Natsume Soseki (February 9, 1867-December 9, 1916), born Natsume Kinnosuke, is widely considered to be the foremost Japanese novelist of the Meiji-era (1868–1912). He is best known for his novels Kokoro, Botchan, I Am a Cat and his unfinished work Light and Darkness. He was also a scholar of British literature and composer of haiku, Chinese-style poetry, and fairy tales. From 1984 until 2004, his portrait appeared on the front of the Japanese 1000 yen note.
Botchan is a novel written by Natsume Soseki in 1906. It is considered to be one of the most popular novels in Japan, read by most Japanese during their childhood. The central theme of the story is morality.
The story is based on the author's personal experience as a teacher being transferred to Matsuyama, which sets the stage for this novel. Natsume was born in Tokyo, and dwelling in Matsuyama was his first experience living elsewhere. The novel reflects his feelings during that experience.
Botchan: The hero of this novel. Born in Tokyo, he has the spirit of an Edokko. He graduates from the Tokyo Academy of Physics, currently Tokyo University of Science, and becomes a mathematics teacher. His defining characteristics are common sense and a strong moral grounding.
Yamaarashi (Porcupine): A fellow teacher. Yamaarashi is the nickname for a teacher by the name of Hotta, born in Aizu. Yamaarashi has a great, samurai-like sense of justice.
Akashatsu (Red shirt): Another fellow teacher and Doctor of Literature. He is the typical intellectual. He represents the continental European intellectual tradition, in its modern form, as it drifts toward collectivism (socialism and communism (thus the red shirt)) and relativism/nihilism. He speaks of morals but is Machiavellian and immoral. A rumormonger who for a short time was able to deceive even Botchan. The battle for the heart and mind of Botchan between Yamaarashi and Akashatsu represents the social and political tensions existing in Japan at the turn of the last century. Soseki clearly rejects Akashatsu. Soseki himself was a Doctor of English Literature graduated from Tokyo University and later wrote that "if I were to assign an actual person to every fictional character that appears in Botchan, then Akashatsu would have to be me." He also wrote, "The development of modern Japan must be seen as an on-the-surface phenomenon" and worried that Japan was absorbing European culture at a shallow and elitist level as represented by the character of Akashatsu.
Nodaiko (The Clown): Art teacher. Nodaiko is a Tokyoite, like Botchan. He prides himself on his good taste but follows others without much thought, which earns him Botchan's contempt.
Uranari (Green pumpkin): Uranari is a very melancholic, but refined, gentleman. Botchan looks up to him. Most agree that Uranari, or some combination of Uranari and Botchan, is Soseki's ideal of contemporary Japan.
Tanuki (The Raccoon Dog): The principal of the school where Botchan teaches. He has a very indecisive nature.
Kiyo: Botchan's servant in Tokyo. Now an old woman, she took care of him when he was young. She is a fallen aristocrat, dealing heroically with her new situation.
Geisha: Woman entertainers, often found performing Japanese dances at banquets.
Students at the school: Botchan thinks they are devious, and they often puzzle him.
Important places/School: the main stage of the novel/Dogo Onsen: Hot spring where Botchan likes to go. Thanks in part to the novel, the springs are now a famous sightseeing spot in Japan.
Botchan's observations and thoughts about Matsuyama, on Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan. Botchan lived in the ultra-modern Tokyo before moving to the traditional Matsuyama, and is often surprised by their unusual customs.
The battle for the heart and mind of Botchan between Hotta and Akashatsu. Will Botchan's common sense and moral grounding become corrupted by Akashatsu, or will he team up with Hotta to battle the increasing break from tradition and morals, for purely selfish gain, that Akashatsu represents? This is the question posed throughout the novel.
At the time of the writing of Botchan, Japan was in the midst of a rapidly accelerating westernization, where traditional Japanese values and way of life were disappearing, especially in big cities such as Tokyo. Soseki himself had spent 3 years in London to study English literature. In his later works, Soseki seems to imply that the antagonist Akashatsu represents the author himself; an elitist intellectual who has only a shallow understanding of European culture, at odds with Japanese values and morals.