夏恵礎石 Natsume Soseki is often recognized as being the most influential writer of all Japanese writers in the history of modern Japan.
Born in Edo, on February 9th, 1867, in present-day Shinjuku, Tokyo, Natsume Soseki’s life seemed to have mirrored that of Japan’s turbulent times of the Meiji era 明治時代 that had officially begun the year following his birth, in 1868.
Soseki’s portrait on the 1000 yen note.
Six days before Natusume Soseki was born, fourteen-year old Prince Mitsuhito succeeded his father and became Emperor to the Chrysanthemum Throne. With this new ascendency, began a series of events that would later come to be known as the Meiji Restoration, a period of time when Japan would become open to the West and the history of the nation and its people turned a sharp corner.
It was also in 1868 when Soseki was a year old, that Edo, or Tokyo, was renamed as the capital of Japan. Kyoto, thus, ceased to be the seat of power that it once had been since the early times of 794. Emperor Mitsuhito, having adopted the new title of Meiji Emperor, or Enlightened Rule, reigned until 1912.
Prior to this time, Japan had been ruled by different Shogunate under various Shoguns. When the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown in mid-1868 and power reestablished in the seat of the Emperor, Natsume Soseki, one year old, was adopted out from his birth family to a childless couple. He lived with his adopted parents until they divorced in 1878. This meant that although Soseki had five older siblings, he grew up as an only child until around his tenth birthday.
Soseki is pictured here with his father, aged five.
In the fifth year of the Meiji Era, when Natsume Soseki had been five going on six, the Meiji Government established a new Fundamental Code of Education, modeled on that of the French Education System. This code later evolved into the Meiji’s Government Education Order, enacted in 1879, when Soseki was twelve years old. These new educational changes would later come to have tremendous influence on Soseki’s life.
The tumultuous changes unfolding at the time not only swept through the entire nation, they also reverberated in the life of Natsume Kinnosuke 夏目 金之助, as Natsume Soseki had been known at birth.
Family upheaval and tragedy pursued Soseki throughout his childhood and adolescence. Having returned to his birth family after his adopted parents’ divorce, he witnessed his own mother’s death in 1882, when he was fourteen years old. Six years later, his two brothers also passed away. The mental health problems that Soseki would later suffer as an adult are often attributed to the instability of his early years.
In the nineteenth year of the Meiji era, almost twelve months before the deaths of his two brothers, school districts were established nationwide with the goal of preparing boys for further education in one of the seven Imperial Universities that existed at the time. As a result, five main high schools came to be introduced and developed throughout five different regions in Japan, of which the school in Kumamoto was designated as the fifth.
Graduates of these elite high schools often continued their studies at the Imperial Universities and became part of the upper echelons of society upon university graduation. Many went on to occupy positions of national leadership in Japan as cabinet ministers, scientists, prime ministers, prominent novelists, and medical doctors.
Despite a difficult home life, Natsume Soseki achieved great academic success, becoming only the second graduate of Tokyo University majoring in English. After graduation, he taught at the Tokyo Teachers’ College then later at Ehime Prefectural Middle School.
At the age of twenty-nine, Soseki accepted a teaching position at the Kumamoto Fifth High School and arrived in Kumamoto on April 13th, 1896.
Although Soseki lived in Kumamoto for a relatively short time, major changes occurred in his life during the four years and three months that he spent here.
It was in Kumamoto that Soseki was married and established a family. His first child was born in Kumamoto.
In his role as instructor at the Fifth High School, Soseki taught English and left profound influences upon his students. In addition to teaching English, Soseki also led a haiku club, ‘Shimeiginsha‘, for students at the school.
See Soseki with his students and fellow teachers at the national Fifth High School.
Despite years of constantly relocating and disruption in his home life, Natsume Soseki continued to write incessantly and produce creative works of major national importance until his passing on December 9th, 1916.
By 1916, Japan as a nation had undergone tremendous changes. World War I had begun and Japan was heavily involved.
During Soseki’s life, he sustained major upheavals in his personal and professional life while witnessing his country transform irrevocably.
Memorial Museum of the Fifth High School, Kumamoto University.
Natsume Soseki Museum, Kumamoto.