Botchan by Natsume Soseki – review

July 1, 2008

Botchan by Natsume Soseki (Japanese Literature Publishing Project, ISBN 9 784770 030481)

Who is it for? Senior students

What is it about? Written by an iconic Japanese author, Botchan is the story of a young man who, fresh out of college and with no other immediate prospects, leaves the Tokyo and moves to a small fishing village in the ‘deep south’ of Japan. Here, he takes up a teaching position in an all-boys boarding school. Only a few years older than his students, Botchan (a nickname which can mean inexperienced or na├»ve) comes into almost immediate conflict his charges who play practical jokes on him. In addition, his brash, city attitude brings him into conflict with the other teachers-he shows little respect for their seniority and is soon caught up unwittingly in their intrigues.

Is it any good? Botchan has a reputation as being the most widely read novel in modern Japan and was recommended to the reviewer by the Japanese girlfriend of a colleague. Being a translation, there is no doubt a lot of subtlety lost, but it is a brisk, light very readable story. Having said that, it also gives a fascinating insight into pre-World War 1 Japan-a very different Japan than many Western readers would expect. An appreciation of the novel, and the significance of the rebellious main character, would certainly be deepened with a knowledge of Japanese society and culture; in fact, it’s one of those novels that will probably be appreciated better through study and exploration as part of a unit of work. It has the added advantage of being free of swearing or overt sexual references.

How can it be used? This would be worth trying if you’re interested in doing something a bit different with your students-from about Years 10 onwards. It’s easy and quick to read, and opens lots of opportunities to discuss the role of cultural knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and values on reading and writing practices. Botchan could also be used as a very useful companion study to Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, a novel that still works well with students (see further information in the box below). It would, of course, also be useful if you are interested in exploring the concept of literature in translation. The edition reviewed is a modern translation which could be compared to earlier English translations. One such translation forms part of Project Gutenberg and can be downloaded free from www.gutenberg.org/etext/8868. Alternatively, try the edition available at no-sword.jp/botchan/; this was produced by a fan of the book who did not like the existing translations and decided to have a go himself. Some reliable, albeit basic, background on the novel can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botchan.

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