With a list of works including, I am a Cat, Kokoro, and Botchan, Natsume Sōseki solidified himself as an important figure in Japanese literature. Born Natsume Kinnosuke on February 9th, 1867 in what is now modern-day Shinjuku, he was the youngest of six kids and grew up with a difficult childhood. He was sent out for adoption as an infant, a not-uncommon practice of the time, to the Shiobara’s, acquaintances of his parents who had serious marital problems (Marcus). These problems had a profound effect on him as he lived with them until the age of 8 when he returned to his parents.
Natsume Sōseki was a gifted scholar despite his tumultuous childhood. Though he first pursued education at Nishimatsu Gakusha in Chinese studies, he dropped it after two months and, at the age of 17, went on to study at University Preparatory Gate (later renamed Daiichi Koto Junior High School) where he excelled in English (Shinjuku City). His talents would eventually be noticed when he was studying at Tokyo Imperial University. In 1890, at the age of 23, he entered the Department of English Literature where he was chosen as a special student by J. M. Dickson who asked Sōseki to translate Hojoki in English (Shinjuku City). He graduated from this university in 1893.
After graduating, he took on various teaching jobs in rural areas. He married Nakane Kyōko in 1896 and had six children during their marriage. Though they never divorced, Sōseki was cruel to his wife and his children grew up resentful and fearful of him which starkly contrasted the Sōseki who was warm and father-like to his students (Rollmann). In 1900, he was sent to London by the Japanese government to study English literature for two years which showed a decline in his physical and mental health. These two serious impediments included a chronic stomach disorder that went untreated and led to a series of hospitalizations and a neurotic disorder diagnosed as shinkei suijaku— neurasthenia—treated by early Japanese specialists in clinical psychology; symptoms included seemingly erratic behavior and unusual mood swings (Marcus). A now outdated term, neurasthenia has been previously used by professionals and lay people in Japan as a “camouflage” to cover serious mental illnesses (Schwartz). Even after returning to Japan, Sōseki continued to struggle with his mental health.
In 1905 that Sōseki began publishing one of his major works. After returning from Japan, he continued to suffer from nervous depression so as a distraction, the poet Takahama Kyoshi encouraged him to write which resulted in I am a Cat (Natsume Sōseki Memorial Museum). For someone of his time, he was remarkably frank [about his struggles], writing in the preface to his study The Theory of Literature (1907), one of his few non-fiction literary works, he wrote:
In England, people observing me said that I was suffering from neurasthenia. I have
heard that a certain Japanese wrote home to Japan to say that I was insane… I will say,
when I consider that this nervous condition and insanity have enabled me to write I
Am a Cat and to publish Fugitive Stories and Quail Basket, it seems appropriate that I
should express my deep gratitude to these afflictions. Assuming there is not some
radical change in my personal circumstances, I assume this nervous condition and
insanity will afflict me for the rest of my life. And since, so long as they persist, I hope
to publish any number of Cats, any number of Fugitive Tales, and any number of Quail
Baskets, I pray that my illnesses will not abandon me… (Rollmann)
This sensibility is what attracted readers and others in the literary community to him. His keen sensitivity to the problems and pitfalls of social relationships—especially in the context of marriage and family—and the corrosive impact of egocentrism, false pride, and mistrust would deeply color his best-known novels (Marcus). Many disciples, including Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, who wrote Rashōmon, so he began to host a literature club every Thursday called Mokuyokai (Natsume Sōseki Memorial Museum). By 1907, he was working for Asahi Shimbun and published additional works. His continued struggles with stomach ulcers led him to relocate to Izu in hopes that a change in climate would improve his health, but by 1916 he died in his home at the age of 49 (Natsume Sōseki Memorial Museum). His last work, Meian (Light and Dark), left unfinished.
Selected Notable Works
I am a Cat
Sōseki: Modern Japan's Greatest Novelist by John Nathan (2018)
The Sōseki Project, a website aimed at making Natsume Sōseki’s works more accessible to students of Japanese
Natsume Sōseki Memorial Museum in Shinjuku
Marcus, Marvin. “Natsume Sōseki and Modern Japanese Literature.” Association for Asian Studies, 2015, www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/natsume-soseki-and-modern-japanese-literature/. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.
Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum. “Soseki’s Life.” Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum, soseki-museum.jp/eng/soseki-natsume/sosekis-life/. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.
Rollmann, Rhea. “Why Does Natsume Soseki Still Resonate with Readers?” PopMatters, 14 Dec. 2018, www.popmatters.com/natsume-soseki-john-nathan-2622466166.html. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.
Shinjuku City. “Natsume Soseki Biography.” Shinjuku City, 2024, city-shinjuku.j-server.com/LUCAISHINJ/ns/tl.cgi/www.city.shinjuku.lg.jp/kanko/file03_01_00027.html?SLANG=ja&TLANG=en&XMODE=0&XCHARSET=utf-8&XJSID=0. Accessed 9 Feb. 2024.
Schwartz, Pamela Yew. “Why is neurasthenia important in Asian cultures?.” The Western journal of medicine vol. 176,4 (2002): 257-8.