Dismembered and still kicking: “Kokoro” in the Japanese high school textbook

On March 29, the Council on East Asian Studies at the MacMillan Center at Yale presented the 18th Annual John W. Hall Lecture in Japanese Studies featuring Ken K. Ito, a professor of Japanese Language and Literature at the University of Hawaii. (view video) His talk focused on the Japanese novel Kokoro, extracts of which are regularly taught in Japanese high schools. In his talk, Ito explored questions of abridgement and anthologization by asking what it means for a large number of readers to encounter only a portion of a prominent literary work.

Iko began his lecture by joking that “there’s no sure way to kill off a piece of literature than putting it in a textbook.” He noted that though a piece of literature is cut to pieces, “there is still life.” In the case of Kokoro, most high school textbooks only include chapters from the last part of this three-part novel. This is especially concerning given the special place that Kokoro holds in Japanese culture. While some have called Kokoro “a work that supports a portion of what may be called national culture,” Iko questions whether the past popularity of a book is enough justification for including it in textbooks in the future.

The transformation of Kokoro in high school textbooks is “a kind of sickness,” claimed Japanese scholar Komori Yoichi in 1988. Iko criticized this interpretation, noting that the idea of sickness suggests there exists a correct, or healthy, form of reading the text. He said, “no such thing exists.” 

In discussing how Kokoro should be viewed, Iko proposed that it be viewed as a “non-human actor.” He explained that non-human actors help perform actions that otherwise would be impossible without them. Iko said, “Seeing [Kokoro] as a nonhuman actor may help us grasp why Kokoro has built more relationships than any other piece of Japanese literature.”

Referencing the high school language arts textbook Gendaibun, Iko said, “They are also remarkably limited in the quantity of literature they introduce,” he said, explaining that Japanese students read as little as 150 pages a year when studying contemporary writing. Not only is the Gendaibun limited in size, but also in subject matter. Literary pieces are selected based on the approval of the Ministry of Education as well as profit-seeking publishers.

Iko noted that the goal of the Gendaibun was not to valorize a piece of literature, but to standardize it. There is a “striking regularity of form” that gives “no indication that one author or one work may outrank another in the hierarchy of cultural value.” Looking at the curriculum of many Gendaibun books, Iko observed that “the goal is to build reading comprehension skills and to communicate this comprehension to others.” He added, “the skill-based approach encourages a flattened reading.”

Turning to the Kokoro section in the Gendaibun textbook, Iko explained that from 1960s onward, most selections that were included in the textbook primarily came from part three. The selections ranged from 1/12 to 1/8 of the whole novel, most correlating to chapters 40-48 when Sensei betrays K, who then commits suicide. Iko argued that the short selection leaves out the novel’s multivocality and leads readers to a sense of “destructive romantic rivalry.”

Iko noted that many study questions following the textbook chapter focus on the moral indefensibility of Sensei, encouraging a moral reading against purely self-interested actions. In a textbook summary of Kokoro, Senei, “unable to overcome his egotism, despite moral qualms, outmaneuvers his friend and drives him towards suicide.” The framing of Kokoro in Gendaibun suggests its role in a kind of Ministry-approved moral education against egoism.

Written by Julia Ding, Yale College Class of 2019.

April 11, 2017