Natsume, Sôseki. Kokoro, (The Heart) (1914).

(adapted from Kumiko Sato's web page:


The narrator "I," a college student, comes to know a man during vacation in Kamakura. He calls the man "sensei," because he respects the man's sharp insight in things. Sensei always looks sorrowful. The narrator wants to know the secret source of the sorrow sensei keeps in his mind, but sensei never reveals it. Sensei observes the narrator well, and points out that the narrator is expecting affection from him but he can never give that sort of secure feeling to the narrator. In summer after graduation, the narrator returns home because his father fell ill. He has not found a job yet, and as recommended by his mother, he writes a letter to sensei asking for any connection of available jobs. This summer, the Meiji emperor dies, and General Nogi follows the emperor on the day of the imperial funeral, as the most loyal servant of the emperor. The condition of the narrator's father worsens, and now seems to be in a critical condition. At this point, a letter from sensei arrives. The letter has no mention of jobs, as the narrator expected, but is actually a confession by sensei, which has the length of a book. Sensei writes: when he was young, he fell in love with a beautiful daughter of the widow owner of the boarding house where he used to live. His best friend, K, also came to live in the same house. K confessed his secret love of the young lady, but sensei himself could not tell his own feeling to his friend. K was a smart, frank man who had rich knowledge of religion. As the lady seemed to like K, sensei tried to indirectly stand in the way, by saying to K, "how stupid it is to get involved with those who never progress." This was what K himself said in contempt of the stupidity of women. Sensei, on the other hand, secretly asked the widow to allow him to marry her daughter. She permitted the marriage, and her daughter agreed. Three days after K learned of this fact, he committed suicide. Sensei believed that he caused his friend's death. The beautiful lady is his wife now, but he has never been able to erase the sense of guilt and loneliness because of the secret. It seems that he, too, will die after the emperor, because the Meiji era (1969-1911), which represented his generation's spirit, is now gone with the emperor. I's father is ill and on the verge of death as well, and General Nogi's suicide features in the narrative as well, so all of the patriarch's seem to be dying in this novel. We read in the text of all the darkness and the ominous sound of the canons firing as the funeral for the Emperor is held. Clearly, the text is "about" the end of something.



This is a little unbalanced confession novel. If it does not have the narrative frame that contains Sensei's confession, it is apparently one of the modern Japanese novels that focuses on the question of the modern subject. What characterizes Sensei as the modern subject is, first, the ritual of confession. It is discussed in my note on Mishima's Confessions of a Mask. Second, loneliness. The loneliness, in connection with the ritual of confession, creates the inner self that can never be understood by others--thus, the essential loneliness of the subject. Sensei is attracted by the idea of death (suicide), when he realizes that even his wife, his most beloved and closest to him, cannot understand his inner consciousness, nor he can tell her why. Sensei gropes for "understanding" by confessing his sin to the narrator, but only in exchange of life. Karatani Kojin (Origins of Modern Japanese Literature) points out that the ideological production of the "modern" took place in the Meiji era.

Sensei also says that his life should end with the death of the Meji emperor, not because he is loyal to the emperor but because he could only be "represented" by this particular age called Meiji. What does it mean? As Sensei suggests, his suicide is not compensation of his sin he commited to his friend K, but because he knew that K was the future of himself. What matters to Sensei is thus not the reason for K's suicide but the very impossibility of understanding K's suicide--even death cannot compensate for the deep gap lying between the inner self of the modern subject and the exterior facts and interpretations.

The reason Karatani locates the birth of the modern subject in Meiji era is that Meiji is the period when Genbun-itchi, the conformity of written and spoken language, became rooted enough for people to forget the system of the conformity itself and feel as if this reality depicted in the new language has been the reality of a universal humanity. Genbun-itchi was also the adoptation of realistism in writing, following the Western tradition of mimesis, for now human speech and narrative descriptions can be represented in language that is easily accessible. It was within this system, this new mode of the conformed realist language that the modern subject found its interior self-awareness. Sensei is, so to speak, very conscious of this system of the inner self, and cannot help putting himself into the system. It may be the feeling Soseki himself had, probably, since Sensei seems to be born in the same year as Soseki himself. The narrator (not the narrator of Sensei's Testament), as opposed to the character Sensei, is a very detached, characterless narrator. His personal life is mentioned everywhere, especially his father's death, but his narrative is extremely flat and shallow, in contrast to the rich, emotional narrative of Sensei's confession. The young narrator employs the already established system of realism, in a matter-of-fact style. One example is that dialogues are directly quoted as dialogues in the young narrator's part, while Sensei narrativizes dialoguess into his subjective first-peron narrative. To me, this young narrator seems to have no trouble trusting the reality of his words. Sensei is much less assured.

Kumiko Sato



ADDITIONAL NOTES (from Loftus): Sensei's lack of certainty referred to above is clearly a central feature of Kokoro. Characters are anxious, existence seems contingent. Consider how much of the language of the text is given over to interiority. We read about Sensei being "frightened," gripped with fear, turning rigid, experiencing paralysis, feeling trapped and dead-ended in his life. He talks about his shame, his humiliation, his "whole body began to tremble" as he stands transfixed, staring at K.: "It was then that the great shadow that would forever darken the course of my life spread before my mind's eye." (229) Darkness is certainly another motif that runs through the text. Sensei writes about how "fear gripped my heart," and how even when he was getting married, he notes that "over my happiness there loomed a black shadow" (236). All this is very much the language of interiority, the language of the mind reflecting on its own self and its processes. But also, it is about understanding pain and loneliness, dealing with the fact that "A dark shadow seemed always to be following me." Is this the language, and hence the fate, of the new modern Meiji person in Japan (and elsewhere)? Let us not forget that while Sôseki was in England, 1900-1902, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was being serialized snd then published as a single volume in 1902. It, too, featured a great deal of introspection and interiority though it was also a denunciation of colonialism. Is "modernity" a condition that involves introspection, relfection, and, in the end, profound isolation and loneliness? This may be what Soseki is trying to tell us. Recall the line on p. 30: "You see, loneliness is the price we have to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence and our own egotistical selves."

I have also long believed that Kokoro can be read as a cautionary tale. By this, I mean that Sôseki aims to show his readers how society works if it becomes an open competition with everyone acting according to their own self interest. This is what industrial capitalism requires and while it may bring many benefits, it is not always pretty. It promotes competition among individuals and as Sôseki points out, it invites people to act selfishly. Sôseki finds this disturbing and not a little scary. Social Darwinism, which made quite an impact on Japan through the writings of Herbert Spencer, suggested that this is the way the world works. It's every person and every nation for itself. In order to become modern, Japan needed to release the popular energies of its people, and see that these energies are dedicated to the cause of building a rich and powerful nation. Sôseki understands this and doesn't really question the necessity of doing it; but he does want his readers to think about the costs of living this way, setting up one's society on these terms. Don't forget that Sôseki was steeped in Chinese thought and his remarks on Individualism suggest that he had grave revervations about unbridled individual freedom. As Marvin Marcus points out, Sôseki is often associated with the sokuten-kyoshi (則天去私) philosophy--"Be in accord with Heaven and reject the self"-- or "Follow the Way of Heaven and Leave the Self Behind" as in transcend the self; move beyond selfishness in order to approach selflessness. As Marcus points out, the exact source for this phrase and its precise meaning--what Sôseki actually means by it--are not unequivocally clear. Supposedly he muttered the phrase several times before his death. It was something he believed in.

Another scholar, David Pollack, draws on the writings of Japanese scholar Eto Jun who pointed out that in the very first bound version of Kokoro, for which Sôseki himself designed the cover, he placed the Chinese character for Kokoro, 心 , followed by a quote fromChinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi (Hsün Tzu, c. 310—c. 220 B.C.E.) to the effect that "All human misery arises from the fact that the Heart is coverd over with warped ideals that conceal its capacity for reason...By what means does man know the Way? By means of the heart." Xunzi did not believe that Human Nature was fundamentally Good, as Mencius had believed, but saw it as actually bad--which is why education was so important. It was necessary in order to to help people overcome their evil nature. This does suggest that Sôseki valued a cautious, even skeptical approach to the individual self. Some of his reservationa about unbridled individualism are clear from the lecture he gave at the prestigious Peers School on "My Individualism." See here for this lecture. He seems to believe that with freedom, should come responsibility. Sensei writes in his Testament about how he became more "aggressive" toward K, and became more "dogmatic" in order to defend or protect himself. (192) But thirty-some pages later, he will feel deep remorse for the way he conducted himself: "Through cunning, I have won. But as a man, I have lost." (228) He felt ashamed that his pride and his fear of being humilated prevented him from speaking directly to K. So what had he lost "as a man" as a result of his victory through "cunning?" He had acted in his own self-interest; he had protected what he felt he needed to defend, and he came out on top, I guess you could say. He put himself first, but at what cost?

If, indeed, Sôseki was deeply influenced by Confucian thought, could we think of Kokoro as a vehicle for turning the Confuican ideals upside down? The first and most important of the Five Confucian Relationships is between Father and Son--but "I" has seemingly been insenitive unfilial to his father. He compares him unfavorably with Sensei and feel that Sensei gave him "far greater intelectual satisfaction as a companion"' but then he is quick to backtrack and say that "intelletual" isn't really the right word, it has a "too cold and impersonal sound,"so the word should be "spiritual" instead. There is something deep, something nonverbal that Sensei can transmit to "I," it seems, something philosophical, moral or spiritual. What he has is "real" in the sense of meaningful; it grows out of his real life experiences. This is what he syas to teach I, to transmit to him. He says, "Indeed, it would not have seemed to me then an exaggeration to say that Sensei's strength had entered my body, and that his very life was flowing in my veins. And when I discovered that such were my true feelings towards these two men, I was shocked. For was I not of my father's flelsh?" (50) Indeed, he was; and in Confucian terms, his first loyalties should be to his father. But the pull of this mystical side of Sensei is so strong that "I" ultimately abandons his father on his deathbed. Not very filial. So this fundamental Confucian virtue apparently does not stand up in these modern times so full of independent and egotistical individuals.

The bond between Ruler and Subject comes next in the Confucian hierarchy, and this is complicated; the Emperor Meiji is a forceful presence in the novel, but only in death. His death requires all his subjets to repress their everyday happinesses or joys in orer to mourn. It is time to run out and buy black crepe and decorate the house. These mourning rituals are imposed upon his subjects, and then his top general commits suicide during his funeral in order to follow him in death. Yes, loyalty is supposedly being trumpeted here, but was it over the top? Too extreme? Was it necessary? Is it convincing? Does such an act really belong in the modern world? I's Father does seem loyal to the emperor...but he is apparently dying of the same disease that is plaguing his soverign. He is also losing his is anything he says or does meaningful? Can he be a role model?

The Brother-to-Brother relationship does not seem to be working well in this novel, either. Sensei's Father's brother, Sensei's uncle, betrayed his obligations and screwed over his nephew. Ooops. Plus he ripped off his late brother's assets. How about Husband and Wife? How is Sensei and Shizu's marriage portrayed? He cannot bring himself to tell her of his role in K's death...and she remains totally clueless. Is that even possible? Would she really have no inkling that K. was developing feelings for her and that this was bothereing Sensei? Could she not put 2 and 2 togeher later, after the fact? Friend-to-Friend relations are an obvious disaster, too: Sensei betrays his best friend and neither "I" nor Sensei seem to have any real friends; nor does Shizu as far as we know.

So, what is left is that people are alone in the world; lonely and adrift. Born into the modern age, but it is an age full of loneliness, darkness and egotistical individuals. In the new modern, industrializing economy, it is everyone for themselves. The Five Confucian Relationships are not providing the anchor they are supposed to. They can no longer hold the family together. Sensei has no children, so there is no future generation in that particular family. "divine punishmnet," Sensei says mysteriously on p. 17 but by the end of his Testament we know whatw he means by this. He is being punished for the wrong he did.

"I," we just don't know about. We can hope. We can hope that he LEARNS from Sensei, can accept and understand his "Teaching" about the pitfalls and dangers of modern life. Hopefully, "I" will play it straight in his human relationships in the future, will speak up before things get out of hand; he will learn how to communicate with people, and how to trust them and treat them with respect. If Sensei's Testament teaches "I" anything, if it enables a new life to be lodged in his breast,as he writes, then something can grow there. A "Heart," perhaps, one that he can look into and not be afraid. If things are to work out for the better, then the younger man needs to learn the painful lessons that his older mentor learned; he must internalize the Teaching that is rooted in Sensei's life and experience. He needs to make this teaching fully his his own and to become a new and better person. A person capable of honesty, love, trust, someone who can become genuine and loving. He needs to become what Sensei could not; he needs to become fully human and not live like a mummy, or live like he is already dead. It seems that Kokoro sets this up as a distinct possiblity; the younger generation does not have to repeat the mistakes of their elders, their mentors, their teachers. But there are no guarantees. As readers, then, we too, are left to fend for oursleves. Do we believe that there is hope? Or are we doomed to live in moral darkness? Are w ecapable of leanrinn? Can we grow? Can we change? Can we generate a light that will penetrate the darkness of the world? It may not take much; perhaps just a thin ray of light will suffice. If it can lead us to the hope we need to get us through, that will be enough.

To me, one of the most impressive things about Kokoro is that it looks at some very tough issues unflinchingly, and its power is enhanced by what it does not do. Its ending kind of explodes into our consciousness. The young narrator is sitting on a train heading towards Tokyo, reading Sensei's last words, his Testament. Then the narrative voice shifts and we read Sensei's story in his own words, over "I's" shoulder, if you will . There is no Epilogue that has "I" disembark from the train and resolve that he will live differently; he will learn his lessons from his teacher, and his gneration will do better. Sensei will have finally fulfilled his duty: he will have become a true"Sensei," the Sensei that he never was before, and he will have really taught someone something. something important. The orchestral music swells, the sun shines through and "I" walks steadfastly towards a better furture. But Sôseki does not let us off that easily. We have to enter into the text and engage with it and decide the final outcome for ourselves. This seems to be the ultimate expression of our first SLO: "To understand the significance of form and the dynamic relationship between author, reader and text." The form, the structure of the novel, by having it end in the middle and to shift the narrative voice and ultimately leave us in a state of suspended animation--this is what makes the text have the powerful effect on us that it does.


Another thought, entirely. Burch pointed out the significance of Intertextuality in Japanese literature and film, and I have always thought about this largely in terms of the clear references to other texts that we may find within the one that we are reading. For example, we find this variety this variety of Intertextuality in our next novel, Enchi Fumiko's Masks, where Intertextuality is clearly more literary, and more obvious. As early as p. 5 in the novel, we learn that one of the characters has engaged in a detailed study of Heian spirit possession, and 45 pages later a 1937 essay by this character is reproduced in the text for us to read.  So it sits there as a clear intertext. Of course, it is a fictional intertext, but it purports to be real and it is an essay that probes deeply into the characters from the Tale of Genji, so in this way, the Genji is also brought into the body of Masks, so as we read the 1950s novel, we are also reading and experiencing parts of the Genji.  But, back to those early pages of Masks, the purpose of four of Enchi’s characters meeting up is to go visit the house of a Noh master whose son will show them their collection of Noh masks and costumes, so here we have another example, and quite a direct one, of intertextual references to Noh theatre, Noh performances, Masks, robes, and how they impact Enchi's characters.  But, before they do that, there is a reference to a séance that had happened earlier, and this becomes another kind of intertext, which takes us back to the past, to 1912.  S then two historical markers in terms of time appear int he text: 1912, the year the Meiji Emperor Meiji died and one long, impressive era ended, and 1937 which makrsthe start of Japan’s all-out ground war in China, another kind of "intertext" that marks a profound turning point in modern Japan's history. And there is much mor eintertextuality to be found in Masks including poems, sons, moments form the Tale of Genji, etc.. But now I am realizing that while this is obviously a clear usage of intertextuality, they way history and socio-political moments enter into Kokoro, I think we can think of intertextuality it work in this text as well.

The point is that Intertextuality is a way of accounting for the role of literary and extra-literary materials without recourse to traditional notions of authorship. It subverts the concept of the text as self-sufficient, hermetic totality, foregrounding, in its stead, the fact that all literary production takes place in the presence of other texts; they are, in effect, palimpsests--that is, parts of a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced in order to make room for later writing but of which traces remain; or, also, something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. For Roland Barthes, who proclaimed the death of the author, it is the fact of intertexuality that allows the text to come into being:

Any text is a new tissue of past citations. Bits of code, formulae, rhythmic models, fragments of social languages, etc., pass into the text and are redistributed within it, for there is always language before and around the text. Intertextuality, the condition of any text whatsoever, cannot, of course, be reduced to a problem of sources or influences; the intertext is a general field of anonymous formulae whose origin can scarcely ever be located; of unconscious or automatic quotations, given without quotation marks. ("Theory of the Text" 39).

And since it is clear that Intertexts need not be simply "literary"--historical and social determinants are themselves signifying practices which transform and inflect literary practices. (Consider, for example, the influence of the capitalist mode of production upon the rise of the novel), this opens up the possibility of considering the presence of Emperor Meiji and General Nogi's deaths as an integral and intertextual part of Kokoro. Moreover, a text is constituted, strictly speaking, only in the moment of its reading. So, the reader's own previous readings, experiences and position within the cultural formation also form crucial intertexts.

Since intertexts are not limited to the strictly to the literary, and social-historical events like the death of the Emperor Meiji and General Nogi’s suicide can alsao qualify, they become important intertextual markers which affect our reading of Kokoro.  Like a painted backdrop on the theatrical stage, the moment of the emperor’s funeral and General Nogi’s suicide set the tone for the end of the novel, and the booming of the cannons seem to Sensei to be a lament for the passing of an age.  The anachronistic feel of General Nogi’s ritual suicide reminds all Japanese readers how far Japan has come during the last 45 years.  Nogi’s hara-kiri now seems shockingly odd and out of place in the new Japan.