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Edging Toward Japan: Natsume Soseki's creativity confirmed by Mountains of the Mind

Natsume Soseki
The museum reproduction of Natsume Soseki's study. (Mainichi)

By Damian Flanagan

The other day I visited the Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum in Tokyo that opened a few years ago for the first time. The museum is a magnificent achievement: a highly modern, attractive building that incorporates a lecture hall, a library (containing hundreds of books of scholarship on Soseki) and a cute cafe.

But the highlight must be the painstakingly exact reproduction of Soseki's study used from 1907 to 1916 -- based on photographs of the room taken shortly after his death -- on the exact spot where it once existed. Not only has the room been created with astonishing attention to detail, but the balcony around the study -- where Soseki was famously photographed -- has also been reproduced, together with the exuberant banana plants beyond it.

Several things about the original house caught my interest -- how it was divided into Soseki's writing wing on one side and the family wing on the other, and rather unexpectedly just how impressively high the ceilings were.

The writing wing of the house consisted of an ante-room where Soseki used to hold court every Thursday with his young "deshi" ("disciples"), men who would go on to become outstanding figures across the fields of literature, philosophy, science, publishing in the decades after Soseki's premature death in 1916. This room leads on to the modest study room itself (a mere 10 mat room) where many hundreds of books, Western and Japanese, not only filled the bookcases but were piled up by the score on the floor, leaving Soseki the writer himself only a relatively small area for movement.

There were many hundreds of books (Soseki's total library was over 3,000 books) all crammed into one small working space. The mischievous thought crept into my mind of what Ms. Marie Kondo would have had to say if she visited.

You could of course view the books as "clutter" and confining and perhaps even mentally oppressive. Yet I would like to offer a slightly different psychological analysis.

The first impression you gain is of mountains of books surrounding the author, who sat on the floor with his back to them while he faced the ante-room where he entertained the group of brilliant young talents collectively known as "Soseki's Mountain Range" (Soseki Sanmyaku). In short, the creative space he placed himself in as a writer comprised of a mountain of world thought at his back and a living, breathing mountain range of fresh human talent at his front.

Every general knows that before you go into battle you secure your defences to front and rear. Soseki, too, forged his creative battles secured by mountains of the mind.

Interestingly, Soseki called this house in downtown Tokyo his "sanbo," literally his "mountain room." In fact, as a patron of the museum reminded me when I was there, the museum is not, as sometimes rendered in English, the "Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum" at all, but rather the "Soseki Mountain Range Museum," dedicated to the mountain range of ideas and human talents Soseki fostered when he was there -- a mountain range of worldwide creative talents that is ever-growing.

Visiting the museum reminded me that you can fashion a mental landscape of "mountains" and escape into other worlds of spellbinding creativity out of an assemblage of everyday objects and spatial arrangements where others see only "clutter." The interactions of the human mind and the spaces we inhabit is a subject of far greater complexity and subtlety than is often realized.


(This is Part 17 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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