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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

Sseki Natsume (soh-seh-kee naht-soom-ee)—against tradition, he is usually referred to as Sseki—is generally regarded as the most popular twentieth century Japanese novelist. The son of a ward chief, he was born Kinnosuke Natsume in Tokyo on February 9, 1867. Sseki later referred to himself as a “spiritual orphan” during his...

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Sseki Natsume (soh-seh-kee naht-soom-ee)—against tradition, he is usually referred to as Sseki—is generally regarded as the most popular twentieth century Japanese novelist. The son of a ward chief, he was born Kinnosuke Natsume in Tokyo on February 9, 1867. Sseki later referred to himself as a “spiritual orphan” during his childhood, for he was given up for adoption at birth, having been an unwanted fifth child of aging parents. He was sent to several private schools, where he became interested in Chinese and English. Later he entered the University of Tokyo and graduated in 1893 with a degree in English; he was only the second Japanese to complete such a degree. Sseki taught English at a number of schools until 1900, when, desiring to improve his already excellent English and do research in literature, he accepted an opportunity to go to England for two years on a government scholarship. The stay proved to be a nightmare for Sseki. He was lonely, developed feelings of inferiority toward English people, and decided that no Japanese could ever compete with an Englishman as a scholar of English literature.seki[Natsume, Soseki]}{$S[A]Natsume, Kinnosuke;Natsume, S{omacr}seki}seki[Natsume, Soseki]}seki[Natsume, Soseki]}

Back in Japan by 1902, increasingly unhappy with his career and doubting his cultural identity, Sseki tried creative writing and found a new career. The enormous success of his first two novels, I Am a Cat and Botchan, prompted him to retire from teaching the following year and devote his energies to the novel. He signed an agreement with a Tokyo newspaper, Asahi, whereby one novel each year would be serialized in the daily, an arrangement which lasted to the end of his life. These first two novels were lighthearted and somewhat satirical in tone, but almost immediately he made a turn to the more serious, moralistic stance that would be the hallmark of all of his later novels. The Three-Cornered World, written in 1906, is a transitional novel marking his new direction in subject matter; it is far more serious in tone and experimental in style.

Drawing upon his own legacy of alienation and lack of identity in childhood, Sseki produced Nowaki, Sanshiro, And Then, and Mon. Meanwhile, his marriage, never very happy, was causing him much pain. He had married Nakane Kyoko in 1896. She had never understood her husband’s academic inclinations; now she was suffering from attacks of depression and hysteria and had to live with her parents most of the time. By 1910, Sseki was hospitalized with his first attack of stomach ulcers, an affliction that would eventually cause his death. His novels became increasingly pessimistic but more assured in technique, and the last three years saw the appearance of his masterpiece Kokoro, along with his autobiographical novel Grass on the Wayside, detailing his early tribulations. His last novel, Light and Darkness, although incomplete upon his death in Tokyo on December 9, 1916, was published and achieved great success with the reading public.

The theme that runs throughout Sseki’s work, produced during ten years of intense dedication to writing, is the difficulty of communication between individuals, a difficulty exacerbated by social changes wrought by Japan’s sudden Westernization. Lack of communication is usually expressed by Sseki in terms of human vulnerability in love relationships, which frequently take the form of triangles. Such is the case in And Then and Mon, where the guilty feelings of the lovers, who are already alienated from society, are the only things that keep them emotionally connected. Sseki’s vision of life steadily darkened; in later novels, such as Grass on the Wayside and Light and Darkness, the characters are entirely hemmed in by walls of noncommunication. This alienation and insecurity, for Sseki, was made worse by Westernization—with its attendant depersonalization, industrialization, and material progress—which threatened traditional spiritual values.

Sseki expressed his ideas in an amazing variety of styles and techniques. While his earlier novels employ omniscient narrators, some later works use two and sometimes three first-person narrators to express conflicts of value in the corresponding characters. His first two novels are comic in tone, while the transitional novel, The Three-Cornered World, uses a poetic, imagistic narration with little plot. As Sseki probed the minds of his characters more deeply, he ventured into the psychological novel and its techniques with The Wayfarer, Kokoro, and Light and Darkness. Although not an autobiographical novelist, he did employ this approach late in his career in Grass on the Wayside, when he desired to show the reasons for his estrangement from the world and from his wife. Sseki, more than any other early-modern Japanese writer, strove to match style with content.

Sseki lived at a time when almost all Japanese writers wrote in the naturalistic and autobiographical style then current, a style that virtually ignored fictional art and put a premium on unadorned true-life confessions. He showed other writers that much more effective results could be obtained through employment of various fictional devices, most of which were little used or entirely unknown in Japan. After Sseki, there was a gradual shift away from autobiographical fiction and naturalism to other styles. Sseki also, more than any other writer of his generation, served as the mouthpiece of those who were caught in the wrenching conflict between East and West. He gave fluent voice to those who were lonely and socially alienated and felt a lack of purpose in life. His was a necessary voice that still strikes responsive chords.

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