47 pages 1 hour read

Natsume Sōseki


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide


Kokoro is a 1914 novel by Japanese author Natsume Sōseki. Set during the end of the Meiji Restoration, the novel explores how changing Japanese society profoundly effects an older and a younger man as they strike up an unlikely friendship. The novel was initially serialized in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper over the course of five months. The serialized novel was titled Kokoro: Sensei no Isho, though this was shortened for the print run of the novel to simply Kokoro, which translates variously as heart, mind, affection, courage, and resolve. Kokoro is one of the best-selling novels in Japan and has been hailed as one of the country’s most important works of 20th-century literature.

This guide uses an eBook version of the 2010 Penguin Books edition, translated into English by Meredith McKinney.

Content Warning: This novel and guide contain frequent references to suicide.

Plot Summary

In Part 1, the unnamed narrator of Kokoro describes his first encounter with an older man. He chooses to refer to his new friend by the title Sensei to preserve his anonymity. He meets Sensei while on vacation and begins to develop a deep friendship with the man, even though he cannot quite define Sensei’s character. The wise, emotionally distant Sensei has an academic air to him, which intrigues the young student narrator. After leaving the beach resort and returning to Tokyo, the narrator decides to visit his new friend. He visits Sensei’s house, only to be told that he is at a nearby graveyard. The narrator finds Sensei at the graveyard, but Sensei refuses to explain whose grave he visits so regularly, or why he refuses to bring his wife, Shizu, with him.

During these months, the narrator gradually becomes friends with Shizu as well as Sensei. He is young and inexperienced; he admits to not knowing much about women. The relationship with Shizu means a great deal to the narrator, though he notes that Shizu seems equally confused by some of her husband’s behavior. She hints that there is a dark secret in his past, which Sensei does not want to discuss. The narrator receives a message from his mother, warning that his father has fallen sick. The narrator returns home to care for his father and then returns to Tokyo to complete a thesis for his university course. He studies hard in a flurry of academic fervor, and he is proud to complete the work, though he notes that Sensei is not as proud or as congratulatory as the narrator had hoped he might be. Sensei, Shizu, and the narrator dine together to celebrate the completion of his university degree.

After graduating, the narrator is at a loss. He returns to his parents’ house in the countryside, and they encourage him to seek out a career. His mother suggests that Sensei may be able to help. During this time, the narrator’s father becomes gradually sicker. He has repeated falls and must receive treatment from the doctor. Having been warned about inheritance complications by Sensei, the narrator begins to think about what might happen should his father die. He writes to Sensei but receives no response. While the narrator’s father becomes sicker, the Emperor of Japan dies. Emperor Meiji’s death deeply affects the narrator’s father. At the narrator’s request, his brother and brother-in-law come to the house to visit his dying father. When the narrator finally receives a large letter from Sensei, he is at his father’s bedside, and he does not have time to read it immediately. His mother mistakes the letter for a job offer, and the narrator does not have the courage to correct her. Instead, the letter is an ominous warning from Sensei. He writes as though he will soon be dead, and the letter contains the story of his life, which he promised to share with the narrator. The narrator rushes back to Tokyo to see Sensei.

The third and final part of the novel takes the form of Sensei’s letter to the narrator. He wants to explain why he has such a misanthropic, cynical view of society. Sensei says that his parents died, and in the wake of their deaths, his trusted uncle tried to cheat him out of his inheritance. After recovering a small amount of money, Sensei moved to Tokyo. He found rooms to rent in the house of a military widow named Okusan. There, he fell in love with Okusan’s daughter, Ojosan, but his experiences with his uncle made him wary of being manipulated, so he did not reveal his true feelings. Around this time, Sensei’s friend, K, fell on hard times. To help K, Sensei invited him to live in Okusan’s house. K also fell in love with Ojosan, and when he revealed this to his friend, Sensei panicked. He eventually went to Okusan and asked for her daughter’s permission to marry. Okusan accepted. Days later, she told K before Sensei could admit to his friend what happened. Soon after, K died by suicide. Sensei never told anyone about the part he played in his friend’s death, and he does not allow his wife, Ojosan (Shizu), to visit K’s grave. Having told his story, Sensei now plans to attempt suicide. He tells the narrator to do whatever he sees fit with this story, only asking that he not share Sensei’s dark secret with Shizu. 

Related Titles

By Natsume Sōseki