KOKORO is apparently universally agreed to be "the great Japanese modern novel," and has been read by generations of Japanese schoolkids. Never having read much from Japan, I decided to join these children. I don't know how they find it, but I think it's a very weird little book.
It tells the story of an unnamed young man who begins a friendship with an unnamed older man. The older man suffers under some kind of disillusionment, or regret, which is constantly hinted at but never expressed. The young man's father is dying, so he leaves his friend to go back to his rural home. Once there, he receives a letter of confession from his friend, which is also a suicide note, explaining how his life has gone wrong. I won't spoil it for you, but suffice to say this big reveal is odd, confusing, and did not explain to me at all what his problem was.
This may be at the heart of it; it is one of the old man's elliptical descriptions of his trouble:
We who are born into this age of freedom and independence and the self must undergo this loneliness. It is the price we pay for these times of ours. He is referring to the end of the nineteenth century, an apparently turbulent time in Japan, referred to as the Meiji period. Japan had been entirely insular for many centuries (a period I just read about in THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET and then, in the course of a very short period, the country was opened up to the West. Thus came a rush of new ideas - for example about being an 'individual.' This may seem an obviously 'true' idea to us, but to the Japanese was apparently deeply disturbing. I find this fascinating. Perhaps this is why the novel speaks so to Japanese audiences, but was slightly mystifying to me?
I should say that this is often a very funny novel. Here is the young man, back home in the rural areas:
My parents discussed together the idea of inviting guests over for a special celebratory meal in my honour. I had had a gloomy premonition that this might happen ever since I arrived.Clearly, students in Japan, as elsewhere, have similar issues with their parents.
I know we are just supposed to pretend that we don't notice, but I have to say it's also endlessly sexist. Soseki keeps banging on about 'womens' ways,' and eventually just gives it to us straight:
When it comes down to it, I told myself, she's acting this way because she's a woman, and women are stupid.
Ah ha! I see now why I didn't quite follow this novel . . .it's because of being so dumb. All clear now!