‘The Heredity of Taste’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

IMG_5391There’s a point at which interest in a writer crosses the line into obsession, and in the case of Natsume Sōseki that point was reached a long, long time ago.  In addition to reading, and rereading, his more famous books (e.g. Botchan, I am a Cat, Kokoro), I’ve spent countless hours online looking out for any new releases (e.g. the recent Aardvark Bureau edition of The Miner) and searching for second-hand editions of his minor works.  Today’s choice is a very minor early work, one I doubt would appeal to most readers, but for any Sōseki fan there’s always something there to make reading his work worthwhile – let’s see if I can find it 🙂

The Heredity of Taste (translated by Sammy I. Tsunematsu, published by Tuttle Publishing), set in Tokyo in 1905, is a novella in three parts focusing on the recently ended Russo-Japanese war and its effects on one family.  The story begins with the narrator strolling through the streets on his way to a meeting at Shimbara railway station, idly musing on the idea of war as he goes:

Under the influence of the weather, even the gods lose their reason.  “Let’s exterminate mankind!  Let loose the ravenous dogs!” was the cry that resounded from the heavens to the depths of the Sea of Japan and made it rage in all directions.  The cry penetrated as far as Manchuria.  As soon as they heard it, the Japanese and Russians responded by creating an immense slaughterhouse in the plains to the north of the Continent of Asia, stretching over more than 400 kilometers.  So, under the skies, great hordes of ferocious dogs appeared and sped across the vast expanse.
p.17 (Tuttle Publishing, 2004)

Ironically, he is roused from his gloomy thoughts by a crowd of people with a rather different opinion of the war, relatives of the returning victorious Japanese troops waiting to welcome their sons and fathers back to the mother country.

When the narrator decides to take a look at the troops as they file past, tired, dishevelled and burnt by the fierce continental sun, he notices one soldier in particular, a young man who reminds him of a friend of his, Kō-san – one who tragically lost his life over in China.  This pricks his conscience, sending him off to the cemetery to pay his respects, where he sees a young woman laying flowers on his friend’s grave.  She departs before our friend is able to gather his wits, leaving him wondering who she could be.  As an only son, with no wife or fiancée, the dearly departed had no young woman in his life at all – at least, not until now…

The Heredity of Taste is described as an anti-war novel, and this is most evident in the first half of the book.  The narrator imagines the Japanese attack on a Russian stronghold, a vision of a line of soldiers, moving forwards like ants.  These are melancholy thoughts of whole units gunned down in the trench surrounding the fortress, never to arise, an image in stark contrast to the jingoistic ‘Banzai’ cries at Shimbara station.

However, the story soon moves on from the epic to the intimate, with much of the second half spent pursuing the mystery woman.  The narrator takes it upon himself to find out who she is, visiting Kō-san’s mother and asking for her son’s diary in which he hopes to find clues as to the woman’s identity.  Part of the impetus for the quest is pure curiosity, his interest piqued by the fleeting glimpse of a beautiful woman, yet there’s a more serious motive behind it too.  His desire to find out the truth is an attempt to make right what was destroyed by the war, hopefully giving the dead hero’s mother something to ease her pain.

In truth, this is not Sōseki’s best work.  It’s a slight, 80-page novella, a story caught between a mixture of styles which never really cohere.  The title is related to the secret of the woman and the relationship between two families, but this idea of inherited tastes has little to do with the other ideas of the story and seems slightly misplaced.  Apparently, The Heredity of Taste was written in eight days, and, well, I’m quite prepared to believe it…

The story was published in 1906, one of four books released that year (according to Sōseki’s Wikipedia page, anyway…).  It follows Botchan and Kusamakura, preceding The 210th Day, and the dry humour of these early books is evident here too:

Understanding that the best thing to do is keep quiet and resolutely adopting that policy, I steered well clear of such comments.  I am an honest man by nature, but as I live in society I try not to arouse anyone’s resentment and sometimes I am compelled to lie in this endeavor.  As soon as honesty becomes compatible with daily social life, I will stop telling such lies. (pp.73/4)

Typical early Sōseki – words which could have come straight from the mouth of a certain cat 😉

For me (and, I suspect, for many other Sōseki admirers) the main interest of The Heredity of Taste lies in its relation to other, later work.  One book which certainly uses ideas first mentioned here is Kokoro.  This one too is a three-part story, and both works chronicle a friend’s demise and have a woman at the heart of the story.  Another theme repeated later in Sōseki’s career is that of the suicide of the army General after the Meiji Emperor’s death: here it’s a minor detail, but in Kokoro, it’s an important part of the story, playing a part in the main character’s own decisions.

For readers with little knowledge of the era, Stephen W. Kohl’s introduction fills in some cultural and historical gaps, while also highlighting the importance of the Russo-Japanese War for Japan (a conflict marking the first time an Asian nation had defeated a European power).  Kohl remarks on Sōseki’s approach of favouring the micro view over the macro:

This story may be added to the list of Sōseki’s stories of failed love, yet the poignancy of the failure of these two young people to be together in a loving relationship is an expression of the losses suffered during the war.  Instead of telling us how many thousands of young men died at Port Arthur, he shows us the full, tragic implications of a single death and leaves it to us as readers to multiply this tragedy by uncounted thousands. (p.15)

How successfully he does this is up for debate, and I can’t really see many readers now rushing out to source a copy.  However, if there any other Sōseki tragics out there, I’m sure you’ll enjoy finding out for yourselves 😉

6 thoughts on “‘The Heredity of Taste’ by Natsume Sōseki (Review)

  1. Well, well, so the obsession is now pronounced loudly and clearly! There are worse writers to be obsessed with (I am a little ashamed now to admit that I was obsessed with Mishima when I was 19/20 and am still obsessed with Dazai Osamu).


    1. Marina Sofia – Well, I have more on the way, so this is one obsession with no end in sight 😉 My Mishima phase is a few years back, but Dazai is one I’ve still to explore fully…


    1. Vicky – ‘Kusamakura’ is a delightful piece, if a little light on plot. ‘Sanshiro’ is good, and ‘Botchan’ is a fun read. Best to start with some of his earlier stuff, probably.


  2. I haven’t read anything by this writer, but I will in the next few months, for the Japanese Reading Challenge. Thank you for writing about the book 🙂


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