Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Talking Soseki to the Sosekians

In October last year I received an email out of the blue from a lady called Itsuko Tanji, the chair of the Kyoto Soseki Society (Soseki no Kai), asking if I would like to give a talk on famous author Natsume Soseki at one of their semi-annual meetings. I'd never actually known there was such a thing as a Soseki Society and was intrigued, particularly as the society operated out of Kyoto rather than Tokyo. Itsuko encouraged me to come to one of the society's meetings on a reconnaissance mission ahead of my own talk next year.

The meeting was being held at the Kyoto City Museum and I rucked up there one rainy Sunday in November, still recovering from jet lag from the flight the day before. Itsuko (pictured centre, above) advised me that before the afternoon's two talks (which would be delivered by two distinguished emeritus professors) a tea ceremony, followed by lunch, would be carried out in a tea hut in the grounds of the museum.

I must say that this slightly surprised me as I have never particularly associated tea ceremony with Soseki (the narrator of the 1906 novella Kusamakura - The Three Cornered World - indeed mocks the affections of tea ceremony, probably reflecting Soseki's own position). It's also something which I personally try to avoid, being far too ungainly and impatient in temperament to appreciate the ceremony's stateliness and finer points.

My involvement in the tea ceremony passed off with predictably comical results. First I found it virtually impossible to sit for long on my knees and had to immediately let the side down by assuming a slovenly, but relaxed position. Then, in the forlorn hope that some decorum could be reprised I was offered a tiny metal stool to sit on. Unfortunately the seat was so tiny one could only think it was designed to hold a small teddy bear in a children's nursery and certainly not 90kg of British beef. No sooner had I plonked myself on it than I could gradually feel its little frame being crushed and flattened under me, but not wishing to break decorum again allowed it to wind its slow way towards destruction as I observed, very graciously and slowly, tea being whisked in a bowl in the six mat tatami room.

I took an immediate like however to my host and tea ceremony aficionado, Itsuko Tanji, an embodiment of Kyoto sensibility at its very best. Dressed in kimono, avowing that she spoke not a word of English (though I later discovered that she had lived in Cambridge for a while with her professor husband), Itsuko is a rare combination of elegance and refinery mixed with no-nonsense straight-talking and an insouciant sense of humour. From the off, constant laughter marked our engagement.

I recovered a little from the trauma of the tea ceremony by eating a bento box lunch while watching the rain drop down on the garden around the hut (pictured above), then snaked my way through the enormous lines of people queueing up outside the museum (to view the Ogata Korin exhibition) and found my way to the sizeable auditorium where the afternoon's two talks were to take place. Our first speaker was Toru Haga, ex president of Tokyo University and author of, amongst many other volumes, a chunky volume on Soseki and Fine Art. I had read chapters of the book back in the 90s when I was a grad student and so his talk on Soseki and painting tended to remind me of things I was already familiar with. The second talk, delivered by Professor Hiroshi Kozen of Kyoto University, was on Soseki and kanshi (Chinese style poems) and was stimulating as it connects to an entirely new theory on Soseki and early modern literature I am currently working on.

I was intrigued to observe just how numerous, dedicated and close knit members of the society were, with many of them travelling from all over the country to attend the event. After the talks I was invited to join a select group of about 15 core members of the society in a private room at the Hyatt Hotel across the street and was seated across the vast table facing both my hostess and the two distinguished speakers, whom I immediately engaged in conversation.

Seemingly endless courses of delicious food came and went and bottles of sake circulated. I discovered that my hostess had not only read both my Japanese books on Soseki, but occasionally seemed to recall more of their contents than I could myself. Being slightly slow on the uptake, and with my attention focused on the distinguished speakers, I had hardly talked to the people on my right and left. I assumed they must just be people living in Kyoto who were major fans of Soseki, and it was about two hours into the banquet before I finally got to speaking to the person on my left, the vice chair of the Soseki Society. What aspect of Soseki interested him, I asked banally, and had he ever published anything on the subject, expecting him to say that he written something for the newsletter. In fact, it transpired that he (Takao Mizukawa) had published five books on Soseki including 'Re-reading Kokoro', 'Soseki and Buddhism', 'Soseki and Rakugo', 'Soseki and War', and the book amongst all others I had most been meaning to get round to reading: 'Soseki and Kyoto'.

It gradually dawned on me that just about everyone round the table had published books on Soseki. Even the person (Yoshiharu Suenobu) I engaged in conversation about his book on the director Yasujiro Ozu - which he gifted to me - had, I realised when I got home and scanned my bookshelves, written a large volume on Soseki and London, which I had already read. I finally understood that I was not here present at a gathering of enthusiastic amateurs, but rather, to adopt Dr Who speak, more a participant at a council of Time Lords on Gallifrey: this was an inner sanctum of the Sosekian world.

After several hours of banqueting and chatting - so long in fact that our hostess literally nodded off at the table - we staggered en masse into the lobby of the Hyatt Hotel and had a commemorative photo taken (at top), looking like a group of bedraggled middle-aged survivors of a Kyoto-style May Ball.

A month later, when back in the UK, I received a formal invitation from Itsuko to address the next meeting of the society at the Heian Hotel in Kyoto on April 17 this year. I protested that the timing was not the best, I had commitments in Australia and might be in Tasmania with my young family....Itsuko brushed all these quibbles aside. Couldn't I just leave the family in Australia and come on my own....?

Indeed, how I could I say no to this august body of Sosekians? So it is that I am very much looking forward to speaking to them on the afternoon of April 17 when I will be delivering a talk: 'Two Giants of World Literature: Natsume Soseki and William Shakespeare'. This year is of course the 100th anniversary of Soseki's death in 1916, but it is also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616. It is going to be a lot of fun in this special anniversary year talking about the intriguing connections between these two colossi of world literature.

For all you Sosekians out there, look forward to seeing you at a memorable event in Kyoto this coming April, and bracing my constitution for the party afterwards...

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