A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I decided to stop in at a used book store. This, from the start, was not a cost effective idea. We both figured that since the books were so reduced in price, we might as well buy indiscriminately. Therefore our “bargain” visit quickly resulted in a basket full of impromptu books.
Over the years I have trained my eye to catch anything that might be martial arts related, or even roughly relevant to Asian culture. Although such finds are frequently fruitless, I’ve come away with a few gems in the past. This latest trip provided one such find.
Sticking out amongst a sea of miscellaneous novels was a paperback entitled “Kokoro”. From my martial training I knew what the term meant so I was immediately drawn to it. As I soon discovered, this “Kokoro” was a novel written by Natsume Soseki, and was in fact a very famous story by a very famous writer.
The term kokoro is generally translated as “the heart of things”, which is the most fundamental and easy way to express the complex range of spirit, emotion, mind, courage, resolve, and intensity that the origin word encapsulates.
Natsume Soseki was not a martial artist (as far as I can determine), nor did this turn out to be a martial arts book. However, it was an exceptional study of the inner workings of Japanese thought and emotion.
I’ve always believed that understanding the culture upon which a martial art is built helps in comprehending the full execution and meaning of the art. While one needn’t don a hakama and queue in everyday life to practice budo, gaining a deeper understanding of the culture (in this case Japanese) can build a rich context within which we might train, learn, and grow.
“Kokoro”, the novel, is set just as the Meiji Era is ending. The story follows a young man who is trying to graduate from college and find his way in life. The young man encounters a withdrawn but studious older gentleman whom he immediately takes to and wishes to learn from. The novel proceeds to study the boy and his new mentor in great depth, examining their emotional and social baggage.
Understanding the Japanese from an external western perspective can be very difficult. This novel is a rare insight into the subtleties of some of the more “peculiar” Japanese obsessions with loneliness, self sacrifice, social etiquette, and emotional withdraw. These cultural characteristics, which are many generations old and deeply seeded, have been integral to the development and formation of budo.
Interestingly, if you are so inclined, you can read the entire novel online for free here. Apparently it has become part of UNESCO canon and has been reproduced fully with permission. That much reading can be difficult online though, so if you’d like you can pick up a paperback copy here…or just visit the nearest used book store and hope you get lucky like I did.