Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916) is one of a handful of individuals who both symbolized Japan’s emergence as a modern nation and helped mold an understanding of the modern condition through his life’s work. Literature was Sōseki’s creative vehicle, but his significance in the context of a broader national identity is greater than the sum of his individual works. In short, his stature is akin to that of Mark Twain, a consensus American icon.
Born at the end of Japan’s final shogunal epoch, the Tokugawa period (1603–1868), Sōseki died several years following the death of the Meiji Emperor. His life span essentially overlaps the seminal Meiji period in Japan’s history (1868–1912), and his literature has long been regarded as having captured the so called Meiji no seishin—the spirit of the Meiji Era. Sōseki’s official status as a Japanese cultural property was acknowledged in the form of his image, which long adorned the nation’s thousand-yen banknote.