Primer #4: For Comparison,

let’s talk about Natsume Soseki, who wrote a couple wonderful books at the turn of the 20th century including, “Kokoro,” “Kusamakura” and the intriguingly-named “I Am A Cat,” which Wikipedia only makes sound more intriguing with the addendum:

a more literal translation would read “We are a Cat”, using the English royal plural form.

Yes.

Anyway, I picked up “Kokoro” today, thinking it’d be nice to read something from the Meiji era (pre-WWI, or pre-modern Japan) and I got to thinking about how different Meiji literature is from the post-war stuff I’d been reading all year.

The Meiji era lasted from the end of the feudal era (in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry showed up with his black ships and demanded Japan open itself; in 1858, Meiji took the throne) until the beginning of World War I (well, technically, 1912, when Taisho became Emperor). Japan was quickly modernizing, and “Kokoro” reflects this with its two main characters: a carefree, Westernized student and a traditionalist teacher.

“Kokoro” is a little like Fitzgerald or Melville in its insistence on character identification. In fact, from the beginning, it’s impossible to enter this world without feeling a little like an accomplice to the unnamed student’s drive, which feels like a character on its own. Soseki was a stodgy traditionalist in the Meiji reformers’ era, and despite his familiarity (like, it seems pretty much everyone else in Japan at the time) with Western culture, he is careful to err on the side of Japanese orthodoxy.

As such, the only thing it’s really comparable to is Akutagawa. This is Japan without a sense of guilt or disappointment or the feeling that a thousand-year-long promise has been abandoned: this is a book written for an audience still ready to invest in the personalities of its characters. But even Akutagawa’s characters are usually representative of ideas, like the thief in “In a Bamboo Grove” or the old man in “Rashomon”; “Kokoro,” (at least so far), has connected two fully-fleshed out people. Of course, they are connected to perspectives in Meiji-era Japan, but they’re more than ideas; they’re people with ideas.

Next time I’ll get back to talking about the passive protagonist in contemporary Japanese literature, but I thought a note on Soseki and the Meiji attitude was necessary before I move on.

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