“I don’t care about my career. To do my duty by a friend is first and last.” ~ Botchan
This statement exemplifies the righteousness and fierce loyalty of Botchan, the protagonist of the eponymous book by Natsume Sōseki.
Botchan means “boy master”, an affectionate name given to him by his family’s elderly servant, Kiyo. He hails from middle class Tokyo and, soon after graduation, becomes a mathematics teacher in a small remote village.
Botchan says things as they are. With him, things are either black or white, right or wrong. There is no middle ground.
I find his candidness refreshing. It is sometimes outright hilarious, other times baffling. Little wonder he often gets himself into trouble.
He is simple and honest, to the extent of sometimes offending those around him with his blunt attitude. At times while reading this book, I wish I could pat Botchan on his back for sticking up for what he believes in and being relentless. If only there are more people like him who are honest and don’t pander to people in power.
Published in Japanese in 1906, this was one of Sōseki’s first works. The foreword in my copy, translated by Umeji Sasaki, compares Botchan and the book’s main characters with the country’s shift in the early 20th century: “Old Japan with her polite, yet often deceptive, ways” versus “New Japan with her honest, simple, frank democratic ways”. This helps put the story in context, to understand some of the reactions and exchanges that would have otherwise been lost on readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture.
Botchan is fun, lighthearted and a pleasure to read. It is different in style from Kokoro, which I recently read and is widely considered to be Sōseki’s masterpiece. If you have the chance, I would recommend reading both novels, as each has much to offer.