Author: Natsume Sōseki
Translator: Jay Rubin
U.S. publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780140455625
Released: February 2010
Original release: 1909

Sanshirō is the second novel by Natsume Sōseki that I have had the opportunity to read. The first was his masterpiece Kokoro, which I loved. Sanshirō was initially serialized in Japan between 1908 and 1909. Penguin Classics’ 2009 translation by Jay Rubin is revised from Rubin’s original 1977 translation. The edition also includes a delightful introduction to the novel by Haruki Murakami as well as a chronology and translator’s notes. According to the introductory material, Sanshirō is the last novel written by Sōseki in which humor plays a prominent role. It is also the first book in a thematic trilogy (followed by And Then and The Gate) which I hadn’t previously realized. Because I enjoyed Kokoro so much, I was looking forward to reading another work by Sōseki. And because Sanshirō has been sitting on my shelf for what seems like ages, it’s what I turned to next.

Sanshirō Ogawa is a recent college graduate from a rural area in Kyushu. To continue his education he must travel to Tokyo, enrolling in the Imperial University’s division of Law and Letters. After a three day journey by train he finally arrives, a simple-hearted country boy completely overwhelmed by the big city of Tokyo and its people. Fortunately, and occasionally unfortunately, he is befriended by his classmate Yojirō Sasaki. Sanshirō’s circle of acquaintances grows and his social life becomes more complicated. He even manages to fall in love despite being terrified of women. But his inexperience with city life and culture, not to mention his complete ineptitude when it comes to interacting with members of the opposite sex, proves to be problematic when pursuing a romantic relationship.

There is no grand, overwrought plot to Sanshirō. Instead, the novel is a simple portrayal of the life of a university student in Japan in the early twentieth century. In its way, Sanshirō is very much a coming of age story. Sanshirō certainly has quite a bit of growing up to do. For most of the novel, he is more of an observer than he is a person with initiative. Events simply happen around him and he absorbs it all without much comment. It is only at the end of Sanshirō that it becomes apparent that he is about to step into the next stage of his life. Some readers may find Sanshirō frustrating as a protagonist because there isn’t much development in his character. Personally though, I liked him, in part because I could identify with him so easily—I, too, left a very rural area to attend university in a much larger city.

Although I wasn’t quite as taken with Sanshirō as I was with Kokoro, I still enjoyed the novel. Sōseki’s humor shines through, even in translation. Some of the humor is situational, some comes from the characters’ personalities, and some is the result of Sōseki’s delightful writing. I frequently found myself reading with a slight smile on my face and even chuckled aloud on occasion. Sanshirō is both entertaining and amusing. Sōseki also includes elements from his own life in the novel and finds inspiration for parts of his story in real people, places, and events. One of the reasons I am particularly grateful for the chronology and notes is that they help to shed light on this. Sanshirō may not be my favorite novel written by Sōseki, but I am still able to appreciate it. I look forward to reading more of his work.


Author: Natsume Sōseki
Translator: Meredith McKinney
U.S. publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 9780143106036
Released: February 2010
Original release: 1914

Natsume Sōseki’s last completed novel Kokoro has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read ever since Penguin Classics published the most recent English translation by Meredith McKinney in 2010. So, I was very glad when Kokoro was selected for the September/October 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group. As far as I have been able to determine, there have been at least two other English translations of the novel: one in 1941 by Ineko Kondo and one in 1957 by Edwin McClellan. Kokoro was originally released in Japan in 1914 and is considered by many to be Sōseki’s masterpiece. Sōseki is well respected as a modern Japanese novelist and many of his works have been translated and published in English. Despite this, and despite having his earlier novel Sanshirō sitting on my shelf waiting to be read as well, Kokoro is the first of his books that I have read.

The meeting between a young student and the man he would come to call Sensei happened more by chance than anything else, but their developing relationship became extremely important to both of them. The student is still inexperienced in life and is genuinely earnest while Sensei is significantly more world-weary. He has a melancholic air about him, something that even his wife fails at being able to explain. The student is utterly fascinated by the enigmatic Sensei and wonders at the past he keeps hidden. Sensei himself is unexpectedly drawn to the student, perhaps hoping that he can help the younger man avoid some of the mistakes he made in his own life, or perhaps it’s just that he’s finally found someone that he can trust with the guilt that he has carried alone all these years.

Kokoro is told in three parts. The first two parts, “Sensei and I” and “My Parents and I,” are narrated by the unnamed student while the third part, “Sensei’s Testament,” takes the form of a lengthy letter written by Sensei, who also remains unnamed throughout the book, to the student. According to McKinney, “Sensei’s Testament” was initially written as a standalone work; it certainly can easily be read as such. However, although they read significantly differently because of the change in narrators, I greatly appreciated the inclusion of the first two parts of the novel. Seeing Sensei through the eyes of the student, who is more or less enraptured by him, allows the readers a chance to become even more invested in and curious about the man, mirroring the student’s own feelings. Even though Sensei tries to keep some distance between himself and the student, and even though the student actually knows very little about him, their relationship is a very intimate one without being sexual.

I enjoyed Kokoro immensely and am not at all surprised that it is called his masterpiece. I’ve not read any of his other works to be able to say so myself, but I am confident in saying that Kokoro is a remarkable piece of literature. I’ve also not read any of the other English translations of Kokoro to be able to compare, but I found McKinney’s translation to be unobtrusive and it reads very nicely. Even though Kokoro was written in Japan in 1914, the themes that it deals with—love, trust, betrayal, and guilt—are pertinent regardless of time and place. While it captures the spirit of the dying Meiji era, it is still a potent story today. Although the narrative can feel somewhat forced at times, the characterization of the two unnamed protagonists is exceedingly well done. They see a little bit of themselves in each other, and I saw a little bit of myself, too.