The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

[Eyes of the Wise] The Soseki Connection: Edwin McClellan, Friedrich Hayek, and Jun Eto

January 29, 2009

Renowned Japanese novelist Soseki Natsume, who witnessed Japan's rapid modernization starting in the late nineteenth century, depicted the lives of intelligentsia in this period. His masterpiece Kokoro (1914) has had a profound impact on intellectual giants in Europe and the U.S., including Friedrich Hayek, Nobel laureate in economics.

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During and immediately after World War II, European intellectuals (particularly Jews) crossed the Atlantic in large numbers, stimulating new currents of thought in the United States. Since then, as the world's most powerful nation, the United States has continued to attract talent not only from Europe but from other parts of the world as well. These circumstances have given the U.S. intellectual community a distinctly international flavor that persists today.

Soseki Natsume
©The National Diet Library

Take Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man (1992), which entered the neoconservative canon soon after its publication. Though still in his fifties, Fukuyama, a third-generation Japanese American, already has a number of important works to his credit, and has played a key role in Western political discourse. What few people know is that his maternal grandfather was one of the polemicists associated with Hajime Kawakami and Soho Tokutomi during the Taisho and early Showa eras. At least during the second half of the twentieth century, the immigrants and refugees who converged on the United States turned the nation into the center of a kind of intellectual whirlpool.

This is the context in which the United States became the stage for a fascinating drama centered around Soseki Natsume's (see note 1) masterpiece Kokoro . In the following I would like to familiarize readers with this drama, which illuminates the impact that this novel, a work embodying the soul of the Japanese people in the modern era, had on some of the core figures in postwar American intellectual history.

A Masterpiece of the English Language

The characters of the story that unfolds below are Friedrich Hayek, Austrian émigré and winner of the Nobel Prize for economics; Edwin McClellan, professor emeritus of Japanese literature at Yale University; Russell Kirk, who helped define the postwar American conservative intellectual movement; and the great Japanese cultural and literary critic Jun Eto. Of these four men, only McClellan is alive today.

McClellan's translation of Kokoro is not only the definitive English translation of Soseki's novel and the version most widely read in the English-speaking world, it is also considered a first-rate work of English-language literature in its own right. (Soseki, like many famous Japanese literary figures, is often referred to by his given name alone.) It is frequently among the first books assigned to students embarking on Japanese studies, including even those concentrating on politics and economics. Kevin Doak of Georgetown University, America's foremost authority on the Japan Romantic School, once told me that students who read it for his class often ask him if the original Japanese is as wonderful as the English.

The story behind the genesis of this translation involves much more than immediately meets the eye. The following account is pieced together primarily from what I was told directly by Kirk, whose friendship I enjoyed, and by the now-retired McClellan, supplemented by the fragmentary written records left by these intellectual giants.

I first learned about McClellan, who was later to win the Kikuchi Kan Prize, in the summer of 1991, when I was visiting political theorist Russell Kirk, a founder of America's postwar conservative intellectual movement, at his home in the little town of Mecosta (population 400) in central Michigan. Kirk's magnum opus The Conservative Mind (1953) is viewed by many as the Bible of postwar American conservatism. I stayed at Kirk's home for several days, and on one evening during my stay, I broached the topic of Japan, interested in hearing the background behind the succinct but very interesting discussion of Japanese conservatism that appears in one of his many books. In his work Kirk states, "Japan wears successively, and perhaps sincerely, a series of Western masks; but these are discarded in turn, for beneath the masks the old Japanese character lives. The present mask of Western materialism and technocracy will not endure forever . . ."

Brief as it is, this passage goes straight to the heart of the matter. I asked Kirk how he had come to such an understanding. He told me that he had never been to Japan, but that one of his favorite writers was Lafcadio Hearn, and that an old friend of his taught Japanese literature at Yale. The friend's name was Edwin McClellan, and he had translated the novel Kokoro . Kirk credited Hearn and McClellan with helping him understand conservative thought in Japan. McClellan, he later wrote me, "is half Ulsterman and half Japanese in parentage [and] looks rather like a Gurkha nobleman . . . You may meet him some day. He is still a British subject."

Edwin McClellan was born in Kobe on October 24, 1925, the son of a British citizen, Andrew McClellan, and a Japanese woman from Yokohama, Teru. Andrew McClellan, who was of Scottish ancestry, was born in Northern Ireland and worked for the British soap giant Lever Brothers (now Unilever). Teru died when McClellan was still a small child. McClellan pursued his studies in English at a British school in Kobe, and after school he would play with the neighborhood children, with whom he spoke Japanese. According to McClellan, he used both languages naturally, without thinking of either one as a foreign language.

When McClellan was 16 years old, war was declared between Britain and Japan with the outbreak of World War II in the Pacific. The following year father and son returned to Britain on a cartel ship. Despite his young age, McClellan was enlisted to assist with Japanese language instruction at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies as part of the war effort. In 1944, when he turned 18, McClellan was able to fulfill his wish of joining the Royal Air Force. However, instead of letting him become a pilot as he had hoped, the RAF decided that his fluency in Japanese made him more useful as an intelligence officer. He was sent to Washington and put to work analyzing Japanese documents and communications. The young philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin was also in Washington at the time, having been recruited by the British Embassy in its efforts to influence U.S. public opinion.

McClellan worked in the United States for a total of three years, part of that spilling over into the postwar period, after which he returned to Britain. In September 1948 he enrolled at the University of St. Andrews, where his studies were focused on the Scottish Reformation. That was where the future translator of Kokoro encountered the future author of The Conservative Mind . Kirk then held a teaching position at Michigan State University but was doing doctoral work at St. Andrews on Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism. The two men had scarcely met than they developed a close personal and intellectual rapport.

Kirk completed the doctoral dissertation that would eventually be published as The Conservative Mind and returned to Michigan State University in September 1952 together with McClellan, who wished to pursue graduate studies at an American university. In April the next year Kirk's The Conservative Mind was published to much critical acclaim. Even the liberal New York Times carried a review heartily commending the book, saying, "It is history as well as argument." It was treated by a host of newspapers and critical journals as a major cultural event.

Kirk thus became the darling of the conservative intelligentsia, but he was at odds with the president of Michigan State University over popularization of the curriculum. Resolving to make a living by the pen alone, he resigned and moved to Mecosta, where his grandfather lived. McClellan, meanwhile, sought admission to the prestigious University of Chicago, where Hayek had recently begun to teach. With the aid of a letter of recommendation from Kirk, as well as letters of his own, McClellan was able to transfer there in 1954, the year after Kirk resigned from MSU.

The Austrian-born Friedrich Hayek had been teaching at the University of London since 1931, but in 1950 he crossed the Atlantic and took up a post at the University of Chicago. His book The Road to Serfdom (1944) had been better received in the United States than in Britain, where it had been published. Hayek's lifelong battle was against totalitarianism, whether in the form of Nazism or communism. At the University of Chicago he was hired not as a professor of economics but as a professor of moral science in the university's Committee on Social Thought (about which we shall have more to say later). He left a deep imprint on twentieth-century thought, winning the Nobel Prize for economics and exerting a profound impact on Milton Friedman (another Nobel Prize winner) and others.

With Hayek as his advisor, McClellan finished his doctoral dissertation in December 1957. Titled "An Introduction to Soseki, a Japanese Novelist," it was in some respects less a literary study than an examination of social thought through the vehicle of Soseki's works. McClellan related the history of his dissertation in the following terms.

While studying the works of people like Mill, de Tocqueville, and Joyce under Hayek and other leading thinkers and scholars of the era, he realized it was time for him to choose a subject for his dissertation. After thinking about it for a while, he decided he wanted to tackle some of the problems of human existence through an analysis of the work of his favorite author, Soseki Natsume. The problem was that at the time Soseki was virtually unknown in the West. Not even his most famous works had appeared in respectable English translations. So McClellan decided to translate his favorite novel of all, Kokoro , himself. He was eager for his two mentors to read it; that, he thought, would be the easiest and fastest way to explain what sort of thinker he wanted to focus on for his dissertation.

McClellan completed the translation and submitted it to Hayek. When Hayek talked to him about it a week later, he was visibly excited, telling McClellan he had been "profoundly moved." It was clear the story had left a deep impression.

Hayek urged McClellan to write his doctoral dissertation on Soseki. He was clearly fascinated by this unknown writer from an unknown society whose work had made such an impression on him.

The University of Chicago is rightly considered one of the finest institutions of higher education in the world. Of the roughly 800 people who have won a Nobel prize, about 80 of them have been associated with the University of Chicago in some way, either as students or as teachers. The university's Committee on Social Thought, where Hayek taught and McClellan studied, had been established in the 1940s to provide an ultra-elite educational setting for interdisciplinary approaches to the basic problems of human society.

Every Wednesday Hayek taught a seminar where McClellan and other students and researchers engaged in free, wide-ranging discussions covering not only philosophy, religion, and history but human knowledge in general. Hayek was joined by people like Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who had played a key role in the development of the hydrogen bomb through the Manhattan Project; sociologist David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd ; and David Greene, the unique Irish-born scholar and translator of ancient Greek, who in addition to teaching also made a living as a farmer.

Tossed into this extraordinary intellectual crucible, McClellan's translation of Kokoro managed to make a profound impression on the giant who stood at the very center of it all, Friedrich Hayek. What exactly was it that Hayek found so moving? McClellan, now past 80, says he no longer remembers their conversation in any detail. He only recalls thinking that Hayek was even more impressed by the story than he, who knew Japanese and had read Soseki from an early age.

Hayek's "Black Light"

It seems to me that Hayek's reaction is easier to understand in the context of events that were transpiring in his personal life at the time.

Having immigrated to London in the 1930s, Hayek had been at the center of a great debate with Maynard Keynes at the University of London and had become completely acclimatized to life in England. His decision nevertheless to move to the United States was closely connected with his divorce from his wife Hella, whom he had married at a young age, and his subsequent remarriage to his cousin and first love, Helene.

Hayek and Helene had been childhood friends and then sweethearts for many years, but a miscommunication had led Helene to marry another. Hayek resigned himself to marrying Hella, who resembled Helene, and the two of them built a family. Hayek and Helene never forgot one another, however, and they maintained a secret correspondence. After Hayek immigrated to England, the two began to think seriously about divorcing their spouses and getting married, but with the outbreak of the war in 1939, they lost touch with one another. When Hayek returned to Vienna from London in 1946 to check on relatives who had remained there during World War II, the two were reunited and decided to put their plans into action. In 1949 Hayek forced Hella to accept a divorce and married Helene in Vienna.

Hayek's friends and acquaintances in London—including his closest friend and University of London colleague, economist Lionel Robbins—were angered over the high-handed way Hayek had divorced and remarried, and sided with Hella. To secure the income he needed to start a new life with Helene even while providing Hella and their children with child support, Hayek had been making plans to take a position at the University of Chicago. After he pushed through the divorce, the indignation of his friends at the University of London was such that he felt obliged to flee to America like a refugee.

In Kokoro , the character known as Sensei feels condemned to live a life suffused by a "black light" after he steals and marries his best friend's sweetheart Ojosan, precipitating the friend's suicide. Reading Kokoro for the first time a few years after his own divorce and remarriage, might not Hayek have identified with Sensei in some way?

Yet it seems likely that Hayek perceived something in Soseki beyond the superficial similarity between his own experience and the protagonist's. Although often viewed as the standard-bearer of free-market laissez-faire economics, Hayek himself, in pursuing freedom to its logical extreme, came face to face with the bankruptcy of modern rationalism. It seems plausible that Hayek's own struggle with the modern predisposed him to respond to Soseki's portrayal of Japan's lonely urban intellectuals and their own struggles with the modern age.

Debunking the Doctrine of Sokuten Kyoshi

What, then, was the substance of the dissertation that McClellan submitted to Hayek along with his translation of Kokoro ?

To begin with, McClellan notes that Soseki resisted being lumped with any other school of writers. McClellan stressed that Soseki wrote about the world he knew, and for this reason his novels are an extremely accurate portrayal of Japanese society around the end of the Meiji and the beginning of the Taisho era. As to the nature of the society thus portrayed, McClellan told me that he believed Soseki depicted urbanization and human loneliness in the modern world better than any writer to that point.

The dissertation McClellan submitted 50 years ago was 88 typewritten pages. On reading it, I was struck first of all by what he wrote about Soseki's concept of sokuten kyoshi in the dissertion's one-page preface.

I have deliberately omitted to mention in the text the much quoted phrase, sokuten kyoshi ("the following of heaven and the denial of self"), which Soseki coined to express what may be called his philosophy of life. It is so personal a statement that nothing worthwhile can be said about it, except that it is perhaps an expression of his desire to view the vicissitudes of life with calm detachment. Such a statement, so nearly banal in itself, is meaningless unless we know the private experience that lies behind it.

Around the same time McClellan was writing this, Japanese literary criticism was being shaken up by the sudden emergence of an exciting new talent. As the critic Ken Hirano put it, "I could not but feel dispirited when confronted with the originality of his acute observations. I thought, ‘Here is an amazing young man.'" What provoked this reaction from Hirano were passages such as the following.

"There are many myths surrounding Soseki, but foremost among these is the myth of sokuten kyoshi . . . . What exactly Soseki was trying to convey with the expression sokuten kyoshi is very unclear. To try to turn it into the organizing principle for his entire oeuvre seems a bit naive."

The young critic in question was Jun Eto, then 23 years old. His critical study Natsume Soseki , put out in November 1956 by a tiny publishing house, almost gave the impression of having been self-published. But it turned out to be Eto's breakthrough work. Completely unaware of this development, McClellan had translated Kokoro for his mentor, the great social thinker Friedrich Hayek, and much like Eto, was using the medium of literary analysis to highlight the questions Soseki posed to contemporary society. And both men unrolled their interpretation of Soseki by puncturing the myth of sokuten kyoshi .

A Lifelong Friendship

Six years after his debut, Eto went to Princeton University to pursue advanced studies under a Rockefeller fellowship. He remained there for another year to teach Japanese literature, using McLellan's translation of Kokoro as one of his texts. Eto first met the translator himself in 1964, and he relates the circumstances of the encounter as follows:

In my class on Japanese literature in translation I had used McClellan's translation of Natsume Soseki's Kokoro , and since then the name Edwin McClellan had been carved into my mind—it was a name I could never forget. That same Professor McClellan was now standing on the stage speaking to us. I gazed up at him and became absorbed in his voice.

Eto goes on to describe the mysterious effect McClellan had on him then and the excellence of his spoken English. He also lavishes praise on McClellan's translation of Kokoro . Eto notes that "it is extremely difficult to accept the novel as a universal human tragedy" because "incidents that are alien to non-Japanese and to some Japanese readers today, such as the end of Meiji or General Nogi's junshi, appear in the novel and are intimately and inseparably linked with its main themes" (see note 2). No acceptable translation is possible, he says, unless the translator accepts the worldview and values of the author and his characters. McClellan not only achieved that but rendered it in beautiful English. "It was for this very reason," Eto writes, "that I was able to deeply trust the translator of Kokoro , Edwin McLellan, before I even set eyes on him."

Of the friendship that quickly developed between the two, Eto went on to write, "In over thirty long years, this trust has not once been betrayed. On the contrary, I have very few friends I can trust as much as I can him, inside or outside Japan." These feelings of friendship extended to the men's spouses as well, so that "Ed and his wife Rachel" became the lifelong friends of the Etos. When Eto was hospitalized with a suspected bone tumor on the lumbar vertebrae, one of his recurring worries was that he might never have a chance to see the couple again.

McClellan spoke equally highly of Eto. Above all he praised his lack of partisanship, which he attributed to an intuitive understanding of and respect for history. It is an assessment that complements Eto's respect for McClellan's extraordinary ability to accept the worldview and values of Soseki and his characters.

From 1967 to 1979 Eto served as one of the editors of the literary journal Kikan Geijutsu (Arts Quarterly). McClellan appeared frequently in the journal, sometimes in conjunction with Eto, and in doing so raised his profile in Japanese literary circles. During the same time he undertook and completed a translation of Naoya Shiga's A Dark Night's Passing , previously regarded as virtually untranslatable because of its stylistic simplicity and irrationality. He dedicated the translation to Eto.

At the same time, however, McClellan was at work on a major project of which the Japanese literary world was quite unaware. That was the work of editing the drafts of Hayek's later works, including his magnum opus Law, Legislation, and Liberty , polishing them into high-quality English. Ever since he had read the translation of Kokoro , Hayek had been greatly impressed by McClellan's mastery of written English. As a native Austrian, Hayek spoke German as his native language, and because he was already in his thirties when he moved to Britain to teach at the London School of Economics, his English writing was never entirely free from German mannerisms.

After completing his doctoral dissertation, McClellan taught at the University of Chicago and Yale University, but he would come to Japan to do research during summer vacation, or whenever he could. On each trip he would bring with him a stack of papers from Hayek's manuscripts and would spend his evenings at his hotel, grappling with Hayek's political thought. Sometimes he would hole himself up all day long, causing raised eyebrows among the hotel staff.

In the preface to Law, Legislation, and Liberty , Hayek acknowledges the contribution of Professor Edwin McLellan of the University of Chicago, thanking him for working diligently to turn Hayek's writing into plain English. But how many followers of Hayek who read the book connect that name with McClellan the foremost authority on Soseki in the English-speaking world?

His Mother's Motherland

McClellan is not your typical scholar. Starting out as a student of the Scottish Enlightenment, he then studied under Friedrich Hayek, and only later, with his doctoral work on Kokoro , became a scholar of modern Japanese literature. As a scholar he was the kind of professor who publishes very little but has a profound influence on his students through his teaching. It would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that his students—including former Harvard University Professor Jay Rubin, the foremost translator of Haruki Murakami's novels, and Alan Tansman of the University of California at Berkeley, noted for his cultural analysis of Japanese fascism—form the backbone of Japanese literary and cultural studies in the United States today. His students at Yale included the novelist Minae Mizumura (married to University of Tokyo Professor Katsuhito Iwai), author of Shishosetsu from left to right (An I Novel from Left to Right), in which McClellan himself makes an appearance as the professor nicknamed Big Mac.

Mizumura writes of the stone building where the professor had an office that "exuded the air of Meiji." Although the professor lived in America, he didn't really live in America. "He lived in prewar Kobe and modern Japanese literature." She describes him as follows.

He had a plump round face like an American hamburger set on top of a diminutive body, but with the arrogant, imperious speech and manner of an English aristocrat. To see this arrogant, imperious professor discuss Soseki with the deepest humility was truly moving, and his own sense of awe for Japanese writers of the Meiji and Taisho eras communicated itself directly to his students.

Mizumura's description accords very much with my own impressions. Even after 50 years in the United States, McClellan has remained a "British subject" through and through, and his allegiance is still to Scotland. At the same time, he cherishes an equal if not greater love for Japan, the homeland of his mother.

McClellan lost that mother before he was old enough to remember her, around the beginning of the Showa era—much like Jun Eto, whose natural mother died when he was three years old. This may be another source of the deep ties that bound the two men.

Contemplating such relationships, one finds oneself not merely moved but more accurately awed by these intellectual giants of Europe, the United States, and Japan and their roles in the sweeping international drama surrounding McClellan's translation of Kokoro .

The original Japanese article appeared in Bungei Shunju, October 2008. If you wish to use the image of Soseki Natsume on this page, you are required to obtain permission from the National Diet Library in advance. ( Link to the National Diet Library )

(1) Soseki Natsume (1867–1916)

Graduated from the Department of English Literature at Tokyo Imperial University in 1893. After working as a teacher at Matsuyama Middle School (Shikoku) and elsewhere, was sent to London in 1900 by the Japanese government to continue his studies. Upon returning to Japan, became a professor at his alma mater. Made his name as a writer with the novel Wagahai wa neko de aru ( I Am a Cat ; 1905-6) and soon after quit teaching to pursue a literary career.

Soseki's novels, which are widely read even today, are remarkable for their in-depth examination of the lives of Japan's intelligentsia in the modern period. Their protagonists are most often college-educated men who suffer from modern Japan's new egoism and are acutely aware of their own estrangement from society. Kokoro (1914; translated as Kokoro , 1957) is the most famous of his later novels. In it the protagonist, tormented by guilt after causing the suicide of a friend who loves the same woman, ultimately chooses death himself.

Born the year before the Meiji Restoration, which transformed Japan into a monarchy ruled by the emperor, Soseki lived through an age of turmoil during which Japan experienced the full impact of Western civilization and evolved rapidly into a modern industrial society.

(2) Junshi

Suicide of a retainer following the death of his lord. Although admired by Japan's traditional samurai society, the practice of junshi was abolished by the Edo shogunate in 1663. Maresuke Nogi, an officer in the Imperial Army, committed junshi together with his wife Shizuko in 1912, on the day of Emperor Meiji's funeral. The incident, which had a profound impact on Japanese society, is mentioned in Soseki's Kokoro .

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