Mori Rintarō, alias Ōgai (1862-1922)

These pages explore Ōgaiʼs intellectual biography against the background of contemporary Japanese and global history. They provide insights into his multifaceted work – crossing the boundaries between geographical regions and fields of knowledge – as medical scholar, military surgeon, translator of European literature, co-founder of modern Japanese literature, poet, dramatist, literary and art critic, language reformer, lecturer of aesthetics, historian and director of the Imperial Museums and Libraries.

Sketches of the phases of his life – from childhood in Tsuwano to the later years spent between Tokyo and Nara – are complemented by chronicles of biographical events, quotations from the works of Ōgai and his contemporaries, and visual materials.

1862–72 Mori is born on 17 February 1862 in the castle town of the domain Tsuwano in southwestern Japan (present-day Shimane prefecture). Mori Shizuo (born Yoshitsugu, 1836–96) and his wife Mineko (1846–1916) name their first son Rintarō. Belonging to the samurai, the family has served as personal physicians of the Kamei clan for several generations. Rintarō’s father Shizuo was adopted into the Mori family in order to marry their daughter. Grandmother Kiyoko also lives with the family, but it is the young mother Shigeko whose energy is devoted to the education of her son. Rintarō passes his childhood against the backdrop of the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate. Because of his parents’ ambitions, the future head of the family receives a lot of attention, and feels the pressure of having to meet their expectations as a result.

1872-84 As early Meiji reforms create a new political and societal order, the Mori family moves to Tokyo. At first, the father continues to serve the lord of Kamei; later, he opens his own practice and works as district doctor in the north of the imperial capital. The family wants Rintarō to receive the best education and sends him to a private language school. It is here that he studies German, which superseded Dutch as foremost language of medical education in Japan. He then joins the preparatory course of the Medical Faculty at Tokyo Imperial University, where he also studies from 1875 to 1881. After his graduation, Mori works for his father and eventually joins the Army Ministry. In line with his intentions, he is chosen in 1883 to continue his studies in Germany.

1884-88 Mori is sent to Germany as a state-funded student to continue his studies of hygiene and military sanitation. Under the supervision of Franz Hofmann, Max von Pettenkofer, Robert Koch and other luminaries of science at the time, he enthusiastically enters the fascinating world of medical research; first publications appear in important periodicals such as Archiv für Hygiene. His altogether four years spent in Leipzig, Dresden, Munich, and Berlin prove to be formative for the science-oriented medical doctor, who places great trust in the Koch school of bacteriology. Drawing inspiration from the liberal atmosphere that he perceives at German universities at the time, he also develops a keen interest in European literature, philosophy as well as theater and art. However, as the debate with the geologist Naumann shows, the experiences in Europe also lead Mori to believe that Japan’s traditional way of life should not be hastily abandoned. Instead, he decides to examine food, clothing, and housing from the point of view of a “global science” to identify relevant elements for Japan’s transition to modernity.

1888-94 The six years from Mori’s return to Japan to his deployment in the war against China are marked with frenzied activities in the fields of medical studies and literature. Mori teaches at the Army Medical College for several years and eventually becomes director of this institution. The fresh perspectives he brings from Europe enable him to actively participate in societal debates concerning the Japanese transition to modernity. In doing so, he advocates a critical examination of both traditional and modern knowledge and seeks to create a globally oriented scholarly atmosphere. He also does not hesitate to launch attacks on his superiors and the medical establishment. As a writer, he publishes pioneering works, using the nom de plume Ōgai. Thus, the works of the ‘German trilogy’ – among them “The dancer” (Maihime), which is inspired by his experiences in Berlin – establish his fame as one of the founding figures of modern Japanese literature. No less influential are his translations of numerous masterpieces of European literature from German versions. Mori’s journal “The Weir” (Shigarami zōshi), which he publishes throughout the period, is considered the first periodical in Japan that was dedicated to literary criticism.

1894-1905 After the outbreak of war against China in August 1894, Mori serves in Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan. As a medical officer, he witnesses the fighting in this and the following war against Russia (1904–1905). However, he rarely draws on this experience as a writer. In retrospect, the phase between the two conflicts that established Japan internationally as a major power, seems like a time of retreat and reflection. Mori edits and republishes his writing in literary and art criticism (Tsukikusa, 1896); his medical studies are included in the first Japanese textbook on hygiene (Eisei shinpen, 1897), which he publishes with Koike Masanao. Conflicts with his superiors lead to his transferal to the southern Japanese city of Kokura, which he perceives as an exile. He distances himself from his alter ego Ōgai, delves into eastern and western currents of philosophy and finishes the brilliant translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s novel Improvisatoren. Freshly married to his second wife Shige, he finally returns to the capital in 1902.

1906-12 After returning from the war against Russia, Mori is appointed Staff Surgeon General and Head of the Medical Department in the Ministry of the Army. Now the highest ranking medical officer of the land forces, he sets a new course by introducing typhoid vaccination in the Japanese Army and establishing a Beriberi Disease Investigation Commission. Moreover, he is free to shape his cultural commitments and his Sea View Villa becomes a focal point of literary life in Tokyo. In this phase of his creative endeavors, Mori composes a large number of shorter texts while fulfilling the demands of daily service. These works are difficult to classify. In perfect prose, they negotiate the tensions between art, science and politics and address the experiences of a society “in transition”. Still popular today, works such as The Wild Goose (Gan, 1915), but also the fictional sketches from the life of the young nobleman Hidemaro deal sensitively with the consequences of the transition of an East Asian society to modernity. As a translator and commentator on contemporary currents in Europe, he made no less important contributions to Japanese cultural life at the beginning of the 20th century.

1912-17 When Emperor Meiji passes away in July 1912 after more than forty years of rule, General Nogi and his wife commit suicide to follow him in death. The Japanese public is deeply shocked and many intellectuals enter a phase of reorientation. Mori turns to Japanese history and begins to write historical narratives as a means of sounding out the human condition in pre-modern Japan. Towards the end of this phase, he authors the first of a series of historical biographies, which frequently feature Confucian scholars and physicians. At the same time, Mori continues to translate classical and modern European literature with unbridled energy. Thus, within the year 1913 alone, his seminal translations of Shakespeareʼs Macbeth, Ibsenʼs Nora and both parts of Goetheʼs Faust were published. He also continues to contribute to medical studies, not least by significantly expanding his Compendium of Hygiene in a new edition. In 1915, he submits his resignation to the Army Ministry, which is granted the following year.

1917-22 At the end of 1917, Mori is appointed Director General of the Imperial Museums and Director of the Imperial Archive. During his tenure, he promotes museum research activities and reforms their engagement with the public. Although he suffers increasingly from health problems, he spends several weeks a year in the old capital Nara to inspect antique objects in the Imperial Treasury. His long-standing commitment to the development of painting and sculpture in Japan leads to his appointment as Founding Director of the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1919. In addition to his public duties, Mori devotes himself to work on historical biographies and studies until the last few months of his life. One of the last wishes recorded in his will, before he succumbs to kidney and lung disease in July 1922, is to be buried without state honours.