NATSUME SOSEKI: The Greatest Modern Japanese Novelist

Until 5 February 2014

Open weekdays 09:30-17:30
Admission is free, but photo ID is necessary to gain entry to the Embassy

The Embassy of Japan
101-104 Piccadilly, London W1J 7JT

During January, the Embassy of Japan is delighted to be given the chance to show some rarely seen artefacts, such as original letters, from the Soseki Collection held at Tohoku University Library. Although he is well known in his native Japan, many in the United Kingdom may not have heard of Natsume Soseki. He lived in London for a while, as one of Japan’s first Government scholars sent abroad to study, and is recognised as one of the country’s greatest literary figures. He is one of a select few individuals whose face has appeared on the 1000 yen note in the modern era. Many of his major works have been translated into English and are available here in the UK.

We asked Tohoku University Library about the current exhibition.

Who is Natsume Soseki?

Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) is one of the greatest and most important novelists of modern Japan. He was also one of the pioneers of research of English literature in Japan, as well as an intellectual who thought seriously about the future of Japan and the Japanese people. His life and his works continue to move us and strike a chord with Japanese people even now.

Why is Soseki so important in Japan?

Many of the novels of Soseki analyse the human psychology in depth, such as jealousy and love, or loneliness and friendship, so they are applicable even today. At the same time, the very clear style of his prose is now considered the standard for the modern Japanese language.

In addition, he pointed out the need for the Japanese people to establish a sense of "individualism", while at the same time being critical of the tendency toward the superficial "Westernisation" (meaning modernisation) of Japanese society. Such assertions and criticisms are still considered relevant for Japanese society and its people today.

Portrait of Natsume Soseki
Courtesy of Kanagawa Museum of Modern Literature


What are Soseki’s masterpieces?

Soseki’s unique first work Wagahai wa neko de aru (I am a Cat, 1905-1906) describes human society from the satirical point of view of an unnamed cat. Meanwhile, he took pride in what he viewed as the original and unprecedented quality of the novel Kusamakura (The Three-Cornered World, 1906). Another well known novel Kokoro (1914), written in his later years, has become an essential part of the literary canon of Japan. In addition to these, Soseki produced many other masterpieces in his brief 10 years as a novelist.

What is the relationship between Soseki and the United Kingdom?

Soseki, who was a scholar of English literature, was dispatched to the United Kingdom for the purpose of research for about two years from September 1900 to December 1902. He was one of the first Government-sponsored scholars to be sent abroad. He attended English literature lectures at University College London (UCL) for some of that time. The fruits of his research culminated in the Japanese monographs of English literature Theory of Literature (1907) and Literary Criticism (1909).

Soseki also wrote novels skilfully applying his profound knowledge about British art and English literature. He seems to have admired the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, particularly those of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and works of the novelists such as George Eliot, Jane Austen and George Meredith.

Commemorative Blue Plaque erected in 2002 by English Heritage at 81 The Chase, Clapham, London SW4 0NR London Borough of Lambeth
Why has Tohoku University organized an exhibition at the Embassy?

Prior to the exhibition at the Embassy, Tohoku University held an exhibition at UCL. Last year, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of academic exchange between Japan and the UK, our universities concluded an academic exchange agreement. The exhibition at UCL was a collaborative exercise in the field of humanities between the two university libraries and was also aimed at enhancing the presence and recognition of Tohoku University in the UK. As the Embassy was planning an exhibition to show the influence of the academic and cultural exchange on contemporary Japanese language and culture, Tohoku University was delighted to be able to collaborate with the Embassy. Of course, we would be even more delighted if Tohoku University became more widely known in the UK as a result.

Please tell us about the main exhibits that are included in the exhibition.

Diary of Drifting across the Sea and Diary from England in 1901 were written by Soseki while he was studying in the UK. These diaries are extremely important academic source materials, not only because they describe his student life but also because they contain a number of his unique thoughts on the difference between the Japanese and British societies from his own viewpoint of  civilisation theory. In addition, the exhibition contains his research plan and a list of books he purchased as well as a guidebook of London at that time to which he would have referred.

Why have Soseki’s books and belongings on display come to be in Tohoku University’s possession?

Tohoku University and Soseki did not have any direct relationship. However, Komiya Toyotaka (1884-1966), professor of German literature at the University as well as its head librarian, very much admired Soseki’s works and as a result the Soseki collection came to the University between 1943 and March 1944, during World War II. The former residence of Soseki in Tokyo was destroyed in an air raid in March 1945 but the important collection, already safe in Tohoku University, was saved in tact.

What are the features of the Soseki Library owned by Tohoku University?

There are approximately 3000 books in the Soseki collection. In addition, the Soseki Library contains the writer's own diaries and handwritten literature research notes as well as drafts of the novels. There are around 1200 books in Japanese and Chinese, and 1650 non-Japanese ones which include about 500 books that Soseki purchased while studying in the UK. The collection is particularly notable in that a large number of these books contain underlinings and notes by Soseki himself. From these, we can trace Soseki’s thought processes and  explore the sources and secrets of his literary creations.

In the Soseki Library, some of the letters the writer addressed to his wife Kyoko during his stay in the UK are included. What do they tell us about the man himself?

In Soseki’s autobiographical novel "Grass on the Wayside” (1915), the main character is reminiscent of Soseki himself who has just returned from studying abroad. The protagonist and his wife, while wanting to show their love for each other, cannot express their feelings frankly face to face. While studying in the UK, Soseki frankly wrote in his letters to Kyoko his feelings for her, such as “I miss you” 「お前のことが恋しい」. In the letter to Kyoko dated 8 March 1901, on display in this exhibition, Soseki reported to her in a somewhat shy manner that he had been told by his British friend who had seen a photograph of Kyoko holding their child that his wife and daughter were extremely lovely 「大変可愛らしいお嬢さんと奥さんだ」.