Natsume Soseki was born in Tokyo in 1867, just one year before the Meiji Restoration.
The eighth and final child in the family, his father, Natsume Kohe Naokatsu, was
nearly 50, and his mother 40, at the time of his birth. The baby Soseki was brought
up by foster parents for eight years, but was returned to his original home at
the age of eight, when his foster parents divorced. The name Soseki is a nom de
plume he created for himself.
Despite an intense love and affinity for the Chinese classics, the young Soseki,
in tune with the modernizing spirit of the times, chose to specialize in English
and became the second-ever student to graduate from the English Literature department
of Tokyo Imperial University.
After graduation, Soseki worked as an English teacher first in Tokyo, and then
in the provinces, moving from Matsuyama (Shikoku) to Kumamoto (Kyushu) in 1896.
In that same year he also got married, supposedly telling his wife on their wedding
day that he was a scholar with no time to fuss over her. Perhaps unsurprisingly,
she was emotionally unstable, even trying to kill herself on one occasion. Commentators
invariably point out that the marriages depicted in Soseki's novels are never
very happy affairs.
Misery in the U.K.
At this time the Japanese government were grooming homegrown scholars to replace
the foreign teachers at universities. Soseki, who had been selected to follow
Lafcadio Hearn at Tokyo Imperial University, was thus sent to England for two
years in September of 1900. With an allowance too mean for Oxford or Cambridge, and
finding the lecturers at University College London too boring, Soseki took weekly
tutorials from an authority on Shakespeare. The rest of the time he festered in
his London lodgings, reading voraciously, and developing his own theory of literature
(later published as Bungakuron). The isolation may have been painful, but somehow
London was the crucible that turned Soseki, now in his mid-thirties, from a provincial
scholar into a prolific best-selling author.
Returning to Tokyo in late 1903, Soseki worked as a lecturer at the First High
School and Tokyo Imperial University. He also started to write. His first novel,
I am a Cat, came about by accident, when a satirical short story (narrated by
an English teacher's pet cat) had to be spun out due to popular demand. Botchan (1905), the tale of a headstrong Tokyoite going forth to teach in the provinces,
was another humorous tale loosely based on Soseki's own experiences in Shikoku.
Soseki was so successful that he gave up his university post in 1907. He then
joined the Asahi Shimbun on condition of producing one novel per year - a condition
he fulfilled, justifying Jay Rubin's description of him as a "word machine
[who] could write anything and keep it going for as long as he liked."
In 1910 Soseki vomited blood and was laid low for a year. His productivity hardly
declined, though his later novels such as Kokoro (1914) and Grass by the Wayside (1915) are more direct, personal and gloomy than their predecessors. He was in
the middle of a further novel Light and Darkness when he died from internal hemorrhaging
in December 1916.
Soseki is revered as the father of modern Japanese literature. He was active just
when Japan was opening up the world, and, as Ewin McClellan says, was the first
to chronicle the "loneliness [that] is the price we have to pay for being
born in this modern age, so full of freedom, independence and our own egotistical
This website provides Japanese-language audio versions of four Soseki stories
from Ten Nights of Dreams (1908).