Nastume Soseki: The Greatest Influencer on Japanese Literature

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  • If you are a fan of Japanese literature, chances are you will have heard of Natsume Soseki (夏目漱石). Working during the Meiji period, Soseki was popular both in his own era and this popularity continues to the present day. In fact, in recent years Soseki has been more popular than ever, with Haruki Murakami citing him as his favourite writer. Since 2001, his famous novel Kokoro has been translated into and published in 10 new languages including Dutch and Arabic, showing the enduring popularity of his work.

    Early Life

    Soseki (1867 – 1916) was born in Tokyo, and his character was greatly shaped by a tumultuous childhood as he was repeatedly put up for adoption, but eventually returned to his natural family. He was the youngest of six children and his parents were approaching the autumn of their years when he was born – Soseki was an unwanted child, and grew up with a sense of insecurity.

    In his teens he first expressed an interest in literature, but his family disapproved and he was encouraged to study architecture. At University he met Masaoka Shiki who encouraged him in his writing endeavours, ultimately helping him to become first an English teacher, and later a full-fledged writer.

    Soseki in Kumamoto

    During his four years and three months in Kumamoto, Soseki moved house 6 times. Several of these houses are preserved for tourists to visit, such as the 3rd house he lived in, located near to Suizenji Park. The house is small and broken down – you can’t go inside and even peeping through the dirty glass reveals a sorry state. However, the 5th of Soseki’s houses is quite a different story.

    The Uchitsuboi residence was the favourite of Soseki’s Kumamoto homes, and the one he stayed at for the longest. It was large and airy, with a big garden. These days, the house has been turned into a museum about Soseki, and the garden is beautifully preserved. For just a 200 Yen entrance fee, you can stroll through the tatami-covered rooms where Soseki himself once roamed, and gaze out into the garden which, despite the construction work that is perpetually going on nearby, always seems quiet and serene. It was in that garden well where Soseki first bathed his baby daughter after she was born. (Soseki was married soon after arriving in Kumamoto. The modest wedding only had 6 guests.)

    Soseki as a Teacher

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    He came to Kumamoto to be an English Teacher at the Fifth High School. On finishing his time in Kumamoto, in 1990 he went to England for two years to study English. It seems that, perhaps rooting from his unsettled childhood, Soseki was never able to stay in one place for long – though in England for only two years, he lived in four different places.

    Soseki as a Writer

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    When he returned to Japan, he gave up teaching and became a full time writer. As he put it in a letter to a friend: “I want to quit teaching and absorb myself in a life of literature”. He started out by writing poetry, in the forms of haiku, haitaishi and renku, which were published in the literary magazine Hototogisu, edited by his university friend Masaoka Shiki.

    In 1905, he published his first book – I am a Cat. He joined a famous literary firm and produced many popular works, which transformed him into a literary icon. In his lifetime, he wrote many short stories and novels, the most popular amongst them being Botchan, Kokoro and I am a Cat.

    Legacy

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    Natsume Soseki was well-known in his time and is still cited as one of the most important Japanese literary figures. His face appeared on the 1984 D series of banknotes, on the blue 1,000 Yen notes, showing his obvious importance to Japanese culture. Soseki’s grandson, Fusanosuke Natsume (born in 1950), is also a writer.

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