Book Review: Kokoro

Kokoro

by Natsume Soseki

Edwin McClellan (Translator)

1914.  248 pages.

Genre: Japanese Lierature, Classic, Historical Fiction


Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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Summary:

Kokoro, meaning ‘heart’, is a tantalizing novel about the friendship between a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls Sensei. Set in the early twentieth century, when the death of the emperor Meiji gave way to a new era in Japanese political and cultural life, the novel enacts the transition from one generation to the next in the dynamic between Sensei, who is haunted by mysterious events in his past, and the unnamed young man, one of the new generation’s elite who will inherit the coming era.


First Sentence:
I always called him “Sensei.”


My Thoughts:

Considering this is a classic, my review may read more as a discussion or study guide than a book review.  Bare with me.  There’s just so many treasures to examine here!  If someone were to ask me what favorite book I would pick that best represents me as a person, it would probably be Kokoro. Not sure if that is something to be happy about, but it’s true.  This Japanese classic, despite being written in a time and culture in which I’ve never been a part of, serves in many ways as a mirror to my own psyche.  And it could very well be that reason that had the most influence on how many stars I awarded it.  Kokoro is a story that focuses on loneliness, guilt, betrayal, love, and the struggles of individuals feeling isolated from the rest of society.

Kokoro, which translates into: “the heart of things”, tells the story of a young university student who befriends an older man he calls “Sensei.” Translated to English, “Sensei” translates into teacher. Perhaps in hopes of filling some unknown void within himself, the young man (who is never named) looks to Sensei as a mentor.  Though the two manage to become very close friends, Sensei proves to be a secretive, reclusive, emotionally guarded and cynical man who has withdrawn from the rest of society apart from an occasional outing with what few acquaintances he has or taking a vacation with his wife.  He has no trust in humanity, including himself, and it is not revealed why until his testament at the final part of the book.

The book is divided into three different parts:  Sensei and I, My Parents and I, and Sensei and His Testament.  Okay, so there are actually four parts if you count the Foreword from the translator, Edwin McClellan.  In the foreword, McClellan gives us a little background about the author, Natsume Soseki.  He points out that Kokoro was one of Soseki’s last novels, written two years before his death.  It was also written two years after the death of Emperor Meiji and the suicide of General Nogi.  Those two deaths are a vital element of Kokoro— however indirect — and is mentioned in both Parts II and III.

Part I, Sensei and I

In Part I, Sensei and I, the unnamed student narrator gives his account of meeting Sensei and their growing friendship.  He expresses frustration in Sensei’s unwillingness to open up to him. Sensei seems to have a loving and caring relationship with his wife, yet the narrator points out that something seems off.  There seems to be an invisible wall between the two.  This is shown in passages such as:

  • “If I were the sort of person she thinks I am, I would not suffer so.”
  • “In all the world, I know only one woman. No woman but my wife moves me as a woman. And my wife regards me as the only man for her. From this point of view, we should be the happiest of couples.”
  • I could not know that there had been in Sensei’s life a frighting tragedy, inseparable from his love for his wife.
  • Do you know there is guilt also in loving?
  • “Then you have no trust in your wife either?”  Sensei looked a little uneasy.  He avoided giving a direct answer to my question.  “I don’t even trust myself.”
  • “Indeed, it would be more correct to say of Sensei these days that he is weary of people.  And seeing that I am one of those creatures that inhabit this world, I can hardly hope to be regarded as an exception.” (Sensei’s wife)

We see in the last half of Part I that the narrator’s father has fallen ill and Sensei takes it upon himself to ask the narrator if he has his affairs in order concerning his father’s estate in case of death. Sensei has felt the sting of betrayal at the hands of relatives wanting to get thier hands on his dead parents’ estate, which has shaped a significant part of his character.  Sensei points out that money can bring out the bad in even the best people.  This is one of the main lessons of Kokoro:  There is bad to be found in each and every one of us, even the best of us.  Or as Sensei himself puts it: “Under normal conditions, everybody is more or less good, or, at least, ordinary.  But tempt them, and they may suddenly change.”

Part II, My Parents and I

In Part II, the narrator returns to his home to help care for his father, who has fallen ill.  Though the father appears in good health upon the narrator’s return, his health starts to decline by the end of the season and he is soon on his deathbed.  It is this part of the book that we see just how different the cultural changes taking place are in that time period, though much of it can also be seen as the extreme differences between country and city living.  The narrator’s father is happy that his son has graduated and has a diploma, yet the narrator, like Sensei, doesn’t see the same value in it.  The father wants to throw a big party to celebrate, but the narrator wants nothing to do with it as he believes it’s only to make his parents look good.  As the father remarks: “The trouble with education is that it makes a man argumentative.”

And then there’s the narrator’s brother in law, who sees Sensei’s lifestyle as a waste. “That’s the trouble with egoists,” he said.  “They are brazen enough to think they have the right to live idly.  It’s a crime not to make the best use of whatever ability one has.”

We also see throughout the book how Japanese culture during that time viewed women.  They were considered uneducated, weak and foolish (just like most other cultures of the time, unsurprisingly). The narrator’s mother is fond of telling a story about the time when her husband beat her with a broomstick… and it is implied that she seems to tell it rather lightheartedly… oooooookay.

Aside from the shifts and differences in culture, Part II deals with the loneliness and denial felt when dealing with death.  The way that the family handles the father’s illness is the perfect example of the denial we often see when people are facing death, as is the situation of the father and his methodical reading of the newspapers while he is bedridden, wailing when he reads that the Emperor has died of the same illness he is dying of. Therein lies the loneliness that is found when all denial is gone.

In relation to the dying father, I believe Sensei says it best in Part III (though he was not speaking of the narrator’s father): “I was like a sick person in bed, who falls into an uneasy sleep during the day.  He opens his eyes as he comes out of his sleep, and sees clearly what is going on around him.  Then for a moment or two, he is overcome by the feeling that, in the midst of a world that moves, he is alone still.”

Part III, Sensei and His Testament (spoilers)

In Part III , we hear from Sensei himself, in the form of a letter written to the narrator.  It is here that we learn about Sensei’s past and the events that led him to be the cynical isolated being that we got to know in Part I.  We learn more about the betrayal within his family after his parents died, and how he came to live with a widow and her daughter. And while he falls in love with the daughter, he refuses to come forward with his feelings, out of fear that the daughter’s mother is trying to dupe him into marrying the daughter for financial gain. No doubt the events that went down concerning his parents’ estate had already destroyed his trust in people.

Sensei eventually grows closure and more trusting of the two women he lives with, but still keeps his feelings for the daughter a secret.  And then enters his childhood friend, simply known as K.  Sensei convinces the widow to allow K to move in with them, in hopes that he can help K through his hardships.  Ironically, K is much like Sensei in his later years, closed off, cynical, and socially isolated.  K tries to find comfort in ideals that were often seen in extreme Buddhist monks in the earlier days of Buddhism.  He convinces himself that his suffering brings him closer to finding a great spiritual truth.  In truth, his loneliness and depression are what drive his beliefs— or at least that’s how I understood it.  He used his spiritual journey as a band-aid to pacify his inner torment.

At any rate, K also falls in love with the widow’s daughter, and because of such, Sensei becomes insanely jealous.  “…I thought I could hear a voice whispering into my ear: “You’ll never get rid of him…”  Perhaps I was beginning to think of him as a kind of devil.  Once I even had the feeling that he would haunt me for the rest of my life.”  Awesome foreshadowing there from Sensei!

When K confides in Sensei his thoughts to abandon his spiritual aspirations in pursuit of love, Sensei replies coldly that anyone who has no spiritual aspirations is an idiot.  In this moment we see that K is willing to do as Sensei had originally hoped he would, which would be to change his ways, but now that K is willing to do such through his love for the widow’s daughter, Sensei now sees the pending accomplishment of that goal as a threat.  He discourages K from pursuing his love interest and convinces K that he should stay on the spiritual path that he has thus so far followed.  And to add salt to the wound, Sensei then asks the widow for her permission to marry her daughter.

K soon commits suicide, and while his note never gives the reasons for his decision, Sensei sees it as his fault.  K clearly could not continue to live the way he was living, using spirituality as an excuse to explain away his mental suffering.  He had found one last hope in love, and Sensei had dashed that hope.  “I thought that, in the midst of a corrupt world, I had managed to remain virtuous.  Because of K, however, my self-confidence was shattered.  With a shock. I realized that I was no better than my uncle.  I became as disgusted with myself as I had been with the rest of the world.”  This ties into the point made in Part I, that even the best of people can turn wicked when presented with the right stimuli.

Sensei spends his remaining years dealing with terrible guilt, depression and loneliness.  “I became aware of the possibility that K had experienced loneliness as terrible as mine, and wishing to escape quickly from it, had killed himself.  Once more, fear gripped my heart.  From then on, like a gust of winter wind, the premonition that I was treading the same path as K had done would rush at me from time to time, and chill me to the bone.”

Things to Ponder (spoilers):

  • One of the things that made me theorize a bit in this part of the book was near the very beginning when he first meets Sensei in the beach.  The narrator says he felt as though he had met Sensei somewhere before— that he already knew him.  For a moment it made me wonder if the narrator was perhaps the reincarnation of Sensei’s dead friend, K, seeing as how Buddhism is one of the main belief systems in Japan and is mentioned several times in the story, particularly in Part III.
  • As early as Part I, Sensei at one point nonchalantly brings up suicide as being a death by unnatural violence.  The narrator points out to him that murder is also death by unnatural violence.  In most cases, murder is normally the first thing that pops into one’s mind when speaking of violent death, but Sensei thought of suicide.  So the question here is: was he foreshadowing his own death, or simply thinking of his friend?  Or was it at that point, both?
  • The death of Emperor Meiji is said to mark the end of an era in Japan, where culture is changing and generations are less and less unable to relate to each other.  It is this symbol of changing culture that is implied as a driving theme of the individual loneliness we see in Kokoro.  But is there more to look at here? Are the deaths of Emperor Meiji and the suicide of General Nogi not also in a sense parallel to that of Sensei and K?

Final thoughts:

I loved this book.  Of all the classics out there, this one is my favorite one.  It dives into the concept of the inner prisons that individuals often find themselves trapped in and how it is that people find ways of dealing with it.  Loneliness.  That is this book.  And it is of great surprise to me that it was just as present in Twentieth-century Japan as it is in the modern day western world.  Loneliness is, no matter the time period or culture, a part of the human condition.


Favorite Quotes:

“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.”

 

“I am an inconsistent creature. Perhaps it is the pressure of my past, and not my own perverse mind, that has made me into this contradictory being. I am all too well aware of this fault in myself. You must forgive me.”

 

“Like the first whiff of burning incense, or like the taste of one’s first cup of saké, there is in love that moment when all its power is felt.”

“I bear my loneliness now, so in order to avoid greater loneliness in the years ahead.”

I often laughed, and you often gave me a dissatisfied look, till you pressed me to unfold my past before you as if it were a roll of pictures. It was then I felt respect for you. Because you unreservedly showed me your resolution to catch something alive in my being, and to sip the warm blood running in my body, by cutting my heart. At that time, I was still living, and did not want to die. So I rejected your request, promising to satisfy you some day. Now I am going to destroy my heart myself, and pour my blood into your veins. I shall be happy if a new life can enter into your bosom, when my heart has stopped beating.”

“I felt for her a love that was close to pious faith. You may find it odd that I use a specifically religious word to describe my feelings for a young woman, but real love, I firmly believe, is not so different from the religious impulse. Whenever I saw her face, I felt that I myself had become beautiful.”

 

It was not that Sensei disliked me at first.  His curt and cold ways were not designed to express dislike of me, but they were meant rather as a warning to me that I would not want him as a friend.  It was because he despised himself that he refused to accept openheartedly the intimacy of others.

Sensei died keeping his secret from her.  Before he could destroy his wife’s happiness, he destroyed himself.

“But do you know that there is guilt also in loving?”

“I don’t even trust myself.  And not trusting myself, I can hardly trust others.  There is nothing that I can do, except curse my own soul.”

“But men are pretty helpless creatures, whether they are healthy or not.  Who can say how they will die, or when?”

I enjoyed my freedom like a little bird that has flown out of its cage into the open air.

“Give a gentleman money, and he will soon turn into a rogue.”

“In past summers when I had been home, I had often tasted a strange sadness as I sat quietly in the midst of the seething cicada song. This sorrow seemed to pierce deep into my heart along with the piercing insect cry. Always at such times I would sit alone and still, gazing into myself.”

My own past, which made me what I am, is a part of human experience.  Only I can tell it.

“I will not hesitate to cast upon you the shadow thrown by the darkness of human life. But do not be afraid. Gaze steadfastly into this darkness, and find there the things that will be of use to you.”

“But do you imagine there’s a certain type of person in the world who conforms to the idea of a ‘bad person’? You’ll never find someone who fits that mold neatly, you know. On the whole, all people are good, or at least they’re normal. The frightening thing is that they can suddenly turn bad when it comes to the crunch. That’s why you have to be careful.”

“What this feeling produced was, quite simply, a keen awareness of the nature of human sin. That is what sent me back each month to K’s grave. It is also what lay behind the nursing of my dying mother-in-law, and what bade me treat my wife so tenderly. There were even times when I longed for some stranger to come along and flog me as I deserved. At some stage this feeling transformed into a conviction that it should be I who hurt myself. And then the thought struck me that I should not just hurt myself but kill myself. At all events, I resolved that I must live my life as if I were already dead.”

“I was once deceived,” Sensei said.  “Moreover, I was deceived by my own blood relations.  I shall never forget this.  When my father was alive, they behaved like decent people. But as soon as he died they turned into scoundrels.”

“I value your opinions because they are the results of your experience.  Your opinions would be worthless otherwise.  They would be like soulless dolls.”

Through cunning, I have won.  But as a man, I have lost.”

The printed characters that my eyes saw disappeared like rising smoke before they reached my mind.

He seemed to be under the impression that once one had become accustomed to hardship, one would quickly cease to notice it.

But what affected me most was his last sentence, which had perhaps been written as an afterthought: “Why did I wait so long to die?”

One might say that his past was his life, and to deny it would have meant that his life thus far had been without purpose.


Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


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