Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part 4

After Maihime, Ogai published two more novels in short succession; Utakata no ki (A Sad Tale), mentioned in part 2, and Fumizukai (The Courier) in January 1891. Fumizukai is particularly interesting for a detailed psychological portrait of Ida, a German noblewoman who escapes a loveless arranged marriage by entering the Saxony court in Dresden. She does this by entrusting a letter to Kobayashi, the narrator of the story, which he delivers to Ida’s aunt, a countess at court. A number of themes from Maihime and Utakata no ki are also visible in Fumizukai, such as the use of Kobayashi as a bystander, observing but not propelling the action, Ida’s conflict between duty and self fulfillment, and the recreation of Ogai’s experiences in Germany at court balls and in military circles. These themes link the three stories and also provide a common thread with these early works and those Ogai would write more that 20 years later, in his second great burst of creativity after 1910. It must be remembered that these short stories were experiments, written at a time when almost no literary works were devoted either to the psychology of the protagonist or to the significance of a Japanese experiencing European life. As such we can see them as personal experiments which allowed Ogai to come to terms with one aspect or another of the European culture which had so enchanted him and his personal understanding of the Japanese and Japan in the brave new world of the Meiji era. He would revisit many of these themes more fully at the end of the Meiji era from 1910 onwards.

These early stories were also the only works of fiction Ogai wrote in classical Japanese; this was the norm for literary composition at the time, but it bore little resemblance to the nuances of contemporary speech. As a result these works feel more modern when read in translation than in the original. In the 20th century, Ogai would use modern written Japanese, and can be considered one of the finest early adherents of the modern vernacular style. To explore his favoured themes further, he would have to first create the tools for the job.

It is scarcely surprising that Ogai wrote little in the decade either side of the dawn of the 20th century, largely as a result of his burgeoning medical career, but also because of personal issues. In September 1890 Ogai’s short-lived marriage to Toshiko Akamatsu came to an end after eighteen months, shortly after his first child Oto was born. The divorce damaged his friendship with Nishi Amane, the philosopher who had taken Ogai in as a youth so he could study in Tokyo. Amane had been the nakodo (ceremonial matchmaker) in the marriage, and was a close friend of Toshiko`s father, Noriyoshi Akamatsu. Thus far, Ogai’s record with women is less than stellar, with one disastrous love affair and one failed marriage behind him. We might speculate that Toshiko was less than impressed by the attitudes and actions expressed in Maihime, though that might be to anachronistically endow women with the power to seek a divorce in late 19th century elite circles. More convincing evidence has recently come to light in the form of a letter from Ogai to Noriyoshi Akamatsu explaining his reasons for the divorce. In this letter, Mori stated that he was `absolutely incompatible with Toshi[ko] in temperament`. The story behind the discovery of the letter can also be seen here.

After 1891 Ogai’s literary output was confined to the work he could do in his spare time, and was published in the literary magazine he had founded, Shigarami Soshi. This included a translation of The Improvisatore, a love story based in Italy by Hans Christian Andersen, which took Ogai nine years and was published in instalments from November 1892. The translation was much lauded and had a great influence on many Japanese literary figures such as Masamune Hakucho and Bin Ueda, who travelled round the Italian locations mentioned with a copy of Ogai`s translation in hand in the early 1900s. Even Ogai’s work on Shigarami Soshi stopped in 1894 after he was called up to serve in the Sino-Japanese war and the magazine was wound up.

Ogai`s military rank and standing had improved rapidly since his return from Japan. From August to December 1889 he took charge of an experiment on changing the composition of army rations to improve the health of the common soldier, and was thus at the forefront of the new science of nutrition. At the end of the 19th century it was only just becoming known that a lack of certain foods could cause health problems and even death. It was generally thought that all food was of equal value to the body, and that all of it contained some unspecified matter that supported life; `the universal aliment`, as it was known. A pound of beef was thought to have the same benefit as a pound of potatoes or any other food. The link between lack of a certain vitamin and illness was proven only in 1897 when Christian Eijkman showed that feeding mice unpolished rice instead of polished rice could prevent beri beri (disagreements between Ogai and his colleagues would lead to the greatest controversy of his career during the Russo Japanese war in 1904-5). This was the beginning of an understanding of deficiency disease, and it won Eijkman the Nobel Prize for Medicine even though he had no idea what it was in the unpolished rice which served as a determinant of wellbeing. The word `vitamin` itself was only coined in 1912 by Casimir Funk after he isolated thiamine, or vitamin B1.

After successful completion of the rations experiment, Ogai wrote the Army Hygiene Manual for the army and was promoted to Army Medical Officer First Class (equivalent to the rank of Colonel). He was sent to Dalian in Manchuria in the Sino-Japanese war as Chief Medical Officer for the Central Lines of Communication, which gave him a chance to put into practice the methods he had worked on experimentally, and allowed him to develop an idea which he later expanded on in a new version of the Army Hygiene Manual; that the greatest enemy of an army is in many cases not the enemy, but preventable diseases running rampant through the mass of soldiers. These ideas and their implementation led to an impressive reduction in army disease between the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-5 and the Russo-Japanese war 1904-5. This was of course not all down to Ogai, for he would not take the top role in the Army Medical Corps until 1907, but his role was clearly a highly important one given his scientific experience.

After the Sino-Japanese war, Ogai was stationed in the new Japanese colony of Taiwan for four months, accompanying Kabayama Sukenori, the first Japanese governor of the province. In his diary Ogai notes how his brother Miki Takeji came all the way to Ujina in Hiroshima prefecture to see him off and pass on the regards of the rest of the family, who were very worried about Ogai’s safety overseas. This is one of few human touches that are mentioned in the diary or anywhere else, and all the more refreshing for it; his diary and the recollections of his children paint a picture of a stern, fairly cheerless man, so small nuggets like these serve to remind us of his human side. Takeji (real name Mori Tokujiro) was also a very interesting figure who one feels would be more famous if it were not for the achievements of his older brother; he also worked as both a doctor and writer, and it is said he was even more precocious than Ogai in his youth. He became a well known author and critic of Kabuki plays, perhaps delving into the study of this most traditional of Japanese art forms to distance himself from the heavily Europeanised style of Ogai`s fiction. He is currently undergoing something of a revival in Japan, and in 2004 a collection of his dramatic criticism was published for the first time by the Iwanami Shoten company.

On his return from Taiwan, Ogai soon rejoined the literary world. In January 1896 he published the first edition of a new literary magazine, Mezamashigusa, with his friends Koda Rohan and Saito Ryoku. Like his earlier magazine Shigarami Soshi, this would be the vehicle for many of his subsequent works of translation and fiction. He also used the magazine to promote his theory of literature; he was a strong supporter of idealism, believing that fiction should be used to develop ideas (in Japanese, riso) and discover those ideals which underpin reality. In this we can see the influence of the German Hegelian philosopher Eduard von Hartmann, who Ogai translated and who would inform Ogai’s own forays into literary criticism. He used his magazine not only to promote idealism but also to attack realism and its proponents; this led to one of the most famous debates in Japanese literary history when Ogai wrote an article in Shigarami Soshi assailing one of the greats of the Meiji era, Tsubouchi Shoyo, for his promotion of realism. In his 1895 work Shosetsu Shinzui (The Essence of the Novel) Tsubouchi put forward his theory that artists and authors must report ideas rather than generate them, this being the sole purview of the philosopher. Tsubouchi believed that through this reporting of ideas the reader or viewer could find their own thoughts and opinions reflected. He thus valued this reflection of ideas, which he called botsuriso or “submerged ideas”. Ogai reacted strongly to this, and so the botsuriso ronso or “submerged ideas debate” began, with Ogai publishing his opinions in Shigarami Soshi and Mezamashigusa and Tsubouchi blowing the realist trumpet in his own periodical, Waseda Bungaku (Waseda Literature). The debate was made all the more thorny by the differing concepts each had of the central concept of riso; we can translate it freely today as “idea” or “ideal”, and as an expert in English literature (he was the first person to translate the complete works of Shakespeare into Japanese, and did such a good job of it that many modern translations do little more than update Tsubouchi`s first effort into more modern Japanese) it is likely that this is how Tsubouchi interpreted the word. However, riso was a very new word in the late 19th century, very much open to interpretation, and Ogai saw it as embodying a much grander concept, the Hegelian concept of an Idee – a concept which has been variously rendered into English as “The absolute idea” or “absolute knowledge”, which clearly distinguishes it from the semantic limits Tsubouchi placed on the word. There is a great profusion of translations of this concept in the Meiji era; Nishi Amane, whom we have already encountered in this narrative, chose the Buddhist term kannen (meditative thought) to translate the English `Idea`, while Inoue Enryo coined riso, as used by Ogai and Tsubouchi, in his Tetsugaku Yoryo, “The Basics of Philosophy”. By the end of the Meiji era rinen (lit. “thought of principles”) was being used to describe the overarching Hegelian concept of Idee. A good history of Japanese thought in this period could certainly be written based entirely on changes in the words used to describe new concepts It was a time of such great change that even the words used in the great controversies of the age were not set in stone and had to be fixed by each participant as they saw fit, like two eighteenth century gentlemen having to make their own guns before they could participate in a duel on the heath at dawn.

In the last years of the 19th century, Ogai continued to work on his translations, publishing his version of von Hartmann’s Die Deutsche Aesthetik seit Kant (German Aesthetics since Kant) among others, and continued his medical work on public hygiene, setting up a committee for public health with Aoyama Tanemichi (Aoyama cared for Ogai`s close friend from Munich, the artist Harada Naojiro, in the last year of his life) and publishing a book based on the committee`s research, Koshu Iji (On Public Health) in 1898. In 1899, Ogai was `promoted` to a medical army rank equivalent to Major-General. However this was very much a sideways promotion; Ogai`s superiors certainly did not see him as the model of a modern Major-General; rather, they saw his literary pursuits as detrimental to his work, and not fitting for an upstanding military man. He was sent to Kokura in Kyushu, around 600 miles from Tokyo, partly to cool his heels and think about what he had done, and partly to remove him from the literary circles and groups that he so energetically participated in while in the capital. Ogai himself referred to the period as his “Kokura exile”.

Again, he didn’t allow himself to be idle in this period, but his literary output was very limited. He used the period to finish a translation of Clausewitz’s “On War” which he had previously lectured on in Berlin, which was then used across the Japanese army. One of his duties was to oversee the medical tests carried out on army draftees across Western Japan, and he took the opportunity to visit many of the great historical sites of the regions as he travelled. This experience would serve him well when he became director of the national museum in Tokyo in his later years. It was also an important time for his personal relations; he made two close friends in Kokura, Fukuma Hiroshi and Ankokuji, who would later appear in his short story Futari no tomo (Two Friends). In 1900, his mother arranged his second marriage, to Araki Shige, a 23 year old lady 18 years Ogai`s junior, and when Ogai was made the chief medical officer of the first division of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1902, effectively ending his period of exile, they moved back to Tokyo together. In 1903 his second child Mari was born (all of Ogai`s children were to have names derived from German; Otto, Mari, Ann and Fritz), and he released a translation of the Spanish philosopher Baltasar Gracian`s Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (The Art of Worldy Wisdom) through the German version of the same work. However any further literary progress was halted by the Russo-Japanese war which began in February 1904 over the two empires` competing ambitions in Manchuria and Korea. This conflict was to be both the peak and the nadir of Ogai`s medical career, the scene of both his greatest triumph and his greatest failure, where he would be responsible for both saving the lives and causing the deaths of many thousands of soldiers. We`ll look at this next time.

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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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