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Soseki's perspective on art and tech

Soseki's perspective on art and tech

Over a century ago on January 17, 1914, distinguished novelist Soseki Natsume gave a lecture at Tokyo Higher Technical School, a forerunner of Tokyo Tech. Soseki, best known for the epoch-making Botchan and satirical I Am a Cat, declined to give the lecture countless times. So why did he eventually decide to talk to the students? What did he talk about, and what happened afterwards?

The literature club members made it happen

Soseki's reclusive ways were not unknown. When Kinmochi Saionji, Prime Minister of Japan at the time, invited him and other writers to a party at his residence, Soseki unceremoniously declined the invitation with a postcard. He did, however, agree to a lecture at Tokyo Higher Technical School after being invited some dozen times. It took the persistent members of the School's literature club three years, but finally Soseki acquiesced.

  • Literature Club booklets. A record of Soseki's talk appeared in issue 31, which unfortunately can no longer be found in the Tokyo Tech archives.

    Literature Club booklets. A record of Soseki's talk appeared in issue 31, which unfortunately can no longer be found in the Tokyo Tech archives.

  • Main Building of Tokyo Higher Technical School in the early 1900s

    Main Building of Tokyo Higher Technical School in the early 1900s

Abridged record of Soseki's talk

So what did Soseki have to say to technical school students? "I cannot speak of anything interesting... and my talk has no title." Spoken in a surly voice, these were the opening words to his lecture. The following is an abridged version of the remainder of his one-hour lecture, a precious part of the School's history.

Our crafts are totally different, mine and yours. Were it not for this juncture, our paths would not have crossed. Our approaches to human energy differ radically. You strive to preserve it. I exhaust it. You aim to reduce distances between destinations, save time, make lives easier. That is what you do. It is your specialty. Literature, art, music, and theater, on the other hand, exhaust human energy. That is what I do. I do not measure anything in terms of time or distance. What I do requires no airplanes, no speedy or robust products. Quantity is of no importance. A writer may only produce one masterpiece in a lifetime. In sum, you, who pursues shortened time and mass production, you are the opposite of me.

Your works are universal by nature, mine are personal. But that is not to say I can cut corners. In fact, I too sometimes need laws, albeit for reasons different to yours. Writers need them to add depth and dimension to their writing. When writers acquire hundreds of readers, it must be due to a shared something that connects the readers' minds. This is a kind of law for us writers.

The creators of works in your field are not of particular importance. What you value is the skill, not the individual. Writers are constantly judged based on their works — who they are matters. To put it another way, the quintessence of writers, artists, and musicians is embodied in each particular person. All else is adornment and accessories. Viewing the world from this standpoint would be interesting, would it not? In my opinion, all people must value themselves and, regardless of their affairs, be aware of their personality and individuality. This is genuinely vital in fulfilling our duty as human beings.

I shall end here. While being a simple contrast between your specialty and mine, I believe my talk is also instructive and applies to all of you. It would bring me great joy should my words help you, either as professionals or human beings.

Sequel to the lecture: Student feedback

A recent issue of Tosho magazine featured Soseki's lecture
A recent issue of Tosho magazine featured Soseki's lecture

At a later date, it came to Soseki's knowledge that a student at Tokyo Higher Technical School had not understood his lecture. Having a strong desire to be of benefit to participating students, the writer felt great regret and disappointment upon hearing this. Some of his thoughts at the time were published in an essay in The Asahi Shimbun.

Several days later, when the writer was feeling dejected about the reaction of his audience, Soseki received several letters from other students who had heard the lecture. These letters stated — contrary to Soseki's understanding — that many students had both comprehended and enjoyed the writer's speech. Relieved that the initial student's reaction did not represent that of the whole group, Soseki's feelings of disappointment turned into gratitude.

With aspiring engineers as his audience, Soseki Natsume presented a valuable perspective on the similarities and differences between engineering and literature. His message most certainly left a mark on the students at the time, and still holds a special place in the pages of Tokyo Tech history one century later.

Tokyo Higher Technical School in Kuramae in Taito City

Tokyo Higher Technical School in Kuramae in Taito City

This article is an excerpt from a Tokyo Tech Museum and Archives flyer.

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Published: June 2015