Sanshiro by Natsume Soseki is a novel about Japanese masculinity in which Sanshiro, our hero, comes to terms with his role as a college-educated man from the country. Sanshiro is a Modern(ist) hero who develops a heightened sense of self-consciousness as a result of the industrialized and urbane environment of higher education in the city, a confusing confrontation with “unintelligible” Western literary artifacts that seem important in Japanese education, and from his indomitable fear of women. In the city, Sanshiro finds himself among flowers with “no fragrance to speak of.” The lectures that he initially painstakingly transcribes come to “neither cheer nor depress him,” and he is “quite unable to determine whether they were boring or not.” In fact, he comes to find it “strangely pleasant that he could not understand the lecture.” This period of Japanese history is referred to as a time in which “a freedom of the mind” is necessary and desirable through education. For this reason, Sanshiro reads his literature closely but “when he asked himself what he read, there was nothing. There was so much nothing, it was funny.” His journey to become an academic becomes meaningful due to its meaninglessness. Sanshiro “could not say he felt satisfied, but neither was he totally unsatisfied.” He is positioned in the lukewarm existence of a Modern hero who straddles — often confusedly — disparate states of being.
Such a contradictory journey leads Sanshiro, of course, to a different — perhaps somewhat related — journey of finding love. The novel begins with an embarrassing encounter with a “dark” woman on the train who weasels her way into his hotel room in order to, apparently, have a sexual encounter after much staring-down. After putting herself in Sanshiro’s way in just about every way imaginable, the woman observes, “You’re quite a coward, aren’t you?” Sanshiro thinks and over-thinks whether he should approach the willing woman. After an uneventful night together, he reflections that “He should have tried to go a little farther. But he was afraid. She called him a coward when they parted, and it shocked him, as though a twenty-three-year-old weakness had been revealed at a single blow.” He comes to the conclusion that “desire is a frightening thing.” Women, really, are frightening things for Sanshiro as we learn through his similar, unproductive affair with Mineko.
Mineko is a Modern Japanese woman who has the license to wear mismatched sandals, bright kimonos, and to give her money to whomever she pleases. She scares Sanshiro but also attracts him. For whatever reason, she likes Sanshiro — seems to want to marry him. Sanshiro wants to marry Mineko the “hypervillain,” too, but doesn’t. He has things to say but “cannot verbalize them” because “women are terrifying.” Mineko is disappointed and marries a very attractive friend of her brother’s. Sanshiro is disappointed and returns to his constant awareness of his body, which reflects the observations that he hears from Professor Hirota (a kind of academic hero) on his way to the city:
“‘We Japanese are sad-looking things next to them [Americans]. We can beat the Russians, we can become a ‘first class power,’ but it doesn’t make any difference. We still have the same faces, the same feeble little bodies.’m […] Sanshiro had never expected to meet anyone like this after Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese war. The man was almost not Japanese, he felt.”
At first disgusted with Hirota’s observations about the Japanese male body, Sanshiro comes to think like-mindedly as he observes “the awareness that he was a youth of the new age had been strengthened […] but nothing else had been strengthened; physically he was still the same.” This sense of Sanshiro’s physicality is contrasted with Mineko’s eventual husband, who is very attractive. Mineko marries the hot friend. Hirota, that all-admired “Great Darkness” doesn’t get a real position with the university.
Sanshiro ends with Sanshiro’s verdict that “Tokyo is not a very interesting place.” We are led to believe that Sanshiro, too, is uninteresting despite all the effort he has put in. His journey is disappointing. He hasn’t changed from the coward that he has been “since childhood.” We are left to acknowledge the role of the Japanese male — especially in contrast to the progressive Japanese female — is an impoverished enterprise.