Botchanby Natsume Soseki
Botchan is a modern young man from the Tokyo metropolis, sent to the ultra-traditional Matsuyama district as a Maths teacher after his the death of his parents. Cynical, rebellious and immature, Botchan finds himself facing several tests, from the pupils - prone to playing tricks on their new, naïve teacher; the staff - vain, immoral, and in danger of becoming
Botchan is a modern young man from the Tokyo metropolis, sent to the ultra-traditional Matsuyama district as a Maths teacher after his the death of his parents. Cynical, rebellious and immature, Botchan finds himself facing several tests, from the pupils - prone to playing tricks on their new, naïve teacher; the staff - vain, immoral, and in danger of becoming a bad influence on Botchan; and from his own as-yet-unformed nature, as he finds his place in the world. One of the most popular novels in Japan where it is considered a classic of adolescence, as seminal as The Catcher in the Rye, Botchan is as funny, poignant and memorable as it was when first published, over 100 years ago.
In J. Cohn's introduction to his colourful translation, he discusses Botchan's success, the book's clash between Western intellectualism and traditional Japanese values, and the importance of names and nicknames in the novel.
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By Natsume Soseki, UMEJI SASAKI
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
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A great loser have I been ever since a child, having a rash, daring spirit, a spirit I inherited from my ancestors. When a primary-school boy, I jumped down from the second story of the schoolhouse, and had to lie abed about a week. Some may be curious enough as to ask me why I did such a rash thing. I had no special reason. I had one day been looking down from the window of the second story of the new school, when one of my classmates looked up and said in a taunt.
"You are a great boaster. But you cannot jump down from that height. You poor little creeping thing!" My father, seeing me come home on the back of the janitor, said in an angry tone that no strong boy could be hurt by jumping down from such a low height as from upstairs, and I assured him that he would be proud to see me come out all right next time.
A foreign-made penknife had been given me by one of my relations, and I was showing it proudly to my comrades, the bright blades reflecting the sunlight, when one of the boys said that bright as it shone it was a dull knife after all. I told him that it was sharp and I could cut anything with it. "Well," said he, "try it on your finger!" "Look here," said I, and I tried it on the thumb of my right hand. It bled much, but fortunately the knife being small and the bone solid, the finger has retained its original position to this day although I shall carry the scar to my grave.
Twenty steps east in the yard of my house, there was a small garden sloping up southward, where stood a chestnut tree. This was the tree prized by me even more than life itself. At its fruiting time, the tree found me an early riser who would come out into the back yard in a nightgown, and gather the brown nuts on the ground; these I would take to school to eat.
Kantaro, a thirteen-year-old boy, was the son of Yamashiroya, a pawnbroker, whose yard was next to ours on the west. He was a feeble boy, yet he would come and steal the fruit, climbing over the bamboo fence, which formed the boundary between the two premises. One afternoon toward dusk, hiding myself behind the folding wicket, I caught the thief at last. Losing the way back, Kantaro, came plunging toward me with the strength and courage of a desperate mouse fleeing a cat. He was two years older and stronger than I, though a weak-hearted, spiritless boy. Placing his flat crowned head against my chest, he pushed me with all his might, but his head slipped and came into the sleeve of my lined garment. Finding it very inconvenient in using my arm, I tried very hard to shake it off, the head moving right and left like a pendulum each time. Out of agony, he at last bit me on the arm in the sleeve. Great pain gave me great strength, and I hurled him down against the fence by coiling my leg around his. Fully six feet below our garden, were the premises of Yamashiroya. Kantaro, breaking half of the fence, fell head over heels down to his own domain, a suppressed scream escaping from his half-choked throat. The sleeve of my garment went with him when he fell over, and I found my arm free. That evening my mother went to the pawnbroker's to apologize, and begged back the lost sleeve.
Besides these, I did many other naughty things. Once I took Kanek, a carpenter's apprentice boy, and Kaku, a fish-monger's boy, to the carrot patch belonging to a certain Mosaku. Rice straw being scattered over the spots where the carrot sprouts had not come out evenly, we found the place a ready-made ring, and spent half of the day in wrestling, thus ruining the whole field. Again, I had the disgrace of being exposed to shame by clogging the well spout in the rice field owned by a certain person named Furukawa. A long bamboo tube, the joints of which were well bored, had been buried perpendicularly deep into the ground; water came out from the spout and flowed into the rice field. Not knowing at the time it was such a contrivance of great moment, I filled it up with pebbles and sticks of all sizes and shapes by putting one after another into the spout. Satisfied to see no water ooze out, I returned home and was having supper, when Furukawa in great rage came roaring into the house; a certain sum of money was paid as a fine to pacify the angry man.
I was not a bit loved by father; mother's favorite was my elder brother. This brother had a complexion unpleasantly white, verging almost on paleness; he was very fond of theatrical performances, and would play the part of a female. Every time father saw me, he would say, "This fellow is the black sheep of the family." Mother would be very anxious about my future, saying I would never be good, being so very unruly. Their prophecy was right to a certain extent. I am neither great nor good, as you see. It was quite right that both my parents were very much worried about my future career. The only consolation is that I have not yet been put into prison for hard labor.
Two or three days before mother died of an illness, I was turning somersaults in the kitchen, and had my ribs hurt by striking them against the corner of the oven, which gave me great pain. Mother, getting very angry, said she did not wish to see me any more, and I was sent to my relation's to stay until I received further notice from home. The notice came to me in an entirely unexpected form. It was the news of mother's death. I had not expected the event would happen so soon. I returned home, wishing I had been a better boy while she was so seriously ill. My elder brother, finding me home again, said that I was an ungrateful son; that mother had died so soon because of me. Too much to bear, I gave him a good slap on the cheek, for which I got a hard scolding afterward.
After mother's death, we three lived together; father, brother, and I. Father would do nothing, and whenever he saw me he would tell me that I was a good-for-nothing fellow. I have, however, been unable to see the reason why I was such a useless boy; I can tell you he was a strange father. Brother was studying English very hard, expecting to be a businessman. His was a character both effeminate and deceitful, and we never were friends. We fell out about once every ten days. One time we played a game of chess. He cowardly set a chessman in ambush and used many insulting words as if he were glad to see me greatly embarrassed. Finding it too hard to bear, I hurled the hisha (a chessman of great importance) I held in my hand at his forehead; a few drops of blood came out of the wound it made. He went and told father, who said he would turn me out of the house right away.
Thinking it could not be helped this time, I had been expecting to be disinherited any moment, when the woman-servant named Kiyo who had served in our family for the past ten years came to my rescue, and pleaded in tears so earnestly for me to the angry father that I was spared the disgrace of being turned out of the family. However, I was not afraid of father; I was rather sorry for the sake of Kiyo, the servant. This old woman, I was told, came from a decent family, whose fortune had been ruined at the time of the Restoration, and thus came to serve in our family. I do not know what affinity there was in our previous states of existence, yet she was so fond of me that I thought it very strange. Three days before mother died, I was already a hopeless case to her. Father thought me unruly and beyond his control all the year round; the people of the ward I lived in turned their faces away from me as a branded bad boy; still I was Kiyo's great favorite. Believing I was born to be hated, I did not take it amiss to be ill treated like a chip of wood, and rather thought it strange to be so much loved by Kiyo. When the coast was clear, she would often praise me, saying, "You have a fine character straight as an arrow." I could, however, hardly understand what she meant. Had I had the fine character she said I had, other people should also have treated me a little more kindly. Each time Kiyo said such nice things to me, I would tell her that I hated sweet words. Upon this, the old woman would look into my face admiringly, and was happy to say that very thing more than anything else was ample proof of my having a nice character. It seemed as if she had created me by her own power and were proud of her handiwork. I felt rather suspicious.
After mother's death, I was loved by Kiyo more than ever. It seemed strange even to my young mind that she was so fond of me. I thought I was too worthless to be caressed, and she had better stop it. I felt sorry about her; still I was dear to her. Often she would buy me doughnuts and crackers with her scanty pocket money; on cold nights she would make porridge from the buckwheat flour she had secretly laid in and bring it to my bedside unnoticed. Even a pot of hot macaroni often found its way to my room. Not only these treats, but also stockings, pencils, and notebooks were bought for me by Kiyo. Much later than the time I am describing, she brought me three yen. I had not asked her for it; she came to my room herself and said I might be short of pocket money and the sum was at my service. Of course I told her I did not need it, but as she insisted upon my accepting it, I accepted it from her. To tell the truth, I was very glad to have it. I put the money into my purse, and went to wash my hands, carelessly thrusting the purse into the breast-folds of my clothes and dropped it down the toilet. Not knowing what to do, I came out of the bathroom very much embarrassed, and told Kiyo what had happened to the purse. She said she would get it for me with a bamboo stick. In a little while I heard somebody washing at the well side. I went out and saw Kiyo cleansing the purse by fixing its string to the end of a stick. Then taking the bills out of the purse, we found them all turned yellow, the patterns being a little defaced. Drying them over the brazier, she gave them to me saying that they would do. I told her that they had a bad smell. "Then," said she, "give them to me and I will get them changed." I do not know what tricks she played, but in a short time, she brought back three yen in silver. I do not remember what I did with that money. I told her I would pay it back soon, but the promise has not yet been fulfilled. Now I wish I could return a sum ten times as much as the original, but it remains just a wish.
Kiyo gave me things only when neither father nor brother was at home. Nothing do I dislike more than to get profit myself while others sit empty handed. Brother and I were not friends; still I did not like to get cakes and colored pencils from her without his knowledge. Sometimes I asked her why she was so partial to me, and she would very composedly say that my father bought things for my brother, so she had nothing to do with him. This was not fair on the part of Kiyo. Old fashioned and obstinate as he was, father would never do anything partial nor show anybody favoritism. However, he seemed to be partial to the prejudiced eye of the old woman whose excessive love to me was anything but fair. And it could not be helped, considering she was an uneducated woman, although she came from a family of some social standing. This was not all. She was firmly convinced that I would get on finely in the world and be a great man in future. This idea came of course from her injudicious liking for me. On the other hand, she said that my brother had a very white complexion, yet a poor future, however hard he might work. She believed there lay a great future before one whom she liked, while ruin awaited those whom she hated.
I had never thought what I would be, yet as Kiyo said I would be great, I thought I should be somebody in the world. Exceedingly foolish it seems to me now. Once I asked her what I should be, but she had no special idea on that point; she simply said that I would certainly live in a stately mansion with a beautiful porch and drive out in a fine carriage.
Kiyo had been expecting to live with me when I could have a home of my own. She asked me again and again if I would let her stay with me, and I told her not to worry about that, for she would surely have a home in my new establishment, which I was sure I could set up. Imagination is a happy enchantress: she will put up a fine castle in the air. Kiyo had a brilliant one; she was so very fanciful as to ask me in what part of the city I would like to make a new home. Was it Kojimachi, or Azabu? She told me to have a swing in the yard, and that only one room of foreign style was enough. She was pleased to arrange things according to her own taste. At that time, I had no desire of having a home, and neither a foreign nor a Japanese house was an attraction to me; each time I told it to her, she would commend me, saying that I was quite unselfish and my mind was just as pure as a crystal. My Kiyo was as full of praises as a nurse is full of pins.
I lived thus for some five or six years after mother died. I got scoldings from father; I often had quarrels with brother, and got cakes from Kiyo with her usual praise. Having no special ambition I thought this mode of life suited me just as well. I believed that other boys had the same experiences as I. But as Kiyo told me so often I was an unfortunate boy, I thought I must really be a poor unhappy lad. Yet I had no other trouble to surmount. The only one I thought the hardest was that father would give me no pocket money.
Mother had been dead six years, when father died of apoplexy in the first month of the year. In April, I graduated from a certain private middle school, and in July, brother from a commercial college. He was offered a position at the Kyushu branch of a certain business concern in Tokyo, and had to go to the South. I had to stay and study more in the capital. Brother said he would sell the house with all the movables belonging to him and go to Kyushu. I told him to do what he thought best. I wished to be entirely independent of him. If he rendered me some assistance, he would surely withdraw it soon, as I should certainly pick a quarrel with him before very long. My head I thought was too precious to bow before such a brother by receiving some trivial help. I thought I could support myself even by being a milkman. In a few days my brother called in some secondhand furniture dealer and disposed of, for almost nothing, all the old and worn-out articles handed down from our ancestors. The house with the grounds was sold to a certain wealthy family through the offices of a certain person. By this, brother seemed to have got quite a handsome sum of money, but of course I did not know the details.
I had moved a month before and had been living in a boarding house at Ogawamachi, Kanda, until my future career should be settled. Kiyo was very sorry to find that the house she had lived in so many years was to be delivered up to the hands of another person, but she could do nothing as it was not her own. "If you were a little older, you could be heir to the estate." She had repeatedly been saying to me. Could I have been heir by being a little older, there could be no reason why I should be unable to be one now. The poor old woman believed out of her ignorance that greater age could secure one the estate of one's elder brother.
Thus we parted, brother and I. But I did not know what to do with Kiyo. Where could she go? Brother was not in a position to take her to Kyushu, and she would have rejected the idea of being taken so far away, following at his heels. Nor was I able to take care of her then; I was an occupant of a four-and-a-half mat room in a poor boardinghouse, and I would have to evacuate even that whenever necessity demanded. Being at my wits' end, I asked her if she was going to find a new master to serve. She then gave me a final answer by saying that she would be obliged to go and stay with her nephew until I got married and set up a new home. Her nephew was a clerk in a certain law court and was free from leading a hand-to-mouth life. Kiyo had been told two or three times that she could come and stay with him if she would. The invitation had been declined each time on the ground that she preferred the family whom she had so long served and felt quite at home. However, circumstances now seemed to compel her to go to her nephew's as she thought it would be unwise and imprudent for her to serve in a new family, where she would surely have hard experiences again. Still she told me to get married soon and have a new home where she could come and be housekeeper. To this faithful woman, I, who had no blood relationship, was much dearer than her own kin.
Two days before he set out for Kyushu, brother came where I boarded, and gave me six hundred yen, telling me I could either invest that money in some commercial enterprise, or my education. He added that I could spend it any way I pleased, but he would never be responsible for any further assistance. Brother looked taller and nobler to me then. I thought I did not care for such a modest sum of money, yet his unusually simple and frank manner pleased me so much that I accepted it with thanks. He also handed me fifty yen to be given to Kiyo when I saw her, and I received it gladly. Two days later, I saw him off at Shimbashi station, and have never seen him since.
My room was the place where I considered how to spend the six hundred yen. Business was not to my taste and I should certainly fail. Moreover, six hundred yen was too small a sum of money to run a prosperous business. Even if I could have a prosperous business, I would be the loser in the long run, as I might be unable to tell people that I had received a liberal education as my schooling ended with that of a middle school. I said to myself that I did not care a bit for mercantile success; I would rather study with the money at my disposal. Dividing it into three parts, I could use two hundred yen a year, and attend school for three years. I could be something if I worked hard for so long. Then I thought which school was the best for me. I knew that I was not born to be a scholar; especially I had a strong aversion to foreign languages and literature. Even a couple of verses in a twenty-line poem of the so-called new school was entirely jargon to me. Any branch of study I thought would do for me who had a natural dislike to all kinds of learning. Happening to pass by the gate of the Butsuri Gakko (a special school for the study of physics and mathematics), I noticed an advertisement inviting new students to come. I went in, got a copy of the school directory, and lost no time in going through the details of entrance, believing that I had been led there by some invisible hand. Now it seems to me that this was another mistake caused by that hereditary thoughtlessness.
Excerpted from Botchan by Natsume Soseki, UMEJI SASAKI. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Meet the Author
NATSUME SOSEKI (1867-1916) is one of the best-known Japanese authors of the 20th century and considered as the master of psychological fiction. He wrote 14 novels. As well as his works of fiction, his essays, haiku, and kanshi have been influential and are popular even today.
J. COHN studied Japanese at Cornell and Harvard universities, as well as in Japan, and now teaches Japanese literature at the University of Hawaii. He is the author of a study on the comic spirit in modern Japanese fiction.
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