Depiction Of Japan In Kokoro Essay

Tradition and Alienation in Kokoro

Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro takes place in the end of Japan’s Meiji era. This was a time of significant cultural change for the country, as modernization and industrialization grew and Western ideas gained influence. The novel makes tension between older and younger generations, rural and urban areas, and traditional and modern ideas clear. Furthermore, the dichotomy of tradition and modernity can cause feelings of isolation and alienation among people who feel torn between conflicting mindsets. The unnamed narrator of the first two sections seems to be seeking some sort of inspiration or comfort in his relationship with Sensei, and senses a disconnect between himself and his uneducated parents upon graduating from university. Sensei himself is also out of place, conforming neither with traditional nor contemporary ideals.

Despite introducing modernization to Japan, Emperor Meiji seemed to still be an import representation of tradition in Japan, and his death shakes the country. The narrator’s father cancels the dinner party planned in honor of the narrator’s graduation because “Emperor Meiji [has] taken ill” (Soseki 88). As the emperor grows sicker, so does the father. Throughout the novel, the father is presented as old-fashioned, and his physical deterioration aligning with his era’s figurehead seems to show a parallel deterioration of his views. Though the narrator clearly sees Sensei very differently than how he sees his father, Sensei directly expresses this idea. In his suicide letter to the narrator, he writes that he “felt as though the spirit of the Meiji era had begun with the Emperor and had ended with him. [He] was overcome with the feeling that [those] who had been brought up in that era, were now left behind to live as anachronisms” (245). Already considering suicide, Sensei now feels out of place in the world. Though he did not fit exactly with the ideas of the Meiji era, he knows he belong to it, and fears the alienation of living in a quickly changing culture.

However, though the Emperor’s death is jarring and felt by his people to be symbolic, changes are already occurring during his reign. Both Sensei and the narrator belong to growing and changing generations. Sensei claims that “loneliness is the price … to pay for being born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence, and … egotistical” attitudes (30). It appears that the industrialization and modernization of this period is opening new perspectives and opportunities, and allowing people to become more individualistic. Sensei suggests that this is not a good thing, and inevitably leads to loneliness as people focus too much on themselves. He says to the narrator that “youth is the loneliest time of all” because young people are always seeking something (15). Indeed, the narrator spends much of his time with Sensei, full of questions; he even considers “conversation with Sensei more profitable than lectures at the university” (28). He is a young man, in a busy city and receiving a fine education, but still concentrates mostly on this strange man. Some people, torn between traditional and new ideas, are full of questions. Young people, often at the forefront of change by virtue of being young and having new perspectives, can feel isolated and lost in a confusing world.

Many members of the older generation of the Meiji era feel particularly torn between the traditions with which they were raised and the new ideas that have been developing throughout their lives. Sensei embodies this internal struggle. He neither conforms entirely to old customs, nor embraces completely the burgeoning changes. His study is “furnished partly in the Western style,” and his dinner table is covered with “bowls and chopsticks neatly laid out on white linen such as one sees in the European-style restaurants” (33, 69). Part of the cultural changes of this period are due to new Western influence. Sensei’s home reflects both traditional Japanese and more contemporary Western customs. While in university, his uniform was Western, but he usually wore more traditional clothing at home, expect when he overslept and “rushed off in Japanese dress” (195). Sensei is used to a mixing of cultures, styles, and ideals. Nonetheless, when it comes to more complex ideas as opposed to material objects, he experiences conflict. In his letter, he reminds the narrator how he “used to argue with [him] about contemporary ideas… Though [Sensei] did not exactly disdain [the narrator’s] opinions… [he] could not bring [himself] to respect them either” (129). Clearly, Sensei has long struggled between his own generation and the younger generation; he departs in some ways from tradition, but does not condone all of the new ideas either. He does not work, and with time has come to value his university education less. He does not have a place in the changing society.

Other members of the older generation are more committed to tradition, distancing themselves from the younger generation. After experiencing higher education and a big city, the narrator feels alienated from home, because “Tokyo [had] become a part of” him, and his parents “could not help but notice” how he has changed (50). In his small rural hometown, surrounded by uncultured people who only like to drink and eat, he yearns for the excitement and modernity of Tokyo. Though youth may be lonely, there is more to quench this isolation in the city (and with Sensei). He takes his education for granted, not finding it important to search for a job, and believes his father values his diploma and education “more than they [are] worth” (81). Meanwhile, his father is simply happy to have sent his son to get a fancy education, and wants him to be successful. Nevertheless, the narrator resents his father’s “naïve provincialism” and looks down upon his parents for their ignorance (82). A strong generational gap (also a regional and educational/class divide) develops in this period, as the young change while the old want to see their children grow but also to honor tradition. The narrator’s father suggests that “education is a means of separating children from their parents” (95). Students are exposed to such new ideas and to so much knowledge that their perspectives drastically depart from those of their parents. It is extremely difficult for the older and newer generations to reconcile their opposing viewpoints.

The end of the Meiji era is a complex time; the cultural changes brought about by industrialization, Western influence, and general modernization operate in opposition to more traditional values and customs. Young and old alike experience loneliness and alienation as they strive to find a place in a quickly changing society. The younger generation is full of new ideas, and seek answers that may not exist to questions about themselves and the changing world around them. The narrator clings to Sensei, hoping to find value in their conversations, and looks down upon his old-fashioned parents and hometown. The older generation is often torn between tradition and modernity. Some, like the narrator’s parents, want their children to benefit from progress, but still value traditional ideas and live according to them. Others, like Sensei, suffer from an inability to find a balance between new and old. While good things, such as education, do result from societal change, Soseki reminds readers that change can be extremely alienating when people are left without a place in society.

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