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Soseki Natsume is one of the most highly regarded novelists of the Meiji Period in Japan. Born in Edo, now called Tokyo, in 1867, Soseki Natsume died in 1916 at the age of 49. Soseki Natsume became infatuated with Chinese literature and poetry in his school years, and these influences show in his writing, which has many uniquely Chinese qualities. Natsume Soseki spent most of his life as a scholar, studying the English language to proficiency and British literature. He did not begin writing full time until 1907.
Soseki Natsume was born Kinnosuke Natsume and began life as an unwanted child, the sixth of a minor and declining samurai family. His parents were older and not interested in raising a child, and they foisted the boy off on a household servant until the age of nine. When he returned to his family, his mother was eager to see him, but his father was relatively uninterested, and parent-child relationships were a theme Soseki Natsume explored in much of his later writing. His mother passed away when he was 14, and he turned to literature for solace.
Although Soseki Natsume wanted to be a writer, his family strongly disapproved, and when he entered Tokyo University in 1884, he intended to train as an architect. He decided to study English as well, because he thought it might further his career. However, in 1887, he met Masaoka Shiki, who encouraged him to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer. Soseki Natsume began using the name Soseki, a Chinese idiom meaning “stubborn,” at this time to sign his poetry, as he was defying his family. In 1890, he entered the Department of English at Tokyo University, rejecting his family's plans for him.
After his graduation in 1893, Soseki Natsume taught at several Japanese schools while publishing haiku and Chinese poetry in various newspapers. In 1896, he married Kyoko Nakane and settled with her in Kumamoto. In 1900, he won a grant from the Japanese government to study British literature and traveled to Britain, where he spent the two “most unpleasant years in my life.” He was unable to afford University fees in Britain and holed up in a variety of lodgings reading during his stay, leading his friends to think that he was losing his mind. When he returned to Japan, he became a professor of English literature at Tokyo Imperial University.
Soseki Natsume's first and probably most important work is I Am A Cat, which originally appeared as a short story from an alley cat's perspective in 1905. Readers acclaimed the work, and encouraged by its reception, Soseki Natsume expanded it into a full length book. Mr. Kushami, the cat's owner, is clearly a parody of Natsume himself. In 1907, Natsume abandoned his University post to write for Asahi Shimbum, a major Japanese paper, and began writing full time.
Soseki Natsume wrote a wide variety of novels dealing in a highly satirical style with various aspects of the human condition during the brief period of his life when his writing career flowered. They included Botchan (1906), Sanshiro (1908), And Then (1909), The Wayfarer (1912), and Inside My Glass Doors (1915). Natsume was a highly prolific writer, managing to pen 18 novels between 1905 and 1916, and dying with a 19th, Light and Darkness, unfinished in 1916.
Soseki Natsume's other most well known work is Kokoro (1914), an exploration of Japan after the decline of the Tokugawa Shogunate, with ambiguous and never fully formed characters. Kokoro is about love, betrayal, and ultimate suicide, and the book plays out like a delicate Chinese poem, unfurling in bits and pieces at a time. Many of Soseki Natsume's books deal with the themes of love, family, and confusion, suggesting that he may have lived a somewhat bitter life. His legacy to Japanese literature, however, is monumental, and most 20th century Japanese writers were heavily influenced by his work.