By the time Japan re-opened its ports in 1853 after 225 years of isolation, the country had found itself in a period of national identity crisis. Suddenly facing off against a strong Western influence, the Meiji era of Japan began a period of intense modernization to remake itself in that western image. As it opened itself up to the outside world, Japan had to discover what it meant to be Japanese in the modern era. Perhaps nobody felt that anxiety more keenly than Natsume Soseki, an unassuming writer whose work would come to define modernist Japanese literature. His life and works strike a chord with those of us who wander, unsure of our place in the world and how we fit within it.
As one of the first graduates from the Imperial University of Tokyo's English literature department, Soseki was chosen by the government to study literature abroad in London for two years. Living on a small stipend amidst a climate of racial prejudice and tension, his time overseas was marked by isolation and loneliness.
"The two years I spent in London were the most unpleasant years of my life. Among English gentlemen I lived in misery, like a poor dog that had strayed among a pack of wolves."
It was exactly that difficult time abroad, however, that molded the quiet academic into a prolific author. Upon his return to Japan, Soseki began to write stories that experimented with form and narrative viewpoint to capture that feeling of relentless loneliness. From existentialist plots to a story written from the viewpoint of a cat, his introspective stories reveal a Japan that was coming to terms with its role in a frightfully large outside world.
Drawing from his experiences as an expat, Soseki was able to beautifully document the struggle of the alienated Japanese intellectual: how to adapt to fit within the modern world without losing one's individual identity. His books explore the modern man torn between his natural social nature and a relentless, innate isolation. In his novel Kokoro, he writes:
“Loneliness is the price we have to pay for being in the modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and our own egotistical selves."
- Kokoro, 1914
To Soseki, reconciling those two parts of yourself is the path to self-understanding. While it is with company that we find our place in the world, it is in solitude that we find ourselves. Above all, Soseki’s writings remind us to stay true to our instincts in times of great change.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN