Soseki Natsume

Soseki Natsume was a Japanese novelist (1867-1916). After studying in the UK, he taught English literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He resigned from teaching to become a full-time novelist, producing a series of works that are representative of modern Japanese literature, including “I am a Cat”. Furthermore, as a leading cultural figure of the period, he also engaged in social criticism in his later years. Below you can also read summaries of his representative lectures, “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan” and “My Individualism”.

Life of Soseki Natsume

 In 1867, Soseki Natsume(夏目 漱石:なつめ そうせき)was born in what is now Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, into a family of village head. His real first name was Kinnosuke. Immediately after his birth, he was placed in foster care. Due to the divorce of his adoptive parents, he was returned to Natsume’s family when he was 9 years old. However, he did not enjoy a warm family life during his childhood and grew up feeling alienated.

 Initially, Natsume preferred Chinese studies and studied at the Nisho Gakusha. He moved to what is now the Faculty of Liberal Arts at the University of Tokyo. In 1890, he entered the Department of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He devoted himself to the study of English literature and graduated in 1893.

 In 1895, he became a teacher at Matsuyama Junior High School in Ehime; in 1896, he was assigned to the Fifth High School in Kumamoto as an English teacher; in 1900, he moved to England for study under the Ministry of Education.

 Development as an English Literature Scholar and Novelist

 After returning from England, Natsume taught at Daiichi High School in 1903. He also succeeded Koizumi Yakumo as a lecturer in the Department of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University. He discussed English literature like Shakespeare. He published his lectures in the form of “Bungaku Ron (Essays on Literature)” and other publications.

 Around this time, Natsume began writing novels at the suggestion of Kyoshi Takahama. In 1905, he wrote “The Tower of London” based on his experience in England. He also published “I am a Cat” and “Botchan” in the literary magazine “Hototogisu,” which was sponsored by Kyoshi. Natsume became famous as a novelist.

I am a Cat

 In this work, events in human society are depicted from the perspective of a cat kept in the home of Kushami Chinno, a junior high school English teacher. Among the friends who come to Chinno’s house are an aesthete, a poet, and a physicist. The cat observes the interactions between them and Chinno, who behave like nomad belonging to the high social class.
There, criticisms of civilization and mammonism in society are developed. However, the story proceeds in a style that is satirical and funny, making the work as a whole poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. When it was first published, it was described as “high grade rakugo”.


 This work is said to have been produced in about a week by Natsume, drawing on his experience at Matsuyama Junior High School. The main character is a mathematics teacher who is assigned to a junior high school in the Shikoku region. He has a strong sense of justice and is very intuitive, earning him the nickname “Botchan” .
 The story mainly depicts his daily life at school. As a new teacher, he is responsible for students who have too much energy and play tricks on him. Eventually, the story shifts to a conflict between teachers. In the end, Botchan can’t stand the black-hearted vice principal. So Botchan punishes him with damnation and leaves the junior high school. His crisp style and humor made him a popular writer.

 Novel and Social Criticism

 In 1907, Natsume decided to live as a novelist as his main profession. He resigned from his teaching position and joined the Asahi Shimbun, a famous news paper company. He produced a series of masterpieces, including “The Poppy” and the trilogy from “Sanshiro” to “The Gate”. In this way, he established himself firmly as a novelist.

 In the 1910s, Natsume, as a leading cultural figure, developed social criticism on the current situation in Japan. The most representative of his works are “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan” and “My Individualism”.

Summary of “My Individualism”

 This lecture was given to students at the Gakushuin. It consists of two parts. In the first half, Natsume reflects on his own life and discusses the importance of the development of individuality. In the second half, he discusses how we must respect the development of others’ individuality.

 First, Natsume told the story of his college days. In college, he studied English literature. Or rather, he tried to learn it. In reality, however, he was forced to study English language and memorize the birth and death dates of famous English writers, but he could not say that he learned English literature.
 So, Natsume tried to understand what English literature was, or what literature was in the first place. At that time, there were no suitable books in the university library. As a result, “After three years of study, I finally could not understand literature”. Only agony remained.
 After graduating from university, Natsume was approached by the Higher Normal School Higher Normal School and became a teacher After graduating from university, Natsume was approached by the Higher Normal School Higher Normal School and became a teacher. He did not want to be a teacher, but rather became it by chance. From the beginning, he did not think he had the aptitude to be an educator.
 After a year, Natsume moved to Matsuyama Junior High School, the setting of “Botchan”. If there is a real person in this novel, he says, the “red shirt” corresponds to Natsume himself. A year later, Natsume moved to a high school in Kumamoto.
 In Kumamoto, Natsume worked there for a long time. He coped with his teaching job. However, in his heart, he felt a void. He always felt a vague sense of discomfort. Even then, he was not interested in teaching. So, whenever he found his true calling, he was ready to jump into it. But it seemed unlikely that he would ever find his true calling. He felt that he was in a fog. He could not see the path he should take at all. Therefore, he spent many gloomy days.
 Around that time, he was given opportunity to study in England by the Japanese Ministry of Education. At first, Natsume thought about turning it down. He thought that he would not be able to be useful for the nation if he went to study abroad without any purpose. However, at the recommendation of the vice principal, he decided to go. Still, he was unable to find anything to do in the UK.
 However, since he was studying abroad on a government-sponsored program, he felt he had to accomplish something. But, no matter how much he walked around London, he could not seem to find it. No matter how many books he read, it didn’t seem to work. He was even wondering why he should read books.
 It was at this point that Natsume realized problems of his own and Japanese academia so far. It was to pass on the opinions of others, especially Westerners, without understanding or examining them.
 Especially in Japan during the first half of the Meiji era, the opinions of Westerners were the object of blind obedience. Therefore, university faculty members and students took the opinions of prominent Westerners for granted, regardless of whether they themselves agreed with them or not, and passed them on to others. They were spouting other people’s theories as if these were their own. This was totally other-centered and totally dependent on others. If he continued to do so, he himself was nothing more than a rootless floating weed.
 Natsume changed his mind. He had to fundamentally figure out what literature was on his own. It must be self-centered, not others-centered. There is no need to act like a Westerner. If we find yourself in conflict with a Westerner, instead of compromising, we should think about what the cause of that conflict is. Thus, he chose self-reliance as his motto. As a result, the anxiety and heaviness that he had felt until then naturally disappeared.
 Based on this experience, Natsume recommends the following. If, like Natsume, you are in agony because you have not found the path you should take, you should go forward until you find it, no matter what the cost. It is not for the sake of the nation or your family but for the sake of your own happiness. If you can discover that path, you can hold on to your secure mind and confidence for the rest of your life.

 From here, Natsume begins the second half of his lecture. The second half, Natsume says, is unique to Gakushuin. Gakushuin was originally an educational institution for the nobility. In particular, Gakushuin students at that time had high social status. Therefore, Natsume said, “If the children of upper class society only are gathered here, the first thing that will accompany you from now on is power. In other words, when you go out into the society, you will be able to use more power than when the poor enter the society”. The second half of the lecture was directed specifically at such students.
 In the first half of the lecture, it was argued that each of us should go our own way. This is because doing so will bring happiness and peace of mind. Natsume said that the reason why doing so brings you happiness and peace of mind is because it is the path that suits each person’s individuality. By following that path, one’s individuality can be developed. Natsume develops a theory that is generally similar to the European liberalism of the time.
 The power and power of money can be a tool to crush the individuality of others. According to Natsume, power can be a tool to force one’s own individuality on others. Furthermore, power of money can be a tool to seduce others in order to expand one’s own individuality. Therefore, both power and money are “very dangerous” in this respect.
 The individuality of others must also be respected. Natsume explains why this is so. Because if others allow us to develop our own individuality, “it is rational that we should also allow others to develop their own individuality and respect their tendencies”. This is necessary, right, and fair.
However, this does not mean that we must let others do whatever they want. For example, violations of the law are rightly punihed. However, when not involved in such matters of justice or law, we must grant others the same degree of freedom as long as we are granted freedom by others.
 It is those of high social status who must be careful not to interfere with the development of others’ individuality. Natsume emphasizes this point because his audience is students of such status. Such people have more power and money. Thus, they have more tools to hinder the development of others’ individuality, either by force or by temptation. However, they are not completely permitted to use their power and money freely.
 Why? In the context of power, Natsume relates to traditional Western jurisprudence. That is, because power and rights entail obligations. If one does not fulfill one’s obligations, one is not qualified to have power or rights.
 Regarding power of money, Natsume explains his reasoning with his own observations. Money can be exchanged for anything. It can be a means to buy books, houses, food, or anything else. It can also be “the means to buy the human spirit.” By scattering money around, it can also buy up the moral mind of virtuous people. In other words, even a virtuous person can be seduced by the power of money. Money can be a tool to corrupt their virtuous souls. This is a terrible and inconvenient fact. But “we have to admit it, because money works so in fact.”
 So what should we do? “The only way to prevent the corruption of the human heart is for those who possess money to use it without moral hazard, with a considerable sense of morality”. In other words, the only way is for those with power of money to discipline themselves.
 Natsume summarizes the latter half of his argument thus far in the following three points. First, if one wants to develop one’s own individuality, one must respect the individuality of others at the same time. Second, if one wihes to use one’s own power, one must be aware of the obligations that come with it. Third, if one wishes to show his/her financial power, one must respect the responsibility that comes with it.
 In order to be able to fulfill these three points while holding a high position in society, one must develop one’s character. Natsume states. “Without a certain degree of ethical cultivation, one is not worthy of developing one’s individuality, of using one’s power, or of using one’s money power. To put it another way, in order to freely enjoy these three things, it is necessary to be under the control of the personality that must be behind them”.
 Why? “If those without personality attempt to develop their individuality blindly, they will disturb the others. If they attempt to use power, they will abuse it. If they attempt to use power of money, they will bring about the corruption of society”. It is interesting to note that Natsume criticizes not only the abuse of power and money power, but also the outburst of individuality. Natsume also sees it as a serious problem when you go your own way and develop your own individuality, and as a result, drag others into your own path and individuality. Power, money, and individuality. “These are the three things to which you will have the greatest access in the future, so I think you really need to be a man of character and respectability”. Such people must be mature and cultivate their own personality.
 Here, Natsume refers to the example of England. Natsume says of the UK at that time, “There is probably no other country in the world that is so free and so well-ordered”. However, Natsume is not its blind follower. If anything, he even dislikes it. Even so, he says that freedom and order are so much a part of British society that “Japan can hardly be compared to it”. The reason for this is that “people are properly educated from childhood to love their own freedom and respect the freedom of others” in the UK. Thus, freedom is respected with such a sense of duty.
 Natsume recommends his individualism based on the above. Freedom is necessary for the development of individuality, and the development of individuality is very important for happiness. For others, the same freedom should be granted. We should not deprive others of their freedom through power or money power. We should not suppress the freedom of others by forming factions for the sake of our own power or money. If we take it away and suppress it, then the destruction of individuality and unhappiness would come.
 Finally, Natsume explains that his individualism is not in conflict with statism. The amount of freedom granted to individuals increases or decreases according to whether the state is secure or not. In other words, “when the state is in danger, individual freedom is narrowed, and when the state is at peace, individual freedom increases”. Natsume says this is natural and true. When the nation is in danger, each individual will naturally think about the nation by curtailing his or hier personal freedom. The two are not in an adversarial relationship, but rather a relationship in which a balance is naturally struck according to the state of the nation.

 Summary of “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan”

 In 1911, Natsume gave a lecture in Wakayama entitled “The Enlightenment of Modern Japan”(現代日本の開化). The following is a summary.

 First, Natsume wanted to start by defining “The enlightenment or the civilization”(開化). In doing so, he first points out a problem with the definition itself. That problem is, “to define something subject to change as rigidly as if it were not allowed to change”.
 Natsume explains this problem with the example of a locomotive. Suppose a locomotive is running. You take a picture of that moment. What would you think if you were told that this photograph contains everything about the locomotive? It is true that there is a locomotive in the picture. However, its movement, which is an indispensable characteristic of a locomotive, is not seen in the photo. Therefore, the locomotive in the photograph and the actual locomotive are completely different things.
 Locomotives and people move, act, and change by themselves. Nevertheless, it is a failure to cut out only one scene and understand that everything about them is there. So, in such a case, we must anticipate the change and make a definition that takes the change into consideration.
 So, what is the enlightenment? Natsume’s definition is this: “The enlightenment is a pathway of the expression of human vitality”. Natsume admits that this definition is very vague. Let’s take a closer look.
 Natsume says that human life is the expression and continuation of vitality. Vitality can be paraphrased as energy. A person with this vitality responds to external stimuli. By looking at the way they respond, we can understand the state of their daily lives. The enlightenment is the process by which a group’s state of daily life has evolved from the past to the present. Thus, the enlightenment or civilization is the collective state of daily life that has been created by human vitality in response to external stimuli up to the present day.
 According to Natsume, the enlightenment consists of two movements. One is active and the other is passive. The active one is the type where people willingly consumes vitality whereas the passive one is the type where people conserves vitality.

 As for the active movement, one does what one prefers. In this case, we willingly expend energy to do it and get pleasure from it. It can be billiards, chess,painting or studying. Natsume describes all of these as “pleasure”(道楽). The more the society is civilized, the more extravagant things for pleasure increase. For example, elevators are installed in sightseeing spots for people who want to see the scenery from high places. By promoting pleasure, human activities go deeper and wider.
 As for the passive movement, its representarive case is that one receives an external stimulus of obligation from others. This is a case in which one is obligated by others to do something that one would not usually want to do. In this case, if it were possible, one would not want to do it in the first place. However, because it is an obligation, it must be done. But we want to do it easily and with as little energy as possible. Such a labor-saving and efficient mentality is the passive type. Because of this mentality, people will devise ways to save energy. Therefore, this is a major driving force for civilization or enlightenment.
 For example, trains, automobiles, telephones, and telegraphs are such results. These are the products of our desire to make travel and communication easier and with less energy. Or, they were created to make it as easy as possible for people to do the work necessary for survival. In this way, a means was created to shorten time and distance and reduce the number of steps required.
 The complex development of these two intertwined movements leads to civilization or enlightenment.
 Here, Natsume points out a certain paradox. Human beings have been developping with the desire of doing what is pleasurable and avoiding what is unpleasant and necessary, which has caused civilization. If that is the case, our present life should have been easier than in the past. In reality, however, we are “living under a degree of suffering that is not at all better than that of the people of the past”.
 Furthermore, “it seems as if life will become increasingly difficult as competition becomes more and more intense as civilization develops”. It is true that the two mentalities have raised the level of daily life in Japan. But what about the degree of happiness or unhappiness? The anxiety and effort that arise from the competition for survival have not become any easier. In fact, it may even be worse than in the past. Both mentalities cause competitions which involve us. So we are caught up in suffering more than before. Here we see a kind of contradiction.

 From Here, Natsume finally enters the theme of Modern Japan’s Enlightenment. Natsume says he also intends to finish his speaking as soon as possible according to the law of saving energy, so it is not too long from here on. And he asks us to be patient and listen to him.
 Natsume says that in the past, the civilization of Japan was a spontaneous process. Usually, civilization is a spontaneous process just like Western one. It is like a plant that spontaneously buds and blossoms. Natsume says that in the past, the Japanese one was spontaneous. It is true that Japan was once influenced by China and Korea. Nevertheless, in general, Japan’s enlightenment has been relatively spontaneous.
 However, the enlightenment of modern Japan is imposed from outside. According to Natsume, Japan had not yet experienced such a powerful pressesure from outside when Japan suddenly jumped up due to stimuli of Western culture after two hundred years of anesthetizing itself with an atmosphere of isolation and exclusion. This influence forced drastic changes in the Japanese civilization. Japanese civilization was forced to progress by the external force of the West in a manner that followed the Western style.
 Why? Western civilization is such one with dozens of times more labor-saving institutions than ours. It is also with dozens of times more ways to pursue pleasure than ours. Just when we were developing spontaneously and reaching 10 levels of complexity of civilization, 20-30 levels of complexity of civilization suddenly emerged from the West and suddenly attacked ours. As a result, for the past 50 years, modern Japan has been forced to progress in an unnatural way due to intense external pressure.
 Therefore, modern Japan has not been steadily climbing up the stairway to enlightenment step by step. It is as if we are spiritedly taking the stairs up ten at a time. This state of affairs may, in some cases, continue forever.
 What is the downside of this imposed civilization of Japan? Natsume points to the psychological side of the Japanese people. The people who are affected by this kind of civilization always feel a vague sense of emptiness, dissatisfaction and anxiety.
 What is the cause of this adverse effect? In the case of spontaneous enlightenment, people have had understood enough the advantages and disadvantages of their current state of life and move on to the next stage. Therefore, people do not feel any lingering regret for the previous stage of life. Nor do people feel that we are borrowing the new stage of life from others.
 However, in the case of the externally imposed one just like Modern Japan, we somehow jump to a new stage of life without having a firm understanding of the old stage of life. It is like this, for example. Various dishes are brought to the table in front of you, and you eat them in haste. Plates of food are pulled down and new dishes are brought in one after another before we can clearly understand what we are eating. Nevertheless, Japanese people today must continue to eat these Western dishes.
 Why? Because modern Japan must have relationship with the West to survive. The West is stronger than Japan. If we associate with the stronger, we must follow its customs. Therefore, it is necessary to follow the Western style, even if it is forced. As a result, at least in part, modern Japanese enlightenment has become a superficial one. Because we are forcibly borrowing from the West, modern Japanese always feel a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction. It is both false and frivolous to see this as if it were an spontaneous enlightenment.
 So, what should we do? Some may say that modern Japan should try to progress spontaneously. Natsume responds as follows. Even if that were possible, Japan would suffer a nervous breakdown and become so exhausted that it would die at any moment. The reason is that we are trying to accomplish in 50 or 10 years what “Westerners, who are more vigorous than we are in both physical strength and brain power,” have accomplished in 100 years.
 Natsume himself does not have a good idea of a solution. All he can say is, “It is better to change spontaneously, to the extent possible without suffering a nervous breakdown”. Natsume himself admits that this is a dark and tragic conclusion. The purpose of this lecture is to reveal this bitter truth, not to offer a solution. Thus, this lecture came to a close.

Literature and Education

 In 1911, Natsume was invited to the Nagano Prefectural Assembly to give a lecture on the relationship between literature and education. The content of that lecture was published as “Education and Literature”. This is an interesting lecture that reveals Natsume’s thoughts on the relationship between literature, education, and society. Here, education is considered in a broad sense that includes not only school education but also social education and domestic education. Literature mainly refers to novels and plays. Thus, the relationship between education in a broad sense and novels and plays is discussed.
 Natsume distinguishes between traditional education and post-Meiji education in Japan. Traditional education is an education that sets an ideal and tries to realize that ideal somehow. It regarded this ideal as something that could be realized, and sought to realize it. In reality, however, an unrealizable ideal was set, such as that of Buddha or Confucius. Moreover, this ideal was set by those above only for those below, not the other way around. For example, parents set an ideal for their children and demanded that they become that ideal. But the children did not set and demand the same of their parents.
 Why did traditional education make these mistakes? Natsume explains the reasons. In the past, Japan “lacked a scientific spirit. As a result, it did so without criticizing or examining its ideals”. Another reason was that in the past, Japan had a strict class system, which made the great men of the past seem much greater. Or, because transportation was inconvenient in the past, the greatness of distant figures was greatly exaggerated.
 Natsume explains that traditional Japanese education was an intensely emotional education. This education used intense emotions and sentiments in order to reach too high a goal. For it was believed that anything could be achieved if one had a firm spirit. With enough enthusiasm and effort, anything was possible. The society of these educated people was very strict. If the slightest wrong was done, they would immediately commit seppuku (ritual suicide).
 Natsume, however, says that Japanese education has changed since 1868, the beginning of the Meiji era. While traditional education starts from ideals, current education starts from facts. In the latter, it begins with an acknowledgement of the realistic nature of human beings. So it admits the difficulty of realizing ideals, human weakness, and the two sides of human being. Thus, the self and society also become the object of education.
While traditional education was based on monism, in which one ideal was applied to all aspects of society, current education is based on dualism, in which two sides of the human being are recognized. The current education has cooled down the intense passions of traditional education and awakened people’s eyes. Natsume finds the cause of this change in the development of science and its spirit and its application to society.
 Educational differences make moral differences. Natsume argues that in traditional education, people are bound by ideals and are rigid. Deviation from the ideals is not allowed. When they do deviate, they attempt to force themselves to conform to the ideal. Thus, they become dishonest. In contrast, under the current education, people recognize their own facts. They openly admit not only their good points but also their bad points. Therefore, they are more tolerant and honest with themselves and others. Social sanctions are weakened and society becomes calmer.
 From here, Natsume moves on to a discussion of literature. Natsume says that literature can be divided into two broad categories: romanticism and naturalism. Romanticism is in line with the traditional education mentioned above, whereas naturalism is compatible with current education.
 Here, Natsume discusses artism, which holds that literature and art transcend morality. Artism is “a big mistake”. For the arts and morals “are related to each other for the most part”. Indeed, it might happen that they are in conflict and one must choose between the two. In such cases, ultimately, the choice must be an ethically acceptable one. “Up to 70% of the material in a novel or play must be selected on the basis of moral criticism”.
 What, then, is the morality of each? According to Natsume, Romanticism exaggerates certain sentiments and depicts ideals. It portrays human beings as greater than the real. Although it is far from the truth, it evokes strong feelings of greatness and sublimity. Man has a fundamental desire for something higher than himself. Therefore, romanticism is permanently rooted in the human mind.
 Naturalism, on the other hand, is rational, factual, and honest, exposing one’s own shortcomings. It sees things as they are. As a result, naturalism has the disadvantage of weakening ambition.
 For this reason, naturalism has come to be disliked in Japan today. Natsume argues. However, the original naturalistic literature does not ignore moral demands. It is a failed form of literature that ignores moral demands. As mentioned above, literature must be in accord with morality. Nevertheless, it is true that some of today’s naturalistic writers have this fault. But this is merely a reaction against Romanticism.
 So what should we do? Natsume proposes the establishment of a new Romanticism. This is something that emerges after experiencing Romanticism and Naturalism. It is not a reversion to either. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, as discussed above. The Neo-Romanticism avoids their disadvantages and takes their advantages. “The Neo-Romanticism does not set up ideals as fanciful as those of the former Romanticism. Instead, it sets and seeks to realize goals that are achievable, closer to reality, and not too high”. How much is idealistic and how much is realistic is determined by each society. It is essential to harmonize the two based on each society.

 Late Years

 While suffering from serious health problems, Natsume deepened his insights on society and human beings and produced a variety of masterpieces.
 In 1913, he met Shigeo Iwanami, an secondhand bookshop owner. The following year, Iwanami Shoten published “Kokoro” . With this, Iwanami Shoten began a full-fledged publishing business. This publisher would become one of the representative publishers and develop modern culture of publication in Japan. So, Soseki had an important impact on the Japanese publishing industry in this way.
 Soseki also held a weekly “Thursday meeting” at his home, which was attended by such guests as Ryunosuke Akutagawa.

Soseki Natsume

Source:国立国会図書館「近代日本人の肖像」 (

Recommended or Selected References

徳永光展『国際日本学の探究 : 夏目漱石・翻訳・日本語教育』春風社, 2023

長谷川徹『 哲学する漱石 : 天と私のあわいを生きる』春秋社, 2021
小倉脩三『漱石の文学理論 』翰林書房, 2019