- "Why Was He…Well, Killed?" Natsume Sōseki, Empire, and the Open Secrets of Anticolonial Violence
Reflections on News of a Shooting in Harbin
"Why was he…well, killed?" (dōshite, maa korosaretandeshō).1 This question about an outburst of political violence on Japan's colonial periphery appears out of place when it is haltingly voiced not once but twice in Natsume Sōseki's placid domestic novel The Gate (Mon, 1910). The details of the infamous incident in question, however, would have been common knowledge to any Japanese newspaper reader at the time: On October 26, 1909, Itō Hirobumi, a preeminent national figure who had served as Japan's first prime minister and, more recently, the Resident-General of Korea, was fatally shot in Harbin by a Korean man named An Chunggŭn.2 The motives behind the act should have been uncomfortably clear to Japanese subjects: the violence against Itō was an act of protest against the Empire of Japan's ongoing violation of Korea's national sovereignty, a process in which Itō had been most intimately involved.3 The incident produced an outpouring of press coverage in Japan that continued for months, with commentators lamenting the statesman's death, fixating on the bloody details of the case, and exhibiting ambivalent fascination with Itō's assassin.4 On a parallel track, when one fictional character in The Gate—the first Japanese literary work to mention the assassination—hears the news and ventures to ask other members of her household just why Itō had been…well, killed, the dialogue on empire and violence that follows appears to completely miss both the point of the question and the involvement of the Korean shooter.
Just what is this abrupt digression into political violence doing in The Gate's narrative of Japanese domesticity? Put another way, what is the text doing, or declining to do, with the news of an assassination? Although discussion of the incident is confined to a minor space of just a few pages in the novel, which diminishes the news in inverse proportion to its prominence as national happening, Sōseki had previously written about this same topic in a number of essays, published journal entries, and private letters, [End Page 136] signaling more than a passing interest in the case.5 As was openly acknowledged in these writings, news of Itō's death came as a shock because, by odd coincidence, Sōseki himself shared a connection to the historic event. Just weeks before the shooting at Harbin Station, Sōseki had visited that very same spot during his trip to "have a look at what the Japanese are doing abroad" in Manchuria and Korea.6 The confluence of events and itineraries that brought about this close call with monumental violence moved Sōseki to respond repeatedly to the killing in writing. Yet, a distinctive feature of the handful of texts that do touch even briefly on the assassination is that they never identify the Korean agent of violence at the heart of the incident, An Chunggŭn, by nationality or name.
Recent postcolonial critics of Sōseki's work have directed sustained attention to The Gate's dinner-table dialogue about Itō's assassination, treating it as an early manifestation of the novel's rich engagement with empire, nation, and colonialism, and a marker that situates its fictional, private narrative time on a public, historical timeline.7 Komori Yōichi, the University of Tokyo narratologist who has offered path-breaking new ways for approaching Sōseki's novels in terms of counter-discourse, reads the passage that includes the fictional character Oyone's unanswered demand to know "why" as functioning to remind readers of the course of Japan's colonization of Korea, a process that he argues protagonist Sōsuke has "expelled from his own consciousness."8 Others take Komori's analysis further, finding hidden in the novel's central relationship between married couple Sōsuke and Oyone a gendered geopolitical allegory for the coerced colonial union of Japan and Korea.9 These interpretations rely on the conceit that the novel's characters, and by extension its readers, must have repressed the subject...