The Japanese Holden Caulfield
Experience is the best teacher. It is in the application of things we have learned in real life scenarios do we learn more. Theories are one thing but applying these theories in actual is another thing. Such things, however, are easier said than done. There are obstacles that are detrimental to our understanding of these things. Nevertheless, these sad realities teach us to be better individuals with a keen sense of our surroundings.
Renowned Japanese author Natsume Sōseki is, by profession, a teacher. In Botchan, Sōseki relates his experiences as a teacher. The novel starts in Tokyo where the novel’s primary character Botchan was orphaned, leaving his older brother to care for him. Botchan wasn’t well regarded by either his parents or his neighborhood because of his unruly behavior, impatience and recklessness. Despite these negative traits, Kiyo, his family’s elderly maidservant, found nothing but positive traits in him. Botchan, which means young master, is a nickname given to the narrator by the devoted Kiyo.
When their parents passed away, Botchan’s brother sold their assets, leaving Botchan with 600 yen before pursuing his own career. Botchan used the money to study physics. Even though he was clueless as to what he wants to do, he accepted a teaching job in a middle school in rural Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. In Matsuyama, Botchan’s perspective is broadened by the events he experienced in his short but eventful tenure.
“One may be branded foolishly honest if he takes seriously the apologies others might offer. We should regard all apologies a sham and forgiving also as a sham; then everything would be all right. If one wants to make another apologize from his heart, he has to pound him good and strong until he begs for mercy from his heart.” ~ Natsume Sōseki, Botchan
Botchan, upon settling down in Matsuyama, was immediately presented with many challenges. Having been born and raised in the rapidly modernizing Meiji Era-Tokyo, Botchan had difficulties adjusting to the nuances of traditional Matsuyama. Slowly, Botchan realized that Matsuyama is not as refined as Tokyo and its people. Matsuyama’s culture and customs perplexed Botchan. Away from the comforts of Tokyo and Kiyo’s caring gaze, he was largely blasé by the people he met.
His observations of the townspeople, students and other professors of the faculty were hilarious. It didn’t help that his students resented him; they stalked him and made fun of his eating habits. Moreover, Botchan has withdrawn from most of his coworkers. He was critically condescending and overly sarcastic of them. He even called them absurd nicknames which he has conjured. Lest we forget, Botchan is a mere nickname; his real identity remained a mystery until the end of the narrative.
Botchan is largely about the main character’s observation and thoughts on Matsuyama. It aptly depicts small town living where your daily activities are everyone’s business. Everywhere you go, calculating and curious gazes follow you. Words easily get around. Your actions, even though they were from the past, and things that you, even if said offhandedly, are used against you. No one can escape the blunt tongues of the gossipmongers and those who have nothing better to do than place a proverbial microscope on other people’s lives.
Apart from depicting the nuances of small-town living, the novel’s portrayal and descriptions of school life and the teaching profession are on point. The satirical depiction of the link between school and politics is entertaining. Botchan’s indifference to teaching is an allegory of the attitude that is prevalent in today’s educational system. This indifference inevitably resulted to the waning quality of education. This novel was published in the early 20th century but its insinuations still resonate.
It can be a challenge identifying with Botchan at the start. His arrogance, inability to see his own shortcomings, and skewed view of reality were overbearing. As one digs deeper into the narrative, his feelings and emotions become easier to relate to. Botchan is beset with a barrage of disappointments while teaching. These distresses eventually turn into a cynicism. In truth, there is a Botchan in everyone of us. We all have that innocent and ideal view of the world but as we plunge into depths, this view is altered and challenged by the prejudices and the politics that surround us. The world is not what we expected it to be after all.
”Now that I thought about it, though, I realized that most people actually encourage you to turn bad. They seem to think that if you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere in the world. And then on those rare occasions when they encounter somebody who’s honest and pure-hearted, they look down on him and say he’s nothing but a kid, a Botchan. If that’s the way it is, it would be better if they didn’t have those ethics classes in elementary school and middle school where the teacher is always telling you to be honest and not lie. The schools might as well just go ahead and teach you how to tell lies, how to mistrust everybody, and how to take advantage of people. Wouldn’t their students, and the world at large, be better off that way?” ~ Natsume Sōseki, Botchan
More importantly, the novel underlined the rapid Westernization that was sweeping Japan during the book’s publication. Traditional Japanese values were disappearing in big cities like Tokyo but were still prevalent in the countryside like in Matsuyama. Botchan contained autobiographical elements. Teaching in Matsuyama was Sōseki’s first experience of living away from Tokyo. He was also born and raised in the comforts of Tokyo.
The book was entertaining and Botchan’s observation were so hilarious that it took a couple of pages before the two-dimensional qualities of the characters became palpable. Nevertheless, the story was sustained by Botchan’s entertaining, albeit monotonous, perspectives. His blunt and often naïve views portray the same energy everyone had during their early-20s: the turbulence, the uninspired gasps, and the endless struggle to find one’s place in society.
Botchan is the coming-of-age story of a young man who experiences small-town living and the politics of the educational system. It also dips into how outside elements create a rift between traditions and modernization. It is rough on the edges but still riveted the readers with its vivid depictions of the different facets of Japanese culture. This is the beauty in reading a classic literary piece from another country: gaining a wealth of information about its culture and its people.
Comparing Botchan to Holden Caulfield could be a bit of stretch. There might have been some instances wherein their stories reflect each other but, on the whole, they were two distinct personalities. It was their differing personas that gave the individual works a different complexion. Botchan possessed a humorous air whilst Catcher had a more serious tone. Nevertheless, both were good books. I just wished Botchan was longer or stretched beyond the character’s experiences in Matsuyama. It was still a pleasurable read and makes me keen on reading more of Soseki’s work, starting, perhaps with I Am a Cat.
Author: Sōseki Natsume
Translator: Umeji Sasaki
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Publishing Date: 2013
Number of Pages: 176 pages
Botchan is the youngest son in a middle-class Tokyo family. His elder brother is the obvious favorite of both parents and Botchan grows up demanding attention for himself – yet succeeding only if he misbehaves. Following the early death of his mother, his servant Kiyo provides the only love and understanding he knows. When his father dies, Botchan’s brother gives him a small portion of the family inheritance and disclaims further responsibility for the boy.
So Botchan’s story begins. He drifts through college into his first job – as a math teacher in provincial Shikoku Island, far from Tokyo and the life he has known. Botchan’s concern for Kiyo, the only real person in his life, travels with him as he tries to apply what she has taught him in his new surroundings. Thrust into the alien realm of a country school, Botchan finds nothing but trouble – with his nosy landlord; his students, who delight in tormenting him; his fellow teachers, each of whom he christens with a scornful nickname – Porcupine, Green Squash, Badger, Red Shirt – and others who insist on complicating his life.
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Natsume Kin’nosuke was born on February 9, 1867 in Edo, Tokugawa Shogunate (present-day Tokyo, Japan). An unwanted child, he was adopted in 1868 by a childless couple, Shiobara Masanokuke and his wife. Sōseki was later returned to his family after the couple divorced when he was nine.
His vision of becoming a writer begun when he was enamored with Chinese literature while attended the First Tokyo Middle School (now Hibiya High School). However, his family disapproved of his course of action. Because of this, he entered the Tokyo Imperial University in 1884 with the intention of becoming an architect. Natsume found a companion in Masaoka Shiki who encouraged him on his path of becoming a writer. Natsume’s writing begun with haikus which Shiki taught him. He would sign his poems Sōseki, a Chinese idiom which means “stubborn”.
Before becoming a full-pledged writer, Sōseki first taught schools, first at the Tokyo Normal School before moving in 1895 to Matsuyama Middle School in Shikoku. After resigning from his post at Matsuyama, Sōseki published haikus and Chinese poetry in different magazines and newspapers. He also began teaching at the Fifth High School in Kumamoto.
Although he has been contributing haikus, renkus, haitaishis and literary sketches to literary magazines, it wasn’t until the publication of I Am a Cat in 1905 that he has won the public’s admiration and critical acclaim as well. He followed up this success with Botchan (“Little Master”, 1906) and Kusamakura (“Grass Pillow”, 1906). He has also published a score of short stories.
He passed away on December 9, 1916 due to stomach ulcer.