Book Review: Sanshirō, by Natsume Sōseki

Sanshirō’s namesake protagonist journeys to Tokyo from his provincial hometown in 1908, to pursue his education in Western subjects. What he finds on arrival is no brave new world of expanding horizons but a stagnant morass of demoralization. On a basic level, the Western ideas he encounters are not liberating but imposing, adding nothing to the native culture but confusion:

‘The sky was so clear before,’ said Mineko. ‘Now the color is all muddied.’

Sanshirō took his eyes from the stream and looked up. This was not the first time he had seen a sky like this, but it was the first time he had heard the sky described as ‘muddied.’ And she was right, he saw. There was no other way to describe this color. Before he could say anything in reply, however, Mineko spoke again.

‘It’s so heavy! It looks like marble,’ she said, using the English word. She was looking up high, eyes narrowed. Then she moved her narrowed eyes slowly, until they were turned upon Sanshirō. ‘It does look like marble, don’t you think?’

Sanshirō had no choice but to agree. ‘Yes, it looks like marble.’ (p. 97)

Mineko was doing so well with “muddied.” Why did she switch to marble? Why did Sanshirō have no choice but to go along with it?

I confess that I remembered this passage incorrectly. I thought that Mineko had described the sky consistently as marbled and that Sanshirō concluded that marbled was the only adjective that suited it. The difference, however is only one of nuance, with the true text showing how an English word comes to replace a Japanese one and my misremembered version accepting the imposition of English as an accomplished fact, conforming to my experience of Japan in recent years. On drives along the hilly coastline of southern Hokkaido, our car frequently passes through tunnels, uniformly designated as ton’neru, which has always seemed to me like bad English and not Japanese. I wonder how the Japanese named tunnels before the arrival of Commodore Perry and what was wrong with the old name.  Why not call it a zuidō, using two kanji? (But then again, kanji are Chinese characters and zuidō is a Chinese pronunciation. Perhaps the Japanese really can’t avoid borrowing a foreign term, the only choice being the era in which the term was imported.)

At any rate, as though responding to the general marblization of things, a student at Sanshirō’s school addresses a gathering, “We do not study Western literature in order to surrender ourselves to it but to emancipate minds that have already surrendered to it.” (p. 116) Very soon after hearing this bold proclamation, Sanshirō attends a crowded track meet, which, auguring poorly for the emancipation project just announced, takes place under both the Japanese and the British flags.  

Sanshirō was disappointed to find that the ladies’ seats were separate from the rest and unapproachable for ordinary human beings; also, there were a lot of important-looking men here in frock coats, which made him appear less impressive than he might have wished. Ogawa Sanshirō, youth of the new age, had shrunk a little in stature. (p. 118)

Of course, it doesn’t matter if skies are muddied or marbled, or whose flag flies over the track meet, if sex segregation and aristocracy are still so prevalent. As Haruki Murakami observes in his introduction to the 2009 Penguin edition I read, “Western ‘modernity’…had not yet taken root in Meiji Japan, nor, perhaps, is it all that firmly rooted in our own day.” (p. xxxv)

As for the plot, it involves Sanshirō’s somewhat passive pursuit of the witty and cosmopolitan Mineko and leads, rather predictably, to the contradiction between free and arranged marriage, which is fundamental to the Westernization question. The persistence of arranged marriage, as evinced in the storylines of myriad Asian movies and TV dramas popular today, confirms the truth of Murakami’s observation.

Therefore, as I finish Sanshirō, and as I finish also the 2020 Japanese movie Aristocrats, which features an arranged marriage, I resolve that my next reading, perhaps my next several readings, will focus on the crucial conflict between arranged marriage and freedom in marriage. No sooner have I closed the cover of Natsume’s novel than I have rushed to the library to borrow Lynn Pan’s nonfiction When True Love Came to China, which has some bearing on Japan as well.