THROUGH THE FIRE: Forget Murakami, Remember Soseki



Natsume Soseki’s novels enjoyed a renewed interest from international readers when Haruki Murakami declared that he was his favorite Japanese writer. Like Murakami, Soseki possessed a wide exposure to both Eastern and Western literary forms. Unfortunately, this distracts readers from his other values.

I can’t express the number of times I’ve heard readers say other Japanese should learn from Soseki and broaden their minds with the English language and culture. This is obnoxiously ignorant because it overlooks the extent to which Soseki hated his time in England. He even expressed that he felt “betrayed by English literature” and his opus, “I Am a Cat,” satirized the degree to which his fellow countrymen aped Western practices during the Meiji Era.

When Soseki broadened his mind, it wasn’t with the English language alone. He dabbled in psychology, sociology, Darwinism, physics, and other sciences imported from the West. His “Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings” even alludes to potential scientific approaches to literary criticism.

Joseph A. Murphy, an associate professor of Japanese literature, even claims that Soseki devised a prototype for “cognitive poetics” — an approach to literary criticism utilizing the tools of cognitive science. Sadly, as Murphy put it, the literary intelligentsia’s disinterest in both the Japanese language and literature obstructed him from influencing English-speaking academics.

Right now, there’s an ongoing debate on “how to save the humanities.” Critics argue that universities should divert their resources to science departments because they offer more tangible rewards to students. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott. “I don’t think so.”

Additionally, not a week goes by where major news sources publish op-eds arguing on behalf of the humanities. Fareed Zakaria wrote “Why America’s Obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Education Is Dangerous” for The Washington Post on March 26, 2014. He points out that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg benefited from the liberal arts when they designed Facebook and Apple products.

Zakaria’s piece is slightly better than the others. He at least avoids the usual clichés. Most articles arguing on behalf of the humanities insist the field’s value lies in its ability to make us “human.” Never mind what that even means. Being human doesn’t put food on the table or pay the bills. The more relevant topic is how the humanities can contribute to technology, science, and industry.

Soseki’s theory of literature, in this way, serves as bridge between science and art. Again, many of his ideas intentionally pertain to applied sociology, mathematics, psychology, physics, Darwinism, and aesthetics. Furthermore, Murphy claimed in his book “Metaphorical Circuit” that Soseki applied a reader-response theory to literature. The approach didn’t gain popular currency in the West until 60 years after conception. If true, the language barrier may have obstructed him from gaining greater attention from Western intelligentsia.

Similarly speaking, Terada Torahiko, a pupil of Soseki’s, switched his concentration from literature to physics under his teacher’s advice. Terada performed research in X-ray crystallography, yet failed to win the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics (which went to William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg) because he neglected to depict his findings in mathematical terms.

Nevertheless, as Murphy avers — and physics professor Sidney Perkowitz concurs: “Terada can be seen as a proto-founder of today’s new science of complexity.” Terada portrayed complexity through observations of nature throughout his travels. These observations possessed a literary flair potentially affected by Soseki’s influence on his student. This is just one example as to what literary inspiration can offer science.

The other side is this — many humanities majors and professors are distrustful of the STEMs. Hostility and opposition to science is a part of the problem. They say that quantitative data is limited or too malleable to the point where it risks misrepresenting reality on behalf of a cruel political agenda. The rather bothersome part is that most of the people who make these assertions are illiterate in math and science and are unreliable authorities on the matter.

Soseki, inarguably the most iconic novelist in modern Japanese literature, benefited from studying science and applied it into his collective works of literary criticism and fiction. When humanities majors insist that they have nothing to gain from studying science, they are being ignorant to the point where it hurts.

This boils down to the debate on what can save or renew the humanities. Stanford University is already implementing joint undergraduate programs between computer science, English, and music. Franco Moretti, a literary scholar at the university, mentioned the Japanese literary critic Kojin Karatani in his essay collection “Distant Reading.”

It’s plausible that Moretti is also familiar with Soseki and potentially other Japanese theorists. Relatedly, it’s also possible that the “topological mapping” from literary and cultural critic Maeda Ai’s essays are — much like Terada’s prototype to complexity — applicable to the nascent “digital humanities” of computer programming.

Much in the same way that critics condescendingly ask what good are the humanities, people make similar opinions of the Japanese language. Yes, the Japanese may seem only attractive to pop-culture junkies. But even that topic isn’t discordant with science. For example, Yoshiki Sakurai, the screenwriter for the “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex” animated series, featured sociologist Masachi Osawa’s theories. This is one way of teaching neophyte students about information science.

Furthermore, there’s an untapped wealth of Japanese texts that haven’t reached American shores yet. Terada Torahiko is an aforementioned example. Shinji Miyadai, Masachi Osawa, Asada Akira, and many more may interest literary scholars, scientists, and Japanophiles alike.

Brett Fujioka can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.



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