Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part Three

Ogai found love in Berlin, but his original purpose for going to the great capital was to meet with Kitasato Shibasaburo, a physician studying in Berlin under Robert Koch, the famed microbiologist. Kitasato cut an impressive figure, tall, rotund and possessed of a powerful voice; when he later founded the Institute for the Study of Infectious Disease at Keio University his students affectionately nicknamed him Donner Sensei, or `Thunder teacher`. It is instructive that even into the twentieth century German was still so prevalent as the language of medical instruction that students used it as a humorous nickname for their rambunctious professor.

Ogai mst have impressed, for Kitasato soon introduced him to Dr. Koch. Koch was a brilliant scientist who isolated the causative microbes behind some pretty nasty diseases; tuberculosis, cholera and anthrax. He would later win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905 and became known as one of the founders of the discipline of microbiology along with Louis Pasteur. In short, Ogai could not have wished for a more qualified mentor. Koch was actually a rival to some extent of his former mentor Pettenkofer, as they disagreed fiercely over the mode of transmission of microbial diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis. Koch believed in the contagion theory, which stated that microbes were passed from person to person by transmission through human contact or the spread of the disease through media such as water or food.

Meanwhile, Pettenkofer adhered to the miasmic theory of disease which held that diseases were transmitted through bad air, despite Dr. John Snow`s landmark work in disproving that theory during a cholera outbreak in London more than thirty years earlier; the miasma theory was so entrenched that Snow`s eminently sensible conclusions were widely ignored. Ironically, Pettenkofer`s laudable efforts to have Munich equipped with a proper sewage system worked brilliantly at reducing cases of cholera not because it prevented miasma, as he presumed, but because it removed the contaminated water that was spreading the disease, thus doing much more to prove Koch`s theory right than his own. Before long the contagion theory was proven beyond doubt, but we cannot deny the good work Pettenkofer did, even if it was under a misguided scientific theory. It is lucky that both Kitasato Shibasaburo and Ogai himself came more strongly under the influence of Koch than Pettenkofer, or the history and efficacy of bacterial medicine in Japan might have been very different.

Koch invited Ogai to enter his Institute for Study of Infectious Diseases (it really was `his` institute, as it was renamed and still exists as the Robert Koch Institute), and Ogai gladly accepted and threw himself into the comparatively new discipline of microbiology.

In general Ogai`s time in Berlin might be considered a more `public` period; like Dresden, he threw himself into the cultural life of the capital, and also came to the notice of his superiors in the Japanese government, which would pave the way for his later successful career in military medicine. In September, he went to the 4th World Convention of the International Red Cross in Karlsruhe, accompanying the Japanese delegate Ishiguro Tadanao as his interpreter. He then continued on to Vienna, where the World Medical Hygiene convention was being held. These may sound like dull assemblies of dry doctors and crusty scientists, but in the late 19th century hygiene was the single most transformative aspect of medicine one could study. Microscopic life had been proven by the work of Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and Robert Hooke in the 17th century, but scientists had not yet established the connection between the life they saw proliferating through their microscopes and the diseases which swept through the ever-growing cities. Joseph Lister`s use of antiseptics in surgery and Florence Nightingale`s work in the Crimean War had proven a link between cleanliness and improved public health, but the link was as yet improperly understood, and it was this link that the likes of Koch, Pettenkofer, Kitasato and Ogai were researching. Hygiene in the late 19th century was as hot a topic as stem cell research or genome mapping is in the early 21st. It is fascinating to consider that man had invented the electric light and the telephone before discovering the apparently axiomatic fact that germs kill people.

Ogai`s participation in the Hygiene convention was highly rated by Ishiguro, who then held the post of Surgeon General in the Japanese army, the highest medical position in the army and one that Ogai would later fill himself. Ishiguro was impressed by Ogai`s fluency in German, and he invited Ogai to give a German speech at a New Year Party to be held by the Yamatokai in Berlin on January 1st 1888. The Yamatokai was an influential group, formed to improve contacts between high level bureaucrats in Germany and Japan, so there a number of important eminences would be listening to Ogai`s speech. The Japanese ambassador to Germany and future Prime Minister Saionji Kinmochi commended the speech highly; Kinmochi was a fascinating character who spoke French and German fluently and was the first Japanese to study at the Sorbonne. His Paris days were abruptly cut short when during the Paris Commune of 1871, he had to flee for his life to Switzerland after his tutor was shot in a street battle they stumbled upon during a post-prandial stroll. He would later become the most liberal voice in the militarist governments that characterized Japan in the 1930`s, courageously promoting peace despite being well on in his eighties and suffering repeated assassination attempts.

Another attendee at the lecture was Tamura Iyozo, a senior lieutenant in the Japanese army who studied at Berlin Military University before being embedded in a German army unit to take part in manoevures outside Dresden; Tamura seems to have been the model for Kobayashi, the main character in the third of Ogai`s early novels, Fumizukai (The Courier), who is similarly embedded in a German army brigade. After hearing Ogai`s address, Tamura asked him to give a lecture on Carl von Clausewitz`s famous military treatise `On War`, which Ogai delivered on 18th January. This is again proof, as if it were needed, of Ogai`s huge capacity for research and retention; as well as following his usual schedule of research at the University, he read a dense military tome in German and absorbed its contents to such an extent that within two weeks he was able to give an hour long lecture on its contents, and take part in a question and answer session conducted in both German and Japanese, to great acclaim from Tamura himself and other audience members.

In the spring of 1888 Ogai also managed to join a German army medical team, giving him direct experience of the German practice of military medicine for the first time. By now, the theory and practice of military medicine were beginning to come together for Ogai, and this may have been behind his decision to return to Japan in order to collate his ideas and put them into practice in the Japanese army; the student abroad would become the teacher at home. So it was that after finishing his stint with the German forces, he accompanied Ishiguro Tadanao from Berlin on July 5th, 1888, and back to Marseilles by way of London and Paris. Ishiguro had already promised Ogai employment at the Japan Military Medicine College in Tokyo, and later also employed him at the Japan Medical University, also in Tokyo. We can see strong similarities between Ishiguro and the character of Count Amakata in The Dancing Girl, Ogai`s first novel. Ogai`s last glimpse of Europe came on July 29th, 1888 when his ship left Marseilles for Yokohama.

Once back in Japan, Ogai continued his usual ferocious workload, and his literary and medical careers blossomed simultaneously; by early 1889 he was employed in four teaching posts, for as well as the medical roles that Ishiguro secured for him, he also taught classes in fine arts at both Tokyo Fine Arts University, then as now Japan`s most prestigious art university, and also at Keio University, set up in 1858 by Fukuzawa Yukichi to promote Western learning. He also threw himself into a literary career. It is as though he was attempting to encompass, through fiction, translation or poetry, all he found in Germany that had touched him and so stimulated his own creativity. In 1889 alone he founded a literary group called the Shinseisha (New Voice Society) which produced a literary magazine called Shigarami Soshi which he edited until 1894 when the Sino-Japanese war broke out. His first published work was released in the popular Kokumin no tomo (People`s Friend) magazine; called Omokage (Vestiges), it was a translation into Japanese of 17 poems from the pens of Byron, Shakespeare, Goethe and Heine among others. He also found time to get married; in July 1889 he was wed to Akamatsu Toshiko, daughter of the famed admiral Akamatsu Noriyoshi.

However, we must turn to a previous love affair to find the inspiration behind Ogai`s first work of fiction, a romantic novella called The Dancing Girl.

Published in early 1890, The Dancing Girl tells the story of the love affair between a Japanese man and a German woman, the eponymous Dancing Girl. The Japanese character is called Ota Toyotaro, but the events of the novel are semi autobiographical at the very least; just how closely the events in the story mirror Ogai`s actual experience has been a matter of lively debate for scholars both Japanese and Western for many decades.

In the story, Ota is a law student sent to Germany to study European legal matters. He enrols at Berlin University, and one day encounters the weeping Elise on his way home. She has been dismissed from the theatre group she dances with, and has no money to bury her father who has recently died. Ota helps Elise, giving her some money for funeral expenses, and a relationship forms between them. Ota is forced to leave the university and loses his stipend as a result, but stays in Germany to be with Elise. His friend, Aizawa Kenkichi, tries to help Ota by introducing him to Count Amakata, a high ranking diplomat. Ota accompanies Amakata on a trip to Russia as an interpreter, and on returning to Berlin Amakata offers Ota the chance to return with him to Japan and work for him there. Ota is torn between his love for Elise and his duty to work for his country, but eventually agrees to return to Japan when he is struck by the thought that if he doesn`t go with the Count, he may lose the chance of ever returning home. When he tells Elise of his decision, she is sent into hysteria, and becomes `as simpleminded as a child`. The novella ends with Ota leaving her mother a small sum to look after Elise, and the child she is carrying, Ota`s child. If a more emotionally torrid story has ever been written, I do not know of it.

It stands as a heart-rending story. Ogai uses his medical knowledge to great effect when describing the psychological breakdown of himself and Elise, which is strikingly modern. He delves relentlessly into Ota`s psyche, and in so doing wrote the first truly readable `I-Novel`. I-Novels were a new style of Japanese literature which entered deeply into the thoughts and emotions of the protagonist, exploring their own feelings far more than the events which drive the story. The first example of this kind of story is generally considered to be Ukigumo (Floating Clouds), by Futabatei Shimei. This may be something akin to blasphemy in the field of Japanese literature, but reading Ukigumo, in the original or in translation, is a hard slog. The main character (there are only four) is an unsympathetic chap who seesaws between emotions apparently without rhyme or reason, and ends up in a lather of indecision, unable to do anything about either his lost job or his lost lover. Like many transformative works of art, it paved the way for what came but was not a classic example of it.

Maihime is a much more readable prospect in comparison. In Japanese, the writing style is old fashioned, but the deep characterization is not allowed to impede a fast moving plot, and we feel considerable sympathy both for the dilemma of the protagonist and the cruel treatment Elise endures at his hand.

The bare bones of the story are true. In real life, the girl with whom Ogai had an affair actually followed him to Japan; no small matter for a young woman on her own, of uncertain means, in 1888. She only stayed for a month after completing her two month journey, however, so her reunion with Ogai cannot have gone well. After she left in October, she seems never to have had contact with Ogai again, and remains only as various characters in Ogai`s novels, of whom Elise in The Dancing Girl is the most explicitly portrayed.
An interesting postscript to Elise`s story is that a Japanese writer residing in Berlin, Ichika Rokuso, believes she may have found evidence of who the real Elise was. Basing her search on her name in the novel, Elise Weigert, and other details such as her address and profession, Rokuso believes she has found a record of her, one “Elise Wiegert” in a list of baptized believers kept at a church in Berlin. The full story can be found here as reported in the Asahi newspaper.

Without Elise, we can never know if Ogai would have embarked on such an amazing literary career. Perhaps he would have devoted himself to medicine and the army, though his prolific works suggest that the urge to write was well entrenched for many years before his fateful Berlin sojourn. We shall see how that career developed next time, with portions of creative genius interspersed with decades of silence. As ever, Ogai will take neither the easy nor the predictable path.


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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