Written in 1906, Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan” is based on the author’s experience as a teacher in a “barbaric” country town at a time when modern, Western modes of thinking were slowly spreading across Japan from the rapidly modernizing metropolis of Tokyo. The clash between traditional Japanese values and morals and European intellectualism is one of the novel’s central themes and the source of much of its humor.
When a young man from Tokyo is sent to the boonies to take up the position of math teacher at the local school, he soon finds himself up to his neck in trouble. Not only do his “hick” students pick on him for his odd Tokyo ways but he finds himself caught up in a Machiavellian plot being carried out by the school’s pseudo-intellectual English teacher, Redshirt, that pits him against the senior math teacher, Porcupine — a man of samurai spirit and strength. The nicknames Botchan gives to his colleagues are an example of his naturally defiant nature, and as the battle for his allegiance intensifies Botchan finds that the “reckless streak” he has had since childhood comes in handy.
“Botchan” is required reading at school in Japan and you can imagine students identifying with the central character’s contempt for the fools around him in much the same way those in the West identify with the characters in “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — both of which “Botchan” has been compared to.
Each week “Essentials” introduces a work of fiction that should be on the bookshelf of any Japanophile.