Sōseki vs. Shakespeare: Two Giants of World Literature


Born 150 years ago, Natsume Sōseki was Japan’s first great modern writer. For much of his writing career, though, he had his eyes on another literary titan—William Shakespeare. The critic Damian Flanagan examines how this Japanese challenger took on the British champ.

Taking On the Bard

The American writer Ernest Hemingway once compared writers to boxers, amusingly speculating who would beat whom in a bout. Hemingway, the master of the short story, believed he could beat Tolstoy over three rounds, but that the Russian would certainly triumph over fifteen. But the real gold standard for Hemingway was Shakespeare—“the champ,” the absolute against which you measured your own worth as a writer.

In more Eurocentric days, it was common to refer to a country’s best playwright or writer as “their Shakespeare.” In the case of Japan, the writer who most commonly got this epithet was the Edo-period dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1725). Needless to say, the “Shakespeare of Japan” term tells you nothing about Chikamatsu—who had, of course, never even heard of Shakespeare.

Another Japanese writer is a much worthier opponent to take on the Shakespearian mantle—a man so profoundly versed in the English bard that he owned Shakespeare’s complete works in multiple editions. Our contender is a Japanese scholar so expert in English literature that he became the first Japanese lecturer in the subject at the elite Tokyo Imperial University. He clearly gleans everything he can from the champ, analyzing his works in great detail and devoting an entire term’s teaching to each Shakespeare play.

This contender is ambitious, seething with pent-up literary aspiration and creative ideas. He feels oppressed by the entire world of literary scholarship and the supremacy of English literature including, especially, the world domination of Shakespeare. He scratches out masterpiece novels in the evenings, while holding down three teaching jobs and cooped up in a rented house crowded by his wife and four young children. It takes him just two weeks to write novels that will be later regarded as some of the greatest masterpieces of modern Japanese literature.

It takes a great leap of faith for this amateur contender to turn professional, leaving his academic position and scholarship to risk everything on a mission of creative endeavor. Rising up before him is a vision of Shakespeare—a writer bestriding the world like a colossus, impacting the global imagination. That is the type of writer he wishes to become. This fighter will take every scrap of his contemplation of Shakespeare’s brilliant, rich plays and marry it to his own careful meditations on the nature of literature itself, funneling it into the creation of novels that will resonate as long as the works of his mighty opponent. The challenger is ready to step into the ring.

A Contender in Training

The bell rings. Let us now put the bout in its historical and cultural context. We are in Meiji Japan (1868–1912), an era when Japan set out to catch up to and surpass the scientific, engineering, and artistic achievements of the West. Our pugilist is Natsume Kinnosuke (1867–1916), who reinvented himself as the writer Sōseki. His talent was recognized early on: His early training was funded by the Japanese government, which sent him to London in 1900–1902 to catch up with the linguistic standards of scholars of English literature. And this journey was the genesis of his ambition to become a dai-bungakusha, a “great man of literature.” And the person above all others he intended to catch up to—and even surpass—was Shakespeare.

This is a portrait of Sōseki you are unlikely to read in any standard history of Japanese literature. Western literary scholars routinely locate him as little more than a club fighter, positioning him in a tedious chronological narrative of one Japanese author linked to another. But assigning Sōseki a role as a corner man to lesser Japanese writers who would come after him is a rabbit punch that demeans his talent.

Sōseki himself, deeply involved in a personal battle with the champ, would have little time for their commentating. Inspired in part by his personal tutor in London—an editor of the Arden Shakespeare called William Craig who had devoted decades to the compilation of a vast Shakespeare lexicon—the Japanese writer committed himself to his own monumental undertaking, his Bungakuron (Theory of Literature). This work, published in 1907, was a scientific attempt to encompass the whole of literature in a unified theory. It was a work of immense scholarship, his attempt to catch up and surpass, and it was the most intense soaking of literature a writer could have.

Now, unleashed as a creative force, toughened by years of scholarship, Sōseki was ready to take on the champion. From the very beginning of his fiction-writing career, he was shadowboxing Shakespeare. In his earliest short story, the 1905 “Rondon Tō” (trans. “The Tower of London”), he re-created a scene of the princes in the tower alluding to Richard III. By Sanshirō (1908), the final act of the frustrated lovers Nonomiya and Mineko, observed by the titular character, is played out against the backdrop of the nunnery scene in Hamlet.

In his 1907 novel Gubijinsō (The Poppy)— his first written as a professional novelist for the Asahi Shimbun—we encounter the central character, Fujio, reading aloud passages from Antony and Cleopatra, strongly identifying her with Shakespeare’s Egyptian queen. She, too, passes out of the novel dying like her Egyptian forebear in the most melodramatic fashion. This is Sōseki warming up, trying out combinations and scoring his first hits.

An Unwinnable Fight?

But how can you outbox a literary genius like Shakespeare? Sōseki once commented on the pointlessness of analyzing literature by just contemplating literary works. To get to the heart of literature—of life itself—you needed to be conversant with every subject under the sun. Sōseki threw himself into sociological, psychological, historical, and scientific studies. He explored European philosophy, Chinese poetry, Western painting, and everything from different types of flowers to contemporary color theory.

Once he turned to creative writing, he was able to bring to his canvas a panoramic richness of ideas, insights, and metaphors rarely seen in the history of world literature. The two decades of scholarship that preceded his explosive literary debut brought Sōseki a depth and breadth of vision and a unique fusion of ideas that has beguiled scholars for the past century.

Shakespeare was, of course, a matchless dramatist; no writer before or since has created an exterior world so teeming with complex, richly drawn characters. Sōseki could not match what made Shakespeare “the champion,” but what he could do was focus the powers of his literature not outward, but into the inner working of human consciousness and the close observation of everyday domestic circumstances. Sōseki was able to show that for the most profound literature you do not have to tell the tales of haunted princes and mad kings, but simply observe, as in the 1910 Mon (trans. The Gate), the mechanisms of a childless couple living at the bottom of a cliff.

Sōseki was in training throughout his writing career for his big showdown with the champ. They finally went head to head with Kokoro (1914), a work that contains no mention of anything overtly Shakespearean but is fascinating to consider in relation to Shakespeare.

In The Merchant of Venice and Kokoro, Shakespeare and Sōseki were considering how someone can lay claim to another person’s heart—one literal meaning of Sōseki’s title. While Shakespeare does it through the actual physical representation of the attempted cutting out of a man’s heart organ, with Sōseki, everything is conducted on the level of psychology. Part of the reason is that the novel is intrinsically a more internalized medium than the play. On the stage we need to be shown the dramatic interaction of the characters; in the novel we can delve into people’s interior thoughts.

When Sōseki, in London, was told to submit a report on the progress of his studies to the Japanese Ministry of Education, he famously sent in a blank sheet of paper. Some years later, he turned down the government’s award of a doctor of letters degree. Sōseki did not want any stamp of approval from the state—indeed, he denied the connection between the state and literature. This was not a technical decision to be awarded on points. To him, he was in a clinch with the best.

Sōseki’s ambition did not lie in such a narrow thing as becoming Japan’s “national author.” He once jokingly referred in a letter to the novelist and translator Morita Sōhei to writing works that would “outstrip Hamlet and shake the squirrels of this world.” Sōseki’s true desire was to stand atop the dais of world literature with Shakespeare himself.

Great literature is transcendent. Great writers go beyond the bounds of their mediums. To get to the heart of things the best of the best push themselves to the brink, they fight an internal battle and they care little what anyone outside the ropes might think. And so Natsume Sōseki rained down blows—as all great writers must do—for the championship of the world.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo courtesy of the National Diet Library.)

literature Shakespeare Soseki