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Edging Toward Japan: Natsume Soseki's subversive use of words

Natsume Soseki

By Damian Flanagan

    About 15 years ago, I remember having a conversation with an Irish bartender in Osaka about the Japanese word "yabai." The word was originally used by Japanese criminals as indicating the threat of imminent capture by the police, but had entered common parlance as representing something you did not like the sound of. I droned on that it was quite a difficult word to translate into English. My Dublin friend, with characteristic impatience for such pretentious blather, immediately cut me short and remarked that what "yabai" really meant then was, "F--- that!" This made me laugh, and it stayed in my mind as the best possible translation.

    But reading a newspaper a couple of years ago, I was shocked to discover that while I wasn't paying attention, "yabai" had completely changed its meaning. It seems that even 10 years ago, 70% of teenagers had switched to using "yabai" as meaning "terrific" or "wonderful."

    It's interesting the way that words have the capacity to transform their meaning. For example, in English, the word "sick" started to be used a few years ago by young people as meaning "great" and the expression "wicked!" has long been used to mean "terrific!"

    What people seek from language is not necessarily clarity of meaning: Language often represents the restlessness of the human condition, constantly seeking to invert and subvert that which has gone before.

    There is nothing new about words being used to convey an opposite, ironic meaning. In his 1904 story, "The Tower of London," Natsume Soseki refers to such words as "hango." He writes: "There is in the world a thing called irony. One says white and means black; one advocates small and suggests big. Amongst all ironies, there is none as fierce as the irony left unwittingly to posterity.

    Indeed Soseki specifically later remarked how the word "sensei" can be used ironically to mean "baka" (idiot). It's curious when classic works like "Kokoro" are taught by learned teachers to young students, they usually completely fail to understand a writer like Soseki's subversive use of words. When he writes of a character called "sensei," does he mean us to read it in a "sincere" or "ironically inverted" sense? Most teachers, I've discovered, have little sense of irony.

    Perhaps in this sense, their young students, attuned to rapidly switching senses of meaning, are better placed to grasp Soseki's deft sense of satire. "The sensei character in 'Kokoro' is yabai" is the kind of ambiguous statement that teachers would probably frown upon, and yet contains exactly the type of contradictory nuances and "hango" that Soseki intended.


    (This is Part 6 of a series)

    In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.


    Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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