Mori Ogai, The Demands of the Day, Part 6

Ogai returned from the Russo-Japanese War in January 1906. As a result of his efforts to improve hygiene and reduce communicable diseases, he was promoted to Surgeon General in October 1907, the highest medical position in the army and the peak of his already impressive career. His failure to correctly deduce how beriberi was transmitted did not hold his military career back, as he was backed up in his mistaken views by the rest of the army hierarchy. Between his return and his promotion, Ogai did not publish any fiction, but spent time both writing and listening to poetry in groups such as the Tokiwa Circle set up by his friend Kako Tsuruto, which was also attended by such luminaries as the future prime minister and field marshal Yamagata Aritomo. Kako had been friends with Ogai at Tokyo Medical University, and is thought to have been instrumental in persuading Ogai to join the army as a physician. Their career paths were remarkably similar; born seven years before Ogai in 1855, Kako graduated as a doctor in 1881, and like Ogai went to Germany to study medicine, completing 2 years of study at Berlin University before returning to Japan in 1890. Kako’s speciality was diseases of the ear, nose and throat, and he set up Japan’s first ENT clinic soon after his return. Like Ogai, he was also a successful literary figure, publishing both dense medical tomes and poetry anthologies in the half century between graduating and his death in 1931. Indirectly, we have already met Kako in this narrative; he was said to be the model for the character of Aizawa Kenkichi in ‘The Dancing Girl’, the protagonist’s friend and confidant. Inspiration for the more forbidding figure of Count Amakata came from Yamagata Aritomo; a photo of Yamagata should suffice to demonstrate this side of his character.


Kako appears in other guises in some of Ogai’s later works too, such as the student Koga in “Vita Sexualis” (1909), and judging by their shared experience as soldier, doctor and writer, and the appearance of Kako in Ogai’s novels throughout his literary career, their friendship was of deep importance to both men.

The same period was a difficult one personally for Ogai, as his son Furitsu was born in August 1907, but was a sickly child destined not to see his first birthday; he died five months later in January 1908 from whooping cough. Then in February Ogai’s younger brother Miki Takeji (real name Mori Tokujiro), a well known scholar of Kabuki, died of tuberculosis aged 40. However, this double tragedy did not prevent Ogai from resuming a workload that would have crushed a less able man. He restarted his lectures at Keio University on Western art and literature, where he also encouraged the novelist and scholar of French literature Nagai Kafu to apply for a professorship. He also served as an advisor on Western art to the newly formed Ministry of Culture, continued to produce translations of operas, philosophical works and fiction, and promoted the work of young writers such as Hiratsuka Raicho and Higuchi Ichiyo (whose likeness now adorns the 5000 yen note, an honour not as yet accorded to Ogai). These concerns were of course in addition to his work as Army Surgeon General. Most importantly, he also embarked on his most productive period of writing to date. The years from 1909 to 1912 were marked by continued literary experimentation from Ogai, as he wrote numerous short stories and novellas which illuminate different aspects of his life and personality, and which show Ogai’s experimentation with various literary devices which he would reuse and refine in his later years. In these stories we can find countless examples of Ogai’s life and experience informing his fiction; his first failed marriage in Hannichi (Half a Day), the death of Furitsu from whooping cough in Konpira and his years of exile from the army in Kokura in Asobi (Play). We also see Ogai himself reflected in many of these stories, often obliquely. Many of these stories were published in the literary journal Subaru (The Pleiades), including his most controversial novel, Vita Sexualis.

Five of these works were published in 1909 alone; Tsuina (Exercising Demons), Hannichi (Half a Day), Hebi (Snake), Konpira and Vita Sexualis. In each we can see one or several characters illuminating an aspect of Ogai himself; in Tsuina, he is thinly disguised as Professor Ono, a professor of Western philosophy. The story itself is more of a philosophical essay than a true short story, but the classic Ogai motifs of the author as bystander remain.

Vita Sexualis, the longest of Ogai’s 1909 works, was published in July 1909 in Subaru. In the strict Japanese social environment of the time, its subject matter of a professor’s sexual awakening and experience caused immediate controversy, and after one month the journal and the story were banned. Ogai earned a formal reprimand from the army for having been censored. Kazuji Ninomiya, the critic and translator of Ogai into English, suggests that Ogai knew he would be censored in the strict moral climate that prevailed in Meiji Japan, but wanted to write the book as a challenge to the naturalist tendency of his peers. Ogai, along with Natsume Soseki , objected to the subordination of reason and intelligence that they saw in naturalism, and Ogai penned Vita Sexualis to explore the role of human agency in the sexual life of a single character. It almost goes without saying that the main character is a university professor whose life is very similar to Ogai’s.

Of the shorter works of 1909, Hannichi and Konpira are the most familiar to us as works of literature. Hannichi is a ruefully humorous account of the difficult marital relations between Dr. Takayama Shunzo and his wife, relations further soured by Takayama’s mother who lives with the couple. Driven to distraction by their poor relationship, both dote on their daughter Tama. An element of autobiography is clearly present, a dark sketch of Ogai’s marital issues with his second wife, but the thread of humour woven into the story prevents a slide into melodrama or despair. Konpira, meanwhile, is more heart-rending, dealing as it does with another university professor, Ono Tasuku, failing to pay respects at the eponymous Konpira shrine in Shikoku when he is visiting the region, and his children subsequently falling ill with whooping cough Indeed, the harrowing descriptions of the professor’s children, Yuri and Hansu, are so painfully detailed that surely only a trained physician like Ogai could have conceived them. The professor is again a bystander, helpless in the face of his childrens’ illness and unable to come to terms with it through the Western philosophy that is his field. Ogai’s philosophical views on the West and modernisation are lightly sketched here in the interplay between the western-oriented professor, and his more traditional wife who reprimands him for having not appeased the gods by visiting the shrine of the title. Ogai concludes the story by saying that while his wife is somewhat proven correct by events in the story, “it would be better if Professor Ono were not to become a devotee of Konpira Shrine too”. 


This issue of east versus west and old versus new would be a central tenet of many later works such as Moso (Daydreams) Ka no yo ni (As If) and Fushinchu (Under Reconstruction) written in 1911 and 1912 respectively. Ogai was certainly not the only author to tackle this issue; Natsume Soseki, who spent three unhappy years in London between 1900 and 1903 and seems not to have been particularly happy anywhere, also wrote and lectured on the clash of civilizations he and his contemporaries lived through. Soseki is often considered the foremost modern Japanese writer, and passes the banknote test with flying colours; his face adorned the 1000 yen note for a full 20 years between 1984 and 2004, though even there he seems to stare mournfully out, as if recalling the passing of a much loved family pet.  While both Ogai and Soseki saw problems with the Western culture coursing through Japan, Soseki was more resigned, seeing it as an unstoppable flood. In a famous speech he gave in 1911 called ‘The opening of Modern Japan’ (gendai nihon no kaika), he stated;
“The adoption of Western culture in Japan must necessarily be superficial. However, it cannot be stopped. It cannot be reversed. It cannot be helped. That is all I have to say.”

Ogai was more pragmatic. He realised that indiscriminate adoption of Western culture would result in Japanese culture being overwhelmed my a mere slavish imitation of occidental thought and ways. For Ogai, the best option was for the minds of the people to act as a kind of gatekeeper to Western culture, adopting that which could be of use, particularly in fields of science and technology, while maintaining the cultural traditions of Japan as far as possible in any program of reform. In Fushinchu, the protagonist Watanabe meets a German ex-lover in a restaurant that is under reconstruction; he then later alludes to this by saying;

“Japan is still backward…it’s under reconstruction, you see”.

For Ogai, Japan essentially had to be remade in a form which incorporated those useful aspects of Western culture and learning. This is more specifically described in Moso, where the narrator, again a reflection of Ogai himself, is living in Germany. While he longs to return to Japan, he regrets that he will have to live in a country that was

“not yet equipped for the kinds of serious scientific research I had to undertake or for the opening up of new fields within that discipline”.  


However, he believes that Japan can adopt this aspect of learning

“I still venture to say ‘not yet’. I refuse to believe the Japanese are a race of such hopeless incompetents. I have always felt, ever since those earliest days, that the time will come when the fruits of scientific research carried out in Japan will be exported to Europe.”

Ogai then comments on those areas in which Japan should steer its own path, away from Western ideas. With regard to architecture and the possible introduction of skyscrapers into Japan, he states

“I argued that the more people live in a confined space such as a city the higher the death rate, especially among children. Rather than taking all those dwellings that were now built side by side and piling them on top of each other, it would make far more sense to improve the water supply and the sewerage, I said.”


With this emphasis on water supply as a public health issue, we can clearly see the influence of his time in Germany spent studying under Pettenkofer that we looked at in part 2.


With regard to diet, also, the narrator rejects the westernizing tendencies of his Japanese friends;

“There was also a debate about improving the Japanese diet. They wanted to stop people eating rice and make them eat lots of meat instead. I advised them that it would be better to leave the Japanese diet as it has always been, because rice and fish were so easy to digest”

I find these arguments appealing because of Ogai’s pragmaticism, perhaps the result of his scientific background. He does not reject the Western approach because of a reactionary conservatism and belief that the Japanese way is innately superior, but because the western idea suggested is not practical. It is this kind of ‘gatekeeping’ that he believed could be used in order to reconstruct Japan, making it stronger and able to keep pace with the West. He saw himself as the kind of intellectual figure required to perform such a duty, using his literature as a medium.


This concept of ‘duty’ is another that permeates Ogai’s work from his earliest published fiction. Fumizukai (1890), mentioned in part four of this study, is the story of Ida’s conflict between duty and self-interest in terms of her marriage. Over twenty years later, in this period of productivity in the years either side of 1910, Ogai is still exploring the concept of one’s duty, to oneself or to a larger group. In Seinen (Youth), Ogai’s full length novel serialised in Subaru between 1910 and 1911, the protagonist Koizumi Junichi comes to realise his duty of conscious determination; through this realisation he is able to break off a doomed love affair, and emerges as a mature man. Koizumi’s duty is self-understanding. In Ka no yo ni (As If), the protagonist Hidemaro is a writer of history, whose duty is to untangle history from myth in order to place his historical writing on firm foundations, which he manages through an intense mental effort. As Hidemaro states in the story;

“Man should act as if duty existed. I intend to act that way.”

In Ogai’s best known work Gan (The Wild Geese) also, duty imposes itself on the narrative almost from the start. The novella follows a student, Okada, and his interactions with a young woman kept as a mistress by a despised moneylender, Suezo. The mistress is kept by Suezo but pines for Okada despite them only meeting directly twice in the course of the novel. Her conflict is between her duty to stay with Suezo, who supports her and allows her in turn to support her ageing father. Ogai symbolises this duty with the device of two caged birds which Suezo gives his mistress to entertain her; the title of the work refers to her longing to break free of her cage and fly free like the wild geese she sees from her window. Throughout there are also subtle references to the changes taking place in Japan too; the narrator lovingly describes Okada’s walks around Tokyo University on which he encounters the mistress, but also notes the changes, the destruction and rebuilding taking place in the early Meiji period when the novel is set.

This suggests Ogai was well aware that one’s duty was not an easy thing to carry out, but required careful thought and tireless action. The substance of one’s duty for Ogai is also the title of this study; the demands of the day. These words come from Ogai’s favourite quotation;

How may one come to know oneself?
Never by contemplation, but only by action
Seek to do your duty, and you will know how
it is with you. And what is your duty?

The demands of the day.


The quotation comes from Goethe, the great German writer for whom Ogai maintained a lifelong admiration, in ‘Maxims and Reflections’. It is quoted in Moso, where Ogai proclaims his belief that fulfilling one’s duty in this manner is the surest way to self knowledge. His duty being, as we have seen, to act as a cultural gatekeeper for Western ideas, he believed passionately that any intelligent action needed to be based on patient understanding and rational enquiry. This aspect of Ogai’s work was thrown into sharp relief by the increasingly strict moral climate that came about in the later Meiji period, when Ogai’s belief in rational enquiry was shaken by the late Meiji government’s increasing authoritarianism and insularism. As he states towards the end of Chinmoku no to (The Tower of Silence) with regard to banning subversive Western books;

“In every country and every age, crowds of reactionaries lurk behind those who walk new paths awaiting an unguarded moment. And when the opportunity arises they inflict persecution. Only the pretext changes, depending upon the country and the times.”


It is clear that Ogai saw himself as one of those walking a new path. In the same story, he states

“Knowledge advances by breaking down convention. Knowledge will die if it is constrained by the customs in any particular era or country.”

He was also brave enough to directly challenge governmental repression, despite being a central figure in the establishment. In an essay of April 1911 in the magazine Bungei no shugi (The doctrine of literature), one of the last things he wrote before the death of the Meiji emperor, he wrote

“We must be very wary of the government persecuting artistic freedoms by attaching the vague label of ‘individualism’ to anarchism and socialism. Any nation which holds back the free development of art and learning has no hope of prosperity.”

Through his characters, Ogai tells us that we must all do our duty, as he will do his by breaking down conventions, enhancing knowledge and acting as midwife to a syncretic Japanese culture and thought. At times Ogai’s work seems to suggest his resolve faltering in this regard. In Ka no yo ni Hidemaro at times seems overcome with the difficulty of absorbing the mass of Western thought, seeing all philosophy of Nietzsche and Ibsen as necessarily diminished and warped in the Japanese interpretation. In Fushinchu and Moso, the Japanese protagonists worry about whether Japanese culture can survive the western onslaught at all and shades of Soseki’s pessimism seem to enter the narrative. Finally, Chinmoku no to, Ka no yo ni throw into relief the anti-intellctual chauvinism that emerged in reaction to these problems of assimilation. However, to fight these obstacles were his demands of the day. In the words of Ogai scholars Sanford Goldstein and Kingo Ochiai, 

“He saw the chaos in Japan, the chaos of the old and new in collision everywhere, and he attempted, through science and literature, to give his country the harmony, the order, it needed.”

At the same time as exploring these manifold ideas, he also found time to experiment with other forms. He wrote a stage play, perhaps inspired by the dramas of Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and others that he had earlier translated into Japanese. The play, Kamen (Masks), is about death and human resolution; the reactions, both philosophical and personal, of a family to the death of their patriarch Sakichi. Again, Ogai uses his medical knowledge to great effect when describing the symptoms and diagnosis of tuberculosis. He also wrote two surrealist short sketches, Sakazuki (Cups) and Sanbashi (The Pier), the latter of which is notable for being the first of Ogai’s works to be translated into English, in a 1918 anthology called Paulownia. Another experiment was Kinka (The Gold Coin), a humorous tale about an old rogue, Hachi, who has no money, a difficult wife, and simply wants to get enough cash together to be able to buy a drink. Ogai’s skill as a writer lies in getting us to sympathise with Hachi even when he breaks into a house in order to get enough money together for his much needed wine, and it is perhaps the work which conforms best of all to the idea of a complete, enclosed short story. One longer experiment was the unfinished novel Kaijin (The Ashes of Destruction), the beginnings of a deep psychological study of the protagonist, who is of course a disguised version of himself (though not, in this case, a university professor). The reason for the work remaining unfinished lies not in Ogai’s death, but in the death of the emperor Meiji in 1912, which sent him in an entirely different literary direction that we will explore next time, when we take Ogai to the end of his life in 1922.


About Japanese travel

I`m a Brit living in Japan, not doing very much of note but enjoying it all the same
This entry was posted in Biography, History, Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s