The story is told in the first person by an unnamed man looking back on his friendship with an older man he calls Sensei. Our narrator during the time of the retrospective is a young guileless man who is student living in Tokyo away from his parents and living a life apart from them without any formed identity yet. He is drawn to Sensei. He seems so remote and isolated. Through their interactions, all from the point of view from our narrator, clues are dropped as to why Sensei holds himself at bay and something in his past. The first part of the novel, which is broken into three parts, focusses on the narrator and Sensei. We get hints of the past but nothing more. Sensei does towards the end of this part become more animated as he talks about planning for his death though under the guise of advising the narrator with regards to his father's impending death. Finally, the author returns to his ancestral home after graduating college, beginning the second part of the story.
The second part deals with his conflict of not fitting in with the morales and expectations of his parents and of the Old World values that are in conflict with the more modern values that promote a Western ideal of individualism. However, our young narrator cannot abandon the Old World traditions either. His father is dying though he appears strong but it is already known that he will die from his kidney illness. Our narrator cannot abandon his father but feels trapped especially when his father's health begins to rapidly decline. He cannot act as an individual and also doesn't have freedom or autonomy that he had previously enjoyed in Tokyo. He is a young man paralyzed. Sensei sends a telegram summoning him to Tokyo but our narrator cannot come. Then, a letter from Sensei comes leading us to the last part of the novel. The last part is a letter from Sensei where he reveals his past and we are left to make sense of it to the present and how it pertains to the narrator.
There are two main themes in this novel that struck me. The first one deals with being caught between a struggle of a culture in transition which subsequently leads to a sense of loss and isolation. The other is the realization that one is not always better than those we villianize. While the first theme can be attributed to historical transitions of Japan's westernization, it also relates to a person coming into their own -- the struggle between individual development away from the family yet also reconciling one's familial identity. Every teenager goes through this. Every college students embark in self-discovery that often does not coincide with their family's conception of them. In this work, the specific values at play are the the Meiji traditions versus the Western individualism that has taken hold in society. While the cities tended to be more advanced in their transition, the countryside tended to hold old values more strongly. So we see, Sensei as part of the early transition and our young narrator as an individual dealing with the struggle a little later in this cultural evolution. However, both still haven't reconciled those differences and thus are isolated with a need to connect.
Sensei holds himself at bay but allows our narrator to become a close acquaintance. We see a need to connect though he feels he is not worthy of it. Why? Spoiler alert -- skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know beforehand. Sensei has used his uncle's betrayal as fuel to hate humanity as a whole for their fallibility especially when money is involved. It was his solace to feel that all of humanity was capable of such treachery. However, in holding onto this hatred and scorn, he failed to recognize his capacity for treachery as well. While his treachery did not involve money, it did involve coveting and betraying someone who trusted him. I'm not sure how I feel about the very end and how Sensei tries to redeem himself. I'll have to think about it some more but at the moment it's hard with my Western notions to understand how he compensates for his past or what the implications are for keeping his betrayal a secret from his wife or even burdening our young narrator with that knowledge and secret.