Among the classics of modern Japanese literature, Botchan is probably the most frequently read novel and the most often anthologized work in Japan. Its action is set in the 1890’s, during the Meiji Restoration, when Japan was making its cataclysmic metamorphosis from a cloistered feudal state to a major modern world power. The novel focuses on a few months in the experience of a neophyte teacher nicknamed Botchan (young master). Born and educated in Tokyo, he has accepted a job teaching mathematics at a middle school in provincial Shikoku. Botchan’s personality, values, and Tokyo manners clash with those of his new environment, and out of this conflict Sseki spins a comic tale that satirizes contemporary Japanese mores. The novel is narrated in the first person, and a substantial portion of its humor stems from Botchan’s verbose and vigorous Tokyo dialect, which, by all accounts, Sseki has brilliantly captured.

From his earliest childhood days, Botchan has been an impulsive and reckless scapegrace. He leaps from the upstairs window of his elementary school on a dare, fights with a neighbor boy in the middle of a vegetable garden, thus devastating it, and blocks up another neighbor’s irrigation source out of sheer curiosity. Botchan’s father dislikes him. Botchan’s elder brother blames him for hastening their mother’s death by his rowdiness. Through it all, Botchan grows into an unabashed and defiant individualist. Indeed, stubbornness, recklessness, and candor become marks of Botchan’s character.

The only person with whom Botchan gets along is the family’s elderly maidservant, Kiyo. Kiyo sees Botchan as a rough diamond. In contrast to everyone else, therefore, she plies him with delicacies, gifts, even money—including three yen notes which he accidentally drops into the latrine, and which Kiyo then fishes out, rinses, exchanges for coins, and returns to Botchan. In his rough-and-ready way, Botchan appreciates Kiyo’s fondness for him, and their relationship borders on that between feudal serf and liege lord—in fact, it is she who has nicknamed him Botchan, and his acceptance of this sobriquet in turn acknowledges her authority to define his identity.

After their father’s death, Botchan’s brother sells their Tokyo home and departs for Kyushu, leaving Botchan only six hundred yen to defray his education for three years. Botchan manages to graduate (with neither distinction nor enthusiasm) from the Tokyo School of Physics and obtains his rather mediocre teaching post.

Botchan’s Tokyo upbringing, individuality, and character clash with his new surroundings and acquaintances. He finds the provincial dress, manners, and (especially) dialect uncouth and disconcerting, and he is critical of his colleagues, whom he quickly dubs with satirical nicknames such as Badger or Redshirt. Badger, the headmaster, lectures Botchan during their first meeting and informs him that he should set a high moral example for his students away from school as well as in the classroom. Knowing his own foibles, Botchan resents this imposition and candidly offers to return his letter of appointment. Badger, who had expected Botchan to play his hypocritical game of keeping up appearances, is taken aback, then smiles away his pomposity by explaining that he has merely said what is usual for the occasion and that nobody expects anyone to live up to such ideals.

One of Botchan’s new acquaintances is the senior teacher, Mr. Hotta, whom Botchan nicknames Porcupine for his closely cropped hair. Hotta is gruff and abrupt in manner but seems...

(The entire section is 1470 words.)