Here's another post from Tunisia-based German orientalist and biblical commentator Johann Weiß, this time on Natsume Soseki's Sanshiro. Please forgive Johann for any minor grammatical errors and/or infelicitous phrasing (his mother tongues are Dutch, French and German).
Abstract: During the early Meiji era, Japan, until then largely isolated from exterior influences, opened up to the outside world and started its modernization, and Tokyo was transformed from Edo into the “Teito,” or imperial capital. Natsume Soseki’s (1867-1916) novel Sanshiro, first published in 1908, takes place in this buzzing surrounding. The protagonist Sanshiro, a 23 year-old student, comes from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost and still very conservative island, to study English literature at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University. His life in the modern metropolis of Tokyo stands in sharp contrast to his childhood life in the country. During the course of the story, he opens his eyes to the “real world”, the modern life of the city and its inhabitants. The novel is like a kaleidoscope where a multitude of historically typical characters can be observed: Professor Hirota, a Western-educated urban individualist; Mineko, a modern young woman of the city; Yojiro, Sanshiro’s Tokyo-born fellow student with an opportunistic urban mindset; and Nonomiya, a successful researcher living a purely academic life. This article will start with a description of the setting of the novel, Tokyo at the turn of the century, and particularly those parts of the Yamanote where the characters of Sanshiro reside. For help, I will use Jinnai’s Tokyo – A Spatial Anthropology and Smith’s Tokyo as an Idea: An Exploration of Japanese Urban Thought until 1945. Next I will analyse how the novel portrays the countryside on the one hand and the modern metropolis on the other hand. I will show how Sanshiro, the protagonist from the countryside, successively opens his eyes to the modern world of the metropolis and becomes more and more accustomed to city life. But Sanshiro is not transformed completely into a metropolitan; rather, he maintains through the end strong links to his past in the countryside. My analysis will also draw from Raymond Henry William’s Country and City and Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life.
Tokyo – the modern Japanese metropolis after the turn of the century
With the advent of the Meiji era the city of Tokyo underwent a wide-ranging transition. Edo became Tokyo, the capital of the modern nation-state of Japan. The transition from Edo to Tokyo changed significantly the social and economic structure of the city. In the early years of Meiji, the city's population declined significantly. The new ruling elite from west Japan and the flood of rural immigrants from all directions changed the city’s structure and mentality. Tokyo was on the one hand a showcase where the latest fashions and inventions from the West were displayed, and on the other hand a proving-ground for institutional innovations. The ‘city of water’ that was Edo was to be transformed into a Western-like metropolis: grand, permanent and monumental. (Smith 1978, 53-56) According to Smith, the most dominant idea of Tokyo from the 1890s on was that of an imperial capital (“Teito”), i.e. Tokyo was less seen as a city than as a symbol for the nation, “a passive tool, a means of achievement for the ambitious and symbol of imperial power for the nation as a whole” (Smith 1978, 55). Only after the Sino-Japanese war in 1895, Tokyo reached again the peak population of Edo and metamorphosed into a modern metropolis. From 1895 to 1923 the population doubled and reached almost four million by the eve of the 1923 earthquake. This sudden growth severely disrupted the pattern of urban space. (Smith 1978, 57)
The main characters in Sanshiro live in Hongo. Hongo is situated in the north district of the Yamanote, or “high city” of Tokyo, just to the north of the Imperial Palace, and is the location of the main campus of Tokyo Imperial University (now simply Tokyo University). In the Edo period, the Yamanote was where warrior houses were located. Its residential zones were organized according to the social status of their residents, whether daimyo, hatamoto, or commoner. “The lots occupied by former daimyo establishments could now readily provide the buildings and facilities needed for the city’s new political military, educational, cultural, and administrative establishments and also for the grand residences of aristocrats and the new ruling classes of Meiji” (Jinnai 1995, 22). The University of Tokyo campus, for example, is also located in the north of the Yamanote. The present-day campus used to be the site of the “upper,” or main, residence of the Maeda family, the lords of Kaga Province in the Edo period and was surrounded by other homes of important families (Jinnai 1995, 25). The Yamanote, with all its major government and administration institutions and the private homes of the new governing Japanese elite, was the core of the emerging modern Japanese state and embodied the intellectual and bureaucratic elite culture of the time.
The portrayal of the country and the city in Sanshiro
Sanshiro, having just graduated from one of the national colleges (kotogakko), arrives in Tokyo from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost and still very conservative island (Rubin 2002, 224). Having grown up in the rather traditional surrounding of his hometown, he is consequently torn between the memories of his own past in the countryside and his new life in modern Tokyo.
To understand the protagonist’s experiences in this state of being torn between the country and the city and the conflicts resulting from this state, Raymond Henry Williams’ paper Country and City helps a great deal. In his study, Williams examines the images of rural life and the various connections between ‘city’ and ‘country’. According to him, the two terms have always evoked both powerful positive feelings and hostile associations. The country represents, on the one hand, the idea of a natural way of life, of peace, innocence and simple virtue. On the other hand, the idea of the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance and limitation manages to persist. In the same way, the city provoked two differing ideas: one of an achieved centre, of learning, communication and light, and another of a place of noise, worldliness and ambition. Although highly generalized, these images have persisted since classical times and even today play a major role in the perception of both ‘country’ and ‘city’ (Williams 1975, 1).
These different ideas of ‘country’ and ‘city’ can be found in Natsume Soseki’s Sanshiro as well. The protagonist Sanshiro is neither a young man of the city, nor a man who is still completely rooted in the country. “Sanshiro is an adolescent, eager to plunge into the ceaseless change and movement of the real world, but fearful of losing the certainties of childhood” (Rubin 2002, 236).
In the beginning of the novel we see a young, innocent protagonist. Sanshiro knows almost nothing about the modern life in the metropolis. His past experiences therefore stand for “the comforting shades of old Japan” (Rubin 2002, 219), which is especially represented in his mother. When Sanshiro is feeling repelled by the modern life of the metropolis, the novel portrays the positive ideas connected to the life in the countryside: the idea of a natural way of life, of peace, innocence and simple virtue. Country people are described as honest and economical in monetary issues. Customs and religion still play an important role in everyday life. Sanshiro’s family, for example, once a year follows the old local practice known as “shrine retreat” and his mother goes to the Inari Shrine for oracles (Soseki 2002, 161-2). In another chapter, Sanshiro remembers the peacefulness in the country without those “many stimuli” (Soseki 2002, 186) characteristic for the metropolis.
Nevertheless, the novel doesn’t portray the country as a lost paradise that the protagonist was forced to leave. Sanshiro is very aware of the country’s shortcomings. He is an ambitious young man eager to make his way in the modern times. After having graduated from the national college, his home region in the countryside could not offer him further proper education; he had to go to the metropolis to obtain elite university education. Negative perceptions of the country are even more clearly articulated in remarks of other characters. Yojiro, Sanshiro’s closest friend in Tokyo, continually accuses him of being old-fashioned and ignorant of modern trends because of his background as a country boy: “[Y]ou’ve just arrived from Kyushu. Your mind is still back in Meiji zero.” (Soseki 2002, 57) He later goes on, “only somebody who has just emerged from the wilds of Kyushu and doesn’t know anything about the major literature trends would ask a question like that” (Soseki 2002, 98). Here, we can see the idea of that country as a place of backwardness, ignorance and limitation. Sanshiro partly shares these opinions; he describes the countryside as “drowsy” and admits that it was, “after all, a place of retreat, and in it he had sealed up the discarded past.” He shows no desire to return, “unless things got desperate” (Soseki 2002, 63).
But Sanshiro’s past in the countryside is only the background for the main focus of the story, that is, his becoming acquainted to the modern life in the metropolis of Tokyo. Also in this section I will use Raymond Henry Williams’ work Country and City to analyse the two differing ideas provoked by the city: the one of an achieved centre, of learning, communication and light and the other one of a place of noise, worldliness and ambition. My analysis of both the negative and positive ideas of the city will draw from Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life.
When Sanshiro comes to Tokyo he is bent on experiencing the modern and buzzing life there and using the academic possibilities the metropolis offers. These expectations correspond to Williams’ positive idea of the city as an achieved centre, of learning, communication and light. For Sanshiro, the life in the metropolis represents two things: the “majesty of Academe” (Soseki 2002, 30) and the “real life”, consisting of the exciting atmosphere of the city and the city’s modern women, important aspects for the sophistication and maturation linked to the growth of the protagonist (Soseki 2002, 63-4). The actual reason why Sanshiro comes to Tokyo is to obtain an elite education at the Tokyo Imperial University, “the ultimate goal of the [Japanese] educational elite” (Rubin 2002, ix). Tokyo is not only the political and economic centre of Japan, but, as a metropolis, is also the “seat of cosmopolitanism,” which exerts its “intellectual predominance over its hinterland” (Simmel 1950, 6), making the city inevitably the seat of Japan’s most renowned universities. When he starts to attend university lectures he “experienced the whole with a sense of grandeur. ‘This is how the Seat of Learning has to be. This is what makes it all possible – the study, the research. What a magnificent place!’” (Soseki 2002, 29-30). Sanshiro is impressed by the people he meets at university, e.g. by Nonomiya Sohachi, a physicist working at Tokyo Imperial University with whom he immediately becomes acquainted. This successful scholar who “shines brilliantly in foreign countries” (Soseki 2002, 56) and completely devotes himself to academic life has a great influence on how Sanshiro perceives the academic world. In the beginning of the novel “Sanshiro wondered, perhaps he too ought to live a life like this” (Soseki 2002, 21-2).
Next to academic life, he experiences in Tokyo what he calls the “real life”, a world “as radiant and fluid as spring, a world of electric lights, of silver spoons, of cheers and laughter, of glasses bubbling over with champagne. And crowning everything were beautiful women” (Soseki 2002, 63-4). He enjoys his new life in Tokyo, such as occasions like the “gentlemanly gathering of students” (Soseki 2002, 107) or the time he spends with his new friends as “[t]ime spent with people was real time” (Soseki 2002, 45). He is especially impressed by the women of the metropolis, particularly Mineko, the modern, self-determined city girl with whom he falls in love (Soseki 2002, 203).
Sanshiro’s eyes are opened to the modern world of the metropolis through the help of Professor Hirota, a Western-educated bachelor in his early forties who teaches English at the First National College (Rubin 2002, 245-6). In the course of the novel Hirota becomes a kind of father figure for Sanshiro, to whom he feels very close. Sanshiro is attracted to him because the figure of Professor Hirota is the personification of the modern urban Japanese individualist. As previously mentioned, Japanese modernism began with the Meiji restoration in 1868 and was characterized by the fast attempt to westernize the country. Tokyo as the capital of the emerging Japanese modern nation-state was the centre of modern life and modernity in Japan. During the process, not only Western science and technology was introduced to Japan, but also under the banner of “Civilization and Enlightenment” (bunmei kaika) Western culture was widely promoted as well, from Western philosophy and the Western educational system, to current intellectual trends, clothing and architecture. But Japanese modernity did not simply mean Westernization of life, for there were always opponents and counter movements which promoted traditional values such as samurai loyalty and social harmony or traditional Japanese arts (Encyclopædia Britannica 2008).
Professor Hirota is a careful observer and “critic” (Soseki 2002, 43) of the life in Tokyo and through his friendship Sanshiro successively opens his eyes to the modern world and learns to deal with his new environment. Hirota is a modern urban individualist “eager to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming exterior forces” (Simmel 1950, 1) to which a person is exposed in the crowd of the metropolis. Thus, he is really a full-fledged metropolitan, because, according to Simmel, only the metropolis “grants to the individual a kind and an amount of personal freedom which has no analogy whatsoever under other conditions” (Simmel 1950, 4). To preserve his own individuality and independence is one of the most important things for Hirota. Already during his first encounter with Sanshiro he warns him to be very careful not to sacrifice his individuality: “Don’t ever surrender yourself – not to Japan, not to anything. You may think that what you’re doing is for the sake of the nation, but let something take possession of you like that and all you do is bring it down” (Soseki 2002, 15). Maintaining independence is more important for Hirota than career advancement. Instead of trying to improve his social status and advance his career, he chooses a state of retreat. Due to a mixture of modesty and pride, he refuses to participate in the rat-race for personal advancement: “He taught language in the College, that was all. He had no other accomplishments […] and was not the least bit concerned about it” (Soseki 2002, 121). Hirota’s self-effacement is one of the main factors that attract Sanshiro to him because he makes Sanshiro “relax and forget about the competitive way of the world” (Soseki 2002, 122). Sanshiro admires Hirota especially because of his complete independence, and he describes him as a person “so free of danger that he could afford to warn others against it”, as a one of those “men who, while part of the world, yet watched it from a place apart” (Soseki 2002, 43).
Though Hirota is definitely a modern urban individualist typical of the metropolis, he is nevertheless not uncritical about some signs of modernity and directs Sanshiro’s attention to the unpleasing aspects of life in the metropolis of Tokyo as well – the aspects Williams summarized in his idea of the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition.
Hirota complains about the increasing egoism in modern times. “When society changed, […] as a result, self-centeredness was gradually imported into thought and action, and egoism became enormously overdeveloped” (Soseki 2002, 122-3). He reports that this used to be different before the advent of modernism. “When I was a student, there wasn’t such a thing we did that was unrelated to others. It was all for the Emperor, or parents, or the country, or society – everything was other-centered” (Soseki 2002, 122-3). Simmel explains the metropolitan’s egoism and indifference with the incapability of the human psyche to cope with the intensified nervous stimulation to which man is exposed in the city. In order to accommodate to the fast changes and contrasts, modern man abandons his ability to maintain deep feelings and emotional relationships and begins to react with his head instead of his heart. “Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man” (Simmel 1950, 2). According to Simmel, the function of intellectuality is “to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life.” The above mentioned physicist Nonomiya Sohachi is a very clear example of a metropolitan intellectual who is very indifferent toward his environment and unable to entertain warm relations. Sanshiro is “shocked” by Nonomiya’s coolness when informed about a nearby suicide the night before (Soseki 2002, 44). Neither does Nonomiya show any warm relations toward his sister Yoshiko. When he receives a telegram stating that she fell ill, he tells Sanshiro: “No, Yoshiko is just playing games, I’m sure, the silly little thing” (Soseki 2002, 40). Yet it is not only Nonomiya who shows such indifference towards his environment. When Sanshiro takes a walk with his acquaintances, the group encounters a beggar kneeling on the ground begging desperately for money. No one in the group is impressed by his pleading; instead, the group discusses his fate in a distanced and objective way and criticises him for begging in an ineffective manner. The same emotional distance can be seen in the next passage when the group passes a small girl who has lost her parents: “Everyone who saw her seemed to be touched. […] But no one took care of her” (Soseki 2002, 87-8).
A further negative aspect of the metropolis is the ambitious and opportunistic character of the metropolis. Yojiro, Sanshiro’s closest friend under his fellow students is a typical example for the opportunistic urban mindset. On the one hand, Yojiro, like Sanshiro, is a student at the Faculty of Letters, where he holds idealistic speeches on the purpose of literature: “We, the young men, we’re the ones who hold today’s literary power in our hands. We’ve got to go ahead and say every word, every phrase that we can, or else we lose out” (Soseki 2002, 98). On the other hand he openly confesses that, for him, education and science is clearly a means to an end. When speaking of Nonomiya who is a very successful and respected physicist but poorly paid, Yojiro pities him because “[i]t’s not a paying business” (Soseki 2002, 56). Simmel explains this metropolitan character trait with the fact that the metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy. According to him, due to the combination of the overall importance of money, the modern mind has become more and more calculating (Simmel 1950, 2).
The calculating mind of modern man also affects his personal relationships. Yojiro, for instance, makes new acquaintances systematically and by intention (108) and he is willing to use them if they are able to fulfil a purpose. In Simmel’s words, he is the metropolitan who “reckons […] even with persons with whom he is obliged to have social intercourse” (Simmel 1950, 2). When Yojiro wants to help make Professor Hirota a university professor, he uses his connections to place an essay in a literature magazine full of “propaganda from beginning to end” (Soseki 2002, 192), and to organize a dinner party in order to introduce Hirota to influential men of the Department of Literature (Soseki 2002, 135-6). He justifies these “somewhat devious methods” with the stray remark that “[d]evious methods aren’t bad. Only bad methods are bad” (Soseki 2002, 105). According to Simmel, Yojiro lacks the scruples to exploit his connections in order to achieve his aims because “[t]he intellectually sophisticated person [of the city] is indifferent to all genuine individuality, because relationships and reactions result from it which cannot be exhausted with logical operations. […] Only the objective measurable achievement is of interest” (Simmel 1950, 2).
Sanshiro’s maturation through the course of the novel
In the beginning of the novel we see Sanshiro as an inexperienced young man from the countryside who is unacquainted with the modern life of the metropolis. Living in Tokyo, far away from his hometown and family, he is confused by everything around him. In order to orientate himself in his new environment he simplifies and idealizes. After his first weeks in Tokyo he imagines a naïve scheme by which he could “mix together” his rustic past with his new life in the city: “The best thing would be to bring his mother from the country, marry a beautiful woman, and devote himself to learning” (Soseki 2002, 64). The impracticality of this “terribly mediocre” (Soseki 2002, 64) compromise is not already clear to him. In the course of the novel however, he learns more about the modern life in Tokyo. Whereas at the very beginning he could not get the gist of Professor Hirota’s remarks, he later learns how to better able to follow his explanations (Soseki 2002, 36). Hirota is crucial in helping the protagonist to better develop his own individual point of view. Sanshiro begins to accept that becoming an adult individual means that he has to part with some of his illusions. When Sanshiro is shocked by the metropolitans’ indifference or opportunistic character, he “felt that some damage was being done to the moral precepts by which he had been raised” (Soseki 2002, 87). At this stage he is no longer so naïve as to condemn the metropolitans’ attitude, but instead admits that those “people of the city” lived “true to themselves” (Soseki 2002, 87). He has to cope with some smaller and bigger problems. After his first weeks at university, he is slightly disappointed by the academic life (Soseki 2002, 33), realizing that the “real world” does not only consist of “cheers and laughter” (Soseki 2002, 63), as he had imagined, but consists also of hard times as well. This becomes most apparent when Mineko, the object of his desire, in the end marries another man (Soseki 2002, 205).
In the end, Sanshiro must find his own way. Natsume Soseki often stressed the necessity to find one’s own path to a life suited to one’s own individuality: “There may be some who are satisfied to travel the old, proven routes behind others, and I do not say that you are wrong doing so – if it gives you genuine, unshakeable peace of mind and self-confidence. But if it does not, you must continue to dig ahead with your very own pick until you strike home. I repeat, you must do it, for anyone who is unable to will be unhappy for life, straying through the world in an endless, uneasy crouch” (Rubin 2002, 228). Sanshiro is certainly not a person who will be satisfied following the “old, proven routes behind others”; he must instead find his own way. Yet so far, he has yet to find it; he is still, like a lost sheep, “straying in the world.” But in the course of the story he became more and more aware that he has to abandon many of the certainties of his childhood and that his new life in the metropolis, the “real life” how he calls it, will not always be pleasant, but will rather demand some bitter compromises. By the end of the novel, Sanshiro is not yet a modern individual, but he is on his way.
After a brief depiction of the setting of Natsume Soseki’s Sanshiro, namely, the emerging metropolis of Tokyo at the turn of the century, I examined how the differing ideas of both ‘country” and ‘city’ are represented in the novel. The author does not use simplified, one-sided stereotypes of those two concepts, but rather describes both the positive and negative aspects of ‘country’ and ‘city.’ Sanshiro, newly arrived from the countryside, has to struggle to find his way in the city. Through his experiences in Tokyo and the help of his acquaintances and friends, he eventually opens his eyes to the modern world and, although his coming-of-age is not over at the end of the novel, learns to deal with his new environment. Together with the protagonist, the reader gets an intense insight into this buzzing vivid kaleidoscope of Tokyo at the turn of the century.
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