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Author Information: Soseki Natsume

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Natsume Souseki (Western name order: Souseki Natsume) was born in Tokyo in 1867, just one year before the Meiji Restoration. The eighth and final child in the family, his father, Natsume Kohe Naokatsu, was nearly fifty, and his mother forty, at the time of his birth. The baby Souseki was brought up by foster parents for eight years, but was returned to his original home at the age of eight, when his foster parents divorced. The name Souseki is a nom de plume he created for himself (his actual name was Kinnosuke).

Despite an intense love and affinity for the Chinese classics, the young Souseki, in tune with the modernizing spirit of the times, chose to specialize in English and became the second ever student to graduate from the English Literature Department of Tokyo Imperial University.

After graduation, Souseki worked as an English teacher, first in Tokyo, and then in the provinces, moving from Matsuyama (Shikoku) to Kumamoto (Kyushu) in 1806. In that same year he also got married, supposedly telling is wife on their wedding day that eh was a scholar with no time to fuss over her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was emotionally unstable, even trying to kill herself on one occasion. Commentators invariably point out that the marriages depicted in Souseki's novels are never very happy affairs.

At this time the Japanese government was grooming homegrown scholars to replace the foreign teachers at universities. Souseki, who had been selected to follow Lafcadio Hearn at Tokyo Imperial University, was thus sent to England for two years in September of 1900. With an allowance too mean for Oxford or Cambridge, and finding the lectures at University College London too boring, Souseki took weekly tutorials from an authority on Shakespeare. The rest of the time he festered in his London lodgings, reading voraciously, and developing his own theory of literature (later published as Bungakuron.) The isolation may have been painful, but somehow London was the crucible that turned Souseki, now in his mid-thirties, from a provincial scholar into a prolific best-selling author.

Returning to Tokyo in late 1903, Souseki worked as a lecturer at the First High School and Tokyo Imperial University. He also started to write. his first novel Wagahai wa Neko de Aru (I Am a Cat), came about by accident, when a satirical short story (narrated by an English teacher's pet cat) had to be spun out due to popular demand. Botchan (1905), the tale of a headstrong Tokyoite going forth to teach in the provinces, was another humorous tale loosely based on Souseki's own experiences in Shikoku. Souseki was so successful that he gave up his university post in 1907. He joined the Asahi Shimbun on condition of producing one novel per year—a condition he fulfilled, justifying Jay Rubin's description of him as a "word machine [who] could write anything and keep it going for as long as he liked."

In 1910 Souseki vomited blood and was laid low for a year. His productivity hardly declined, though his later novels, such as Kokoro (1914) and Grass by the Wayside (1915), are more direct, personal and gloomy than their predecessors. He was in the middle of a further novel, Light and Darkness, when he died from internal hemorrhaging in December 1916.

Souseki is revered as the father of modern Japanese literature. He was active just when Japan was opening up to the world, and was the first to chronicle the "loneliness [that] is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves." Today, Natsume's picture appears on the 1000 yen note.



©Steven Jeffery /, 2017
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