Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part 2

At the age of 19, Mori Ogai was a qualified doctor, fluent in four languages, with the intelligence and energy to make the world seem very much like his oyster. However, his initial choice of future career was denied him by the inflexibility of Tokyo University`s rulebook; he was deemed too young to enter their research department, despite being patently bright enough to withstand any academic rigours that postgraduate study could hurl his way. He joined his father`s medical practice, but harboured hopes of continuing his study in Germany, which as we saw last week was the world leader in medical science at that time.

Luckily, during his academic career he had made some influential friends. His classmate Koike Masanao wrote a letter of recommendation to the deputy chief of the Army Medical Corps asking him to employ Ogai in a position more suited to his prodigious talents than the mundane demands of his father`s suburban surgery. Koike`s intervention saw Ogai assigned to the Tokyo Military Hospital as a deputy medical officer. He remained a regular visitor to the Nishi household that he had stayed in as a younger boy, and he would often stay there for long periods drawing landscapes in the garden. His sister Kimiko later recalled that he seemed most at ease at these times, and would often sing quietly to himself as he sketched away.

Six months after enlisting, Ogai was summoned with seven colleagues back to Tokyo University, to form a research group devoted specifically to military medicine. They studied the advances in this field of the Prussian army, dominant in Europe since its victory over France in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian War, and in less than a year presented a twelve volume paper to the Chief of the Medical Staff covering all aspects of military hygiene, diet, and medicine as well as incorporating detailed examinations of the funeral arrangements of dead soldiers during wartime, military accounting practices and the compensation of soldiers injured in the line of duty. The Chief of the Medical Staff, impressed and perhaps a little intimidated at the mountain of manuscript, recommended Ogai to continue his study in the areas of military hygiene and bacteriology. To this end he was ordered to go to Germany in the summer of 1884 with the wonderfully vague instructions to learn what he could about those subjects at whatever universities or establishments he saw fit.

The voyage to Germany

Ogai left Yokohama in August 1884, and arrived in Marseille the same October, upon which he travelled to Leipzig and began his studies at the university. The effect of his time in Germany cannot be underestimated. He threw himself into European literature, devouring not just the German classics by Goethe and Schiller, but also the canon of great European literature, reading works by authors as diverse as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov in German translation, giving this the same disciplined attention as he lavished on his medical studies. Life was not all about work academic slog, though. He also enjoyed the cultural freedoms available in Germany, taking part in the evening round of dances, theatre and opera, and moved among the highest levels of society. It was in this period perhaps that Ogai developed what would become a central tenet of his writings; that of being a detached bystander. While he enjoyed participating in the cultural life, he also knew he would never be a true member of the German elite, and responded by keeping a certain distance from proceedings that he would bring into many of his novels; throughout, he observes and participates in events but preserves the ability to study them and himself with a characteristic detachment; a position he was later to refer to as that of the bystander. He also naturally grew much more aware of himself as a Japanese, a theme which later worked its way into his literature in the same way as it did with his Meiji contemporaries; Futabatei Shimei, Natsume Soseki and Nagai Kafu. In Ogai`s case this manifested itself initially in a fierce polemical argument carried out in German newspapers with the renowned geologist Heinrich Naumann.

The Naumann debate

Naumann had spent ten years in Japan, set up the Geology Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce (a year before the founding of the United States Geological Survey) and travelled ten thousand kilometres across every prefecture in Japan in order to create the first geological survey of the archipelago. On his return to Germany, he wrote a number of articles in the Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper critical of the wholesale, unthinking embrace of new Western ideas in Japan, and the consequent decline in traditional Japanese culture. He characterized it as a backward, barbarous place, not yet advanced enough to fully understand European civilization, let alone adopt it as their own. Ogai responded forcefully to this in the press, stating that Japan was no more backward than most of Europe, and in some areas of public life was much more advanced. He pointed out the relative peace and stability that had reigned in Japan for the past 300 years, compared to the religious and political wars that had torn countries asunder in Europe over the same period.

However, Naumann`s other argument that Japan was a mere unthinking mimic of Japanese society was harder to refute; after all, Ogai had been sent to Germany for the sole purpose of absorbing Western knowledge, and Naumann had been employed in Tokyo on a handsome salary for the same reason. From then on, Ogai became ever watchful of the way Japan imported foreign ideas and culture, and this would also inform a great deal of his later work, notably the short stories Moso (Daydreams) and Fushinchu (Under Reconstruction). Upon his return to Japan he would be sternly critical of what he saw as superficial Westernization and insisted upon respect for tradition. As he wrote in Moso, Japan needed to get `back to the roots and off with borrowed clothes`. The Naumann debates gave Ogai both the focus and the impetus for much of his fiction.

This was one of the major themes in both Ogai`s work, and Meiji literature in general; it could scarcely be otherwise given the great change occurring throughout. However, it would take Ogai some years to collect his thoughts on the issue and set it down in writing. He wrote comparatively little while he was in Germany, though he did keep a diary throughout the period which provides much of the detail we have about his life in this foreign land; sadly the diary is only available in the original Japanese (Doitsu nikki) and German translation. In Leipzig between November 1884 and October 1885, he kept a comparatively low profile, lodging in an apartment on Liebigstrasse owned by one Frau Vogel near the university and researching medical hygiene under the supervision of Dr Franz Hoffman at the Leipzig University Hospital. He took occasional trips to Dresden with a German friend some sixty miles away, and recorded in his diary his wonder at the city`s artistic and architectural heritage. When his year`s study came to an end in Leipzig, these trips must have influenced him for it was Dresden where he was to spend the coming months, and Dresden where he was to transform from a diligent but penurious student into a young, confident man about town who reveled in the hedonism of high society.

In addition to beginning his research Ogai was invited to participate in a four month long conference on military medicine which had King John of Saxony as its nominal chairman. The conference was attended by four star generals, highly respected doctors and aristocrats alike, and Ogai recorded understandable astonishment in his diary at the parade of aigretted spiked helmets and lavishly medallioned uniforms which passed for standard garb in this rarefied social atmosphere. Ogai was initially helped through the complex etiquette of this outpost of the German royal court by Wilhelm Roth, the surgeon general of Saxony, and a fellow student and army surgeon called Keirke, whose first name is sadly unrecorded; we do know however that he excelled at languages, and picked up Japanese steadily as his acquaintance with Ogai deepened. Ogai came to be a frequent attendee at dances and plays at the royal court, and he must have cut a very rare dash as a cultured Japanese man in the intimate circles of Saxony nobility. An anecdote from Ogai`s diary illustrates how unfamiliar the Japanese were to Germans at this time; he recounts the tale of a Japanese friend hiking in the Saxony countryside who stayed in an inn on the Elbe river. In the morning, the landlord expressed surprised that the bedsheets had not been stained yellow by the guest`s oriental skin.

Art and Study in Dresden and Munich

In Dresden Ogai also spent a great deal of time watching manoeuvres at Albertstadt, the huge town garrison. He took detailed notes on their procedures for evacuating injured soldiers from the battlefield, which he would later apply to great effect in the Russo-Japanese war. He also passed many hours in the company of Raphael`s Sistina Madonna and many other masterpieces in the Alte Meister, Dresden`s major art collection, and would have doubtless been inspired by the rococo and baroque city centre; a collection of buildings that was widely known as The Jewel Box until the Royal Air Force paid a visit in February 1945.

After the medical conference finished, it was time for Ogai to resume his peripatetic lifestyle and he moved on to Munich, the capital of Bavaria in March 1886. In his diary he recorded the difference between the militarism of Dresden and the artistic atmosphere that prevailed in southern Germany under the unstable but undeniably art-friendly King Ludwig, who famously built Neuschwanstein, the epitome of fairytale European castles. Ogai went to Munich to take up a position as researcher under the famed professor of chemistry and hygiene, Max von Pettenkofer. Pettenkofer was a highly competent and committed (perhaps too committed) scientist who once tried to test a theory about the transmission of cholera by self-administering the disease and studying the results until he became too ill to sit at his desk and write. He had also, more sensibly, made great advances in public health by advocating the construction of a modern sewage system throughout Munich. Ogai may have been brilliant, but he was also extremely lucky to have had some of the finest medical minds in Germany, like Pettenkofer, as teachers and mentors throughout his time there.

Harada Naojiro; friend and inspiration

Ogai`s sojourn in the Bavarian capital was as much an artistic experience as an academic one. There were more Japanese in Munich than Dresden or Leipzig, and he became friends with the painter Harada Naojiro and politician and noble Konoe Atsumaro. Harada in particular became a close friend, and when he passed away in 1889 it was Ogai who wrote a moving eulogy for him in the Tokyo Nichinichi Shinbun. It appears that Harada represented for Ogai a life freed from obligation to country or family and devoted solely to the creation of art. Harada certainly had a naivety with regard to worldly matters; rather than cultivate ties with the rich and noble in the hope of securing a lucrative portrait commission, he would wait for them to find him, and on the rare occasions they did he would not even set a fee for the portrait, but allowed his sitter to pay what they thought it was worth. So it was that with less artistically minded clients he would often recoup little more than the cost of materials involved.

Ogai would later portray Harada in one of his earliest short stories, Utakata no ki (A Sad Tale), where he appears in the thinnest of disguises as the Japanese artist Kose. The story links the lives of two artistic idealists, Marie and mad King Ludwig, and draws them into tragedy together, with Kose forced to observe helplessly, the prototype of Ogai`s `bystander` , foreshadowing the kind of figure who will come to play such a central role in many of the stories he would write two decades later. The subject matter, too, about art and spiritual loss, shows Harada`s influence clearly; without him, the story would likely not exist.
Another character in the same story is the German artist Julius Exter; Ogai does not even bother to veil his identity with a pseudonym. It turned out that Ogai used Exter`s real name because when the story was first published in 1890, he did not expect that anyone would know the young artist`s name, especially in Japan. Exter, however, did go on to become a professional and respected painter in later life, and his beautiful full length portrait of Harada of 1884 today hangs proudly in a Munich collection.

Ogai`s next and final stop in Germany was Berlin, where he arrived in April 1887. The capital was to become a turning point for both his literary career; it was here that he embarked on the torrid love affair which would be the inspiration for his first short story, Maihime (The Dancing Girl). We shall come to this turning point in Ogai`s life next week, and see how it formed the crucial spark of inspiration for him to write his first novel and change the course of Japanese literature and the language itself after his return to Japan in 1888. Don`t miss the next exciting episode!

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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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7 Responses to Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part 2

  1. This is a wonderful and very accessible overview of this great man’s life! Although basic online bios of Mori are pretty common, few of them go into as much detail as your series of posts. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this up.

    • takaihana says:

      Thanks a lot for the kind words Alexander! I`m afraid work commitments have slowed down the writing somewhat, but will certainly keep going so we can take Ogai through his most successful years at least!

  2. Aaron Cohen says:

    Thank you for the Ogai pieces. I’m looking for info on Toson in Paris in 1913-14; any ideas?

    • takaihana says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Aaron. I must admit to almost total ignorance about Toson`s life, though I did read Yoakemae some time ago. As for information about him in Paris, unfortunately there`s not a museum dedicated to him there as there is to Ogai in Berlin, and I don`t think he left much in the way of novels or memoirs about his life in Paris. In translations of works by Meiji authors there is often some biographical notes, and if you can read Japanese there are books like 島崎藤村とパリ・コミューン by Hiroshi Umemoto.
      Apologies if that`s not terribly useful – good luck with your research though!

  3. Haruto Domyoji says:

    Takaihana, this is great work and I am pleased to read it. I’m have been studying Ogai a while and am currently writing my thesis on him, thus I would like to ask you what sources you used to gather this splendid piece of information?

    • takaihana says:

      Haruto, thanks for your message! sorry about the slow pace of postings. For the information I’ve been using a lot of material I picked up from the Mori Ogai Museums in Berlin and Tsuwano, as well as Richard Bowring’s ‘Mori Ogai and the Modernisation of Japanese Culture’, and ‘Youth and other Stories’ and ‘Not a Song Like Any Other’ both ed. J Thomas Rimer as the main sources. I find Rimer’s insights particularly interesting. For the parts on his biological work I found the following paper very useful;
      http://www.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/~medicine/ashm/lectures/Lee%20Jong-Chan-ft.pdf

      Good luck with the thesis, and let me know if I can help with anything else!

  4. John says:

    This is simply a fascinating piece. If you don’t mind, could you please kindly inform me of the date of the diary entry of the following episode? I perused Ogai’s diary, but somehow couldn’t locate this incredibly illuminating story. Thank you!

    “An anecdote from Ogai`s diary illustrates how unfamiliar the Japanese were to Germans at this time; he recounts the tale of a Japanese friend hiking in the Saxony countryside who stayed in an inn on the Elbe river. In the morning, the landlord expressed surprised that the bedsheets had not been stained yellow by the guest`s oriental skin.”

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