First published in 1914, Kokoro is set in Meiji era Japan, and this is when Japan opened its doors to Western civilization after a period of isolation. This is when Commodore Perry and his black ships came to Japanese shores. It’s during this transition and introduction of Western culture that the beginnings of “modern Japan” emerged.
The thing with Asian literature is that you need to know the context in which they are written in, or the era the writers lived in to fully appreciate and understand the novel. It’s the same of course with Western classics, but for me it’s a bit more difficult to fully grasp Asian literature because of the culture I grew up in. While I grew up in a country considered to be part of Asia, early in my post-grad studies one of the things I learned first was that we may be geographically located in Asia, but our culture is much closer to the West. Kokoro by Natsume Soseki is a Japanese classic, and is, I think, also widely read outside Japan. When a Japanese professor of mine saw my friend and I exchanging books (I lent him my copy of After the Banquet by Yukio Mishima), she said that this one of their required readings when she was in school back in Japan.
The narrator is nameless here, and the only people who are named are Sensei, Sensei’s wife Shizu, and K. The novel is divided into three parts: Sensei and I, My Parents and I, and lastly, Sensei’s Testament. In a way, the narrator’s experiences mirror Sensei – he thinks himself too modern for his provincial roots, he has family who falls ill, and the narrator also feels himself alone. It’s written as though he is narrating the story to us, and every now and then he comments that he should’ve known the significance of what Sensei said in this juncture, or he should’ve understood what Sensei had said back then before it was too late.
It’s not a long novel, just over 240 pages, but I took a while to finish it because I couldn’t get past the first part. The prose is simple, which admittedly made me bored at times, but once you do get past the initial getting-to-know stages of Sensei and the narrator getting to know each other, it does pick up. The latter 2 parts contain the bulk of the story.
Basically, Sensei is an enigma – he lives comfortably even though he has no employment, he is aloof, not only to other people, but also to his wife, and he goes to a grave at Zoshigaya every month. All three reasons are related, in probably the most depressing way ever.
Kokoro is a good read, if you want a narration that is simple. This is different from Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, which to me reads like a poem, with its very beautiful prose. It’s good for when you want a snapshot into a time when Japan was transitioning into modernity and its effects on the people. Often when we read about these developments we only see them through the academic texts written by scholars, in numbers and figures of the era, but the literature written during that time also provides great insight into what went on in a smaller scale. (Also, for a different era, see Yukio Mishima’s After the Banquet, set in the time of Japan’s post-World War II economic boom.)