Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part 7

“At the beginning of the Taisho period, on the day of Emperor Meiji’s funeral (September 13th, 1912), General Nogi and his wife closed the door to their second-floor living room and prepared to end their lives. He had removed his uniform and was clad in white undergarments; she wore black funeral attire. They bowed to portraits of Meiji and of their two sons, killed in the Russo-Japanese War. While the funeral bells tolled, they proceeded to commit ritual suicide. Mrs. Nogi acted first; he assisted, plunging a dagger into her neck, and then he disemboweled himself with a sword.”

Herbert Bix, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan


The death of Emperor Meiji and subsequent suicide of General Nogi Maresuke was the last turning point in Ogai’s life. Nogi was a hero of the Russo-Japanese war, but something of a tragic one. As well as losing two sons in the war, he had already requested permission twice to commit suicide from the emperor; once in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 when he lost the flag of the imperial army, and once after the battle of Port Arthur in the Russo Japanese war (the same battle in which Ogai had distinguished himself) when he felt his victory had come at the cost of too many Japanese lives. His suicide was hotly debated in the popular press; some felt it was a reaffirmation of Japanese traditions of self sacrifice and ultimate loyalty, while other newspapers railed against it in editorials and columns, saying that it was a return to darker times, an unnecessary relic of a best-forgotten feudal past. On the day of the suicide, Ogai simply recorded in his diary

“I half believe it and half doubt it”

From this point on, Ogai would write only historical novels exploring traditional Japanese themes such as loyalty, self sacrifice and suicide, though certain aspects of his earlier work carry through to this later part of his career; the way he ponders deeply issues of society and history in novels such as Ka no yo ni (As If) can be seen as a precursor to the historical novels written after General Nogi’s suicide. While Ogai did not retreat wholesale into a bygone age, he did begin to write about Japanese culture and history for its own sake, rather than simply as a comparative foil to Western thought. The effect of Nogi’s death can be seen in the speed with which he wrote his first historical novel; he records sending it to the literary magazine Chuo Koron on September 18th, a mere five days after the suicide. It is called Okitsu Yagoemon no isho (The last testament of Okitsu  Yagoemon), and it deals directly with suicide through the story of a retainer who decides to kill himself after murdering a man in an argument and thus bringing shame on his lord. Ogai is sympathetic to Okitsu in this story, but does not portray him as free of blame, and he also implicitly criticises General Nogi for having not obtained permission to commit suicide. Just three months later in Abe Ichizoku (The Abe Clan) he provides a more textured view of ritual suicide and concludes that while junshi (committing suicide after the death of a master) is a tradition with deep historical roots, it can only be considered in certain very specific circumstances, with approval from ones family, and most importantly the lord in whose name one intends to kill oneself. Whereas Okitsu Yagoemon is written as a single person’s testament, Abe Ichizoku is a more layered treatment, with explorations of junshi from several different points of view; as Doris Bergen suggests, “it is almost as if Ogai were taking a “junshi poll” for those Japanese readers still reeling after the suicide of General Nogi.”

While these stories broke new ground for Ogai in terms of subject matter, some of the themes discussed in part 6 can also be seen here; Chojuro Abe in Abe Ichizoku is torn between duty to his lord and a desire to atone for what he has done, and the suicides themselves are implicitly being compared against a Western model; can an old Japanese custom such as junshi have any place in the modern, westernising Japan of the 1910s? Essentially, by creating historical fiction based on the 17th century, he tried to address the debate raging in the 20th.


Following the death of the Meiji Emperor, Ogai gradually reduced his workload as Army Surgeon General. From 1910 Ogai had become embroiled in a fierce argument with the vice-minister for the Armed Forces, Ishimoto Shinroku, about who had the final authority to appoint personnel to the Army medical corps. Ishimoto was also the vice minister who had formally reprimanded Ogai in 1909 after the publication of Vita Sexualis. Tired of incessant politicking and battling with his superiors, he resigned from the post of Surgeon General in  November 1915, though in the end he did manage to keep the right of appointment of army medical personnel in the hands of the Surgeon General after his foe Ishimoto died in 1912. There is also evidence to suggest that Ogai was unhappy about the lower status accorded to him as a medical man in the army rather than a soldier; his eldest daughter Annu recalled in later life that after the Russo-Japanese war she went for an evening walk with her father, who was wearing his military uniform. While they were walking, three boys saw Ogai’s uniform and high rank of lieutenant general, and ran over to him. However when they saw the words ‘Army Medical Corps’ on his uniform, they lost interest, saying ‘Ah, he’s just a doctor, not a real soldier’. Ogai was so upset by this he didn’t say another word throughout the rest of the walk home.


His retirement enabled him to take on other posts related to his resurgence of interest in history and historical fiction; from December 1917 until his death in 1922 he served as head of the Imperial Museum in Tokyo, in 1921 he was appointed the first chief of the Imperial Museum of Art, and between August 1918 and October 1921 he made regular trips to Nara to witness and advise on the opening of the Todai temple archive called Shosoin, to this day one of the largest and most important repositories of Japanese historical documents. 


We should not presume that Ogai’s sudden change of course into historical writing suggest a rejection of the new ideas coming into Japan; he continued to translate foreign works in this period, and the translation from German of Goethe’s “Faust” that he completed in 1912 remains to this day the standard Japanese version of that work. Rather than a rejection, Ogai was using the past as a mirror of the present. The end of Meiji seemed to be the end of the transitional period for Japan that Ogai had expended so much effort thinking and writing about in the previous years, with the suicide of General Nogi the final flickering of a dying candle of the past. To see how Japanese values and traditions could fit into this new, post-Meiji framework, the best method was to study and articulate the virtues of the Japanese past, and consider how they could be used against the limitations and possibilities of the future. It is for this reason that so much of his historical fiction is concerned with modern values.


Ogai’s interest in the concept of junshi did not end after the publication of Okitsu Yagoemon and Abe Ichizoku, but his works did become more general pieces of historical literature rather than focusing on suicide in particular. Okitsu Yagoemon and Abe Ichizoku are both based on the Hosokawa clan, the leading clan in northern Kyushu where Ogai had been exiled between 1899 and 1902, and it seems very likely he had carried out research in this period which allowed him to write in great depth about the Hosokawa clan and the other great feudal families of Kyushu. Rather than the romantic love that was the trademark of Ogai’s earliest work and some of his late Meiji publications too, his historical novels tend to deal with issues he found more profound and fundamental at this stage of life;  fidelity, loyalty, honesty and filial piety among others. The novels often focus on families the generation after or before some important historical event; through this device Ogai can use the event to propel the action, but without describing it directly, allowing him to look more closely into the motivations and values of his characters. Among the most notable works of this time are Sansho Dayu (Sansho the Bailiff, 1915), Takasebune (The boat on the Takase River, 1916). Takasebune is about a boat on the Takase river which ferries convicted criminals to their execution, and allowed Ogai to meditate on death, the death penalty and even euthanasia, for which there is no official law in Japan to the present day. Meanwhile Sansho Dayu is an 11th century tale, based on real events, of the kidnapping of the wife and two children of a virtuous governor. The wife and children are then sold into slavery, and the bulk of the story concerns the children’s quest to escape and reunite the family. 


Ogai’s quest in this novel to keep to the historical facts while weaving a tale worthy of publication caused him to think deeply about fidelity to history in his writing, and one month after the publication of Sanshu Dayu he published an essay called Rekishi sono mama to rekishi banare (History as it is and history ignored) which outlined his approach to historical fiction and the historical method. He states that his friends argue about whether his work can really be called fiction given that it is based on historical personages and events. He counters that he looks for what is “natural” in history, and having found it sees no need to alter it. He sees Sansho Dayu as fiction because history is merely used as a point of departure; however he distinguishes himself from similar authors by asserting his aim of objectivity, leading to a rational, considered work. However, it is clear from the essay that he didn’t feel he had achieved this aim in Sansho Dayu. Feeling a need to depart from the story and simply convey the essence of the work, to avoid a simple retranslation of the story into the modern vernacular, he alters the story but in the end finds the finished product distasteful, and vows to stick more closely to historical fact in future. In his own words

“As I disliked changing the reality in history, I became bound by it in spite of myself. I wrote ‘Sanshō Dayū’ using history as a point of departure. When I looked over what I had written, I somehow felt that using history in this fashion was unsatisfactory. This is an honest confession on my part.”


As a result of this conclusion, that history is better told as it is, Ogai started on a series of biographical works, choosing as his subjects quite obscure later Edo period (1603-1868) doctors. He was to finish three of these; accounts of the lives of Shibue Chusai (1805-1858), his teacher Izawa Ranken (1777-1829) and Izawa’s colleague Hokujo Katei (1780-1823). The freedom he gained after his resignation allowed him to spend several months researching each one, and they are consequently Ogai’s longest works; a paperback copy of Shibue Chusai is over 400 pages long, more than three times longer than his longest completed work of fiction. Ogai came to feel a bond of kinship with Shibue, and again the concept of doing one’s duty makes a strong showing in each of the biographies. However, these were not biographies in the traditional sense; they appeared in serialised form, with the three biographies in total taking up 632 instalments. Each instalment has the feeling of a mass of facts rather than a biography as we know it today, and the scholar Marvin Marcus has commented that had they not been published in his own publication, Subaru, they would almost certainly have been stopped for lack of readership. Another unusual aspect of this work is that Ogai is never far from the narrative; the biography is interspersed with Ogai’s own descriptions of the intellectual process of writing a biography. including a sorrow at lost documents, a joy at others rediscovered, and his reasoning about available materials.


Ogai’s frequent trips to the Shosoin repository at Nara, and his work as the head of the Imperial Museum gave him ample opportunity to research his biographies. In 1922, he visited to prepare for the visit to Shosoin of none other than the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII of Great Britain. However, he had shown symptoms of kidney problems since the previous autumn, and was not fully fit to make the arduous journey and prepare for the visit. He took to his sickbed a number of times during the trip and in the end had to return early to Tokyo. He was diagnosed in June with atrophy of the kidneys, and weakened by the condition had also begun to develop the symptoms of tuberculosis. There was no cure for either disease available at the time, and it was clear he would not last long. Retiring to his bed, Ogai summoned his lifelong friend Kako Tsuruto to his bedside and dictated his will on July 6th. On July 9th, just after sunrise, Mori Ogai passed away aged sixty. His ashes were first interred at Kofuku Temple in central Tokyo, but in 1927 his grave was moved to Zenrin temple in Mitaka, now a part of the Tokyo sprawl but then an entirely separate city. His bones were divided and half were taken to his birthplace of Tsuwano, and both graves still stand. In accordance with his will, his gravestone is plan and unornamented, reading simply;

“The grave of Mori Rintaro”


So passed one of the most remarkable personalities of that remarkable Meiji era. He was survived by four children; his eldest son Oto, from his first marriage to Akamatsu Toshiko, became a doctor in Taipei Imperial university (Taiwan being a Japanese protectorate between 1895 and 1945), while all his children from his second marriage to Mori Shige became writers. His eldest daughter Mari became a famous novelist in her own right, while Annu and Rui became essayists and commentators. Of Ogai’s grandchildren, more than half either went into the fields of medicine or writing, though none could emulate their famous grandfather by achieving eminence in both. Some of Ogai’s grandchildren are still alive, a valuable link to the past. For example Oto’s youngest son Mori Joji became a poet and scholar of English Literature, and aged 82 is still Emeritus Professor at my own institution, Waseda University. 


It is not just in his descendants that Ogai survives. His works are still read by every high schooler in Japan, and his interpretation of Western culture in the Meiji period still ranks as one of the most important single intellectual contributions to Japanese culture in that turbulent age. He had no disciples to continue his work, preferring the open atmosphere of literary soirees and salons to closed teacher-pupil relationships, but all the great subsequent prewar writers such as Natsume Soseki, Nagai Kafu continued his work, developing the modern Japanese written language and continuing to interpret foreign ideas for the Japanese reading public. 

As well as his written work, his translations introduced the Japanese to authors and playwrights such as Goethe, Heine, Strindberg and Ibsen, and philosophers such as von Hartmann and Vaihinger. His translations of famed European drama helped create the modern Western theatre in Japan, and his poetic work too helped bring a new colloquial, modern language to Japanese prosody. His critical work and essays too are still read and greatly valued to this day. 


We must also not forget that he reached great heights in his medical career too, and while his mistakes on beriberi were grave, his work on improving hygiene, diet and living conditions in the army saved many thousands of lives in the Sino Japanese and Russo Japanese wars of 1894-5 and 1904-5 respectively. Finally, I still find it astonishing that he managed to simultaneously reach the position of Army Surgeon General and become one of the foremost writers and thinkers in modern Japanese history. To have managed either would have made him well known, but to have managed both is surely worthy of celebration, and, might I venture, an appearance on a Japanese banknote one day soon?

One might counter that while Ogai was clearly brilliant, he was not a first-rate human being. He divorced his first wife acrimoniously, was a domineering father and left behind a girl who loved him in Germany. This cannot be denied; however, if we measure Ogai by his own standards, he achieved his goal. He met the demands of his day.


About takaihana

I live in Tokyo and sometimes write quizzes and crosswords in between running around after two small children
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2 Responses to Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part 7

  1. patrick lob says:

    Brillant introduction to this author. I went last year to dresden and i did not know when i was in albert district that ogai lived there! 8

  2. uptoyou says:

    Very interesting introduction of Mori Ogai, concise and insightful. I was standing in front of Rafael’s painting and totally had no idea of this story

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