Natsume Soseki
Among the many quotes by Natsume Soseki, “Tsugi ga Kirei” stands as the most popular. The whole phrase is actually “tsugi ga kirei desu ne”, which means “the moon is beautiful, is it not?” in English.
This phrase was used by Natsume Soseki as a form of saying “I love you”. For the writer, two people with deep feelings for each other do not need to use those three words to effectively convey their feelings. Sometimes, even the simplest phrases contain more emotion than direct ones.
Haiku Poems by Natsume Soseki
As previously mentioned, Natsume Soseki was encouraged by his friend Masaoka Shiki to pursue his passion for literature by initially tutoring him on Japanese poetry. Some of Natsume Soseki’s popular haiku poems include:
On New Year’s Day
Over the Wintry
Plum Flower Temple
The Crow Has Flown Away
The Lamp Once Out
Watch Birth and Death