Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Kokoro: Heart of a Sensei

I always called him "Sensei" I shall therefore refer to him simply as "Sensei," and not by his real name.


ack in 1914, a serial was published in the Asahi Newspaper by a man named Natsume Soseki. It was entitled Kokoro こころ. The translator of the novel--which my students have read (I presume) for this week (if I ever get to school, that is)--refers to a translation of the word by Lafcadio Hearn, one of the first Westerners to live at length and with success in Japan: The heart of things. I presume he used this translation because kokoro is used to refer to the heart of many things: the mind, the soul, emotion

The story is about a young university student and his relationship with a man he meets at the beach. It is summer and it is teeming with activity and exuberance. The young university student catches a glimpse of an older gentleman and is drawn to him by a number of factors: He was with a Westerner, he seemed familiar, and mostly they shared a similar world view. Both were lonely, but in a kind of self-imposed loneliness, one that is born from their rejection of the changing world they saw in Japan at the time.

The narrator admires this older man and his rather rational yet pessimistic world-view and automatically refers to him as Sensei. Sensei 先生 is a Chinese word that is a term of respect. In modern Chinese, it is equivalent to Mister, but in Japan, it remains a term of respect, most closely associated with a teacher. In the novel, the narrator seeks Sensei for advice and company (comisseration?) as they both view the world as beneath them.

The tone of the story is dark, as it is a representation of the close of the Meiji Era. Japan's attempts to modernize overnight was full of excitement and hope, but by the end of the Meiji--the setting of Kokoro--Japan was slowing down and showing signs of... normalcy? Perhaps a settling in period? The Meiji spirit, represented in General Nogi, is a romantic notion of the samurai spirit mixed with the acceptance of change and modernity and progress. Nogi fought for the restoration of the Emperor at the end of the Edo period, although he lost his banner in battle when he was a young officer. As such, he was tempted to commit ritual suicide (seppuku), but instead decided to work harder in the service of his emperor. He later led Japan over Russia in the Russo-Japan War--at the cost of his two sons--and was decorated a war hero. But when Emperor Meiji died, he committed suicide. Why? Ostensibly to follow his master in death. But more realisticaly, he probably saw himself as a product of an earlier time, a samurai in the modern age, a man out of touch, out of place.

And so too was Sensei.

As a product of an earlier time, he experienced the excitement of change but grew jaded as he soon came to realize that man--modern man--was ultimately working for himself, not for the public good, certainly not for the emperor. He was cheated by his uncle, he ulitmately cheated his friend. And this saddened him and forced him to isolate himself from others. And the narrator--perhaps a genius, perhaps a bold whipper snapper, probably a little of both--was able to catch Sensei's feelings and associate it with his own sense of disgust with the modern times, mostly related to his own life and his background as a provincial scion. He looked up to Sensei and revered his opinions and comments on all subjects.

Now, as I mentioned above, my lesson plan calls for a discussion of Kokoro this week, and so you can imagine my surprise when I noticed the slight coincidence between the topic of the novel and the content of a post by a young lady...

Yesterday, through these bleary drug-heavied eyes of mine, I noticed that I had received an unusually high number of hits. Did the story "On Friendship" find an audience? Oh my! I thought... I went to site meter and looked at the referrals and found that most of the visits came from a specific site, SleepingCutie.

She wrote an entry about her relationship with her Sensei. And her readers probably came by to see what all the fuss was about. (Read her post to see which beach we met at.) Unfortunately for her, her choice of topic garnered her fewer comments than usual.

Be that as it may, she is, I think, the first person who is not my student, to actually refer to me as Sensei on a regular basis, sometimes mildly ("gee, sensei"), sometimes in exclamation ("SENSEI!"). Taku refers to me as kyouju (professor) and Hanzo will call me shisho (master). But there is something warm and fuzzy about being called Sensei. Geez, even the Vixen once commented that Sensei somehow sounded sexy...


Anyway, thanks for the props girl. Being the topic of your post made me feel a whole lot better. Indeed, while I'm not exactly 100%, I am off to school because... that is what I do. I'm a Sensei. Thanks for reminding me!

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