“Botchan” by Natsume Soseki – The New Kid Teacher

“Botchan” by Natsume Soseki (1906) – 172 pages     Translated by J. Cohn

 

“Botchan” means ‘kid’ in Japanese.  The young guy in our novel is no kid; he’s 22 years old.  However among the teachers at the school where he teaches, he is ‘the kid’ teacher.

 This novel brought me back to memories of my first job in downtown Madison, Wisconsin.  I had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 1970 which was a hotbed of radicalism at the time.  I who came from straight off the farm stayed pretty much on the sidelines. For some reason it was very important to me that I get a job right away,  so on the Monday after I graduated I started working at the General Casualty Insurance Company, perhaps the most conservative insurance company in the world.  I had a Bachelors’ degree in Mathematics, and they hired me to do some low level actuarial type work developing rates.

 But first I had to learn the underwriting business.  On the first day, my boss saw that I walked to work and figured out that I walked right past the store where he purchased a cigar every day, so that became one of my duties, to pick him up a cigar each morning.   One of the main responsibilities of an underwriter is cancelling people’s car insurance.  This was based on secret inspection reports the company purchased on all their new insured’s.  If the inspection report said the insured had a drinking problem, we cancelled them right away.  Not only that, but if a single woman was determined to be living with a man, we’d cancel her for ‘moral’ reasons.  I found the whole idea of secret inspection reports on people offensive.  I started expressing some of my opinions to the other underwriters during break time, and pretty soon some of them were calling me ‘a Commie’.

 One Wednesday night, my old roommate and his girlfriend showed up in Madison and invited me to a little party at their hotel room.  We drank wine and smoked dope, and soon it was 3 AM.  Conscientious guy that I am, I showed up for work at the insurance company the next day at my usual time of 8 AM.  Somehow I sort of managed on the job.  Then in the middle of the afternoon, the underwriter who was second-in-charge took me into a private office and told me, “Never, Never show up at work like that again.”  I remember his words exactly.

I really identified with Botchan in this novel.  This is his first job as a teacher.  He’s from Tokyo and now he’s teaching school in some backwater town..  He has funny nicknames for all the other teachers like “Porcupine”, “Redshirt”, “Badger”, and “the Madonna”.  That’s a major difference between me and Botchan;   this first teaching job is mainly a joke for him except that he needs the money.  I took it all quite seriously, not knowing there was any future after this first job. 

Anyhow “Botchan” is a humorous classic in Japan, and I found the humor translated quite well over to our society, because we’ve all had our first jobs.  Apparently the author, Natsume Soseki dashed this short funny novel off in a few days before he wrote his deeper more serious works. 

 According to J. Cohn in the introduction “’Botchan’ remains one of the most familiar, most read, and most loved of all novels in Japan.”  I can fully understand why it is so popular in Japan.   If you are mostly not familiar with Japanese literature, “Botchan” is an accessible humorous novel and a good place to start.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal on November 8, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    What you say about the book reminds me somewhat of E R Braithwaite’s “To Sir With Love”. I love books about schools and will certaionly read this.

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  2. Hi Amrito,
    Botchan is kind of what we call a wiseguy. He makes fun of the other teachers. From what i remember from ‘To Sir With Love’, the young teacher was very sincere. Have you seen the movie ‘To Sir With Love’ starring Lulu and Sidney Poitier?

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  3. I’ve never heard of this writer, but I love teacher books. I was an ambivalent teacher, got into other work as soon as possible, nd found the job very boring: my colleagues were sweet but were middle-aged by my standards. SO UNHIP.

    First jobs are the worst!

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    • Hi Frisbee,
      Sounds like you have had some experience as a teacher, although ambivalent. For me, after my underwriting debacle, I got into computer programming which was something that I mainly enjoyed, but programming in the wrong places could be boring and bureaucratic. My best job was probably working as a programmer in a research laboratory where each person was completely immersed in their own work.

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  4. I’ve been thinking of where to start with Natsume Soseki. I’m not sure if a teacher making fun of others is something I would enjoy, although if it was done good-naturedly, maybe. I am curious, though, because it’s held up over time. Have you read other books by this author?

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    • Hi Claire,
      No, I haven’t read any other Soseki works, From what I read in the introduction to “Botchan”. he tossed off “Botchan” as a humorous novel and later wrote deep works that are widely respected. I think he is considered the great Japanese writer from the early 1900s. The public does love “Botchan”. In Botchan”, I get the joke, but found myself wanting something a little deeper.

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