Botchan: A microcosm of the lessening importance of ancestry and social rank in the Meiji Restoration In the novel Botchan, author Natsume Sōseki tells the story of a young Tokyoite cast into the rural countryside of Japan to work as a mathematics teacher. This literary masterpiece has struck resounding cords in the heart of Japanese society since its publication in 1906, partially because of its humor as the narrator, Botchan, is the butt of pranks orchestrated by his unruly students. However, the novel also holds historic reverence. Specifically, Botchan exemplifies a citizen who upholds the moral values of his high-ranked ancestors in a period where the importance of ancestry is declining. Though Botchan himself descended from samurais, the Meiji Restoration, a time of extreme modernization in Japan, rendered his ancestral superiority null. Resulting from this breakdown of social hierarchy, Botchan interacts and works under people of lowranking ancestors. These interactions represent a microcosm of the breaking down of social classes in the Meiji Restoration. A comparison of this Restoration with a time of change in a western culture, such as the American Revolution, yields an agreement with the breaking down of social classes, but with differing outcomes for society. Botchan is set in the Meiji Restoration. This turbulent time was spurred by terminating the self-imposed seclusion from the outside world, called Sakoku in Japan. Shoguns of the Edo period attempted to escape western influences, especially Christianity, and made it so that from 1633-1853, it was punishable by death to enter
or leave Japan. However, with little knowledge of the outside world, Japan was at an industrial and economic standstill. Woefully behind other nations, Tokugawa shogunate was surprised when American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Japanese waters with his display of technologically advanced ships. Perry convinced Tokugawa, who was impressed with this new technology, to end the era of seclusion and open Japan to trade with other nations. This international exposure paved the way for the Meiji Restoration. Starting in 1868, the Restoration marked the transition of feudal times to the modern Japan. The Emperor was reinstated, aided by an oligarchy of progressive Japanese, and the caste system was severed. The four divisions of society, which began with merchants, artisans, farmers, and ascended to scholars, were broken down and citizens were unbounded from the hierarchy. Political changes also accompanied these social changes, all tinted with aspects of Western culture. The Charter Oath, set forth by Emperor Meiji, was considered the first constitution and partially modeled after that of the German Empire. However, one of the largest advancements was intense industrialization of Japan as the country technologically caught up with the rest of the world. These many progressions, from political, societal, to industrial, were plagued with battles and wars. Militarization was in high favor because it was necessary for the Restoration to put an end to uprisings from the remainder of the Shogun era. By winning international battles as well, such as the Russo-War and Sino-Japanese War, Japan was quickly becoming a fierce world power (Eisenstadt). Botchan embodies exactly one aspect of what the Meiji Restoration broke down: the caste-like system of social hierarchy. The backbone of the narrator’s identity lay in
his ancestors. Botchan thought: “Whatever faults I may have, my ancestors were retainers of the Shogun, a line of warriors going back to the Emperor Seiwa and descended from the great Minamoto no Mitsunaka. (Natsume, 58)” His strong morals stems from this high-ranked ancestry. Concepts of pride, honor, and honesty, characteristic of samurai, steers his moral compass that is constantly tested by his students, who came from farming and peasant backgrounds. When Botchan admits that he...