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Botchan

Book Review

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Here’s a quick quiz. What is the object pictured here? And who is the man?

Naturally, it is a banknote. And the reader can probably guess that it is Japanese. In that case, it is easy to deduce that the 1000 numerals in the corners indicate that it is a ¥1000 bill. Which of course it is. Most people familiar with the currency think of it as the Japanese ten dollar bill, although these days, since the yen has gotten so strong it is worth more like $12.50.

As for the man, who is pictured twice here (once in the engraved portion and once in the watermark), his name is written right there. Can’t see it? I’ll help. The kanji are small and hard to read, but they are 夏目漱石. That is probably no help if the reader is not familiar with Japanese. But since this is a bill that is one of the most commonly used in Japan, it stands to reason that this must be a personage of considerable prestige.

Give up? This is Natsume Sōseki, one of the most famous novelists in Japanese history. It may be startling to realize that instead of a military or political figure, the Japanese put a literary icon on such a bill. It is as if the American ten dollar bill featured Mark Twain.

Natsume was born in Tōkyō in 1867 and thus came of age during one of the most turbulent periods of Japanese history. During the Meiji Restoration which began in 1868, Japan converted itself from a feudalistic society into a modern nation, complete with a constitution, military, political system and industrial economy based on Western models. Few people in the West understand how traumatic this was to the Japanese psyche. In the rush to modernize, much of the traditional Japan upon which peoples’ lives were based was changed forever. It was hard for the Japanese to come to grips with this.

Today, Japanese men still speak of bushidō (武士道, the way of the warrior) as the basis for their actions. In fact, this was originally a code of conduct for samurai based on Confucian ethics that is useful for enforcing rigid conformance with social and corporate conventions. Buddhism also plays a prominent role in Japanese life, from marriages, funerals and other ceremonies to holidays celebrated throughout the year, most of which have come down from centuries ago.

In fact, until the Meiji Restoration most Japanese did not even have family names. Their lives were circumscribed by the locality in which they were born and there was no need for them to have surnames. When they adopted those names in conformance with Western practice, they chose names such as Tanaka (田中, “Within the Rice Paddy”) or Yamamoto (山本, “Foot of the Mountain”) that reflected their daily lives.

Botchan

By Natsume Sōseki

This was the world into which Natsume Sōseki was born and he depicted the changes that modernization wrought in peoples’ lives in his novels. “Botchan” is one of the most beloved of these works. It tells the quasi-autobiographical story of a young teacher who is assigned to work in the backwater region of the island of Shikoku. The setting is taken to be Matsuyama, the castle town of the feudal period and now the capitol of Ehime Prefecture. That is because although the name of the town is never mentioned in the novel, the dialect that is used in the book comes from that area. Also, the hero of the work spends much time at a hot spring located there. Today, the hot spring in Matsuyama that is assumed to be the model bustles with tourist activity due to “Botchan.”

Natsume taught English at a middle school in Matsuyama after he graduated from Tōkyō University. Botchan teaches mathematics. There are other similarities in their lives, such as the celebration with a parade and festival of a war that is taken to be the Russo-Japanese War. That war was fought 1904-5 and “Botchan” was published in 1906.

Over the course of a couple of months, Botchan, a diminutive which means something like “Sonny,” confronts hypocrisy and deceit in the provincial school where he teaches. He brings a cosmopolitan perspective to the sleepy village and makes acute observations of the life around him. He has an irreverent attitude that no doubt endears him to the Japanese. He is critical of the sanctimonious talk he is subjected to by the principal of the school and other officials. He also finds the students obnoxious. Botchan’s trials and tribulations form the heart of the novel. Perhaps it is all of these factors that have made the work a part of the Japanese school curriculum.

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For this review I found a copy of the book that that was translated by J. Cohn and published in 2005 by Kodansha International under the auspices of the Japan Association for Cultural Exchange and the Agency for Cultural Affairs of Japan. This edition is very well produced and the translation is smoothly executed.

Cohn endows Botchan with the voice of Holden Caulfield of Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” a literary device that is understandable, since both characters are outsiders in a pretentious society. But Holden is a teenager and Botchan is 24. Holden is also more vulgar than Botchan. At times while I was reading the translation I compared it to Natsume’s original in Japanese and found that there was a difference in sensibility. It seemed to me that the translator was carrying the mimicry of Salinger’s work too far. But perhaps that is just my own perception.

Regardless of that, if the reader encounters this edition it is heartily recommended that it be read and enjoyed. It will go a long way to help to explain some aspects of the Japanese character that one might have puzzled over. And the novel is amusing and a quick read as well.

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