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Nakamise-dori leading to the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo, 1900s

Nakamise-dori leading to the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo, 1900s

Japan’s Charles Dickens

The visit of Natsume Sōseki to London at the turn of the 20th century suggested ways of successfully combining western industrialism with ‘Japanese Spirit’.

Get up, get up!’ Lying on the ground sweating and bleeding next to his bicycle – ‘that machine’, as he ruefully referred to it – his cycling instructor heckling from the sidelines, the young Japanese professor’s short stay in London had finally turned from slow-burning tragedy into farce.

Natsume Sōseki had no interest in cycling, the latest fashionable craze to hit London at the turn of the 20th century. He was there to deepen his understanding of English literature, spending what little money the Japanese government had given him for his short trip on books, on modest board and lodging and on tuition from the Shakespeare scholar William James Craig. To find himself hurt and humiliated on, and mostly off, two wheels, at various locations from Lavender Hill to Clapham Common was irrelevant to the task Sōseki had set himself.

Only later in his career would Sōseki realise and appreciate what he had learned in London. His major discovery was that his opinions on English literature were no less valid than those of similarly educated Englishmen; he could and should grow out of borrowed opinions – those ‘glued-on peacock feathers’, as he put it – and commit himself instead to his own intellectual and even moral path. There had been a range of formative humiliations similar to Sōseki’s tussle with the machine in which he had little interest but with which he was forced to forge a relationship: policemen tutting, passers-by breaking into laughter or ironic applause at the wobbling moustachioed Asian man on the bicycle, one man abusing him as ‘Chink’ when Sōseki’s erratic manoeuvrings put him in peril. Encounters with boarding-house landladies, at turns cold and overweening, helped complete the effect of a melancholy immersion in the social and architectural landscape of modern London, which turned Sōseki from a shy, run-of-the-mill teacher of English literature into the man who was to become known as ‘Japan’s Charles Dickens’.

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