15 March 2013

Botchan (Natsume Sōseki)

Botchan by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Glenn Anderson (One Peace Books, 2013)

Botchan (1906) is a comic novel whose enduring appeal continues to entertain generations of Japanese readers. It's main character is a newly graduated Tokyo-bred young man sent to teach mathematics at middle school in an out of the way locality. As a young boy, Botchan, as he was fondly called by the household help Kiyo, is destined to be the black sheep of the family. His relationship with his father and brother is civil at best. Kiyo is the only one who was patient with him and who believed he will amount to something great. But he can be a bit foolish as he runs to all kinds of trouble.

Another time a distant relative sent me a western pocketknife. I was holding the blade up to the sun to show my friend how nicely it caught the light and he said, "Sure it looks nice, but I bet it can't cut."

"Yeah right," I said. "This knife'll cut through anything, I'll show you."

"Bet it won't cut through your finger."

Well I couldn't let him get away with that so I shouted You bet I will! and sliced through the back of my thumb. Fortunately for me the knife was small, and the bone was hard, so my thumb is still stuck to the side of my hand like it should be. But the scar will be there till I die.

The novel's comedy partly derives its laughs from the utter silliness of situations. Botchan himself is a strong character, surprisingly winsome despite (or may be due to) his sarcastic view of things and constant complaints about every little thing. He finds his match, however, with his co-teachers in the school. He finds himself in the middle of petty politics and bureaucratic maneuverings of his colleagues. Even his students are party to making his life in the country a living hell. His students start to stalk him and to make fun of him by daily writing up, on the blackboard, what he ate the previous night. And when he erupts into anger, it only seems to embolden his students.

When you take a joke too far it's not funny anymore. If you burn your bread it's not good anymore, it's just charred—but that was probably too much thinking for these little rednecks. They thought they could keep pushing it. What did they know about the world, living in a Podunk town like this? Growing up on a patch of grass with no charm, no visitors, and no brains, they'd see a guy eat tempura and confuse it for a world war. Pathetic twerps. With an education like this, I could imagine the sort of warped people they'd grow into. If it was all innocent fun I'd laugh along with them. but it wasn't. They may have been kids but their pranks were pregnant with hatred.

Botchan becomes the sore subject of endless jokes in school. This inflames him more and more even as he becomes the target of intrigues among his teaching colleagues. A couple of teachers are painted as duplicitous and scheming individuals. "Not a shred of human decency to be found in the whole place!" he cries at one point. To his credit, Botchan (the name can also have derogatory meaning) holds fast to his principles of honesty and simplicity.

It's like they believe you can't succeed in society without letting yourself rot to the core. Then they see someone who's honest and pure, and they have to sneer at them and call them Botchan and naive and whatever else they can think of that helps them get to sleep at night. If that's how people are going to be about it then we should stop telling children not to lie. If that's how they're going to be we should give children classes on how to lie and get away with it and how to doubt people and how to take advantage of others and so on.... Red Shirt was laughing because he thought I was simple. Well if we live in a world that laughs at the simple and honest, then I guess I should learn to expect it—but what a world that would be!

Natsume Sōseki effectively uses comedy in this otherwise serious critique of the education system run by corrupt leadership. In effect, he seems to be also mocking the shallowness and backwardness of a society that produced, and was perpetuated by, such kind of education. There are also hints of the clash between the rural/traditional mindset of the educators in the community and Botchan's liberal views coming from the open city of Tokyo. The entertainment value of the sometimes slapstick comedy is foil to the societal conflicts in the novel.

Another significant aspect in the novel is in providing a glimpse not only to this dire "isolationist" mindset of a provincial school but also the display of nationalism of the local people. Near the end of the book, Botchan witnesses a street parade celebrating Japan's victory over Russia during the war of the previous year.

The song went on, the lazy beat drooping like spilled syrup from a tabletop. [The drummer] made abrupt pauses in the beats to help the spectators find the beat, and soon enough though I don't know how they did it, everyone was clapping along. The thirty men started to whip their glinting swords to the beat, faster and faster. It was fascinating and terrifying to watch. They were all crammed so close on the stage that if one of them missed a beat, he'd be sliced to pieces. If they'd just swung the swords up and down there'd be no real danger, but there were times [when] they turned left and right, spun in circles, dropped to their knees. I half expected noses and ears to go flying. They all had control over their swords, but were swiping and flipping them in a space of two feet—all while crouching, ducking, spinning, and twirling.

The fascinating parade scene may be offering a glimpse into Japanese militarism in the early years of the twentieth century. Indeed there's a large gap between the discipline exhibited by the students in this street dance and the pettiness they are prone to in school.

In the afterword, translator Glenn Anderson admits that certain passages in the novel are omitted or altered in the interest of "readability and accessibility". The translation decisions to domesticate the novel are explained in the afterword itself. The resulting text appears to be an idiomatic novel that retains the comedy while making it sound contemporary. This is evident in the nicknames Botchan gave to his co-teachers. The novel itself has been translated five times already. (Here's a review comparing the translations of the first passage quoted above.) The present translation is highly readable, spunky, and fun, though I'm a little bit bothered by some typographical errors.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher.


  1. Thanks for the link to the translation analysis - a great read :)

    I have the Cohn translation and was a bit annoyed by how deliberately American it was. That is until I read a couple of chapters of an earlier translation in the Donald Keene anthology - which was very, very stiff...

    ...it made Cohn's version seem like a good idea ;)

  2. It may be best to steer clear of the early translations. I once owned a copy of the Umeji Sasaki translation which was sooooo bad it was an altogether different comic novel.

    I actually liked this particular translation. It was really funny.

  3. That's a really, really interesting comparison of the different translations. Amazing how each translator views the same scene in a completely different way, with completely different results... thanks for sharing!

  4. You're welcome, and thanks for reading. For a short passage, it really highlights the different approaches to translating comedy. As Tony said, it can sound quite "stiff".