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.

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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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Mori Ogai: The Demands of the Day, Part One

Between 1850 and 1900, Japan underwent a change as drastic as any nation has undergone in half a century anywhere on earth. The insular nation of 1850 was rocked first by its forced opening to the west at the hands of the American navy in 1853, then by the internal struggles that led to the Shogun relinquishing power in favour of the emperor in 1868. In the years that followed, every aspect of the state changed as a result of the tsunami of foreign ideas that washed over the nation. The shogunate dictatorship became a constitutional monarchy. The country itself got bigger, with Hokkaido and Okinawa (then called the Kingdom of Ryukyu) incorporated fully into the nation for the first time, and the capital city moved 400 kilometres east from Kyoto to Tokyo. Railways, baseball, sociology and the waltz were just a few of the things introduced to Japan in the 1870s alone.

With this great transformation came a slew of great men in all the fields and disciplines you can think of. It`s hardly a scientific measure, but a nation`s banknotes are generally reserved for its worthiest of worthies, and all the people I can think of who have ever been on a Japanese banknote; Fukuzawa Yukichi, Higuchi Ichiyo, Nitobe Inazo, Ito Hirobumi, Natsume Soseki, Iwakura Tomomi and the rest, were active during the reign of the Meiji Emperor from 1868 to 1912.

Mori Ogai was unique even among this embarrassment of notables for rising to the top of two entirely different fields, medicine and literature, during this golden age. To put into context how remarkable this is, imagine if Shakespeare had found time to discover the circulation of the blood between writing sonnets, or if Alexander Fleming had picked up a Nobel Prize for literature before turning to biology and discovering penicillin. He bestrode old and new, east and west, art and science like none other in the Meiji period. This is a short outline of his life, split into parts to spare the reader the effort of ploughing through this literary atrocity in a single sitting.

Mori Ogai (his real birth name was Mori Rintaro, but we will stick with Ogai throughout to avoid confusion) was born into a wealthy family in Tsuwano in south-western Japan in 1862. His father was the physician to the daimyo (chief) of Tsuwano domain and as the eldest son Ogai was expected to become physician in turn, these being hereditary posts in feudal Japan. He was therefore given the best education that could be bestowed upon a boy in such a rural area of Japan; from the age of four he began studying classical Chinese texts and the work of Confucius, and from six he began the study of Dutch under the tutelage of his father; Dutch had long been the only language in which one could seriously undertake a study of medicine in Japan. The first western physician to teach in Japan was the German doctor Franz Philipp von Siebold in the early nineteenth century, but he taught solely in Dutch, and all the early medical books upon which Western medicine was based at this time were from the Netherlands. They entered Japan through the Dutch trading outpost in Nagasaki and were devoured by early converts to the new Western learning. Indeed, in this period the Japanese word for Western learning was rangaku; literally, Dutch study.

The house where he was born still stands in Tsuwano today at the southern end of the picturesque valley which envelops the town, and the modern visitor can easily imagine that Ogai`s early years must have been pleasant, if academically rigorous, in this quiet castle town. It is a very peaceful place, where carp swim in streams flowing beside the main streets, and even the ubiquitous Japanese telegraph pole seems to have been banished, giving the town a nebulous charm seldom seen elsewhere. It was no larger in Ogai`s day than it is now; the valley sides have always prevented expansion and trapped the town in a pleasantly soporific state of calm. Judging by his wish to be buried in a simple tomb near his birthplace Ogai seems to have liked the town; his descriptions of it in the early chapters of the semi-autobiographical novelVita Sexualis describe to the same bucolic quietude that the modern visitor encounters today. In the novel, he recalls that `red camellias could be viewed beyond the wall surrounding our house, and next to the rice granary citrus plants sprouted their pale green buds`.

Just like the subject of the last biography on this blog, Jokichi Takamine, the young Ogai showed great promise in both his linguistic and scientific studies and he was perhaps lucky to have a father who encouraged his son to follow the Western canon of medicine; daimyo physicians had used traditional Japanese medicine (kanpo) for generations, and not all were as perspicacious as the elder Mori in realizing the importance of the new techniques.

Ogai`s study of Dutch ignited a lifelong interest in the West, and far from being weighed down by such a heavy load of learning at such a young age, he seems to have relished it. Records from the Yorokan academy that he attended show that the tutors there estimated him to have the intelligence of a fifteen year old at the age of just nine, and his father is said to have bemoaned the fact that after just three years of study Ogai was just as proficient at Dutch as he was after a lifetime. Recognizing the boy`s precocious talent, his father took him to the new capital of Tokyo at the age of ten in order to give him access to the higher education that was unavailable out in the sticks.

Once in Tokyo it soon became clear that German, not Dutch, was now the language required to pursue the study of medicine. The nation`s centre of gravity had shifted eastwards (Tokyo literally means `Eastern Capital`), and with it the language of medicine shifted from the Dutch influence in Nagasaki into the hands of the groups of German doctors who had begun to gather, practice and teach in Tokyo. German, not Dutch, was now the language du jour of the medical profession. Far from being discouraged, Ogai seems to have welcomed the development as a favourable opportunity to learn another tongue.

Even today the German influence is plain to see in the number of Japanese words related to medicine which come from German; mesu for scalpel, karute for a medical record and gibuzu for a cast to give just a few examples. They also borrowed the German word for a ski slope, Gelände, and a sleeping bag, Schlafsack. All this gives the strong impression that the Germans in Japan were all outdoorsy medical types who liked nothing better than setting up a hospital and then going to enjoy healthful pursuits in the mountains. The Dutch, by contrast, furnished Japanese with its words for alcohol, beer, coffee, dance and holiday, and presumably enjoyed their time in Japan far more than the Germans.

Ogai entered the Shinbun Gakusha, a famous German language academy attended by many members of the nobility. Due to the difficulty of commuting to the school from his father`s house across town, he lived for four years with Nishi Amane, an old family friend from Tsuwano. Nishi was a philosopher and scholar who, among other achievements, was the man who introduced Western philosophy and aesthetics into Japan (as well as the Japanese words for these, tetsugaku and bigaku) and the first recorded Japanese freemason. Ogai`s later works are deeply philosophical, and it is interesting to speculate that his interest in this area might have first been stimulated by hearing the discussions of Nishi and his fellow academics at the family home. Nishi was deeply impressed by his young lodger, and it is speculated that he may well have helped to pay the high school fees necessary at the Shinbun Gakusha, as they would have otherwise taken well over half of his father`s salary. The links between the two families would be severed acrimoniously a decade later, but living with Nishi must have been one of the most exhilarating intellectual experiences of Ogai`s formative years.
Armed with his new knowledge of German and what must have been staggering self-belief, the following year at the age of eleven Ogai lied his way onto the preparatory course at the Tokyo School of Medicine (now the medical department of Tokyo University) by pretending to be thirteen, the youngest age at which they would consider taking a student. His precocity apparently knowing no bounds, he passed up the grades as a medical student into the medical program proper, by which time all the lessons were taught solely in German. He also found time to keep diaries in German and Dutch, read the latest literature ferociously, and took extra classes in classical Chinese poetry. Indeed, his skills in Chinese were so great that he would often write lecture notes in Chinese, and translated stories and poems from Japanese and German into Chinese for his own amusement. To call him precocious is something of an understatement.

He graduated a fully qualified doctor at the age of nineteen on July 4th 1881, making him to this day the youngest ever medical graduate of Tokyo University, a record unlikely ever to be broken. We will leave him, then, hurling his mortarboard skywards on this proud day; next week we will take him into the army, to Germany, and to love, literature and scandal.

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Ten trips off the beaten track in Japan

If you`re reading this, you probably have some interest in Japan. Perhaps you live there, perhaps you`ve been there on holiday. If you`re interested in exploring the country a little more, I hope this list will give you some inspiration to do so. After all, Japan is a big place, with 3000km separating the northern tip of Hokkaido and the last flick of the Okinawa archipelago. This is an entirely subjective list of ten brilliant places which are not as well known or visited as they deserve to be.

1. Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen, Ehime Prefecture, Shikoku
Hot spring lovers need look no further than this charming city which sits on the north coast of Shikoku, facing Hiroshima across the Inland Sea. The two are only an hour apart by ferry, making it perfectly possible to visit both in the same trip. Matsuyama has all the things I want in a Japanese city; great food, nearby beaches, an imposing castle on a hill, and a population who are quite a few cards short of a collective deck. I don’t know if I was just lucky when I went, but about every third person seemed to be quite spectacularly dotty (apologies to any Matsuyamans who may have happened on this page, but I assure you I mean this as a compliment When you tire of Matsuyama, hop on the No.1 tram to Dogo Onsen, a spectacular bathing facility which was frequented by Natsume Soseki and plays a central role in his semi-autobiographical novel `Botchan`. In his day, for eight sen (100 sen = 1 yen) you could get a bath, food, and a massage. Would that those days were still with us; however, today you must part with a rather larger sum (1500 yen), but you will get your own private room to relax in, a yukata, towel, tea, sweets and access to the Emperor`s bath, which is as steamy as the directors cut of Debbie Does Dallas. Even today, it’s a bargain. Finally, don’t leave town without eating Botchan Dango (they rather go to town with their Soseki connections), which is a delicious confection of soft sweetened dango (mochi balls) on a stick in traffic light colours.

Other info: JR Shikoku has a `Birthday Ticket` deal, where if one member of your party (up to four people) has a birthday in the month of travel, you are eligible for 3 days unlimited travel (including Green Cars) in Shikoku for 10,000 yen.

2. Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, Kyushu
I won`t lie. Hirado takes some getting to. First get yourself to Fukuoka. Then take a bus or train to Sasebo, a town whose questionable claims to fame include burgers (say Sasebo to any Japanese person, and there`s a very good chance the immediate reply will be `burger`) a twinning with Albuquerque and having the westernmost JR station in Japan. From Sasebo, take another bus (or hire a car if you have the hang of that driving business) across the Hirado Great Bridge, and enjoy the rural scenery as you descend into Hirado City.
Why would you want to do all this? Well, unless you’re a history buff, you probably won’t. Hirado’s glory days are long gone, but in the 16th and 17th centuries this was one of the busiest trading posts in all Japan. Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and English traders all lived and worked here, bringing wealth, technology and perhaps more importantly, Christianity. Francis Xavier, the famous Jesuit missionary, first came ashore here in an attempt to make Japan an Asian outpost of Catholicism. In this he failed, but Nagasaki remains the Japanese centre of Christianity, and Hirado is one of few places where you can see the streets at their busiest on a Sunday morning, with the faithful piling into the Church of St Francis to receive their weekly blessing. The secular amongst us, however, will still find it worth a visit; the view from the church, of Hirado Castle standing proud above the glittering Sea of Japan, is unforgettable for preacher and layman alike.

3. Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Honshu
Okay, so Kobe is hardly a `hidden gem`. But, its proximity to other more famous sites such as Osaka, Kyoto and Nara can often lead to it being overlooked by the hurried sightseer, and this is a shame. Indeed, the very fact that it is none of these places may be its strong point; not as hectic as Osaka and not as touristy as Kyoto, it makes a thoroughly pleasant base for exploring Kansai, and an excellent destination in its own right.
This, however, you can find out from any guidebook. I want to tell you about the sake distilleries of Nada, just one stop from the centre of Kobe on the Sanyo mainline. For a ridiculously low price (500 yen) you can see a real, working sake distillery, and try various kinds of the brew under the guidance of the master brewer. A personal recommendation is the Shushinkan, founded in 1751. The master there is an English lover, and if you keep complimenting his English, he will keep bringing out the sake (well beyond the five `official` tasting sakes). Be careful, though; this can lead to embarrassing drunkenness at an inappropriate time of the day; my last visit ended up with 11 glasses being polished off before 12pm, and the five minute train ride back to Kobe ended up being a 3 hour round trip via Himeji, 60 miles west.

4. Rishiri Island, Hokkaido
Imagine Mount Fuji, plopped down in the middle of the sea, and that`s pretty much what Rishiri is. As with Hirado, Rishiri is not really `on the way` to anywhere, except perhaps Russia. But it is very much worth the journey for anyone who likes hiking, cycling and other wholesome outdoor type pursuits. To get there, first get to Sapporo. Then take a train to Wakkanai, the most northerly station in all of Japan. It is also the most boring place I have ever been to; just think of it as a kind of trial that must be overcome to reach the wonders of Rishiri. Your first glimpse of the island will probably come from the train on the way to Wakkanai, a tantalizingly perfect cone, its peak shrouded in great fluffy pillows of cloud. When you arrive on the island, put on your stoutest hiking boots, and start the climb, all 1721 metres of it, to the summit. You will soon climb above the cloud cover of the lower part of the island, and from there you are in Wonderland. The only clouds are now below you, so the weather is splendid, and the view stretches all the way to Sakhalin, some 110 kilometres away to the north. Whatever you do, don`t forget your camera.

5. Somewhere, Japan
When the Japanese go on holiday, they like it to be planned. Planned to an extent that would make a Sandhurst trained officer feel he was a happy-go-lucky, spontaneous type in comparison. `Assemble 0800 hours. Board bus 0810 hours for 43 minute journey to cathedral. Breakfast at 0855 hours in cathedral café`, that sort of thing. I once attended a presentation by a Japanese tour guide, about how guiding Westerners was different to guiding Japanese; it was particularly funny when he said that sometimes western tourists want to walk round a city away from their tour group. The audience, made almost entirely of `women of a certain age` gasped, utterly shocked at how anyone might do such a selfish, dangerous thing.

`But what if they got lost? ` shouted one?
`But what if they got murdered or shot? ` bawled another.

The hysteria was quite palpable. Flexibility and change on a Japanese holiday are about as welcome as syphilis.

So, as an antidote to this kind of rigid planning, here is what you need to do. Get on a train. Get off at any station which connects to another line. Ride that train for a number of stops equivalent to your age divided by three. Get off, and see where you are. No matter how uninteresting that place may look, spend a day there. Wander, get lost, get into a difficult looking but ultimately hilarious scrape involving someone’s cocker spaniel. Do anything, as long as you don’t plan it.
An alternative to this, if you think your Japanese is up to it, is to go to a ticket counter at your local station, ask for a ticket, and when asked `where to?`, just say `wherever you recommend`. The look of shock on the assistant’s face will be quite special.

6. Naoshima, Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku

Naoshima is a smallish island in the Inland Sea, roughly equidistant between Okayama and Takamatsu. It used to have a thriving fishing industry, but when that floundered, the locals wondered what to do. Luckily for them, the Benesse Corporation decided to invest billions of yen turning the place into an `art island`. They hired one of Japan`s foremost architects, Ando Tadao, to design a Museum of Contemporary Art, and commissioned well known artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Cao Guin Qian to create installations which they then placed around the island. The result is like an artistic treasure hunt, best carried out by bike, as you criss-cross the island chancing upon a sculpture here, a fresco there, and all the while enjoying splendid views across the Inland Sea. A must for fans of modern art.
One word of warning, though. When you hire a bicycle from the information centre near the port, be sure to check the adequacy of the brakes. Failure to do this may result in a descent from Mr. Ando`s hilltop museum at a speed approaching that of sound, accompanied by frantic attempts to shout every curse word known to the English tongue while making private prayers for the saving of your soul to any deity who cares to listen. Take my word for it.

7. Seishun 18 kippu (Youth 18 ticket)
Despite its name, this ticket is available to anyone, regardless of age. It is a ticket, on sale for three periods every year roughly congruent with university holidays, which entitles the holder to 5 days unlimited travel on local trains in that period. It will next be available between February 20 and March 31 (university spring break), for travel between March 1 and April 10. The ticket can be used by one person on 5 days, or five people on the same day. It costs 11,000 yen, or 2,200 yen for each day of travel. Given that you can travel from Takaoka to Hiroshima on one of these days, which would normally cost 15,000 of your hard earned yen, you begin to see the savings possible.
The catch, of course, is the thing about local trains. You can go to Hiroshima, but it will take you 12 hours. However, you will see much more of the country on local trains, and perhaps discover a hidden gem or two? For my money, the local train between Mihara and Hiroshima is one of the most beautiful journeys in Japan, and doubly so if the cherry blossoms are flowering or the autumn leaves are in season.
So, learn to slow down, take a few days off work, and see Japan not as a blur from the window of the Shinkansen, but from the window of a slow train winding through rice paddies and gardens to a destination of nowhere in particular.

8. Shiretoko Peninsula, Hokkaido
I promise I`m not trying to send you all to the ends of the earth here, but Shiretoko is another place which is tremendously far away and still well worth the journey. Sticking out into the Sea of Okhotsk from the north-east tip of Hokkaido lies perhaps Japan`s last wilderness. Surrounded by sea ice in winter, populated by bear and deer in summer, Shiretoko is about as far from the madding crowd as you can get without actually popping over the sea to Siberian Russia. To get there, you must again start from Sapporo in Hokkaido. Get the train to Abashiri, and from there, take a bus up the peninsula, perhaps to the Iwaobetsu youth hostel, which is still not connected to the national grid. From there, you can explore the Kamuiwakka falls, a waterfall of geothermally heated water with a natural pool at the top for bathing, or climb Rausu-dake, a 1660 metre peak which is covered with snow all year round and commands views of the sea to east and west, and the Kuril Islands to the north, which Japan still disputes ownership of with Russia in the undignified manner of two bald men fighting over a comb.
In winter, when hiking is impossible for all but the most seriously equipped walker, you can ride an icebreaker boat around the peninsula to see huge frozen waterfalls and uninhabited islands, and for the ornithologists out there, one of the last remaining colonies of Steller`s Sea Eagle. When night falls, have a well deserved beer while watching the sun set on the Sea of Okhotsk. Do mind out for those bears, though.

9. Myoko kogen, Niigata Prefecture, Honshu
The ski season is with us, so it would be rude not to include at least one resort. For us Toyama people, Myoko Kogen has the advantage of being close (a couple of hours by train), cheap to get to (2000-3000 yen depending on where you are in the prefecture), having excellent skiing (Myoko Suginohara resort has the longest piste in Japan, at 8.5 km long), and not being as crowded as other resorts such as Hakuba and Naeba. In addition, you can stay at wonderful places like Tabataya, which will do you two nights accommodation, two days lift pass and four meals for the frankly ridiculously low price of 12,000 yen. Then, after a hard day carving powder (or in my case, a hard day slip-sliding down the piste with an action resembling a frog in a blender) you can head back to town to soak in an onsen and get some local sake inside you; after all, Hakkaisan, one of the finest examples of the stuff in Japan, is made just up the road. They do distillery tours with generous samples too, if all the skiing is too energetic for you.

10. Izu Islands, Tokyo, Honshu
What capital city contains; palm fringed beaches, fields of wild camellia, an active volcano and opportunities for scuba diving?
The answer is Tokyo, which may surprise anyone who has ever set foot in that largely treeless metropolis. But, get yourself on a boat from Shibaura harbour to the Izu Islands (administratively a part of Tokyo) and you will find yourself among all these natural wonders. The largest of the islands, Izu Oshima, offers the chance to climb to the crater of an active volcano (the last eruption was in the mid nineties), sample some of the best sushi in Japan, try numerous (free) open air hot spring baths, and breathe in what is almost certainly the cleanest air in Tokyo. If you happen to get bored of this, you could pop over to Mikurajima, where you can snorkel with wild dolphins, or Hachiojima, where you can get a very creditable plate of fish and chips from the Anchor pub before popping next door to the dive shop to get kitted out for scuba diving. If you`re in Tokyo, paradise is very much on your doorstep.

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Jokichi Takamine: Samurai Chemist

Some people are more famous than they ought to be, and some less. Jokichi Takamine falls squarely into the latter category. He was a scientific bridge linking Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. He produced the first effective asthma medicine, the first effective indigestion remedy and revolutionized the production of beer and whisky by introducing Japanese knowledge to western alcoholism, and yet his English Wikipedia entry is shorter than that of Chesney Hawkes. Let this introduction be the feeblest of efforts to put that oversight right.

Early Life
Jokichi Takamine was born in Takaoka, Toyama, Japan, in 1854, and the citizens of that fair city still take every opportunity to remind visitors of the great man who hails from their town. He moved to Kanazawa while still a baby (a fact generally unacknowledged by any of the materials produced in Takaoka), where his physician father noticed the young boy`s aptitude for both languages and science and encouraged him to follow his interests, even if it meant leaving home. So it was that at the tender age of 12, he won a scholarship to study Western science and moved almost 1000 miles west to Nagasaki (a fact which, in turn, is absent from any mention of Takamine in the Kanazawa records. Nagasaki, however, had such an embarrassment of notables at this time that the young Takamine is scarcely acknowledged by the city in any case, so perhaps it is as well for Kanazawa to claim him as their own).

Nagasaki at that time must have been one of the most interesting places in the world for a young boy to live. The rest of Japan was struggling to cope with the influx of foreign culture that followed the forced opening of the country by Commodore Perry in 1853, but Nagasaki, ever an anomaly, was largely continuing with business as usual. While Japan was sealed off to foreigners for the past two centuries, Nagasaki had been allowed to trade much more freely; with the Dutch who were permitted to trade from the island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour, with the Portuguese, who were more or less tolerated as long as they didn`t attempt to continue the proselytizing work of their Jesuit predecessors, and the Chinese, who sailed in and out of Nagasaki, buying and selling anything which would fetch profit such as silks, art, porcelain and even firearms. Add to this the Indonesian slaves of Dutch traders, the trade with Korea which had continued through war, famine and pestilence for well over a thousand years, and occasional Russian trading envoys, and the freedom given to all these people by the opening of the country ten years before Takamine`s arrival, and we can perhaps get a sense of the wild wonder which would have seized him upon his arrival in this international city. Even today, the first time visitor to Nagasaki can sometimes find himself lost in a reverie, and fancy that he spies a busy Chinese merchant rushing off to the house of a noble to sell his latest batch of highly fashionable Yangshao silks.

Takamine was sent to live with a Dutch family, with whom he continued his study of English, and attended a school run jointly by the Portuguese consulate and local government. Here he was first introduced to Western science and medicine, and excelled at the school. This led him to be recommended to medical school in Osaka at the unusually young age of 16. Osaka is considered in Japan to be a city of merchants, as opposed to the stiff formality of Tokyo, a city of samurai. While little evidence remains of Takamine`s stint in Osaka, it is easy to imagine that some of the commercial spirit rubbed off on the young boy, paving the way for the great success he enjoyed in the United States.

After two years in Osaka, he moved on to the stiff formality of Tokyo. Having decided that he would make a better chemist than physician, he entered the chemistry course of the Tokyo College of Science and Engineering, which would later become Tokyo University. Tokyo was perhaps not as comfortable as Nagasaki with the opening of Japan in this era, but the national government was fully aware that without Western knowledge, the country would have no chance of becoming a developed nation that could resist the imperial tide overrunning other parts of East Asia. Hundreds of foreign advisers thronged every department of government, building railways, teaching at the imperial universities, designing ports and even organizing western style balls and dances at the Rokumeikan, the cultural centre where many Japanese were introduced to Western manners for the first time.

More importantly for Takamine, the government was also sending great numbers of Japanese abroad to study the gamut of disciplines, be it science, governance, law, education, economics or any of a hundred other areas in which Japan badly needed expertise in order to build a modern state. In 1871 the Iwakura mission was sent out, modeled on the great missions of Peter the Great when he was in the process of Westernising Russia in the 18th century (though one presumes that the Iwakura mission wasn`t such a boozy affair as Peter`s famously hedonistic Embassies). The Iwakura mission visited Glasgow in 1872, and while there they formed relations with the University of Glasgow. As a result, the Japanese government was able in the coming years to send out students to the university. With his fluent English and exemplary academic record (he graduated at the top of his class in 1879), Takamine was chosen to receive a three year scholarship to further his study of chemistry in Glasgow, and set out for Scotland in 1879, arriving in early 1880.

Going Overseas
Scotland seems to have treated the young Takamine well, for he thrived there, not only studying at the university but also embarking on a personal study of the industrial revolution. He put this to practical use by specializing in the manufacture of fertilizer, another area which the Japanese government had marked out as vital to the modernization of Japanese agriculture. He also developed the knowledge of enzymes which would later allow him to revolutionise alcohol production. Around half a century later another aspiring Japanese chemist, Masataka Taketsuru, would study at Glasgow and, after working in whisky distilleries across the Mull of Kintyre, introduce whisky to Japan and found the first domestic distillery. I am powerless to suggest what odd karmic forces link Japanese chemists so closely with both Glasgow University and alcohol production, but it is surely a link which has brought great benefits to all parties involved.

After three years in Glasgow, Takamine headed for home. He started work immediately for the Japanese government at the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce where he was tasked with introducing Western learning to Japanese farming, but his stay was to be a short one. He was sent in 1884 to be a co-commissioner representing Japan at the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans. It is easy to imagine that without this trip he may have stayed in Japan for the rest of his life as an exceedingly competent but otherwise undistinguished government bureaucrat, making small changes to Japanese agriculture and generally working for the good of the nation. In New Orleans, however, he lived in the house of a retired military man, Colonel Ebenezer Hitch. Takamine fell in love with his daughter, Caroline Field Hitch, and this kept him linked to the USA for the rest of his life. He also met Lafcadio Hearn, one of the earliest and most successful writers about Japan, who later partly credited Takamine with stoking his interest in the country and persuading him to travel there in 1890. In what must have been a necessarily whirlwind romance, before the end of the Exposition Takamine had proposed marriage to Caroline, and promised to return to America once he had made himself financially secure to follow through on the proposal. The match was an unconventional one for the period, but the couple were evidently deeply committed to each other, and after two years working in Tokyo at the Japanese Bureau of Patents and Trademarks Takamine returned to America. The happy couple were married in the height of a New Orleans summer, on August 10th 1887.

The couple went on honeymoon to South Carolina, where in addition to the usual sightseeing trips they visited fertilizer factories (it is unrecorded whether Caroline had any second thoughts about the marriage at this point, but you might sympathise with her if she had). Indeed, it seems to have been more of a working holiday than a honeymoon, for as well as the aforementioned fertilizer production study, Takamine also researched American alcohol population and went to Washington DC to take an intensive course in American patent law. What a hopeless old romantic!

Returning home
Given his study of patent law, we might speculate that he was already laying the foundations for his future business ventures in the USA. Before that, however, he would return once more to Japan with his wife, a venture that would be financially rewarding but personally difficult for him. On his return, he again worked on applying Western technology in Japan, but this time to a private rather than governmental enterprise. He set up the first super-phosphate factory in Japan with Baron Shibusawa Eiichi and Masuda Takashi, introducing and selling chemical fertilizer to Japanese rice farmers for the first time; up until then night soil had been the major source of fertilizer for rice, with the `soil` of the rich even fetching higher prices than that of the poor because of their better diet! You know a class divide is really entrenched when even the price of excrement is affected.

The venture did not go well at first, but after Takamine set up a new sales structure, making contacts with influential fertilizer merchants and allowing them monopoly rights over wide areas the business really took off, and the Tokyo Artificial Fertilizer Company soon established chemical fertilizer as the norm in rice cultivation. Jokichi and Caroline were also blessed with two children, Jokichi and Eben, born in 1888 and 1890 respectively. However, everyday life was tough. The couple lived in the insalubrious and perhaps rather malodorous district around the fertilizer plant, and the couple lived with Takamine`s mother, Yukiko. I don`t want to overplay the `evil mother-in-law` card, but Caroline later recalled that not only did Yukiko not approve of her, she refused to acknowledge her existence at all, which must have made for slightly awkward family dinners. Caroline grew understandably unhappy at this state of affairs, and Takamine was soon persuaded that he should continue pursuing his business interests in the United States.

Takamine knew he would not be able to compete in the old and well established chemical fertilizer industry in the United States. Thus, rather than applying Western technology to Japanese industry, he pondered how he could apply Japanese technology to Western industry. Admirably, he decided on alcohol production as one area where this could profitably be attempted.

The science of alcohol production
Alcohol is produced when yeast acts on sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, as I`m sure we all remember from high school science class. The majority of foodstuffs from which alcohol is made do not necessarily contain large amounts of sugar; potatoes for vodka, barley for beer and whiskey or rice for sake are not what any of us would consider a sweet treat. The starch in these foods must be broken down into sugars before alcohol production can begin, and this is done by a group of enzymes known as amylases (also known as diastases). In the West, amylases for brewing were traditionally obtained from malted barley. In Japan, however, a rice mould known as koji is normally used for the same purpose. It is likely that Jokichi would have been familiar with koji from the sake distillery that belonged to his mother`s family, and from his time in Glasgow he would have been familiar with amylase derived from malted barley. He would therefore have known that while the two are similar, the enzyme derived from koji is more active and thus more effective. In fact, koji is considered so important in Japan that the mould from which it comes, Aspergillus oryzae, is a designated national fungus. Whether any other country has seen fit to designate a national fungus is, I`m afraid, not something I was willing to give any time to research fully, but I find it unlikely.

Coming to America
Takamine took this knowledge to the United States in the 1890 and tried to sell it to the whisky industry. He was soon employed by the Whiskey Trust (and who wouldn`t want to go to one of their Christmas parties?), who put him in charge of whisky production at the Peoria distillery. He experimented further with enzymes derived from wheat bran while working here, and ended up turning round the fortunes of the distillery, which now had access to a cheaper, more effective enzyme to break down starch. He founded the Takamine Ferment Company in 1891 to market the enzyme, and it seemed like the family had got off to a flying start in the States.

However, the local malt manufacturers certainly did not welcome this new foreign intruder on their business with his irritatingly effective foreign methods. American citizenship laws at the time prevented the naturalization of Asians nationwide, and in some areas state-level laws entrenched discrimination further. Fear of financial ruin because of Takamine`s innovations and endemic xenophobia meant that Takamine was targeted by competitors. His workers were encouraged or threatened to strike, and his family were excluded from local businesses. This came to a head when the Peoria distillery where he made his living was destroyed in a fire. It was never proved to be arson, but in the circumstances it must be considered a possibility. Takamine was financially ruined, and at the same time he was struck down with liver disease which required emergency surgery in Chicago, stretching the family budget even further, and Caroline took to selling arts and crafts to support the family; something of a step down for the daughter of a famous Southern dynasty.

Starting again
In hospital, with no money and an uncertain future, you might forgive Takamine for wanting to give up, to flee back to Japan and return to the safety of a Japanese government job and a solid pension. He was made of sterner stuff, though, and it was while in hospital that he struck upon his next idea, the one that would make him rich and secure his future. He was considering other uses for the wheat bran enzyme he had developed, and to this end applied for a patent for the method in 1894, and was granted U.S. Patent No. 525,823 for deriving amylase from wheat bran using aqueous alcohol. This was the first patent on a microbial enzyme taken out in the United States.

Takamine would have known from his medical training, and perhaps been reminded by his time in hospital, that indigestion was at this time thought to be caused by the incomplete digestion of starch in the stomach. He thus struck upon the idea that his enzyme preparation could be used to break down starch in the stomach just as it was used to break down starch in barley. He marketed it through the drugmakers Parke, Davis and Company, and the resulting medicine, Takadiastase, became the world`s first commercial indigestion recipe. It was so successful that you can still pick it up in any pharmacy in Japan or the United States today. Perhaps ironically, this Japanese product was sold throughout the war when all other Japanese products were banned in the United States, and had American citizens known the truth about its origins it may have done more harm than good for their dyspepsia. It also took off immediately in Japan; the great novelist Natsume Soseki grudgingly took it daily, as does the human hero of his 1905 novel I am a Cat. Takamine became an adviser to Parke-Davis, and through his patent earned enough money not just to be secure, but to be fabulously wealthy; by 1900 he was a millionaire, and he moved to New York with his family and set up a private laboratory in Manhattan.

Takamine now had the financial freedom to devote himself to scientific research, and he applied himself to the problem of obtaining adrenaline. Polish chemist Napoleon Cybulski managed to extract the substance in impure form in 1895, and in the same year George Oliver and Edward Schafer showed that it could be used to raise the blood pressure of laboratory animals, but the impurities in the extracts obtained often caused the treatment to be more dangerous than the diseases it was meant to cure. Professor John Abel of Johns Hopkins University had also researched the problem, so Takamine visited him many times in the summer of 1899 to ask him about his methods. He employed an assistant, Keizo Uenaka, and between them they developed a method of deriving pure adrenaline in crystalline form from the adrenal glands of sheep and oxen. At a stroke, they had obtained a drug which could be used to treat, among other things, asthma (the first effective remedy for the condition), anaphylactic shock, cardiac arrest, and croup. It was a public and medical sensation; champion boxer Gene Tunney never entered the ring without a vial of the liquid to hand, and it was also used to prevent haemhorraging during surgery, one of the most important developments since anaesthetic. Takamine applied for the patent which was granted in November 1900, making him the first man to hold a patent on a purified hormone. The following year he presented and wrote single author papers to the New York Medical Society and the Society of Chemical Engineering, and was awarded the right to use the word Adrenalin as a trademark.

John Abel, by now perhaps wishing that he too had studied patent law while on his honeymoon, felt that he had been cheated by Takamine, and also claimed that the chemical research was flawed. Takamine countered this by breaking down his original single patent application into five, to guard each and every step of the process against unlicensed imitation. He was further challenged by H.L. Mulford, a rival of Parke-Davis, who took the company to court arguing that Abel was the progenitor of the discovery, and that as a natural animal extract the hormone could not be patented. The details of the case are too complicated to go into here, but Judge Learned Hand (and if anyone knows a better name for a judge I should like to hear it), having spent many days studying the technical details, delivered a summary that concluded with the following words, which would change the relationship between law and science permanently;

“I cannot stop without calling attention to the extraordinary condition of the law which makes it possible for a man without a knowledge of even the rudiments of chemistry to pass upon such questions as these”.

Judge Learned Hand ruled in favour of Takamine, and his discovery and patents were safe.

Reaping the rewards
Takamine used the great wealth which resulted to expand his business activities. He founded three more companies; Sankyo Pharmaceutical in Tokyo (now the Daiichi Sankyo Pharmaceutical Company, the largest drugmaker in Japan), the Takamine Laboratory of New Jersey, and the Takamine Ferment Company. He also turned his attention to improving the lot of Japanese in the United States, and to improving Japanese-American relations. He founded the Japanese Society of New York and the Nippon Club, and he often appeared at both in traditional Japanese dress to talk about Japan and its culture. He also frequently entertained the cream of New York society at his Japanese style home, Shofuden, and brokered and financed the gift of 2000 cherry trees from the Mayor of Tokyo to Washington City in 1909 when he learned that the First Lady, Helen Taft, was working to beautify the Potomac River basin. He was recognized by the Emperor of Japan in 1915, who awarded him the Fourth Order of the Rising Sun. He continued to work to bridge the gap between the two countries, and even as his health began to fail him in the 1920s he still insisted on attending the Washington Naval Conference as part of the Japanese delegation; that he was attending international political conferences shows how highly he was regarded in both Japan and the United States at this time.

The end of the road
Takamine had pushed himself too hard at the conference against the advice of his doctors and he took to his bed in December 1921 with a severe recurrence of the liver ailment that had previously plagued him in Chicago. He was not to recover this time, and after fighting the disease for over half a year he passed away peacefully in July 1922. He was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, where his mausoleum contains a stained glass window depicting Mount Fuji; his attempt to bridge the gap between Japan and America continuing in death as it had in life.

Takamine`s genius for me lay in being as skilful an entrepreneur as he was a chemist. He was a pioneer in biotechnology and endocrinology, and also an extremely shrewd businessman. Perhaps the best summation of his achievements was that given by his long-time friend, J.L.C Clarke on the occasion of Takamine`s funeral.

“Apart from his devotion to science, it was his dearest wish to promote abiding and enduring friendship between the land of his birth and that of his adoption. In the field of the chemistry of life he had created powerful corporations to develop and apply his valuable inventions and discoveries, always keeping before him big cherished ideal of a union between Japan and the United States based on a common economic interest and mutual esteem. In his pursuit of this ideal he incessantly worked with tireless zeal and grim determination, giving most unstintedly, and was rightly spoken of as an uncrowned Ambassador of Good-Will between the two nations, An intense lover of Japan, its ancient art, its domestic virtues, its rich traditions, he became an equally ardent lover of the United States, its high ideals, its balanced freedom.”

From a humble rice mould came one of the most remarkable lives of modern Japan. Jokichi Takamine gave the world the technology which allows for beer and whisky to be produced commercially and reliably, the first effective medicine for indigestion, still available 110 years after first going on sale, and the world`s first effective asthma medicine and remedy for anaphylactic shock. If like me you enjoy a drink, have asthma and sometimes overindulge at dinner, it is hardly going too far to say that few people beyond Thomas Edison have discovered so much which I use and rely on every day of my life. If one man should be more famous than he is, it is surely Jokichi Takamine, who bestrode countries and scientific disciplines to improve American Japanese relations, medical science and the lives of countless millions over the past hundred years. I for one will be raising my next pint of beer, the very beer he helped to produce, to Jokichi Takamine.

Posted in Biography, History | 6 Comments

Another year, another post, another Prime Minister

I haven`t posted here for a long time, but recently Japanese politics has become too interesting not to comment on; interesting mostly because of the staggering incompetence involved on all sides, but interesting nonetheless.

The current prime minister, Naoto Kan of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), will not break the run of five prime ministers who have lasted no longer than a year (a straw poll of this writer`s ten Japanese colleagues found nobody who could remember all five). Following his widely criticized handling of the aftermath of March`s earthquake and tsunami, and his almost total loss of support both inside and outside his own party, he has agreed to resign upon the passing of three bills to do with post-war reconstruction; firstly, a bill to agree on the amount and distribution of reconstruction spending, secondly, a bill to issue bonds in order to fund the reconstruction, and thirdly, a bill to promote alternative energy, reducing the reliance on nuclear energy that has done so much to cause the current crisis. Indeed, it was precisely by offering his resignation as a quid pro quo to obtain Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) support for the reconstruction bills that they had any chance of passing. Anyone who thought that the LDP would refrain from using an unprecedented national emergency to score political gains really should have known better; the extent of their cynicism truly knows no bounds.

As things stand, Kan`s term of office will end tomorrow; the reconstruction bill has already been passed, and the bond issuance and alternative energy bills are negotiating their way through the Diet now. This will allow the DPJ to hold elections on Monday before the parliamentary recession which begins in August.
And my, what a crowded field it is; nine candidates have declared their intention to run, and while it is by no means certain that all of them will gain the necessary 20 votes of support from DPJ members, it seems likely that there will be more candidates than could fit in even the most generously sized family car.

To go through each of the candidates and their policies one by one would be tedious in the extreme, so let us look at the chances of Seiji Maehara, the former foreign secretary and transport minister. In recent polls such as this one, Maehara has come out as the most popular candidate among the public, though of course it is the votes of 398 DPJ members that will count come Monday afternoon. He is known to be hawkish on security policy following his term as foreign secretary, which should count in his favour; even within the nominally left wing DPJ, a hard line towards Japan`s neighbours is de rigueur for the majority. He also fared well before that as transport minister with his ambitious if divisive plan to make Haneda airport into the main hub of Tokyo air travel, which anyone who has experienced the endless journey from Narita to central Tokyo would surely welcome.

Standing against Maehara will be Yoshihiko Noda, the current finance minister. Until two weeks ago, Noda was seen by many as the most promising candidate for the leadership. He is seen as something close to a safe pair of financial hands, and it was thought by many that he would be willing to raise the consumption tax in order to help restore Japanese finances to a more stable footing. This is all the more vital in the face of Moody`s downgrade of Japanese debt, which stands at 228% even before the issuance of reconstruction bonds. Noda might have a better chance than some of the other candidates in tackling the problem. However, he effectively knocked himself out of the contest by committing what must surely be the number one sin when electioneering; mentioning out loud this intention to raise tax. He added to this by committing the number one sin of international relations, when he said that in his view the class A war criminals enshrined at Yasukuni in Tokyo weren`t really war criminals; the kind of comment that does not go down well in the governments of Seoul or Beijing.

Maehara will however be hamstrung by the manner of his exit from the foreign ministry. He was forced to resign in March after illegally accepting donations from a foreign national, and you can be sure that if he is elected the LDP will use this fact to stymie any legislation he attempts to pass. Indeed, this threat has already been made by Seko Hiroshige, acting LDP secretary general and candidate for `most inept man on the planet` , who says that Maehara will be grilled during budget committee deliberations.
We cannot finish the discussion, though, without discussing the role of the old schemer Ozawa Ichiro, who still makes Machiavelli look as cunning and cynical as a girl scout troop. Yesterday it was reported that Maehara visited Ozawa to ask for his guidance during the campaign; an interesting move, given that he is the only candidate in favour of upholding Ozawa`s suspension from the party. Are we to assume that Maehara has made a Faustian pact with Ozawa, offering him a party post in return for his and his faction`s cooperation in the election. This would certainly make him the overwhelming favourite in the election, but then he would be left with a post-election landscape in which the LDP try to stymie every move with talk of Maehara`s previous wrongdoing, and Ozawa manipulates within the DPJ to strengthen consolidate his power base with no regard for Maehara`s leadership.
If this is the case, Maehara must surely be wary; perhaps it would be better to lose the election and come back in 2012 than win by making a deal with the devil and having enemies inside and outside the gate, which would surely only result in him becoming the sixth prime minister in succession who resigns after less than a year. Maehara will need outstanding relationships with the media and the public, and a sure hand in dealing with both Ozawa and LDP chicanery to have any chance at all of avoiding this fate. Good luck to him.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

The Wrath of Kan: Japan`s new Prime Minister

I intended to post something here about the resignation of Prime Minister Hatoyama and its implications. However, this has already been done far better than I could manage by Tobias Harris at

and Michael Cucek at

I will leave the political analysis in their capable hands.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment

Reader, I texted him: A look at keitai shosetsu (mobile phone novels)

You’re on the subway in Tokyo. Suited businessmen on their way to a twelve hour day at work jostle around as you desperately try to find a square foot of space for your feet to occupy. There’s certainly no space to read a newspaper, and not even enough to reach into your briefcase and pull out the manga you’ve got into lately. You can, however, just squeeze your hand into your pocket (being careful to avoid touching the back of the profusely sweaty man next to you) and slide your mobile phone out. So, why not read a novel there? That’s what growing numbers of Japanese youth are doing every day; reading novels which have been written and are designed to be read on the phone screen. Each chapter is a mere 160 characters long (this takes about 2 minutes to read, which is the average time between stops on the Tokyo subway) and usually has a plot twist at the end, to keep you waiting till the next part arrives, almost like the Victorian serialization of Dickens` novels in weekly magazines. The writing style is by necessity short and punchy, similar to that of manga, and using emoticons and other phone based techniques to express emotions.

The most popular keitai shosetsu yet has been `Love Sky`, which was read by over four million people on their phone screens and a further two million when it was released as a book. It has even been made into a film starring the popular teenage stars Yui Aragaki and Haruma Miura, and most recently a TV drama. The author, however, remains mysterious; the novel was uploaded anonymously onto the specialist keitai shosetsu site Magic Island. All we know is that the author is female, lives in Kanto, and uses the same name on the site as Love Sky’s protagonist, Mika.

The book’s story is one of high melodrama. Mika, a high school girl, is bullied at school, but forms an unlikely friendship with Hiro, a punk and a loner. As their relationship deepens, Saki, who is both Hiro’s ex girlfriend and Mika`s chief tormentor, descends into jealousy and anger which culminates in her arranging to have Mika kidnapped and raped in order to humiliate her. However, Hiro’s devotion helps Mika get through her ordeal, and happiness for all is ensured. Realistic, no. Popular, yes. Wildly so. The story was criticized for its depiction of underage sex (though not, oddly, for its portrayal of rape), but this kind of edgy theme is precisely what makes the keitai shosetsu so popular among the young.

But is it literature? There has been a predictable outcry over keitai shosetsu among teachers, professors and politicians alike, as they bemoan the decreasing language skills of the younger generation. Certainly, the keitai shosetsu has a tendency to the formulaic. The general theme is often a love story in which the heroine and her beau are kept apart by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which they eventually overcome, as typified by `Love Sky`. The first person narrative and buckets of melodrama are a must, to keep the reader’s interest in each and every 160 word segment, while dialogue and description are sparse. Critics deride them as simplistic and amateurish, with no respect for the traditions of Japanese literature.

But, can you really argue with the sales figures? A successful keitai shosetsu, in book form, can sell hundreds of thousands of copies; an important source of sales for Japan`s declining publishing industry. Of 2007`s top ten bestsellers, five were originally keitai shosetsu. Whether this spells the end for the traditional novel is yet to be seen, but what is certain is that the way the Japanese read is changing, whether those reared on traditional literature like it or not. The numbers alone suggest that keitai shosetsu, for better or worse, are here to stay.

Posted in Life in Japan | Leave a comment

An alternative guide to Toyama

An Alternative Guide to Toyama, Japan

Visitors coming to my wonderful hometown of Toyama City today might want to orient themselves with a look around the Muslim quarter to see the famous Umayyad mosque, a reminder of the 700 year period of rule by the Islamic Caliphate. They could continue by descending the narrow whitewashed streets, unchanged since the Middle Ages, where toothless crones still read fortunes by candlelight and young maidens dance flamenco late into the night. The evening can be perfectly rounded off by attending the spectacular May Crosses festival, where thousands of fireworks are launched from a burning boat in the Guadalquivir river. Anyone who comes to Toyama and misses these wonders will kick themselves when they realise they should have gone to Cordoba in Spain.

Toyama prefecture boasts a rich and varied history. Pride of place in the Prefectural museum goes to the skull of a 150,000 year old male. Standing just four feet tall, with long arms and a primitive way of speaking that would be almost impossible to understand, experts describe ‘Toyama man’ as being halfway between ape and human. Unfortunately they still don’t know anything about that old skull though.
Metalworking has been crucial to the economic development of Toyama. It was a 13th century visitor from Kyoto who first noticed that the locals had begun to mine iron ore and smelt in a basic fashion, but this was before the invention of the shower. Takaoka in particular became a centre for the production of exquisitely detailed Buddhist ornaments for temples across the country. At one workshop, it took a man a whole year to colour and inlay one door of a Buddhist memorial altar. So they sacked him. The metalworkers became more and more sophisticated, until by the 18th century they made 90% of Japan’s temple bells, and sold them on Ebay for a quick profit.
Toyama’s development moved on quickly when the railway arrived in the early 20th century. Until that point, Japan actually had different time zones in different parts of the country, but this was unified to make train timetables easier to understand. However some remnants of the old system remain, and to this day when it’s twelve noon in Toyama, in Himi it’s still 1963.
Modern day Toyama is famous for a number of things, including it’s delicious, pure water. However the industry was thrown into shock recently when urine was found in some bottles of the famous Toyama water. The product was hurriedly removed from supermarket shelves, and put back in the domestic lager section. A combination of the water, climate and healthy diet gives the locals one of the highest life expectancies anywhere in Japan. Dr. Kimoto Takeshi, the first physician to research this phenomenon, died recently at the age of 107. What mourning there was at the loss of such a respected person at such a tender age!
Another local speciality is the zip, churned out in huge quantities across the world by the YKK corporation. At the Toyama factory’s recent 50th anniversary, the company president was called on to make a speech. Unfortunately the ceremony was delayed when he got stuck on the way up to the stage, and it took fifteen minutes of frantically yanking him up and down before he could go all the way up to the top.

So, I`m sure none of you will hesitate about choosing Toyama for your next holiday. Indeed, with its wonderful food and drink and exquisite sense of history, Toyama is often referred to as the Rome of Japan. About as often as Rome is referred to as `The Toyama of Lombardy. Book your flights today!

NB: Eagle-eyed British readers might have noticed that this column is inspired by the BBC radio show, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. That’s inspired in the sense of the old New Seekers song ‘Beg, Inspire or Borrow’, or `The Great Train Inspiration`.

Posted in Travel, Trying to be funny | 1 Comment













Posted in Japanese language, Politics | 2 Comments