Home Samurai culture Mori Ōgai: the polymath intellectual who marked literary history

Mori Ōgai: the polymath intellectual who marked literary history

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Mori Ōgai created new possibilities for Japanese literature with his fiction, translations, and other writings, while rising to the highest level in his profession as a military surgeon. The year 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of his disappearance.

A broad education

Mori Ōgai was one of the great Japanese literary figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, known for works such as “Maihime” (trans. by Richard Bowring as “The Dancing Girl”). The year 2022 marks the centenary of his death. In addition to being a writer, in an eventful life he was a military surgeon and a bureaucrat.

In 1862, Ōgai was born as Mori Rintarō in Tsuwano Domain (now Shimane Prefecture). He was the son of the doctor of the domain, called to become a doctor in his turn, and he received from an early age a special education. This included Confucianism, which he began studying at age five, before entering the estate academy at age seven to learn the Four Books and Five Classics. He also studied Western knowledge, learning some of the basics of Dutch medicine from his father Shizuo and learning the Dutch language.

In 1872 he traveled with his father to Tokyo and the rest of the family soon followed. The main focus of Western medical studies had shifted from Dutch medicine to German medicine, so Ōgai began learning German at a private school and entered the University District’s first medical school at the age of 11 years old. This was renamed Tokyo Medical School the following year, and became the University of Tokyo Medical School in 1877. The university’s medical education was taught in German by German professors, but Ōgai also learned Chinese poetry and prose outside of college, read Chinese medical classics, and studied waka poetry with a kokugaku (national apprenticeship) teacher. Thus, Ōgai youth is dominated by education in Japanese, Chinese, and Western traditions, and the acquisition of a number of languages.

German connections

In 1881, before graduation, Ōgai wanted to study abroad. However, a series of incidents, including the destruction of his lecture notes by fire, resulted in a disappointing performance on the leaving exams, and he was not selected via the Ministry of Education test. Education for those who wish to pursue government-funded studies abroad. After some hesitation about his future, he enlisted in the army and became a military surgeon at 19. Three years later, in 1884, he realized his wish when the army sent him to study in Germany.

During his four-year stay in the country, Ōgai performed his primary duties of hygiene research and system investigations, while finding time for a voracious consumption of European art and culture. via intensive reading of German literature and philosophy and visits to theaters and art galleries. Even after returning to Japan with masses of books, he continued to have the latest publications delivered from Germany, as well as newspapers and magazines, so that he could keep up with the vanguard of European culture. His time abroad allowed him to keep one foot in both Japan and Europe, and he developed a comparative outlook, like the “two-legged student” mentioned in his “Teiken sensei” skit. He actively applied it in his subsequent creative and social activities.

The Mori Ōgai Memorial Center in Berlin, with a drawing based on “Ōgai” (鷗外) written in brush and ink. The location is the same as where Ōgai first stayed in Berlin as a student. (© Jiji)

Back in Japan, Ōgai worked as a military surgeon and made his literary debut by co-writing Omokage (Vestiges), an 1889 volume of translated poems. “The Dancing Girl” followed in 1890, along with many other original and translated works. He also self-published the magazine Shigarami-zōshi, including his own critical writings in which he deploys his knowledge of German literature and aesthetics in literary skirmishes. Through these combative and instructive activities, he became a guiding force at the dawn of modern Japanese literature.

Ōgai also invigorated the literary world through his translations. His version of the poem “Mignon” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe appeared in Omokagewhile other translated works included Hans Christian Andersen’s novel The improviser and Goethe’s drama Faust. These had an immense influence on later poets and authors in Japan.

“The Dancing Girl”, the major work of his first period, has as its protagonist Ōta Toyotarō, an elite Japanese bureaucrat sent to Germany. Life in Berlin opens his eyes to the possibility of living as a free individual, and he falls in love with a poor dancer named Elise. However, this affair is an obstacle to his future career in Japan, and after some dismay, he abandons his pregnant lover and returns home. This story of cross-cultural encounters and conflict is written as a Chinese-style hybrid kanbunclassical Japanese and the style adopted for translations of European literature.

A handwritten manuscript by Mori Ōgai of
A handwritten manuscript by Mori Ōgai of ‘The Dancing Girl’ made headlines when it was offered for sale at a book fair in 2015. (© Jiji)

The year after his return to Japan from Europe, Ōgai launched new magazines on hygiene and medicine, intended to lay the foundation for the development of modern medical techniques in the country. Just as in the literary realm, he showed a pugnacious touch as he sought to educate. In 1897 he co-wrote Eisei Shin Pen (A New Volume on Hygiene) with Koike Masanao, which was the first hygiene textbook written by Japanese authors.

A turn to history

As a military surgeon, Ōgai paved the way to leadership as a high-ranking official. He went with the army to the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Between these conflicts, he was appointed chief medical officer of the twelfth division at Kokura in northern Kyūshū from 1899 to 1902. Ōgai saw this as a demotion and was not happy to be based in the city. Imagining that the military’s top brass disapproved of his dual role as army surgeon and author, he curbed his literary pursuits at Kokura. Instead, he mastered French through lessons with a locally-based French priest, and studied Zen and yuishiki (consciousness only) with a Zen priest. It was a period of gaining knowledge and developing mental readiness to move forward in life.

In 1902, Ōgai returned to Tokyo at the age of 40 as chief medical officer of the first division. Five years later, he was promoted to the post of surgeon general and became head of the medical division of the Ministry of the Army. No longer having to worry about the opinions of his superior, and despite his considerable duties, Ōgai published many new works. These included the 1909 novel Uita sekusuarisu (trans. by Kazuji Ninomiya & Sanford Goldstein as Sex life), in which the protagonist looks back on his sexual experiences and reflects on sexual desire, banned from publication. His 1910 story “Chinmoku no tō” (Tower of Silence) criticizes the government’s tightened control of academic and literary discussion after the incident of high treason that year, an alleged plot to assassinate the emperor. Around this time, Ōgai also wrote a number of works of fiction, including astute critiques of contemporary society.

Emperor Meiji died in 1912, having ruled Japan for over 40 years. General Nogi Maresuke’s subsequent ritual suicide shocked the nation. Ōgai was among those stunned by the death of one of the nation’s top military commanders, and in the same year he wrote the historical story “Okitsu Yagoemon no isho” (trans. by Richard Bowring as “The Last will of Okitsu Yagoemon”), based on the actual ritual suicide of a samurai in the early Edo period (1603-1868). It was the first of several historical stories based on real material, including works found in today’s Japanese textbooks as “Saigo no ikku” (trans. by David Dilworth and J. Thomas Rimer as “The Last Phrase”) and “Takasebune” (trans. by Edmund R. Skrzypczak as “The Boat on the Takase River”).

Mori Ōgai (right) in military uniform, with a favorite horse.  Photograph taken in 1912. (Courtesy of Mori Ōgai Memorial Museum in Bunkyō, Tokyo)
Mori Ōgai (right) in military uniform, with a favorite horse. Photograph taken in 1912. (Courtesy of Mori Ōgai Memorial Museum in Bunkyō, Tokyo)

In 1916, Ōgai retired from the army at the age of 54. At this time, his interest in historical exploration intensified, and he studied the lives and achievements of late Edo period scholars. His critical biographies of figures like Shibue Chūsai and Hōjō Katei blended historical research with fiction in an unprecedented style. Both men were academics, doctors and government officials, who also became involved in literature and the arts. That is, Ōgai wrote about men of an earlier generation with lives that resembled his own.

Ōgai became a bureaucrat in the Imperial Household Ministry in 1917, working as head of both the Imperial Household Museum in Tokyo and the Bureau of Books and Maps. Emperor Taishō suffers from health problems and the ministry sees the need to prepare for the next imperial succession. Ōgai is dedicated to historical research, believing that the era name should be based on a solid academic foundation. After having completed in 1921 a work centered on his study of the posthumous names of historical emperors, he began to ask himself the question of the name of the time, but his health deteriorated and he left it unfinished. On July 9, 1922, Ōgai died of kidney atrophy and tuberculosis at the age of 60.

family man

Mori Ōgai was a towering thinker in a number of areas. He mastered the learning of Japanese, Chinese and Western languages ​​and pursued studies in his specialty of medicine, as well as in other fields such as aesthetics and historical research. He was also active as a military doctor and bureaucrat. In literature, he dabbled in genres such as fiction, criticism, drama, free verse, tanka, haiku and kanshi (Chinese poetry), leaving many sophisticated and intellectually provocative works to posterity.

At home, Ōgai was apparently a doting father. He had four children who survived to adulthood with his two wives Toshiko – whom he divorced after a year – and Shige. After his death, all of his children became authors and wrote of their fond memories of him. A vivid image of Ōgai as a dad appears in works like his eldest daughter Mori Mari’s 1957 essay “Chichi no bōshi” (My Father’s Hat) and the 1936 essay “Bannen no chichi” ( My father in his later years) from his second daughter Kobori Annu.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner image: Photo portrait of Mori Ōgai, taken in 1912. Courtesy of Mori Ōgai Memorial Museum in Bunkyō, Tokyo.)