Natsume Sôseki (né Natsume Kinnosuke in 1867) is the most enduringly read Japanese novelist of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He is roughly characterized as the Japanese Mark Twain in part for his whimsical early work (and like Samuel Clemens, his views darkened with age). The popularity of Botchan (1906) has allegedly survived assignment in schools.
Reading it in Japan (but not in Japanese!), I thought it an odd book to assign students, since it portrays malicious students and duplicitous teachers and administrators. I can see that in a society which exerts considerable pressure for conformity that the Edokko (Tokyo-born) narrator who takes no guff from anyone and is constantly ready to throw away his position and salary could appeal to fantasies of salarymen. And I presume that female readers can also fantasize about rejecting expectations of servility and self-sacrifice and taking action against abuse of position.
Natsume himself taught at the Matsuyama Middle School on Shikoku (Tokyo is on Honshu, so this was unfamiliar rural society for the real Edokko as for his fictional rebel and was sent by the Japanese government to London, where he spent the years 1902-03 before writing Botchan. He taught English literature at the Tokyo Imperial University, after his return to Japan and was clearly influenced by the British mock-heroic/comic tradition.
At the start of the novel, the narrator expresses a shocking lack of filial piety. He dislikes and refuses to obey his father and, following the death of his father, makes no demands on his older brother of any inheritance. His heart belongs to Kiyu, a family retainer of longstanding who doted on the boy.
After graduating from the Tokyo Academy of Physics (now the Tokyo University of Science), he is assigned to teach math in an unnamed Shikoku town. The senior math teacher, Hotta, whom the narrator dubs “Porcupine” (for his spiky hair, though his personality is also bristling), helps the newcomer out, but the devious vice-principal, Akashatsu whom Botchan calls “Red Shirt,” poisons Botchan’s mind against him.
Botchan has a healthy appetite and is dismayed at the board of sweet potatoes, but when he goes out to have dumplings or tempura, Red Shirt chides him. The only comfort that is licit is going to the hot springs public bath.
Eventually, the blunt Botchan realizes the hypocrisy of the principal (whom he calls Badger) and Red Shirt and the improprieties (fiancée-stealing) of the sanctimonious vice-principal.
Though there is a lot of atmosphere, there is also a plot. The young math teacher has no romantic/sex life, but other teachers (and the vice-principal) have romantic intrigues. There is a big fight scene and also a beating, and much frustration by the straightforward city boy at the cunning and scheming of the rural teachers and students. And a sentimental ending that Dickens would have approved of.
In his introduction, translator J. Cohn cautions that the novel is pre-Freudian, something I think I would have noticed in its sentimentalizing of Kiyo. The early Natsume foreshadowed the unsocialized rebelliousness of Dazai Osamu (the writer as well as his autobiographical narrators). Japanese readers seem to enjoy reading (or watching onstage or onscreen) rebels even while conforming themselves.
I found the novel an entertaining document from a time of very rapid social change in Japan. Though I tend to think of “city slickers” abusing “hayseeds,” the Marcel Pagnol/Claude Berri “Jean de Florette” provides a French example of the Parisian being bamboozled by wily, malicious rural folks.