According to Meredith McKinney, the translator of Penguin’s new edition of Kokoro, the novel’s title means, roughly, “the thinking and feeling heart.” A better title for the book might have been Honor. Natsume Sōseki’s 1914 work, his last, is a story of Japan at a crossroads, at a time when old customs are dying, a new generation is taking over, and elders are questioning the decisions they made and the condition in which they left their country.
The unnamed narrator is a university student who befriends an older man that he refers to only as Sensei. Sensei is a married man of means, but he has no job and is evasive when asked about his background. Every month, he goes alone to the local cemetery to tend a grave. No one but Sensei knows whose grave it is. All he divulges about himself and this mysterious friend is a cynical credo: Good people will turn bad in a heartbeat over money.
When the narrator’s semester finishes, he leaves Tokyo to visit his ailing father, who is dying from a kidney ailment. While there, the narrator receives a long letter from Sensei. This letter makes up the second half of Kokoro. In it, Sensei confesses to a series of injustices, both those done to him and those he did to others. What emerges is a portrait of a man who exuded an aura of pride but was never really proud. Sensei espoused a code of conduct he couldn’t live by. His burden was to live with the knowledge that, for all of his talk of honor and humanity, he showed no more principle when his character was tested than did the good and kind relatives whose avarice scarred him in his youth.
It’s hard to read Kokoro today and not reflect upon the ruin that was to humble Japan in the 20th Century. The beauty of the novel, however, is that you can still appreciate it for what it was meant to be: a cautionary tale of too much pride and misplaced ambition, errors that can devastate families and friendships as well as nations. Parts of the novel are dated—men occasionally remark upon the intellectual inferiority of women—but, at its best, it is a heartbreaking work that is still painfully relevant. In his confession to the narrator, Sensei writes that he once told a friend, “[W]hen you talk, the things you say lack humanity.” The same is true of Sensei, and, sadly, of many of us today. Wouldn’t it be nice if sensitive works like Kokoro could help make cynical credos less common?