Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part One

Between 1850 and 1900, Japan underwent a change as drastic as any nation has undergone in half a century anywhere on earth. The insular nation of 1850 was rocked first by its forced opening to the west at the hands of the American navy in 1853, then by the internal struggles that led to the Shogun relinquishing power in favour of the emperor in 1868. In the years that followed, every aspect of the state changed as a result of the tsunami of foreign ideas that washed over the nation. The shogunate dictatorship became a constitutional monarchy. The country itself got bigger, with Hokkaido and Okinawa (then called the Kingdom of Ryukyu) incorporated fully into the nation for the first time, and the capital city moved 400 kilometres east from Kyoto to Tokyo. Railways, baseball, sociology and the waltz were just a few of the things introduced to Japan in the 1870s alone.

With this great transformation came a slew of great men in all the fields and disciplines you can think of. It`s hardly a scientific measure, but a nation`s banknotes are generally reserved for its worthiest of worthies, and all the people I can think of who have ever been on a Japanese banknote; Fukuzawa Yukichi, Higuchi Ichiyo, Nitobe Inazo, Ito Hirobumi, Natsume Soseki, Iwakura Tomomi and the rest, were active during the reign of the Meiji Emperor from 1868 to 1912.

Mori Ogai was unique even among this embarrassment of notables for rising to the top of two entirely different fields, medicine and literature, during this golden age. To put into context how remarkable this is, imagine if Shakespeare had found time to discover the circulation of the blood between writing sonnets, or if Alexander Fleming had picked up a Nobel Prize for literature before turning to biology and discovering penicillin. He bestrode old and new, east and west, art and science like none other in the Meiji period. This is a short outline of his life, split into parts to spare the reader the effort of ploughing through this literary atrocity in a single sitting.

Mori Ogai (his real birth name was Mori Rintaro, but we will stick with Ogai throughout to avoid confusion) was born into a wealthy family in Tsuwano in south-western Japan in 1862. His father was the physician to the daimyo (chief) of Tsuwano domain and as the eldest son Ogai was expected to become physician in turn, these being hereditary posts in feudal Japan. He was therefore given the best education that could be bestowed upon a boy in such a rural area of Japan; from the age of four he began studying classical Chinese texts and the work of Confucius, and from six he began the study of Dutch under the tutelage of his father; Dutch had long been the only language in which one could seriously undertake a study of medicine in Japan. The first western physician to teach in Japan was the German doctor Franz Philipp von Siebold in the early nineteenth century, but he taught solely in Dutch, and all the early medical books upon which Western medicine was based at this time were from the Netherlands. They entered Japan through the Dutch trading outpost in Nagasaki and were devoured by early converts to the new Western learning. Indeed, in this period the Japanese word for Western learning was rangaku; literally, Dutch study.

The house where he was born still stands in Tsuwano today at the southern end of the picturesque valley which envelops the town, and the modern visitor can easily imagine that Ogai`s early years must have been pleasant, if academically rigorous, in this quiet castle town. It is a very peaceful place, where carp swim in streams flowing beside the main streets, and even the ubiquitous Japanese telegraph pole seems to have been banished, giving the town a nebulous charm seldom seen elsewhere. It was no larger in Ogai`s day than it is now; the valley sides have always prevented expansion and trapped the town in a pleasantly soporific state of calm. Judging by his wish to be buried in a simple tomb near his birthplace Ogai seems to have liked the town; his descriptions of it in the early chapters of the semi-autobiographical novelVita Sexualis describe to the same bucolic quietude that the modern visitor encounters today. In the novel, he recalls that `red camellias could be viewed beyond the wall surrounding our house, and next to the rice granary citrus plants sprouted their pale green buds`.

Just like the subject of the last biography on this blog, Jokichi Takamine, the young Ogai showed great promise in both his linguistic and scientific studies and he was perhaps lucky to have a father who encouraged his son to follow the Western canon of medicine; daimyo physicians had used traditional Japanese medicine (kanpo) for generations, and not all were as perspicacious as the elder Mori in realizing the importance of the new techniques.

Ogai`s study of Dutch ignited a lifelong interest in the West, and far from being weighed down by such a heavy load of learning at such a young age, he seems to have relished it. Records from the Yorokan academy that he attended show that the tutors there estimated him to have the intelligence of a fifteen year old at the age of just nine, and his father is said to have bemoaned the fact that after just three years of study Ogai was just as proficient at Dutch as he was after a lifetime. Recognizing the boy`s precocious talent, his father took him to the new capital of Tokyo at the age of ten in order to give him access to the higher education that was unavailable out in the sticks.

Once in Tokyo it soon became clear that German, not Dutch, was now the language required to pursue the study of medicine. The nation`s centre of gravity had shifted eastwards (Tokyo literally means `Eastern Capital`), and with it the language of medicine shifted from the Dutch influence in Nagasaki into the hands of the groups of German doctors who had begun to gather, practice and teach in Tokyo. German, not Dutch, was now the language du jour of the medical profession. Far from being discouraged, Ogai seems to have welcomed the development as a favourable opportunity to learn another tongue.

Even today the German influence is plain to see in the number of Japanese words related to medicine which come from German; mesu for scalpel, karute for a medical record and gibuzu for a cast to give just a few examples. They also borrowed the German word for a ski slope, Gelände, and a sleeping bag, Schlafsack. All this gives the strong impression that the Germans in Japan were all outdoorsy medical types who liked nothing better than setting up a hospital and then going to enjoy healthful pursuits in the mountains. The Dutch, by contrast, furnished Japanese with its words for alcohol, beer, coffee, dance and holiday, and presumably enjoyed their time in Japan far more than the Germans.

Ogai entered the Shinbun Gakusha, a famous German language academy attended by many members of the nobility. Due to the difficulty of commuting to the school from his father`s house across town, he lived for four years with Nishi Amane, an old family friend from Tsuwano. Nishi was a philosopher and scholar who, among other achievements, was the man who introduced Western philosophy and aesthetics into Japan (as well as the Japanese words for these, tetsugaku and bigaku) and the first recorded Japanese freemason. Ogai`s later works are deeply philosophical, and it is interesting to speculate that his interest in this area might have first been stimulated by hearing the discussions of Nishi and his fellow academics at the family home. Nishi was deeply impressed by his young lodger, and it is speculated that he may well have helped to pay the high school fees necessary at the Shinbun Gakusha, as they would have otherwise taken well over half of his father`s salary. The links between the two families would be severed acrimoniously a decade later, but living with Nishi must have been one of the most exhilarating intellectual experiences of Ogai`s formative years.
Armed with his new knowledge of German and what must have been staggering self-belief, the following year at the age of eleven Ogai lied his way onto the preparatory course at the Tokyo School of Medicine (now the medical department of Tokyo University) by pretending to be thirteen, the youngest age at which they would consider taking a student. His precocity apparently knowing no bounds, he passed up the grades as a medical student into the medical program proper, by which time all the lessons were taught solely in German. He also found time to keep diaries in German and Dutch, read the latest literature ferociously, and took extra classes in classical Chinese poetry. Indeed, his skills in Chinese were so great that he would often write lecture notes in Chinese, and translated stories and poems from Japanese and German into Chinese for his own amusement. To call him precocious is something of an understatement.

He graduated a fully qualified doctor at the age of nineteen on July 4th 1881, making him to this day the youngest ever medical graduate of Tokyo University, a record unlikely ever to be broken. We will leave him, then, hurling his mortarboard skywards on this proud day; next week we will take him into the army, to Germany, and to love, literature and scandal.

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About Japanese travel

I`m a Brit living in Japan, not doing very much of note but enjoying it all the same
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