Summary: Kokoro—meaning “heart”—is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man Watashi (“I” in Japanese) and an enigmatic elder whom he calls “Sensei.” Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student’s struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century.
“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 egoistical selves.”
I’m a little bit reluctant to call this a review or recommendation because Kokoro is one of the most famous work in modern Japanese literature. It’s like the American’s “To kill a mockingbird.” Still, I’m deeply impressed and movedby Kokoro, and I’d love to share my opinions! The novel has a film adaptation in 1955 and a less faithful anime adaptation in 2009 (episode 7 -8 in Aoi Bungaku).
I think a little historical background is crucial for this novel. Soseki is considered one of the major author of the 20th century, who is a pioneer in a Western-styled literature. He lives around the time of the Meiji period, which was marked an influx of Western influences including industrialization and culture values. The cultural and economic revolution in the Meiji era marked the beginning of modernization. Kokoro was published two years after the Meiji Emperor has died.
One of the central theme in Kokoro is the conflict between Japanese traditional values and Western modern ideas, represented by the stark contrast between the protagonist’s father and Sensei. Watashi adopts Sensei as a role model/ a father figure and clings on to him to satisfy his unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Watashi’s struggle between traditional and modern values is not evident until he comes home and feels alienated even among his family members.
“But while my chess-loving father failed even to entertain me, Sensei, whose acquaintance I had never sought for amusement’s sake, gave me far greater intellectual satisfaction as a companion.”
However, the relationship between Sensei and I is not simple either: readers not only see respect, but also disappointment, or even pity in the way I views Sensei. For example, I, with his eagerness to acquire insightful philosophy, is disappointed with the answer “money” from Sensei on what makes people turn bad. If Sensei represents Western ideas and values in comparison to Watashi’s father, then Watashi’s attitude towards modernity is not always positive.
“This reply struck me as tiresomely obvious. If Sensei was unwilling to take the conversation seriously, I too lost interest.”
[SPOILER ALERT] However, it is exactly because of this mixed feeling toward Sensei that makes Watashi’s “desperate attempt to act” in the end such a powerful moment of self-actualization. He leaves his dying father to come to Sensei who is already dead, regardless whether his letters will give him knowledge or disappointment. I who represents the future of Japan decides to get on the train of modernity not knowing what entails. He just wants to be true to himself and act.
Love and guilt
Kokoro is divided into 3 parts, in which the first two are told by the male protagonist and the last one is Sensei’s letter to Watashi. The theme of love and guilt mainly comes up in the third part of the novel, where Sensei tells the story of the past, especially his relationships with K (his friend) and Ojosan (his wife). The events happen with them ultimately cause Sensei to be a misanthrope with a complete distrust for humanity.
“I don’t even trust myself. It’s because I can’t trust myself that I can’t trust others. I can only curse myself for it.”
Soseki is amazingly clever at creating a real, normal college student with his own ideals and integrity, yet slowly driving him to the verge of insanity: a tragic hero that causes his own downfall. Sensei’s testament often reminds me of The Kite Runner with a much darker and gloomier tone.
Hope you enjoy! xD