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The great Japanese author’s most famous novel, in its first new English translation in half a century   No collection of Japanese literature is complete without Natsume Soseki's Kokoro, his most famous novel and the last he completed before his death. Published here in the first new translation in more than fifty years, Kokoro—meaning "heart"—is the story of a subtle and poignant friendship between two unnamed characters, a young man and an enigmatic elder whom he calls "Sensei." Haunted by tragic secrets that have cast a long shadow over his life, Sensei slowly opens up to his young disciple, confessing indiscretions from his own student days that have left him reeling with guilt, and revealing, in the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his moral anguish and his student's struggle to understand it, the profound cultural shift from one generation to the next that characterized Japan in the early twentieth century.
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“I believe that words uttered in passion contain a greater living truth than do those words which express thoughts rationally conceived. It is blood that moves the body. Words are not meant to stir the air only: they are capable of moving greater things.”
― Natsume Soseki, Kokoro
17 January 2022 (22:53) 

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Title Page

Copyright Page






















































































































NATSUME SŌSEKI (1867-1916), one of Japan’s most influential modern writers, is widely considered the foremost novelist of the Meiji era (1868-1912). Born Natsume Kinnosuke in Tokyo, he graduated from Tokyo University in 1893 and then taught high school English. He went to England on a Japanese government scholarship, and when he returned to Japan, he lectured on English literature at Tokyo University and began his writing career with the novel I Am a Cat. In 1908 he gave up teaching and became a full-time writer.;  He wrote fourteen novels, including Botchan and Kusamakura, as well as haiku, poems in the Chinese style, academic papers on literary theory, essays, and autobiographical sketches. His work enjoyed wide popularity in his lifetime and secured him a permanent place in Japanese literature.

MEREDITH McKINNEY holds a Ph.D. in medieval Japanese literature from the Australian National University in Canberra, where she teaches at the Japan Centre. She taught in Japan for twenty years and now lives near Braidwood, New South Wales. Her other translations include Ravine and Other Stories by Furui Yoshikichi, The Tale of Saigyo, and, for Penguin Classics, The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Natsume Sōseki’s Kusamakura.


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This translation first published in Penguin Books 2010

Translation, introduction, and notes copyright © Meredith McKinney, 2010

All rights reserved


Natsume, Soseki, 1867-1916.

[Kokoro. English]

Kokoro / Natsume Soseki ; translated with an introduction and notes by Meredith McKinney.

p. cm.—(Penguin classics)

Includes bibliographical references.

eISBN : 978-1-101-19581-9

I. McKinney, Meredith, 1950- II. Title.

PL812.A8K613 2010

895.6’342—dc22 2009041363

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Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro was published in 1914, two years before his death at the age of forty-eight. Sōseki, even then widely acknowledged as Japan’s leading novelist, was at the peak of his writing career, and Kokoro is unquestionably his greatest work. Today it is considered one of Japan’s great modern novels, known to every schoolchild and read by anyone serious about the nation’s literature.

The reasons for Kokoro’s importance lie not in its literary quality alone. Sōseki was a superb chronicler of his time, and Kokoro cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of the world from which it sprang.

Japan’s Meiji period (which ended with the emperor Meiji’s death in 1912) began in 1868 with the tumultuous overthrow of the old Tokugawa shogunate, which had ruled Japan unopposed for 250 years. The shift signaled far more than a change of power. Japan under the Tokugawas had been rigidly feudal and isolationist, a Confucian society cut off from the changes that were rapidly overtaking much of the rest of the world. Pressure from Western nations eager to expand their sphere of trade finally proved irresistible in 1853, when the commander of a U.S. squadron, Matthew Perry, anchored his “black ships” threateningly offshore and sent an ultimatum to Japan’s ruling powers. The subsequent internal upheaval resulted in a new government that opened Japan’s doors to the West and embraced the introduction of Western culture and technology. In the next four decades Japan was utterly transformed. The Meiji period is synonymous with the fundamental transformation that set Japan on the road to becoming all that it is today.

Such rapid change inevitably comes at a psychological cost, and this is what Sōseki acutely documented in his finest novels. The dilemmas that he portrayed were deeply felt. Natsume Kinnosuke (Sōseki was his nom de plume) was born in 1867, the year before the Meiji era began, in what was still known as Edo (now Tokyo). The old Japan was his inheritance in more than birth. He was educated in the Chinese and Japanese classics and in the Confucian moral code, which Western concepts of individualism and individual rights were only just beginning to undermine. Kokoro’s central character, the man referred to as Sensei, is of an age with Sōseki, and his references to the importance of his old-fashioned moral education clearly reflect Sōseki’s own experience. For both, the Meiji period’s embrace of Western individualism provoked irreconcilable inner conflicts that haunted them through life.

Kokoro’s Sensei shares other characteristics with Sōseki as well. Family difficulties and alienation, a recurrent theme in many of Sōseki’s novels, played their part in his own early life. A late child of a large family, Sōseki as an infant was formally adopted by a childless couple; his real family took him back only grudgingly when the couple divorced nine years later. Adoption, which plays an important part in the story of Sensei’s friend K in Kokoro, was common at the time—continuing the family name was more important than maintaining blood ties. Sōseki’s own adoption was a sorry failure on every level, leaving him feeling unloved, isolated, and bitter.

Like Kokoro’s Sensei, Sōseki, a bright student, attended the new university in Tokyo, where he specialized in English literature. Meiji-era Japan believed that foreign literature held the key to understanding the Western culture that it was then avidly embracing, and Sōseki was part of the earliest generation to be trained in this important field. His education gave him elite status, and in 1900 the Japanese government selected him to spend two years studying in London; the intention was that he would increase the nation’s cultural capital by bringing back a deeper understanding of the West. But Sōseki was miserable in England, isolated and alienated from everything around him, which seems to have brought him close to nervous collapse. After his return to Japan, he took up prestigious teaching posts at the First National College and in the English literature department at Tokyo’s Imperial University. To all appearances, he was set to rise to the top of his elite profession.

But Sōseki could revel in neither his status nor his success. Like Kokoro’s Sensei, he was an essentially introverted and retiring person; his nervous sensibility shrank from exposure to the everyday world, and the strain of teaching told badly on his nerves. Partly to soothe and entertain himself, he decided to try his hand at a light, humorous novel (I Am a Cat, 1905). To his surprise, upon publication it achieved instant fame. A year later came two more novels: the immensely popular Botchan (1906) as well as the beautiful haiku-style Kusamakura. At the age of forty, encouraged by the Asahi newspaper’s guarantee to serialize any future work, Sōseki took the audacious step of resigning from his teaching posts and devoting himself to his writing.

His novels had moved from gently humorous anecdotes and observations of life to the more philosophical and experimental approach of Kusamakura, which maintains a delightful lightness of touch even as it engages thoughtfully and critically with Meiji Japan’s transformations and its fraught relationship to Japan’s past. But the mature works that now began to flow from his pen struck a new, more inward note. Sōseki became increasingly focused on his contemporaries’ quintessential experience, one that he himself felt acutely: the necessity to evolve a modern, individual sense of self and to cope with the new Meiji self’s resultant problems: isolation, alienation, egotism, and profound dislocation from its cultural and moral inheritance. Sōseki increasingly sought to portray for his readers not only the upheavals of their rapidly changing world but the dilemmas and suffering of the contemporary psyche.

These themes achieved their ultimate statement in the late novel Kokoro. It was both written and set in the first days of the new Taishō period, which began in 1912 with Meiji’s death and the accession of the new emperor. The moment of transition registered profoundly throughout Japan. The unnamed protagonist in the novel’s long first section, “Sensei and I,” is a naive and earnest young man on the point of graduating from the Imperial University; he is one of the new generation’s elite who will inherit the coming era. The focus of this section is his difficult and intense relationship with the older man he calls Sensei, whom we see through his puzzled and intrigued young eyes.

Sōseki himself would have known well the disconcerting role of sensei to the worshipful young. Usually translated as “teacher,” sensei is essentially a term of deep respect for one who knows; it implies a position of authority in relation to oneself that comes close to that of master and disciple. In strongly hierarchical Meiji society, Sōseki, with his established position as a leading writer, naturally attracted a flock of eager young followers (many of whom would go on to become key literary figures of the Taishō period and beyond). We may all too easily imagine Sōseki, holding court in his role as sensei, registering private misgivings at the intensity of some of his disciples’ devotion to him, and doubts about his suitability as role model for them. However, where Sōseki was a successful man, at least in public terms, Kokoro’s Sensei is essentially a failure, both in his own eyes and in those of the world. The puzzle that the first section presents is: What are the causes of this failure?

The novel’s short middle section balances the unnamed young man’s yearning and unfulfilled relationship with the evasive Sensei against that with his own dying father. Like Sensei, the father in some ways embodies the Meiji era, which at that moment is in its own death throes. Themes of betrayal and a failure of moral nerve, which sound through much of Sōseki’s work and are fundamental to Kokoro, are also set to haunt the young man’s own future at the end of this section as he opens the long letter he has received from Sensei and begins to read.

That letter constitutes the final section of the novel and is in many ways its real tour de force. In fact, Sōseki conceived it first and originally intended it to stand alone as a complete work. It takes us back to the world of Sensei’s youth, to his own student days. The letter’s painfully honest confession will finally reveal to the young man what he has longed to know—the mysterious secret that cast its long shadow over Sensei’s life. But it is more than a simple confession. Writing this letter as he faces his own despairing death, Sensei attempts to redeem himself, if nothing else than in the role of Sensei that he unwillingly accepted late in life, by passing on his story for the edification of his young follower and friend. Ironically, his letter becomes the unwitting cause of the young man’s own crucial act of moral failure.

The man called K, the young Sensei’s friend, who precipitates the crisis with which the novel culminates, in many ways embodies the old world’s strict code of values and ethics, which was coming into such painful conflict with the new Western concepts of individual rights and the primacy of the ego. K’s self-elected death foreshadows the ultimate death of that old world, a world Sōseki himself had inherited and whose unattainable and rapidly vanishing certainties preoccupied him. K’s death by his own hand, shocking and pointless from the perspective of the new values, is nevertheless a crucial moral victory that haunts Sensei’s life. Another, later death also reverberates, both for the dying father and, crucially, for Sensei himself—the ritual suicide of General Nogi. This anachronistic gesture of ethical atonement and expression of desire to follow one’s master (here the Meiji emperor) to the grave stunned Japan. The news impels Sensei, the morally paralyzed inheritor of Meiji Japan’s dual worlds, finally to act. His suicide is not only an act of personal despair but is expressed half-seriously as “following to the grave . . . the spirit of the Meiji era itself,” a final gesture of loyalty to that era’s difficult dualities that, he guesses, his young friend will find incomprehensible.

Kokoro is beautifully constructed to express Meiji Japan’s spiritual dilemmas. But it does much more: Sōseki is a masterful portrayer of human relations, and in fact the novel’s wider historical dimensions are usually little more than flickers at the edge of the reader’s consciousness. As well as being a compelling portrait of Sensei in maturity and youth, Kokoro tells the story of three young men whose hearts are “restless with love” and of their emotional entanglements not only with the opposite sex but variously with one another. Homosexuality is not, needless to say, at issue, although a young man’s intellectually erotic attraction to an older man is beautifully evoked. The novel’s women, particularly Sensei’s wife, are portrayed sympathetically, but it is the men who take center stage—another, although no doubt unwitting, expression of the Meiji ethos. Their very different relationships with and reactions to one another form the core of the story and weave its suspenseful and carefully constructed plot.

In their dilemmas and responses, the characters of Kokoro, although in many ways specific to their time, are fundamentally immensely human. It is the human condition itself that is Sōseki’s primary interest, here and elsewhere in his work. In Kokoro he achieved his finest expression of this great theme.


Kokoro, the novel’s title, is a complex and important word that can perhaps best be explained as “the thinking and feeling heart,” as distinguished from the workings of the pure intellect, devoid of human feeling. Because one’s kokoro thinks as well as feels, “heart” is at times an inadequate translation. Nevertheless, as the concept of kokoro is a pervasive motif throughout the novel, I have chosen to express it with the single word “heart” and to preserve its presence in the translation wherever possible. For the title, it seemed best to retain the original word.



I am grateful to the Japan Centre at the Australian National University, under whose auspices I completed this translation while a visiting fellow.

My warm thanks also go to two friends. Nobuo Sakai of Tezukayama Gakuin Daigaku meticulously checked the translation against the original, and Elizabeth Lawson, as always, generously spared her time to read the final draft and make invaluable suggestions.

Suggestions for Further Reading


Brodey, Inger Sigrun, Ikuo Tsunematsu, and Sammy I. Tsunematsu, trans. My Individualism and the Philosophical Foundations of Literature. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Cohn, Joel, trans. Botchan. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2007. Ito, Aiko, and Graeme Wilson, trans. I Am a Cat. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2002.

McClellan, Edwin, trans. Grass on the Wayside. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 1971.

Rubin, Jay, trans. Sanshirō. Michigan Classics in Japanese Studies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.


Fukuchi, Isamu. “Kokoro and ëthe Spirit of Meiji.” Monumenta Nipponica 48:468-88.

McClellan, Edwin. “The Implications of Sōseki’s Kokoro.” Monumenta Nipponica 14:356-70.

Pollack, David. “Framing the Self: The Philosophical Dimensions of Human Nature in Kokoro.” Monumenta Nipponica 43:417-27.


Beangcheon, Yul. Natsume Sōseki. London: Macmillan, 1984. Brodey, Inger Sigrun. “Natsume Sōseki and Laurence Sterne: Cross-Cultural Discourse on Literary Linearity.” Comparative Literature 50, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 193-219.

Brodey, Inger Sigrun, and Sammy I. Tsunematsu. Rediscovering Natsume Sōseki. Folkestone: Global Books Ltd., 2001.

Iijima, Takehisa, and James M. Vardaman Jr., eds. The World of Natsume Sōseki. Tokyo: Kinseido Ltd., 1987.

McClellan, Edwin. Two Japanese Novelists: Sōseki and Toson. Tuttle Publishing, 2004.

Miyoshi, Masao. Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

Rubin, Jay. “The Evil and the Ordinary in Sōseki’s Fiction.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 46, no. 2 (December 1986): 333-52.

Turney, Alan. “Sōseki’s Development as a Novelist Until 1907; With Special Reference to the Genesis, Nature and Position in His Work of Kusa Makura.” Monumenta Nipponica 41, no. 4 (Winter 1986): 497-99.

Viglielmo, Valdo H. “An Introduction to the Later Novels of Natsume Sōseki.” Monumenta Nipponica 19, no. 1, 1-36.

Yiu, Angela. Chaos and Order in the Works of Natsume Sōseki. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.




I always called him Sensei, and so I shall do in these pages, rather than reveal his name. It is not that I wish to shield him from public scrutiny—simply that it feels more natural. “Sensei” springs to my lips whenever I summon memories of this man, and I write of him now with the same reverence and respect. It would also feel wrong to use some conventional initial to substitute for his name and thereby distance him.

I first met Sensei in Kamakura,1 in the days when I was still a young student. A friend had gone there during summer vacation for sea bathing and urged me to join him, so I set about organizing enough money to cover the trip. This took me two or three days. Less than three days after I arrived, my friend received a sudden telegram from home demanding that he return. His mother was ill, it seemed.

He did not believe it. For some time his parents had been trying to force him into an unwanted marriage. By present-day standards he was far too young for marriage, and besides he did not care for the girl in question. That was why he had chosen not to return home for the vacation, as he normally would have, but to go off to a local seaside resort to enjoy himself.

He showed me the telegram and asked what I thought he should do. I did not know what to advise. But if his mother really was ill, he clearly should go home, so in the end he decided to leave. Having come to Kamakura to be with my friend, I now found myself alone.

I could stay or go as I pleased, since some time still remained before classes began again, so I decided to stay where I was for the moment. My friend, who was from a prosperous family in the Chūgoku region, did not lack for money. But he was a student, and young, so in fact his standard of living was actually much like my own, and I was spared the trouble of having to find a cheaper inn for myself after he left.

The inn he had chosen was somewhere in an out-of-the-way district of Kamakura. To get to any of the fashionable spots—the billiard rooms and ice cream parlors and such things—I had to take a lengthy walk through the rice fields. A rickshaw ride would cost me a full twenty sen. Still, a number of new summer houses stood in the area, and it was right next to the beach, making it wonderfully handy for sea bathing.

Each day I went down to the shore for a swim, making my way among soot-blackened old thatched country houses. An astonishing number of men and women always thronged the beach, city folk down from Tokyo to escape the summer heat. Sometimes the crowd was so thick that the water was a tightly packed mass of black heads, as in some public bathhouse. Knowing no one, I enjoyed my time alone amid this merry scene, lying on the sand and leaping about up to my knees in the waves.

It was here in this throng of people that I first came upon Sensei. In those days two little stalls on the beach provided drinks and changing rooms, and for no particular reason I took to frequenting one of them. Unlike the owners of the grand summer houses in the Hasé area, we users of this beach had no private bathing huts, so communal changing rooms were essential. People drank tea and relaxed here, or left their hats and sun umbrellas in safekeeping; after they bathed, they would wash themselves down at the stall, and attendants would rinse their bathing suits for them. I owned no bathing clothes, but I left my belongings at the stall whenever I went into the water, to avoid having anything stolen.


When I first set eyes on Sensei there, he had just taken off his clothes and was about to go in for a swim, while I had just emerged from the water and was drying off in the sea breeze. A number of black heads were moving around between us, obstructing my view of him, and under normal circumstances I probably would not have noticed him. But he instantly caught my attention, despite the crowd and my own distracted state of mind, because he was with a Westerner.

The Westerner’s marvelously white skin had struck me as soon as I came in. He had casually tossed his kimono robe onto the nearby bench and then, clad only in a pair of drawers such as we Japanese wear, stood gazing out toward the sea, arms folded.

This intrigued me. Two days earlier I had gone up to Yuigahama beach and spent a long time watching the Westerners bathing. I had settled myself on a low dune very close to the rear entrance of a hotel frequented by foreigners, and seen a number of men emerge to bathe. Unlike this Westerner, however, they all wore clothing that covered their torso, arms, and legs. The women were even more modest. Most wore red or blue rubber caps that bobbed prettily about among the waves.

Because I had so recently observed all that, the sight of this Westerner standing there in front of everyone wearing only a pair of trunks struck me as quite remarkable.

He turned and spoke a few words to the Japanese man beside him, who had bent over to pick up a small towel that had fallen on the sand. His companion then wrapped the towel about his head and set off toward the sea. This man was Sensei.

Out of nothing more than curiosity, my eyes followed the two figures as they walked side by side down to the water. Stepping straight into the waves, they made their way through the boisterous crowd gathered in the shallows close to shore, and when they reached a relatively open stretch of water, both began to swim. They swam on out to sea until their heads looked small in the distance. Then they turned around and swam straight back to the beach. Returning to the stall, they toweled themselves down without rinsing at the well, put on their clothes, and promptly headed off together for some unknown destination.

After they left, I sat down on the bench and smoked a cigarette. I wondered idly about Sensei. I felt sure I had seen his face before somewhere, but for the life of me I could not recall where or when.

I was at loose ends and needing to amuse myself, so the following day I went back to the stall at the hour when I had seen Sensei. Sure enough, there he was again. This time he came along wearing a straw hat, and the Westerner was not with him. He removed his spectacles and set them on the bench, then wrapped a small towel around his head and set off briskly down the beach.

As I watched him make his way through the crowd at the edge and start to swim, I had a sudden urge to follow him. In I strode, the water splashing high around me, and when I reached a reasonable depth, I set my sights on him and began to swim. I did not reach him, however. Rather than return the way he had come, as he did the previous day, Sensei had swum in an arc back to the beach.

I too swam back, and as I emerged from the water and entered the stall, shaking the drops from my hands, he passed me on his way out, already neatly dressed.


The next day I went to the beach at the same hour yet again, and again I saw Sensei there. I did the same the day after, but never found an opportunity to speak to him or even to greet him. Besides, Sensei’s demeanor was rather forbidding. He would arrive at the same time each day, with an unapproachable air, and depart just as punctually and aloofly. He seemed quite indifferent to the noisy throng that surrounded him. The Westerner who had been with him that first day never reappeared. Sensei was always alone.

Finally my chance came. Sensei had as usual come striding back from his swim. He was about to don the kimono that lay as usual on the bench, when he found that it had somehow gotten covered in sand. As he turned away and quickly shook it out, I saw his spectacles, which had been lying on the bench beneath it, slip through a crack between the boards and fall to the ground. Sensei put on the robe and wrapped the sash around his waist. Then, evidently noticing that his spectacles were missing, he quickly began to search for them. In a moment I had ducked down, thrust my hand under the bench, and retrieved them from the ground.

“Thank you,” he said as he took them.

The next day I followed Sensei into the sea and swam after him. I had gone about two hundred yards when he suddenly stopped swimming and turned to speak to me. We two were the only beings afloat on that blue expanse of water for a considerable distance. As far as the eye could see, strong sunlight blazed down upon sea and mountains.

As I danced wildly in place there in the water, I felt my muscles flood with a sensation of freedom and delight. Sensei, meanwhile, ceased to move and lay floating tranquilly on his back. I followed his example and felt the sky’s azure strike me full in the face, as if plunging its glittering shafts of color deep behind my eyes.

“Isn’t this good!” I cried.

After a little while Sensei righted himself in the water and suggested we go back. Being physically quite strong, I would have liked to stay longer, but I instantly and happily agreed. The two of us swam back to the beach the way we had come.

From this point on, Sensei and I were friends. Yet I still had no idea where he was staying. On the afternoon of the third day since our swim, he suddenly turned to me when we met at the stall. “Are you planning to stay here a while longer?” he asked.

I had not thought about it and had no ready answer. “I don’t really know,” I responded simply.

But the grin on Sensei’s face made me suddenly awkward, and I found myself asking, “What about you, Sensei?” This was when I first began to call him by that name.

That evening I called on him at his lodgings. I say “lodgings,” but I discovered it was no ordinary place—he was staying in a villa in the spacious grounds of a temple. Those who shared the place, I also discovered, were not related to him.

Noticing how he grimaced wryly when I persisted in calling him “Sensei,” I excused myself with the explanation that this was a habit of mine when addressing my elders. I asked him about the Westerner he had been with. The man was quite eccentric, he said, adding that he was no longer in Kamakura. He told me a lot of other things about him, then remarked that it was odd that he, who had few social contacts even with his fellow Japanese, should have become friends with such a person.

At the end of our conversation I told him that I felt I knew him from somewhere but could not remember where. Young as I was, I hoped that he might share my feeling and was anticipating his answer. But after a thoughtful pause, he said, “I can’t say I recall your face. Perhaps you’re remembering somebody else.” His words produced in me a strange disappointment.


At the end of the month I returned to Tokyo. Sensei had left the summer resort long since. When we parted, I had asked him, “Would you mind if I visited you from time to time?” “Yes, do,” he replied simply. By this time I felt we were on quite familiar terms, and had expected a warmer response. This unsatisfactory reply rather wounded my self-confidence.

Sensei frequently disappointed me in this way. He seemed at times to realize it and at other times to be quite oblivious. Despite all the fleeting shocks of disappointment, however, I felt no desire to part ways with him. On the contrary, whenever some unexpected terseness of his shook me, my impulse was to press forward with the friendship. It seemed to me that if I did so, my yearning for the possibilities of all he had to offer would someday be fulfilled. Certainly I was young. Yet the youthful candor that drew me to him was not evident in my other relationships.

I had no idea why I should feel this way toward Sensei alone. Now, when he is dead, I understand at last. He had never disliked me, and the occasional curt greetings and aloofness were not expressions of displeasure intended to keep me at bay. I pity him now, for I realize that he was in fact sending a warning, to someone who was attempting to grow close to him, signaling that he was unworthy of such intimacy. For all his unresponsiveness to others’ affection, I now see, it was not them he despised but himself.

Needless to say, I returned to Tokyo fully intending to visit Sensei. Classes would not resume for another two weeks, so I planned to visit him during that time. However, within two or three days of my arrival in Tokyo, my feelings began to shift and blur. The city’s vibrant atmosphere, reviving as it did all my stimulating memories, swept away thoughts of Kamakura. Seeing my fellow students in the street gave me a thrill of excited anticipation for the coming academic year. For a while I forgot about Sensei.

Classes started, and a month or so later I slumped back into normalcy. I wandered the streets in vague discontentment, or cast my eyes around my room, aware of some indefinable lack. The thought of Sensei came into my mind once more. I wanted to see him again, I realized.

The first time I went to his house, he was not home. The second time was the following Sunday, I remember. It was a beautiful day, with the sort of sky that feels as if it is penetrating your very soul. Once again Sensei was out. I distinctly remembered him saying in Kamakura that he was almost always at home. In fact, he had said, he quite disliked going out. Having now found him absent both times I called, I remembered these words, and somewhere inside me an inexplicable resentment registered.

Instead of turning to go, I lingered at the front door, gazing at the maid who had delivered the message. She recognized me and remembered giving Sensei my card last time, so she left me waiting while she retreated inside.

Then a lady whom I took to be Sensei’s wife appeared. I was struck by her beauty.

She courteously explained where Sensei had gone. On this day every month, she told me, his habit was to visit the cemetery at Zōshigaya and offer flowers at one of the graves. “He only went out a bare ten minutes or so ago,” she added sympathetically.

I thanked her and left. I walked a hundred yards or so toward the bustling town, then felt a sudden urge to take a detour by way of Zōshigaya myself. I might even come across Sensei there, I thought. I swung around and set off.


I passed a field of rice seedlings on my right, then turned into the graveyard. I was walking down its broad maple-lined central avenue when I saw someone who could be Sensei emerging from the teahouse at the far end. I went on toward the figure until I could make out the sunlight flashing on the rim of his spectacles. “Sensei!” I called abruptly.

He halted and stared at me.

“How . . . ? How . . . ?”

The repeated word hung strangely in the hushed midday air. I found myself suddenly unable to reply.

“Did you follow me here? How . . . ?”

He seemed quite calm. His voice was quiet. But a shadow seemed to cloud his face.

I explained how I came to be there.

“Did my wife tell you whose grave I’ve come to visit?”

“No, she didn’t mention that.”

“I see. Yes, she wouldn’t have any reason to, after all. She had only just met you. There’d be no need to tell you anything.”

He seemed finally satisfied, but I was puzzled by what he had said.

Sensei and I walked together among the graves to the exit. One of the tombstones was inscribed with a foreign name, “Isabella So-and-so.” Another, evidently belonging to a Christian, read “Rogin, Servant of God.” Next to it stood a stupa with a quotation from the sutras: “Buddhahood is innate to all beings.” Another gravestone bore the title “Minister Plenipotentiary.” I paused at one small grave whose name I could make no sense of and asked Sensei about it. “I think that’s intended to spell the name Andrei,” he replied with a wry little smile.

I found humor and irony in this great variety of humanity displayed in the names on the tombstones, but I gathered that he did not. As I chattered on about the graves, pointing out this round tombstone or that tall thin marble pillar, he listened in silence. Finally he said, “You haven’t seriously thought about the reality of death yet, have you?”

I fell silent. Sensei did not speak again.

At the end of the cemetery a great ginkgo tree stood blocking the sky. “It will look lovely before long,” Sensei remarked, looking up at it. “This tree turns a beautiful color in autumn. The ground is buried deep in golden leaves when they fall.” Every month when he came here, I discovered, he made a point of passing under this tree.

Some distance away a man had been smoothing the rough earth of a new grave; he paused on his hoe and watched us. We turned left, and soon were back on the street.

I had nowhere in particular to go, so I continued to walk beside him. He spoke less than usual. It did not make me feel awkward, however, and I strolled along easily beside him.

“Are you going straight home?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s nowhere else I need to go.”

We fell silent again and walked south down the hill.

“Is your family grave there?” I asked a little later, breaking the silence.


“Whose grave is it? Is it some relation?”


Sensei said no more, and I decided not to pursue the conversation. About a hundred yards on, however, he abruptly broke the silence. “A friend of mine is buried there.”

“You visit a friend’s grave every month?”

“That’s right.”

This was all he told me that day.


I visited Sensei quite often thereafter. He was always at home when I called. And the more I saw of him, the sooner I wanted to visit him again.

Yet Sensei’s manner toward me never really changed, from the day we first exchanged words to the time when our friendship was well established. He was always quiet, sometimes almost forlorn. From the outset he seemed to me strangely unapproachable, yet I felt compelled to find a way to get close to him.

Perhaps no one else would have had this response—others might have dismissed it as folly, an impulse of youth. Yet I feel a certain happy pride in the insight I showed, for later events served to justify my intuition. Sensei was a man who could, indeed must love, yet he was unable to open his arms and accept into his heart another who sought to enter.

He was, as I have said, always quiet and composed, even serene. Yet from time to time an odd shadow would cross his face, like the sudden dark passage of a bird across a window, although it was no sooner there than gone again. The first time I noticed it was when I called out to him in the graveyard at Zōshigaya. For a strange instant the warm pulse of my blood faltered a little. It was only a momentary miss of a beat, however, and in no time my heart recovered its usual resilient pulse, and I proceeded to forget what I had seen.

One evening just at the end of autumn’s warm weather, I was unexpectedly reminded of it again.

As I was talking to Sensei, I was for some reason suddenly reminded of the great ginkgo tree that he had pointed out to me. A mental calculation told me that his next visit to the grave was three days away. My classes would finish at noon that day, so I would have the afternoon free.

I turned to Sensei. “I wonder if that ginkgo tree at Zōshigaya has lost its leaves by now.”

“It won’t be quite bare yet, I should think.” He looked at me, his eyes staying on me for a long moment.

I quickly went on. “Would you mind if I go with you next time? I’d enjoy walking around the area with you.”

“I go to visit a grave, you know, not to take a walk.”

“But wouldn’t it be nice to go for a walk while you’re about it?”

Sensei did not reply at first, then said finally, “My sole purpose in going is to visit the grave.” Clearly, he wanted to impress on me the distinction between a grave visit and a mere walk. It occurred to me that he might be making an excuse not to have me along. His tone seemed oddly petulant.

I felt an urge to press my case. “Well, let me come along anyway and visit the grave too. I’ll pay respects with you.” In truth, I couldn’t really see the distinction between visiting someone’s grave and taking a walk.

Sensei’s brow darkened a little, and a strange light shone in his eyes. Was it annoyance, or dislike, or fear that I saw hovering there? Instantly, I had a vivid recollection of that shadow on his face when I had called out to him at Zōshigaya. This expression was identical.

“I have,” Sensei began. “I have a particular reason that I cannot explain to you for wanting to visit that grave alone. I never even take my wife.”


It all struck me as very odd. But my intention in visiting him was not to study or analyze Sensei, so I let it pass. In retrospect, I particularly treasure my memory of that response to Sensei. Because of it, I think, I was able to achieve the real human intimacy with him that I later did. If I had chosen to turn the cool and analytical eye of curiosity on Sensei’s heart, it would inexorably have snapped the bond of sympathy between us. At the time, of course, I was too young to be aware of any of this. Perhaps that is precisely where its true value lies. If I had made the mistake of responding less than guilelessly, who knows what might have befallen our relationship? I shudder to think of it. The scrutiny of an analytical eye was something Sensei always particularly dreaded.

It became my established habit to call on Sensei twice or even three times a month. One day he unexpectedly turned to me and asked, “What makes you come to see someone like me so often?”

“Well, no particular reason, really. Am I a nuisance, Sensei?”

“I wouldn’t say that.”

Indeed my visits didn’t seem to annoy him. I was aware that he had a very narrow range of social contacts. He had also mentioned that only two or three of his old school friends were living in Tokyo. Occasionally, a fellow student from his hometown would be there when I called, but none of them seemed to me as close to him as I.

“I’m a lonely man,” Sensei said, “so I’m happy that you come to visit. That’s why I asked why you come so often.”

“Why are you lonely?” I asked in return.

Sensei did not reply. He just looked at me and said, “How old are you?”

I could make no sense of this exchange and went home that day puzzled. Four days later, however, I was back at his house again.

He burst out laughing as soon as he emerged and saw me. “You’re here again, eh?”

“Yes,” I said, laughing too.

If anyone else had said this to me, I would surely have felt offended. But coming from Sensei, the words made me positively happy.

“I’m a lonely man,” he repeated that evening. “I’m lonely, but I’m guessing you may be a lonely man yourself. I’m older, so I can withstand loneliness without needing to take action, but for you it’s different—you’re young. I sense that you have the urge to do, to act. You want to pit yourself against something . . .”

“I’m not at all lonely.”

“No time is as lonely as youth. Why else should you visit me so often?”

Here was the same question again.

“But even when you’re with me,” he went on, “you probably still feel somehow lonely. I don’t have the strength, you see, to really take on your loneliness and eradicate it for you. In time, you’ll need to reach out toward someone else. Sooner or later your feet will no longer feel inclined to take you here.”

Sensei smiled forlornly as he spoke.


Fortunately Sensei’s prophecy was not fulfilled. Inexperienced as I was, I could not grasp even the most obvious significance of his words, and continued to visit as usual. Before long I found myself occasionally dining there, which naturally put me in the position of talking to his wife.

Like other men, I was not indifferent to women. Being young, however, I had so far had little opportunity to have much to do with girls. Perhaps for this reason, my response to the opposite sex was limited to a keen interest in the unknown women I passed in the street. When I first saw Sensei’s wife at the door, she had struck me as beautiful, and every time we met thereafter I thought so again. Otherwise I found nothing really to say about her.

That is not to say that she wasn’t special in any way. Rather, she had had no opportunity to reveal her particular qualities to me. I treated her as a kind of appendage to Sensei, and she welcomed me as the young student who visited her husband. Sensei was our sole connection. That is why her beauty is the single impression I remember of her from those early days.

One day when I visited, I was given sake. His wife emerged to serve it to me. Sensei was more jovial than usual. “You must have a cup too,” he pressed her, offering the little sake cup from which he had drunk.

“Oh no, I . . . ,” she began, then rather unwillingly accepted the cup. I half-filled it for her, and she lifted it to her lips, a pretty frown creasing her forehead.

The following conversation then took place between them.

“This is most unusual,” she remarked. “You almost never encourage me to drink.”

“That’s because you don’t enjoy it. But it’s good to have the occasional drink, you know. It puts you in good spirits.”

“It doesn’t at all. All it does is make me feel terrible. But a bit of sake seems to make you wonderfully cheerful.”

“Sometimes it does, yes. But not always.”

“What about this evening?”

“This evening I feel fine.”

“You should have a little every evening from now on.”

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

“Go on, do. Then you won’t feel so melancholy.”

The two of them lived there with only a maid for company, and I generally found the house hushed and silent when I arrived. I never heard loud laughter or raised voices. It sometimes felt as if Sensei and I were the only people in the house.

“It would be nice if we had children, you know,” she said, turning to me.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I replied. But I felt no stir of sympathy at her words. I was too young to have children of my own and regarded them as no more than noisy pests.

“Shall I adopt one for you?” said Sensei.

“Oh dear me, an adopted child . . . ,” she said, turning to me again.

“We’ll never have one, you know,” Sensei said.

She was silent, so I spoke instead. “Why not?”

“Divine punishment,” he answered, and gave a loud laugh.


Sensei and his wife had a good relationship, as far as I could tell. I was not really in a position to judge, of course, since I had never lived under the same roof with them. Still, if he happened to need something while we were in the living room together, it was often his wife rather than the maid whom he asked to fetch it. “Hey, Shizu!” he would call, turning toward the door and calling her by name. The words had a gentle ring, I thought. And on those occasions when I stayed for a meal and she joined us, I gained a clearer picture of their relationship.

Sensei would sometimes take her out to a concert or the theater. I also recall two or three occasions when they went off for a week’s vacation together. I still have a postcard they sent from the hot springs resort at Hakoné, and I received a letter from their visit to Nikko, with an autumn leaf enclosed.

Such was my general impression of them as a couple. Only one incident disturbed it. One day when I arrived at the house and was on the point of announcing myself at the door as was my custom, I overheard voices coming from the living room. As I listened, it became evident that this was no normal conversation but an argument. The living room was right next to the entrance hall, and I was close enough to get a clear sense of the general tone, if not the words. I soon understood that the male voice that rose from time to time was Sensei’s. The other one was lower, and it was unclear whose it was, but it felt like his wife’s. She seemed to be crying. I hesitated briefly in the entrance hall, unsure what to do, then made up my mind and went home again.

Back at my lodgings, a strange anxiety gripped me. I tried reading but found I could not concentrate. About an hour later Sensei arrived below my window and called up to me. Surprised, I opened it, and he suggested I come down for a walk. I checked the watch I had tucked into my sash when I set off earlier, and saw that it was past eight. I was still dressed in my visiting clothes, so I went straight out to meet him.

That evening we drank beer together. As a rule Sensei did not drink much. If a certain amount of alcohol failed to produce the desired effect, he was disinclined to experiment by drinking more.

“This isn’t working today,” he remarked with a wry smile.

“You can’t cheer up?” I asked sympathetically.

I still felt disturbed by the argument I had heard. It produced a sharp pain in me, like a fishbone stuck in my throat. I couldn’t decide whether to confess to Sensei that I had overheard it, and my indecision made me unusually fidgety.

Sensei was the first to speak about the matter. “You’re not yourself tonight, are you?” he said. “I’m feeling rather out of sorts too, actually. You noticed that?”

I could not reply.

“As a matter of fact, I had a bit of a quarrel with my wife earlier. I got stupidly upset by it.”

“Why . . . ?” I could not bring myself to say the word “quarrel.”

“My wife misunderstands me. I tell her so, but she won’t believe me. I’m afraid I lost my temper with her.”

“How does she misunderstand you?”

Sensei made no attempt to respond to this. “If I was the sort of person she thinks I am,” he said, “I wouldn’t be suffering like this.”

But I was unable to imagine how Sensei was suffering.


We walked back in silence. Then after quite some time, Sensei spoke.

“I’ve done wrong. I left home angry, and my wife will be worrying about me. Women are to be pitied, you know. My wife has not a soul except me to turn to.”

He paused, and then seeming to expect no response from me, he went on. “But putting it that way makes her husband sound like the strong one, which is rather a joke. You, now—how do you see me, I wonder. Do I strike you as strong or as weak?”

“Somewhere in between,” I replied.

Sensei seemed a little startled. He fell silent again, and walked on without speaking further.

The route back to Sensei’s house passed very near my lodgings. But when we reached that point, it did not feel right to part with him. “Shall I see you to your house?” I asked.

He raised a quick defensive hand. “It’s late. Off you go. I must be off too, for my wife’s sake.”

“For my wife’s sake”—these words warmed my heart. Thanks to them, I slept in peace that night, and they stayed with me for a long time to come.

They told me that the trouble between Sensei and his wife was nothing serious. And I felt it safe to conclude, from my subsequent constant comings and goings at the house, that such quarrels were actually rare.

Indeed, Sensei once confided to me, “I have only ever known one woman in my life. No one besides my wife has really ever appealed to me as a woman. And likewise for her, I am the only man. Given this, we should be the happiest of couples.”

I no longer remember the context in which he said this, so I cannot really explain why he should have made such a confession, and to me. But I do remember that he spoke earnestly and seemed calm. The only thing that struck me as strange was that final phrase, we should be the happiest of couples. Why did he say “should be”? Why not say simply that they were? This alone disturbed me.

Even more puzzling was the somehow forceful tone in which he spoke the words. Sensei had every reason to be happy, but was he in fact? I wondered. I could not repress my doubt. But it lasted only a moment, then was buried.

Sometime later I stopped by when Sensei happened to be out, and I had a chance to talk directly with his wife. Sensei had gone to Shinbashi station to see off a friend who was sailing abroad that day from Yokohama. Customarily, those taking a ship from Yokohama would set off on the boat-train from Shinbashi at eight-thirty in the morning. I had arranged with Sensei to stop by that morning at nine, as I wanted his opinion on a certain book. Once there, I learned of his last-minute decision to see off his friend, as a gesture of thanks for the trouble he had taken to pay Sensei a special farewell visit the day before. Sensei had left instructions that he would soon be back, so I was to stay there and await his return. And so it came about that, as I waited in the living room, his wife and I talked.


By this time I was a university student, and felt myself to be far more adult than when I had first begun to visit Sensei. I was also quite friendly with his wife and now chatted easily and unself-consciously with her about this and that. This conversation was light and incidental, containing nothing remarkable, and I have forgotten what we spoke of. Just one thing struck me, but before I proceed I should explain a little.

I had known from the beginning that Sensei was a university graduate, but only after I returned to Tokyo had I discovered that he had no occupation, that he lived what could be called an idle life. How he could do it was a puzzle to me.

Sensei’s name was quite unknown in the world. I seemed to be the only person who was in a position to really respect him for his learning and ideas. This fact always troubled me. He would never discuss the matter, simply saying, “There’s no point in someone like me opening his mouth in public.” This struck me as ridiculously humble.

I also sensed behind his words a contemptuous attitude to the world at large. Indeed, Sensei would occasionally make a surprisingly harsh remark, dismissing some old school friend who was now in a prominent position. I didn’t hesitate to point out how inconsistent he was being. I was not just being contrary—I genuinely regretted the way the world ignored this admirable man.

At such times Sensei would respond leadenly, “It can’t be helped, I’m afraid. I simply don’t have any right to put myself forward.” As he spoke, an indefinable expression—whether it was despair, or bitterness, or grief I could not tell—was vividly etched on his features. Whatever it may have been, it was strong enough to dumbfound me. I lost all courage to speak further.

As his wife and I talked that morning, the topic shifted naturally from Sensei to this question. “Why is it that Sensei always sits at home, studying and thinking, instead of finding a worthy position in the world?” I asked.

“It’s no use—he hates that sort of thing.”

“You mean he realizes how trivial it is?”

“Realizes . . . well, I’m a woman, so I don’t really know about such things, but that doesn’t seem to be it to me. I think he wants to do something, but somehow he just can’t manage to. It makes me sad for him.”

“But he’s perfectly healthy, isn’t he?”

“He’s fine, yes. There’s nothing the matter with him.”

“So why doesn’t he do something?”

“I don’t understand it either. If I understood, I wouldn’t worry about him as I do. As it is, all I can do is feel sorry for him.”

Her tone was deeply sympathetic, yet a little smile played at the corners of her mouth.

To an observer, I would have appeared to be more concerned than she. I sat silently, my face troubled.

Then she spoke again, as if suddenly recalling something. “He wasn’t at all like this when he was young, you know. He was very different. He’s changed completely.”

“What do you mean by ‘when he was young’?” I asked.

“When he was a student.”

“Have you known him since his student days, then?”

She blushed slightly.


Sensei’s wife was a Tokyo woman. Both she and he had told me so. “Actually,” she added half-jokingly, “I’m not a pure-blood.” Her mother had been born in Tokyo’s Ichigaya district, back when the city was still called Edo, but her father had come from the provinces, Tottori or somewhere of the sort. Sensei, for his part, came from a very different part of Japan, Niigata Prefecture. Clearly, if she had known him in his student days it was not because they shared a hometown. But since she blushed at my question and seemed disinclined to say more, I did not press the subject further.

Between our first meeting and his death, I came to know Sensei’s ideas and feelings on all sorts of subjects, but I learned almost nothing about the circumstances surrounding his marriage. Sometimes I interpreted this reticence charitably, choosing to believe that Sensei, as an older man, would prefer to be discreet on a private matter of the heart. At other times, however, I saw the question in a less positive light, and felt that Sensei and his wife shared the older generation’s timorous aversion to open, honest discussion of these delicate subjects. Both of my interpretations were of course mere speculations, and both were premised on the assumption that a splendid romance lay behind their marriage.

This assumption was not far wrong, but I was able to imagine only part of the story of their love. I could not know that behind the beautiful romance lay a terrible tragedy. Moreover, Sensei’s wife had absolutely no way of understanding how devastating this tragedy had been for him. To this day she knows nothing of it. Sensei died without revealing anything to her. He chose to destroy his life before her happiness could be destroyed.

I will say nothing of that tragedy yet. As for their romance, which was in a sense born of this dreadful thing, neither of them told me anything. In her case, it was simply discretion. Sensei had deeper reasons for his silence.

One memory stands out for me. One spring day when the cherries were in full bloom, Sensei and I went to see the blossoms in Ueno. Amid the crowd were a lovely young couple, snuggled close together as they walked under the flowering trees. In this public place, such a sight tended to attract more attention than the blossoms.

“I’d say they’re a newly married couple,” said Sensei.

“They look as if they get on just fine together,” I remarked a little snidely.

Sensei’s face remained stony, and he set off walking away from the couple. When they were hidden from our view, he spoke. “Have you ever been in love?” I had not, I replied.

“Wouldn’t you like to be?”

I did not answer.

“I don’t imagine that you wouldn’t.”


“You were mocking that couple just now. I think that mockery contained unhappiness at wanting love but not finding it.”

“Is that how it sounded to you?”

“It is. A man who knows the satisfactions of love would speak of them more warmly. But, you know . . . love is also a sin. Do you understand?”

Astonished, I made no reply.


People thronged all around us, and every face was happy. At last we made our way through them and arrived in a wooded area that had neither blossoms nor crowds, where we could resume the conversation.

“Is love really a sin?” I asked abruptly.

“Yes, most definitely,” Sensei said, as forcefully as before.


“You’ll understand soon enough. No, you must already understand it. Your heart is already restless with love, isn’t it?”

I briefly searched within myself to see if this might be true, but all I could find was a blank. Nothing inside me seemed to answer his description.

“There’s no object of love in my heart, Sensei. Believe me, I’m being perfectly honest with you.”

“Ah, but you’re restless precisely because there’s no object, you see? You’re driven by the feeling that if only you could find that object, you’d be at peace.”

“I don’t feel too restless right now.”

“You came to me because of some lack you sensed, didn’t you?”

“That may be so. But that isn’t love.”

“It’s a step in the direction of love. You had the impulse to find someone of the same sex as the first step toward embracing someone of the opposite sex.”

“I think the two things are completely different in nature.”

“No, they’re the same. But I’m a man, so I can’t really fill your need. Besides, certain things make it impossible for me to be all you want me to be. I feel for you, actually. I accept that your restless urge will one day carry you elsewhere. Indeed I hope for your sake that that will happen. And yet . . .”

I felt strangely sad. “If you really believe I’ll grow apart from you, Sensei, then what can I say? But I’ve never felt the slightest urge.”

He wasn’t listening. “. . . you must be careful,” he went on, “because love is a sin. My friendship can never really satisfy you, but at least there’s no danger here. Tell me, do you know the feeling of being held fast by a woman’s long black hair?”

I knew it well enough in my fantasies, but not from reality. But my mind was on another matter. Sensei’s use of the word sin made no sense to me. And I was feeling a little upset.

“Sensei, please explain more carefully what you mean by sin. Otherwise, I’d prefer not to pursue this conversation until I’ve discovered for myself what you really mean.”

“I apologize. I was trying to speak truthfully, but I’ve only succeeded in irritating you. It was wrong of me.”

We walked on quietly past the back of the museum and headed toward Uguisudani. Through gaps in the hedge we caught glimpses of the spacious gardens, crowded thick with dwarf bamboo, secluded and mysterious.

“Do you know why I go every month to visit my friend’s grave in Zōshigaya?”

Sensei’s question came out of the blue. He knew perfectly well, what’s more, that I did not. I made no reply.

There was a pause, then something seemed to dawn on him. “I’ve said something wrong again,” he said contritely. “I planned to explain, because it was wrong of me to upset you like that, but my attempt at explanation has only irritated you further. It’s no use. Let’s drop the subject. Just remember that love is a sin. And it is also sacred.”

These words made even less sense to me. But it was the last time Sensei spoke to me of love.


Being young, I was prone to blind enthusiasms—or so Sensei apparently saw me. But conversing with him seemed to me more beneficial than attending classes. His ideas inspired me more than the opinions of my professors. All in all Sensei, who spoke little and kept to himself, seemed a greater man than those great men who sought to guide me from behind the lectern.

“You mustn’t be so hot-headed,” Sensei warned me.

“On the contrary, being coolheaded is what’s led me to draw these conclusions,” I replied confidently.

Sensei would not accept that. “You’re being carried along by passion. Once the fever passes, you’ll feel disillusioned. All this admiration is distressing enough, heaven knows, but it’s even more painful to foresee the change that will take place in you sooner or later.”

“Do you really think me so fickle? Do you distrust me so much?”

“It’s just that I’m sorry for you.”

“You can have sympathy for me but not trust, is that it?”

Sensei turned to look out at the garden, apparently annoyed. The camellia flowers that had until recently studded the garden with their dense, heavy crimson were gone. Sensei had been in the habit of sitting in his living room and gazing out at them.

“It’s not you in particular I don’t trust. I don’t trust humanity.”

From beyond the hedge came the cry of a passing goldfish seller. Otherwise all was silent. This winding little back lane, two blocks away from the main road, was surprisingly quiet. The house was hushed as always. I knew that his wife was in the next room, and could hear my voice as she sat sewing. But for the moment this had slipped my mind.

“Do you mean you don’t even trust your wife?” I asked.

Sensei looked rather uneasy, and avoided answering directly. “I don’t even trust myself. It’s because I can’t trust myself that I can’t trust others. I can only curse myself for it.”

“Once you start to think that way, then surely no one’s entirely reliable.”

“It’s not thinking that’s led me here. It’s doing. I once did something that shocked me, then terrified me.”

I wanted to pursue the subject further, but just then Sensei’s wife called him gently from the next room.

“What is it?” Sensei replied when she called again.

“Could you come here a moment?” she said, and he went in. Before I had time to wonder why she needed him, Sensei returned.

“In any event, you mustn’t trust me too much,” he went on. “You’ll regret it if you do. And once you feel you’ve been deceived, you will wreak a cruel revenge.”

“What do you mean?”

“The memory of having sat at someone’s feet will later make you want to trample him underfoot. I’m trying to fend off your admiration for me, you see, in order to save myself from your future contempt. I prefer to put up with my present state of loneliness rather than suffer more loneliness later. We who are born into this age of freedom and independence and the self must undergo this loneliness. It’s the price we pay for these times of ours.”

Sensei’s mind was made up, I could see, and I found no words to answer his conviction.


The conversation preyed on my mind later, every time I saw his wife. Was distrust Sensei’s prevailing attitude toward her as well? And if so, how did she feel about it?

On the face of it, I could not tell whether she was content. I was not in close enough contact with her to judge. Besides, when we met, she always appeared perfectly normal, and I almost never saw her without Sensei.

Another question disturbed me too. What, I wondered, lay behind Sensei’s deep distrust of humanity? Had he arrived at it simply by observing his own heart and the contemporary world around him with a cool, dispassionate eye? He was by nature inclined to sit and ponder things, and a mind such as his perhaps naturally reached such conclusions.

But I did not think that that was all there was to it. His conviction struck me as more than just a lifeless theory, or the cold ruins from some long-dead fire. Sensei was indeed a philosopher, it seemed to me, but a potent reality seemed woven into the fabric of his philosophy. Nor was his thinking grounded in anything remote from himself, observed only in others. No, behind his convictions lay some keenly felt personal experience, something great enough to heat his blood, and to halt his heart.

All this was hardly speculation—Sensei had admitted as much to me. His confession hung in the air, heavy and obscure, oppressing me like a terrifying and nameless cloud. Why this unknown thing should so frighten me I could not tell, but it unquestionably shook me.

I tried imagining that a passionate love affair was in some way the basis for Sensei’s mistrust of humankind. (It would, of course, have been between Sensei and his wife.) His earlier statement that love was a sin certainly fit this theory. But he had told me unequivocally that he loved his wife. In that case, their love could hardly have produced this state of near loathing of humanity. The memory of having sat at someone’s feet will later make you want to trample him underfoot, he had said—but this could refer to anyone in the modern world, except perhaps Sensei’s wife.

The grave of the unknown friend at Zōshigaya also stirred in my memory from time to time. Sensei clearly felt some profound connection with this grave. But as close as I had drawn to him, further closeness eluded me, and in my efforts to know him I internalized in my own mind this fragment of his inner life. The grave was dead for me, however. It offered no key to open the living door that stood between us. Rather, it barred the way like some evil apparition.

My mind was mulling all this over when I found another chance to talk to Sensei’s wife. It was during that chilly time of autumn, when you are suddenly aware of everyone hurrying against the shortening days. In the past week there had been a series of burglaries in Sensei’s neighborhood, all in the early evening. Nothing really valuable had been stolen, but something had been taken from each house, and Sensei’s wife was uneasy. One day, she was facing an evening alone in the house. Sensei was obliged to go off to a restaurant with two or three others, to attend a dinner for a friend from his hometown who had a post in a provincial hospital and had come up to Tokyo. He explained the situation to me and asked me to stay in the house with his wife until he returned. I immediately agreed.


I arrived at dusk, about the time the lights are beginning to be lit. Sensei, ever punctilious, had already left. “He didn’t want to be late, so he set out just a moment ago,” his wife told me as she led me to the study.

The room held a Western-style desk and a few chairs, as well as a large collection of books in glass-fronted cases; the rows of beautiful leather-bound spines glinted in the electric light. She settled me onto a cushion before the charcoal brazier. “Feel free to dip into any book you like,” she said as she left.

I sat there stiffly, smoking, feeling awkward as a guest left to while away the time until the master of the house returns. Down the corridor in the parlor, I could hear Sensei’s wife talking to the maid. The study where I sat was at the end of the corridor, in a far quieter and more secluded part of the house than the sitting room where Sensei and I normally met. After a while her voice ceased, and a hush fell on the house. I sat still and alert, half-expecting a burglar to appear at any moment.

About half an hour later Sensei’s wife popped her head around the door to bring me a cup of tea. “Good heavens!” she exclaimed, startled to find me sitting bolt upright, with the formality of a guest. She regarded me with amusement. “You don’t look very comfortable sitting like that.”

“I’m quite comfortable, thank you.”

“But you must be bored, surely.”

“No, I’m too tense at the thought of burglars to feel bored.”

She laughed as she stood there, the teacup still in her hand.

“It’s a bit pointless for me to stand guard in this remote corner of the house, you know,” I went on.

“Well, then, do please come on into the parlor. I brought a cup of tea thinking you might be bored here, but you can have it there if you’d rather.”

I followed her out of the study. In the parlor an iron kettle was singing on a fine big brazier. I was served Western tea and cakes, but Sensei’s wife declined to have any tea herself, saying it would make her sleepless.

“Does Sensei often go off to gatherings like this?” I asked.

“No, hardly ever. He seems less and less inclined to see people recently.”

She seemed unworried, so I grew bolder. “You are the only exception, I suppose.”

“Oh, no. He feels that way about me too.”

“That’s not true,” I declared. “You must know perfectly well it’s not true.”


“Personally, I think he’s come to dislike the rest of the world because of his love for you.”

“You have a fine scholar’s way with words, I must say. You’re good at empty reasoning. Surely you could equally say that because he dislikes the world, he’s come to dislike me as well. That’s using precisely the same argument.”

“You could say both, true, but in this case I’m the one who’s right.”

“I don’t like argumentation. You men do it a lot, don’t you? You seem to enjoy it. I’m always amazed at how men can go on and on, happily passing around the empty cup of some futile discussion.”

Her words struck me as rather severe, although not particularly offensive. She was not one of those modern women who takes a certain pride in calling attention to the fact that she is intelligent. She seemed to value far more the heart that lies deep within us.


There was more I wanted to say, but I held my tongue, for fear of seeming to be one of those argumentative types. Seeing me gazing silently into my empty teacup, she offered to pour me another, as if to soothe any possible hurt feelings. I passed her my cup.

“How many?” she asked, grasping a sugar cube with a strange-looking implement and lifting it coquettishly to show me. “One? Two?” Though not exactly flirting with me, she was striving to be charming, so as to erase her earlier strong words.

I sipped my tea in silence, and remained mute once the tea was drunk.

“You’ve gone terribly quiet,” she remarked.

“That’s because I feel as if whatever I might say, you’d accuse me of being argumentative,” I replied.

“Oh, come now,” she protested.

This remark provided us with a way back into the conversation. Once more its subject was the one interest we had in common, Sensei.

“Could I elaborate a little more on what I was saying earlier?” I asked. “You may find it empty reasoning, but I’m in earnest.”

“Do speak then.”

“If you were suddenly to die, could Sensei go on living as he does now?”

“Now how could I know the answer to that? You’d have to ask the man himself, surely. That’s not a question for me to answer.”

“But I’m serious. Please don’t be evasive. You must give me an honest answer.”

“But I have. Honestly, I have no idea.”

“Well, then, how much do you love Sensei? This is something to ask you rather than him, surely.”

“Come now, why confront me with such a question?”

“You mean there’s no point in it? The answer is obvious?”

“Yes, I suppose that’s what I mean.”

“Well, then, if Sensei were suddenly to lose such a loyal and loving wife, what would he do? He’s disillusioned with the world as it is—what would he do without you? I’m not asking for his opinion, I’m asking for yours. Do you feel he’d be happy?”

“I know the answer from my own point of view, though I’m not sure whether he would see it the same way. Put simply, if Sensei and I were separated, he’d be miserable. He might well be unable to go on living. This sounds conceited of me, I know, but I do my best to make him happy. I even dare to believe no one else could make him as happy as I can. This belief comforts me.”

“Well, I think that conviction would reveal itself in Sensei’s heart as well.”

“That’s another matter altogether.”

“You’re claiming that Sensei dislikes you?”

“I don’t think he dislikes me personally. He has no reason to. But he dislikes the world in general, you see. In fact, these days perhaps he dislikes the human race. In that sense, given that I’m human, he must feel the same way about me.”

At last I understood what she had been saying about his feelings for her.


Her perspicacity impressed me. It also intrigued me to observe how her approach to things was unlike that of a traditional Japanese woman, although she almost never used the currently fashionable language.

In those days I was just a foolish youth, with no real experience with the opposite sex. Instinctively I dreamed about women as objects of desire, but these were merely vague fantasies with all the substance of a yearning for the fleeting clouds of spring. When I came face-to-face with a real woman, however, my feelings sometimes veered to the opposite pole—rather than feeling attracted to her, I would be seized by a strange repulsion.

But I had no such reaction to Sensei’s wife. I was not even much aware of the usual differences between the way men and women think. In fact, I forgot she was a woman. She was simply someone who could judge Sensei honestly and who sympathized with him.

“Last time you said something,” I began, “when I asked why Sensei doesn’t put himself forward more in the world. You said he never used to be like that.”

“I did. And it’s true—he was different once.”

“So what was he like?”

“He was the sort of strong, dependable person you and I would both like him to be.”

“Why did he suddenly change, then?”

“The change wasn’t sudden—it came over him gradually.”

“And you were with him all the time it was happening?”

“Naturally. We were married.”

“Then surely you must have a good idea of what brought about the change.”

“But that’s just the problem. It’s painful to hear you say this, because I’ve racked my brains, but I just don’t know. I don’t know how many times I’ve begged him to talk about it.”

“And what does he say?”

“He says there’s nothing to talk about, and nothing to worry about, it’s simply that this is how he’s turned out. That’s all he’ll say.”

I did not speak. Sensei’s wife also fell silent. There was no sound from the maid’s room. All thoughts of burglars had vanished from my mind.

Then she broke the silence. “Perhaps you think it’s my fault?”

“Not at all.”

“Don’t feel you have to hide anything, please. It would be like a knife in the heart to have such a thing thought of me,” she continued. “I’m doing all I can for him. I’m doing my very best.”

“Please don’t worry. Sensei knows that. Believe me. I give you my word.”

She took up the fire tongs and sat smoothing the ash in the brazier. Then she poured water from the jug into the iron kettle, immediately quieting its singing.

“I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and said to him, ‘If there’s any fault in me, then please tell me honestly. If I can correct it, I will.’ And he replied, ‘You don’t have any fault. The fault is in me.’ When I heard that, it made me unbearably sad. It made me cry. And I longed more than ever to know how I might be to blame.”

Tears brimmed in her eyes.


At first I had thought of Sensei’s wife as a perspicacious woman. But as we talked, she gradually changed before my eyes; then my heart, rather than my mind, began to respond to her.

Nothing, it seemed, troubled her relationship with her husband—indeed, what could?—and yet something was wrong. But try as she might to learn what the problem might be, she could find nothing. Precisely this made her suffer.

At first she had thought that since Sensei viewed the world through jaundiced eyes, he must view her in that way too. But that answer failed to convince her. In fact, she thought the opposite must be true—that his dislike of her had set him against the world at large. Search as she might, however, she could find nothing that really confirmed this hypothesis. Sensei was in every way a model husband, kind and tender. So she lived with this kernel of doubt sown away in her, below the daily warmth that flowed between them.

That evening she brought out her misgivings and laid them before me. “What do you think?” she asked. “Do you think he’s become like this because of me, or is it because of what you call his outlook on life or some such thing? Tell me honestly.”

I had no intention of being dishonest with her. But I sensed that the root of her problem was something I could not know, and so no answer that I gave could possibly satisfy her. “I really don’t know,” I replied.

Her face briefly registered the unhappiness of one whose hopes have been dashed.

I quickly went on. “But I can guarantee that Sensei doesn’t dislike you. I’m only telling you what I heard from his own lips. He’s not a man to lie, is he?”

She made no reply at first, then said, “Actually, I’ve thought of something . . .”

“You mean something to do with why he’s become like this?”

“Yes. If it really is the cause, then I can cease to feel responsible, and that in itself would be such a relief . . .”

“What is it?”

She hesitated, fixing her gaze on the hands in her lap. “I’ll tell you, and you must be the judge, please.”

“I will if it’s within my power to do so, certainly.”

“I can’t tell you everything. He’d be angry if I did. I’ll just tell you the part that wouldn’t make him angry.”

I swallowed tensely.

“When Sensei was a university student, he had a very close friend. This friend died just as they were about to graduate. It was very sudden.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Actually, it wasn’t from natural causes.”

Her tone provoked me to ask how he had died.

“This is as much as I can say. But that’s when it began. After that Sensei’s personality slowly changed. I don’t know why his friend died, and I don’t think Sensei does either. But seeing how he began to change afterward, somehow I can’t help feeling that perhaps he may have known something after all.”

“Is it this friend’s grave in Zōshigaya?”

“I’m not to speak of that either. But tell me, can someone change so much with the loss of a single friend? That’s what I so long to know. What do you think?”

On the whole, I tended to think not.


I tried to comfort Sensei’s wife as much as my understanding of the facts allowed, and she in turn seemed to try to be comforted. We continued to mull over the question of Sensei together. But I was unable to grasp the real source of the problem. Her distress grew out of vague perplexity and doubts. She didn’t know much about what had happened, and what she did know she could not reveal to me fully. Thus were comforter and comforted equally at sea, adrift on shifting waves. Lost as she was, she clung to what frail judgment I could offer.

At around ten, when Sensei’s footsteps sounded in the entrance hall, she rose to her feet, all thoughts of me and our conversation seeming instantly forgotten. She was there to greet him as he slid open the lattice door, leaving me to follow her out. The maid, who must have been dozing in her room, failed to appear.

Sensei was in rather a good mood, but his wife was even more vivacious. I gazed at her, astonished at the change. Her beautiful eyes had recently shone with tears, and her fine brow had been furrowed with suffering. Surely it had not been deceit, yet one could be forgiven for wondering if her earlier conversation had been a mere feminine ploy, a toying with my feelings. I was not inclined to be critical, however. My primary feeling was relief at seeing her instantaneously brighten. After all, I decided, there was no real need to worry about her.

Sensei greeted me with a smile. “Thank you very much,” he said. “I trust no burglar appeared?” Then he added, “You must have felt the exercise was a bit pointless, if no one broke in.”

“I do apologize,” his wife said to me as I was leaving. Her tone made me feel this was less an apology for taking up my precious time than an almost humorous regret for the fact that there had been no burglar. She wrapped the cakes she had brought out with the tea and handed them to me.

Slipping the package into my kimono sleeve, I set off, winding hurriedly through the chilly, largely unpeopled lanes toward the bright and lively town.

I have drawn the events of that night from deep in my memory because their details are necessary to my story now. At the time, however, as I headed for home with her cakes tucked into my sleeve, I was not inclined to think much about the conversation that had taken place that evening.

The next day after morning classes, when I returned to my lodgings for lunch, my eyes fell on the little parcel of cakes lying on my desk. I immediately unwrapped it, picked up a piece of chocolate-coated sponge cake, and popped it into my mouth. And as my tongue registered the taste, I felt a conviction that, when all was said and done, the couple who had given me this cake was happy.

Autumn ended uneventfully, and winter arrived. I came and went as usual from Sensei’s house, and at some point I asked his wife if she could help me take care of my clothing—around this time I began to wear rather better clothes. She kindly assured me that it would be a fine opportunity to alleviate the boredom of her childless life.

She remarked that a garment I had given her to mend was of hand-woven cloth. “I’ve never worked with such good material before,” she said, “but it does make it hard to sew, I must say. The needle just won’t go through. I’ve broken two already.”

For all her complaints, however, she did not seem to resent the work.


That winter I was obliged to return home. A letter arrived from my mother, explaining that my father’s illness had taken a turn for the worse. Although there was no immediate cause for concern, she wrote, considering his age she felt I should arrange to come back if possible.

My father had long suffered from a kidney ailment, and as is often the case with men of middle age and older, his illness was chronic. But he and the rest of the family believed that his condition would remain stable as long as he was careful—indeed, he boasted to visitors that it was entirely due to his rigorous care of his health that he had managed to live so long.

My mother told me, however, that when he was out in the garden, he had suddenly felt dizzy and fainted. The family at first mistook it for a slight stroke and treated him accordingly. Only later had the doctor concluded that the problem was related to his kidney disease.

The winter vacation would soon begin, and feeling that I could safely wait out the term, I let the matter slide from one day to the next. But as the days passed, images of my bedridden father and my anxious mother kept rising before my eyes, provoking such an ache in my heart that finally I decided I must go home. To avoid having to wait while the money was sent from home, I went to visit Sensei to borrow the amount for my fare. Besides, I wanted to bid him farewell.

Sensei was suffering from a slight cold. He did not feel inclined to come to the living room, so he asked me into his study. Soft sunlight, of a kind rarely seen in winter, was shining through the study’s glass door onto the cloth draped over his desk. In this sunny room Sensei had set a metal basin containing water over the coals of a brazier, so that by inhaling the steam, he could soothe his lungs.

“Serious illness doesn’t bother me, but I do hate these petty colds,” he remarked with a wry smile.

Sensei had never had a real illness of any sort, so I found this amusing. “I can put up with a cold,” I said, “but I wouldn’t want anything worse. Surely you’d be the same, Sensei. Just try getting really ill, and you’ll soon see.”

“You think so? If I were to actually get sick, I’d prefer it to be fatal.”

I paid this remark no particular attention but instead proceeded to tell him about my mother’s letter and asked for a loan.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “I have enough on hand to cover the amount, I think, so you must take it here and now.” He called his wife and asked her to bring the money.

She produced it from the drawer of some cupboard in the far room and presented it to me, placed formally on a sheet of white paper. “This must be very worrying for you,” she said.

“Has it happened before?” Sensei inquired.

“The letter didn’t say. Is it likely to continue?”


This was how I first learned that his wife’s mother had died of the same illness.

“It’s not an easy illness,” I ventured.

“Indeed not. I wish I could offer myself in his place. Does he feel any nausea?”

“I don’t know. The letter didn’t mention it, so I guess that’s not a real problem.”

“If he’s not nauseous, then things are still all right,” said Sensei’s wife.

That evening I left Tokyo by train.


My father’s illness was not as serious as I had feared. When I arrived, he was sitting up cross-legged in bed.

“I’m staying put here just to please everyone, since they worry about me,” he said. “I could perfectly well get up.” Nevertheless, the next day he had my mother put away his bedding and refused to listen to her protests.

“Your father seems to have suddenly got his strength back now that you’ve come home,” she remarked to me, as she reluctantly folded the silk quilt. And from what I could observe, he was not simply putting on a brave face.

My elder brother had a job in distant Kyushu and could not easily get away to visit his parents in any situation short of a real emergency. My sister had married someone in another part of the country, so could not be summoned home on short notice either. Of the three children, I was the one most easily called on, being still a student. The fact that I had followed my mother’s wishes and left my studies early to come home pleased my father greatly.

“It’s a shame you’ve had to leave classes early for such a trivial illness,” he said. “Your mother shouldn’t go exaggerating things in letters like that.”

This bravado was not confined to words, for there he was, with his sickbed folded away, behaving as if his health were back to normal.

“Don’t be too rash, or you’ll have a relapse,” I warned him, but he treated this with happy disregard.

“Come on now, I’m fine. All I have to do is take the usual care.”

And he appeared to be fine. He came and went around the house without becoming breathless or feeling dizzy. True, his color was awful, but this symptom was nothing new, so we paid it little attention.

I wrote to Sensei, thanking him for his kind loan and promising to call in and repay him when I returned to Tokyo in January. I went on to report that my father’s illness was less critical than feared, that we had no immediate cause for concern, and that he had neither dizziness nor nausea. I ended by briefly asking after Sensei’s cold—which was not something that I took very seriously.

I wrote this letter without any expectation that Sensei would reply. Then I told my parents about him, and as I spoke, the image of Sensei’s distant study hovered before me.

“Why not take some of our dried mushrooms to him when you go back?” my mother suggested.

“Fine. But I’m not sure Sensei eats such things, actually.”

“They’re not first-rate ones, but I don’t imagine anyone would dislike them.”

It felt somehow odd to associate Sensei with dried mushrooms.

When a reply came from him, I was quite surprised, particularly because it seemed written for no special reason. I decided that he had written back out of sheer kindness. That idea made his straightforward letter delight me. Besides, it was the first letter I had ever received from him.

Although one might naturally have thought that we corresponded from time to time, in fact we never had. I received only two letters from Sensei before his death. The first was this simple reply. The second was an extremely long letter that he wrote for me shortly before he died.

My father’s illness prevented him from being very active, even once he was up and about, and he seldom went outdoors. One unusually balmy day when he did venture out into the garden, I accompanied him just as a precaution. I offered my shoulder for him to lean on, but he brushed it off with a laugh.


To keep my father from boredom, I frequently partnered him in a game of shōgi. Being lazy, we couldn’t be bothered to set up a special board but sat as usual around the warm kotatsu, placing the board between us on the low table so that between moves we could keep our hands tucked under the rug. Sometimes one of us would lose a piece, and neither would notice until the next game. Once, to great hilarity, my mother had to use the fire tongs to retrieve a lost piece from the brazier’s ashes.

“A go board is too high,” my father remarked, “and it has those legs, so you can’t put it on the table and play in comfort around the kotatsu the way you can with shōgi. This is a fine game for the indolent. How about another round, eh?”

He would always suggest another round whenever he had just won. Mind you, he’d say the same thing if he had just lost. In a word, he simply enjoyed sitting around the kotatsu playing shōgi regardless of the outcome.

At first I found this rare taste of the pleasures of the retired quite beguiling, but my youthful energies soon began to fret at such bland stimulation. From time to time I would yawn and stretch up my arms, waving aloft some piece I happened to be holding.

Whenever I thought about Tokyo, I felt the blood that pumped strongly through my heart pulsing to a rhythm that cried “Action! Action!” Strangely, through some subtle mechanism of the mind, this inner pulse seemed to be empowered by Sensei.

In my heart I experimentally compared the two men, my father and Sensei. Both were quiet, retiring people who, as far as the world at large was concerned, could just as well be dead. Neither received the slightest recognition. Yet playing partner to my shōgi-loving father and sharing his simple enjoyments gave me no satisfaction, while Sensei, to whom I had never gone for mere amusement, had influenced my mind far more deeply than would any idle entertainment. “My mind” sounds too cool and detached—let me rather say “my breast.” It would have felt no exaggeration to say that Sensei’s strength seemed to have entered my body, and my very blood flowed with his life force. When I pondered the fact that my father was my real father, whereas Sensei was quite unrelated to me, I felt as astonished as if I had come upon a new and important truth.

As tedium settled over me, my parents’ initial delight in me as some rare and precious creature was also fading, and they began to take my presence for granted. I suppose everyone experiences this shift when they return home for a vacation—for the first week or so you are fussed over and treated as honored guest, then the family’s enthusiasm wanes, and finally you are treated quite offhandedly, as if they don’t really care whether you are there or not. This second phase now inevitably set in.

These days, furthermore, each time I came home from the city, I brought a new aspect of myself that was strange and incomprehensible to my parents. It was an element that was fundamentally out of harmony with both of them—rather as if, to make a historical analogy, I had introduced into a traditional Confucian household the disturbing aura of forbidden Christianity. Of course I did my best to hide it. But it was part of me, and try as I might to keep it to myself, they sooner or later noticed. Thus I grew bored and disillusioned with home life, and longed to go back to Tokyo as soon as possible.

Fortunately, my father’s condition gave no sign of deteriorating further, although the state of his health continued to be fragile. Just to be sure, we called in a highly reputable doctor from some distance away, but his careful examination revealed no new problems.

I decided to leave a little before the end of the winter vacation. But when I announced this decision, human feelings being the perverse things they are, both parents were against it.

“You’re going back already? It’s very soon, isn’t it?” said my mother.

My father joined in. “You could easily stay another four or five days, surely?”

But I held to my original plan.


By the time I returned to Tokyo, the New Year decorations had disappeared from house fronts. In the city no sign remained of the recent New Year festivities; the streets were given over to a chill, wintry wind.

I took the first opportunity to visit Sensei and return the money I had borrowed. I also brought along the mushrooms that my mother had pressed on me. Laying them before Sensei’s wife, I hastened to explain that my mother had suggested the gift. The mushrooms were carefully packed inside a new cake box. Sensei’s wife thanked me politely. When she rose to leave the room, she picked up the box, then feeling its lightness asked in surprise what the cakes were. It was typical of the wonderfully childlike frankness she could display once she got to know someone well.

Both of them questioned me at length and with great concern about my father’s illness. “Well, it seems from what you say of his condition that there’s no cause for immediate alarm,” Sensei said. “But being the illness it is, he’ll need to look after himself very carefully.”

I could see that he knew a great deal more than I did about kidney disease.

“It’s typical of that illness that the patient feels quite well and unaware of the disease. I knew a military officer who was killed by it—he simply died overnight, quite astonishing. His death was so sudden that his own wife hadn’t even realized he was ill. He just woke her in the night saying he felt bad, and the next morning he was dead. It happened so swiftly that she said she’d assumed he was sleeping.”

The optimism I had been inclined to feel shifted to sudden anxiety. “I wonder if that’s what will happen to my dad. There’s no saying it won’t.”

“What does the doctor say?”

“He says there’s no hope of curing it, but he also assured us there’s no need to worry for the present.”

“Well, then, that’s fine, if that’s what the doctor says. The man I just told you about wasn’t aware he was ill, and besides, he was quite a rough army fellow, not the sort to notice things.”

I felt somewhat comforted.

Seeing this change in me, Sensei added, “But sick or well, humans are fragile creatures, you know. There’s no anticipating how and when they might die, or for what reason.”

“That’s how you feel yourself, is it, Sensei?”

“I’m in fine health, but yes, even I think this from time to time.” A suggestion of a smile played on his lips. “You often hear of people keeling over and dying, don’t you? Of natural causes. And then other people die suddenly, from some unnatural act of violence.”

“What’s an unnatural act of violence?”

“Well, I don’t know. People who commit suicide use unnatural violence on themselves, don’t they?”

“People who are murdered also die from unnatural violence.”

“I wasn’t thinking of murder, but now that you mention it, that’s true, of course.”

So the conversation ended that day.

Even later, after I returned home, my father’s illness did not worry me unduly. Nor did Sensei’s talk of natural and unnatural deaths leave more than a passing, vague impression on my mind. I was preoccupied with another matter, for I finally had to set to and write the graduation thesis that I had tried, so many times, to come to grips with before.


If I were to graduate this June as expected, I had to finish the thesis in the required form by the end of April. But when I counted off the remaining days on my fingers, my heart began to fail me. The other students had all been visibly busy for some time gathering material and writing notes, while I alone had done absolutely nothing toward the paper. I had put it off with the intention of throwing myself into the task after the New Year, and in this spirit I now set about it.

But in no time I ground to a halt. The abstract idea of a grand theme was outlined in my mind, and the framework of the discussion felt more or less in place, but now I sat head in hands, despairing. So I set about reducing my theme to something more manageable. Finally I decided to bypass the trouble of systematically setting down my own ideas. Instead, I would simply present material from various books on the subject and add a suitable conclusion.

The topic I had chosen was closely related to Sensei’s field of expertise, and when I ventured to ask his opinion about it, he had approved. In my present state of confusion, therefore, I naturally took myself straight off to visit Sensei and ask him to recommend some books.

He willingly told me all he knew and even offered to lend me two or three books. But he made absolutely no move to take on the task of actually advising me. “I don’t read much these days, so I don’t know what’s new in the field. You should ask your professors.”

I recalled then that his wife had said that he had once been a great reader, but for some reason his interest had waned considerably.

My thesis momentarily forgotten, I spontaneously asked, “Why aren’t you as interested in books as you used to be, Sensei?”

“There’s no particular reason. . . . I suppose it’s because I believe you don’t really become a finer person just by reading lots of books. And also . . .”

“What else?”

“Nothing else really. You see, in the old days I used to feel uncomfortable and ashamed whenever someone asked me a question I couldn’t answer, or when my ignorance was exposed in public somehow. These days, though, I’ve come to feel that there’s nothing particularly shameful about not knowing, so I don’t any longer have the urge to push myself to read. I’ve grown old, in a word.”

Sensei spoke quite serenely. His words held no hint of the bitterness of someone who has turned his back on the world, so they failed to strike me as they might have.

I went home feeling that, although he did not seem old to me, his philosophy was not very impressive.

From then on I spent my days sweating over my thesis like one possessed, my eyes bloodshot with effort and fatigue. I asked friends who had graduated a year ahead of me how they had fared in this situation. One told me how on the final day of submission, he had hired a rickshaw and rushed his thesis to the university office, barely managing to get it there before the deadline. Another said he had taken it in fifteen minutes past the five o’clock cut-off time and almost been rejected, but the department head had kindly intervened and allowed it to get through.

These tales made me feel both nervous and encouraged. Every day at my desk I pushed myself to the limits of my energy. When I wasn’t seated at the desk, I was in the gloomy library, scanning its high shelves. My eyes foraged greedily among the gold-printed titles on the books’ spines, like a collector avidly searching through antiques.

The plum trees bloomed, and the cold winter wind shifted to the south. Sometime later came the first rumors of cherry blossoms. Still I plowed doggedly ahead, like a blinkered workhorse, flogged mercilessly on by my thesis. Not until late April, when at last I had completed the writing, did I cross the threshold of Sensei’s house once more.


In the first days of summer, when the boughs of the late-flowering double cherries were misted with the first unfurling of green leaf, I finally achieved my freedom. Like a bird released from its cage, I spread my wings wide in delight and let my gaze roam over the world before me. I immediately went to visit Sensei. Along the way my eyes drank in the vivid sight of a citrus hedge, its white buds bursting forth from the blackened branches, and a pomegranate tree, the glistening yellowish leaves sprouting from its withered trunk and glowing softly in the sunlight. It was as if I were seeing such things for the first time.

When he saw my happy face, Sensei said, “So you’ve finished the thesis, have you? Well done.”

“Thanks to you,” I replied, “I’ve finally made it. There’s nothing left to do.”

Indeed I had the delightful feeling just then that I had completed all the work I had to do in life and could proceed to enjoy myself to my heart’s content. I was well satisfied with the paper I had written and confident of its worth. I chattered happily on to Sensei about it.

As usual, Sensei listened with the occasional interjection of “I see” or “Is that so?” but made no further response. This lack of enthusiasm left me not so much dissatisfied as somehow deflated. But I was so full of energy that day that I attempted a counterattack. I invited him to come out with me into the world that was everywhere bursting into fresh green leaf.

“Let’s go for a walk somewhere, Sensei. It’s wonderful out there.”

“Where to?”

I did not care where. All I wanted was to take him out beyond the city limits.

An hour later we had indeed left the city behind us and were walking aimlessly through a quiet neighborhood that was something between village and town. I plucked a soft young leaf from