Natsume Sōseki

(1867 - 1916 / Kikui, Shinjuku)

Biography of Natsume Sōseki

Sōseki Natsume (February 9, 1867 – December 9, 1916), born Kinnosuke Natsume was a Japanese novelist of the Meiji period (1868–1912). He is best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, I Am a Cat and his unfinished work Light and Darkness. He was also a scholar of British literature and composer of haiku, kanshi, and fairy tales. From 1984 until 2004, his portrait appeared on the front of the Japanese 1000 yen note. In Japan, he is often considered the greatest writer in modern Japanese history. He has had a profound effect on almost all important Japanese writers since.

Early years

Born as Kinnosuke Natsume in the town of Babashita in the Edo region of Ushigome (present Kikui, Shinjuku), Sōseki began his life as an unwanted child, born to his mother late in her life, forty years old and his father then fifty-three. When he was born, he already had five siblings. Having five children and a toddler had created family insecurity and was in some ways a disgrace to the Natsume family. In 1868, a childless couple, Shiobara Masanosuke and his wife, adopted him until the age of nine, when the couple divorced. He returned to his family and was welcomed by his mother although regarded as a nuisance by his father. His mother died when he was fourteen, and his two eldest brothers died in 1887, intensifying his sense of insecurity.

Literary career

Natsume's literary career began in 1903, when he began to contribute haiku, renku (haiku-style linked verse), haitaishi (linked verse on a set theme) and literary sketches to literary magazines, such as the prominent Hototogisu, edited by his former mentor Masaoka Shiki, and later by Takahama Kyoshi. However, it was the public success of his satirical novel I Am a Cat in 1905 that won him wide public admiration as well as critical acclaim.

He followed on this success with short stories, such as Rondon tō ("Tower of London") in 1905 and the novels Botchan ("Little Master"), and Kusamakura ("Grass Pillow") in 1906, which established his reputation, and which enabled him to leave his post at the university for a position with Asahi Shimbun in 1907, and to begin writing full-time. Much of his work deals with the relation between Japanese culture and Western culture. Especially his early works are influenced by his studies in London; his novel Kairo-kō was the earliest and only major prose treatment of the Arthurian legend in Japanese. He began writing one novel a year before his death from a stomach ulcer in 1916.

Major themes in Natsume's works include ordinary people fighting against economic hardship, the conflict between duty and desire (a traditional Japanese theme; see giri), loyalty and group mentality versus freedom and individuality, personal isolation and estrangement, the rapid industrialization of Japan and its social consequences, contempt of Japan's aping of Western culture, and a pessimistic view of human nature. Natsume took a strong interest in the writers of the Shirakaba (White Birch) literary group. In his final years, authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke and Kume Masao became close followers of his literary style.

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The Crow Has Flown Away

The crow has flown away;
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.

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