Sen Yen is the standard monetary measurement in Japan. That's 1,000 smackaroos --about ten dollars -- or an all-you-can eat platter of lunchtime sushi if you're living in Tokyo with a limited budget. If you look closely at the face of... [more]
Sen Yen is the standard monetary measurement in Japan. That's 1,000 smackaroos --about ten dollars -- or an all-you-can eat platter of lunchtime sushi if you're living in Tokyo with a limited budget. If you look closely at the face of the bill that might pay for tomorrow's buffet, you will see a picture of a figure -- en moustache -- dressed in Western clothing. This is Soseki Natsume, a writer who wields enough cultural capital to be considered an iconic unit of measurement.
The writer's childhood was marked by unusual circumstances that some believe led him to become rather distrustful of the world around him. Against the backdrop of a country undergoing economic turmoil, the writer-to-be found himself shuttled between a biological and a foster family -- an especially horrifying situation given his culture's emphasis on familial roots.
While we cannot be certain how this unstable upbringing affected the developing artist, the insecurities that run through his prose are unmistakable. Natsume's work echoes the uncertainty and discontent now made familiar by the writing of European Modernists like Freud, Woolf, and Hemingway. Despite its somewhat cute title, 1905's "Wagahai wa neko de aru" ("I Am a Cat") takes a decidedly sardonic view of Meiji-era Japan. The book is written from the viewpoint of a cat living through the country's transformation from a feudal society to a modern one. Apparently, our feline protagonist prefers the traditional over the inscrutable ways of the West -- the novel is chock-full of satirical commentary on some of the more unsavory aspects of modernity.
Sarcasm transforms to a more sensitive melancholy in the later "Kokoro" (considered by many to be his best work). The novel is a poetic rumination on the tragedy of the human condition: Man is destined to be alone, and to know it. Relationships in the novel give rise to passion and betrayal, a longing for connectedness and a lingering loneliness. Though "Kokoro" works on a personal level, it may still be read as Natsume's continuing interest in the crisis of his culture. For Natsume, alienation is the bane of the Japanese individual torn between modernity and tradition.
Discontent and disillusionment continued as running themes throughout Natsume's work, and he continued to develop motifs of isolation and suffering until the bitter end. Evidently, the vitriol finally overcame him -- in 1916 he died of a chronic ulcer. [show less]