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The Sōseki of Prague

By Duncan Stuart.

The Sōseki of Prague

“[A]n endeavour is always as hopeless in time as a fish in water. It is a mere point in the movement of the universe, for we are dealing with a human life.” – Georges Bataille, Should Kafka be Burnt?

I am on the trail of a literary mystery. In 1910, Natsume Sōseki published The Gate, a deceptively simply novel about deceptively simple people. In it, the protagonist, Sōsuke, crippled by the prospect of confronting his past, seeks refugee at a Zen temple. Here he is given a koan and meditates on it, seemingly unsuccessfully. He returns home to find the risk of confrontation has passed. The seasons change, and the novel ends.

Towards the end of his stay at the temple the protagonist has a strange vision of a gate he must pass through but cannot:

It appeared to Sōsuke that from the moment of his birth it was his fate to remain standing indefinitely outside the gate. This was an indisputable fact. Yet if it were true that, no matter what, he was never meant to pass through this gate, there was something quite absurd about having approached it in the first place. He looked back. He saw that he lacked the courage to retrace his steps. He looked ahead. The way was forever blocked by firmly closed portals. He was someone destined to neither pass through the gate nor to be satisfied with never having passed through it. He was one of those unfortunate souls fated to stand in the gate’s shadow, frozen in his tracks, until the day was done.

This passage is eerily reminiscent of a better known one: Kafka’s parable Before the Law.  In Kafka’s telling, a man from the country asks for entry to the law from a door-keeper who refuses him. The man from the country remains outside the door, continually trying to convince the door keeper to let him through. He is always refused. This goes on for many years, until the seeker at the door has become old and weary and begins to pass away. Only as he is dying is it revealed to him that the entrance was made for him specifically, and that with his death it will be closed forever.

Although there are a few differences between the stories – for instance, Kafka’s story rests on a dialogue between the seeker and the gate-keeper, whereas Sōseki’s has only a seeker and his thoughts – thematically the passages are very similar. What is the source of this similarity?  The idea that Sōseki influenced Kafka can be ruled out. There is no evidence Kafka would have read Sōseki or anything similiar. In Max Brod’s biography of Kafka, he lists some of Kafka’s favourite writers: Germans, Russians, Englishmen and Frenchmen; from Mann to Dostoevsky, Dickens to Pascal; but no signs of any Asian literature.

The Gate predates the first published version of Before the Law by five years, but there is no evidence that Kafka read it in the intervening time or even that a German translation of The Gate was published before 1915. Trying to track down the earliest German translation of The Gate – Das Tor in German – leads me to a 2010 translation of a Sōseki novel entitled Der Tor Aus Tokio (The Gate of Tokyo). This, however, turns out to be a translation of Sōseki’s novel Botchan. The earliest German translation I can find of The Gate is from 2016 and is only partial.

I can find evidence Kafka influenced Sōseki. I find a portion of The Theatre of Suzuki Tadashi online. I have never heard of Suzuki Tadahi before, but it makes reference to a Sōseki translation of “Kafka’s At The Door of The Law”. Everything indicates that At The Door of The Law is the text I have been calling Before The Law. The Sōseki translation must have been swift; Before The Law was published in 1915 and Sōseki died the following year. However, this does not help me, as The Gate predates the first published version of Before the Law by five years. So Sōseki knew about and read Kafka but outside of a chronology that would resolve this mystery.


This seems to be the pattern; all attempts to research Kafka and Japanese literature suggest influence going in the opposite direction to what one might expect. I only find out about Kafka’s influence on Japanese literature, and mostly post-Second World War literature. Kafka is an influence on Murakami (author of Kafka on the Shore) and on Kobo Abe (who is said to be the “Kafka of Japan”). Nowhere is anyone calling Kafka the “Sōseki of Prague”.

Perhaps the influence is more refracted. Sōseki reads some earlier Kafka, picks up on some of the themes and recurring images, and writes a passage Kafka ends up later recreating independently, in a literary version of convergent evolution. Following this line of thought, I try to find out what Sōseki read in his lifetime. Sōseki would have known and read English and European literature; he lived in England for two years. However, this was from 1900-1902, a good six to eight years before Kafka’s first published works. Perhaps a European or English friend wrote to him and told him about Kafka? Surely he read Kafka before his alleged translation of Before the Law.

The theory is tantalising, but insufficient. Sōseki lives close to Europe, but not on the mainland, and the dates are almost right, but wrong enough to be a dead end. My luck turns, however, as I discover that the Tohoku University library houses Sōseki’s personal library. In no state, financial or otherwise, to fly to Japan, I see if there are some clues on their website. The link “composition of the Soseki collection” takes me to a chart quantifying the books he owned, based on topic and language, but not author.  Finally, after three or four dead links, I open what appears to be a catalogue. It is hard to tell though, because it is written almost entirely in Japanese script. Some of the titles have been translated into English, sometimes containing strange distortions, or missing authors. The phrase “Guy de Maupassant 1850-93” occurs in the middle of a chunk of Japanese text. The entry for Thus Spoke Zarathustra only lists the translator, not the author. The word “Dixon!” is inserted three times into a block of otherwise alien (to me) symbols. Amongst all the noise I search for the following “kafka”, “franz”, “before the law”, “before the door of the law”. The result is appropriate: I am denied. 

I decide to widen the circle of thematic influence. Perhaps Kafka and Sōseki are both influenced by Buddhist or eastern ideas? An article on symbolism in Before the Law starts by discussing Buddhist koans. The idea is that Kafka and koans are similar because they both revel in paradox; perhaps the similarity of these passages has its origin here. What did Kafka know of Buddhism? The answer, which at this stage is becoming predictable, is very little. I find an edition of the literary journal Symposium dedicated to the theme “Kafka and the East”. In it, I discover that, despite Dennis McCort’s best efforts, the earliest discussion of Zen Buddhism he can find in German dates from 1922. According to Dr. McCort, the first general introduction to Zen in German appears in 1925. This is doubly beside the point – by this time, both Kafka and Sōseki were well and truly in the ground.

However, there are a few glimmers of hope. I disagree with the esteemed Dennis, as I know that the German translation of The Book of Tea into German was completed 1919, a book which mentions Zen. This book was written in English and available from 1906. I know this because The Book of Tea is at the heart of a controversy. It is claimed that no less a figure than Martin Heidegger stole his notion of Being-In-The-World from the Book of Tea. This is at least one case of coincidence that works out chronologically. I’m not, however, as lucky as old Martin. 

I am getting distracted. But this detour over Heidegger has gotten me thinking about philosophical influences. I soon stumble across another tantalising but insufficient clue.  I discover that the title for Sōseki’s novel, The Gate, was chosen, more or less at random, from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Both Sōseki and Kafka read Nietzsche. We know that Nietzsche knew of Buddhism, although he had far better access to sources about Indian Buddhism than Zen Buddhism. Close, yet so far.

Another side note – I search for Nietzsche and Zen Buddhism online, only for the first result to be a $146 book on the topic. Yet again, I have been waylaid by late capitalism.

I recall two facts. The first is the existence of a dusty tome I read in university entitled Kierkegaard and Japanese Thought, and the second is that Kafka read Kierkegaard. Another glimmer of hope emerges. I go back to revisit this text, only to find this blurb online:

Kierkegaard knew nothing of Japanese philosophy yet the links between his own ideas and Japanese philosophers are remarkable. The book examines Kierkegaard in terms of Shinto, Pure Land Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, the Samurai, the famous Kyoto school of Japanese philosophers, and in terms of pivotal Japanese thinkers who were influenced by Kierkegaard.

I am back where I started. I have replaced Kafka with Kierkegaard and learnt nothing. Much like Josef K. in The Trial, my progress is all an illusion, my every success false. The Trial, in which Before the Law appears, is an interminable novel; the eponymous trial is always postponed. The novel and its characters avoid things, Josef K’s question go unanswered, and every time he makes progress or feels he is getting somewhere he ends up slipping back to where he started.

I too am awaiting my day in court, sending out this piece in the hope that a shadowy scholar of Japanese or German literature will emerge to reveal a crucial missing piece of information; or that an as-yet-unpublished memoir or diary page or letter will crack the door of this mystery and let answers come pouring out; or that one day, researching a different coincidence, I will discover an obscure essay by an long forgotten academic (perhaps one who never made it past associate professor and died in poverty, adored by his students and ignored by the academy) that explains how Natsume Sōseki and Franz Kafka wrote startlingly similar passages within five year of each other without ever having read each other. I am resigned to my fate, however; “coincidence” shall have to do for now.

I would call all this theological if it wasn’t so absurd.


Duncan Stuart

Duncan Stuart lives in Canberra. His writings have appeared in OverlandDemos Journal and The RiotAct.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 21st, 2018.