My rating: 4 of 5 stars
‘Botchan‘ is an amusing account based on the ups and downs of the teaching profession which is closely related to Soseki’s own short-lived stint as a teacher in Matsuyama. It is one of the most widely read novels in Japan and I can see why; anyone who has ever been a student or a teacher can completely relate to the many naughty things teachers AND students get up to. Schools were and still are utterly insane environments, and will drive even the calmest person mad.
This is very much a summer read. It is mischievous and light-hearted with tones of Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn‘ running through it, as Botchan our slightly arrogant narrator, describes his early days as a juvenile delinquent and his karmic comeuppance as a pompous maths teacher. In the beginning Botchan comes across as a naughty kid who never really applies himself to his studies (unlike his brother) and is therefore always getting into all sorts of trouble. However, after his mother’s tragic death he learns to grow up pretty fast. His father and brother look upon him as a waste of space, yet Kiyo the family servant, treats him like a prince, always telling him how he will one day be a ‘great man’.
Never really having any real aims or goals, Botchan soon realises he must do something with his life. When his father dies and his brother sells the family house and moves away to set up his own business, Botchan decides to enroll himself in the Tokyo Academy of Physics, but even this is without any real enthusiasm. A few years later he is graduated and by chance offered the job of mathematics teacher in the backwater town of Matsuyama of all places.
On arrival he realises that Matsuyama is not as refined as Tokyo and it’s people (in his eyes) are equal to that of neanderthals. His observations of the townspeople, students and other professors of the faculty are hilarious as he gives his colleagues nicknames (he never refers to them by their real names anyway). The best thing about Botchan as a character is his inability to see his own shortcomings, yet he moans when bad things happen to him. His students torture him with names like ‘Red towel’ and tease him about his love of onsen’s and noodle bars.
Very soon he discovers that being a teacher means you cannot do whatever you want out of school hours. Living in such a small town means word gets around, and anyone who has ever taught will understand how your actions out of school could so easily be used against you. I found this to be a really faithful account of first-time teaching and how certain events still resonate today even though it was written back in 1906.
Highly recommended to all those entering the teaching profession for a bit of light entertainment. It will certainly take your mind away from all the lesson-planning and essay writing one needs to do during the ITT and NQT years!