Authors: Mori Ōgai

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Japanese novelist, short-story writer, poet, and playwright

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Wita Sekusuarisu, 1909 (Vita Sexualis, 1972)

Seinen, 1910-1911 (Youth, 1994)

Gan, 1911-1913 (The Wild Geese, 1959)

Kaijin, 1949 (The Ashes of Destruction, 1994)

Short Fiction:

“Maihime,” 1890 (“My Lady of the Dance,” 1906; also known as “The Girl Who Danced” or “The Dancing Girl”)

“Fumizukai,” 1891 (“The Courier,” 1971)

“Fushinchū,” 1910 (“Under Reconstruction,” 1961)

“Chinmoku no to,” 1910 (“The Tower of Silence,” 1994)

“Okitsu Yagoemon no isho,” 1912 (“The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon,” 1977)

Sansho Dayu, and Other Stories, 1952

The Incident at Sakai, and Other Stories, 1977

Saiki Kōj, and Other Stories, 1977

Youth, and Other Stories, 1994


Shizuka, pb. 1909

Kamen, pb. 1909 (Masks, 1994)


Omokage, 1887


“Shōsetsuron,” 1889

Shibue chūsai, 1916 (biography)


Mori Ōgai zenshu, 1951-1956 (53 volumes)


One of the greatest writers of the Meiji period (1867-1912), a time of cautious cultural and technological exchange with the West, Mori Ōgai (moh-ree oh-gi) shaped the direction of modern Japanese fiction by combining an appreciation of Western values with an emphasis on loyalty to traditional duty.{$I[AN]9810001684}{$I[A]Mori {Omacr}gai[Mori Ogai]}{$S[A]Mori Rinatr{omacr}[Mori Rinatro];Mori {Omacr}gai}{$I[geo]JAPAN;Mori {Omacr}gai[Mori Ogai]}{$I[tim]1862;Mori {Omacr}gai[Mori Ogai]}

Mori Ōgai was born Mori Rinatrō in the small town of Tsuwano in western Japan where he, like his father, was trained to serve the daimyo, or feudal lord, as a doctor. In preparation, Ōgai began the study of Confucius and Mencius at age five and entered the fief school at seven, where he excelled in the study of Chinese philosophers, mathematics, medicine, and Dutch.

Mori continued his studies in Tokyo after a centralized administration replaced the daimyo system in 1871. He lived with influential scholar Nishi Amane, whose interest in Western civilization influenced Mori’s cultural absorption; in addition, Mori began a study of German, the required language for medical professionals. In 1874, by pretending to be two years older than he really was, Mori was admitted to the preparation course for the most important medical school in Tokyo.

He was accepted at the main school in 1877, and upon graduation in 1881 he moved to Senju to help his father with patients. There he translated Asagao Nikki and some poems from the Genji Monogatari. He fervently longed to travel abroad to continue his study, but his parents felt that the army offered security and opportunity, so, aided by his family’s connections, Mori accepted the post of second lieutenant in the Medical Corps. Finally, in 1884, he was ordered to Germany to study hygiene and the organization of medicine in the German army. While pursuing his medical studies, Mori read widely in German literature and philosophy, including the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine, developing an affinity for European Romanticism and an interest in the German way of life. His impressions of Berlin are reflected in the story “Maihime,” which he completed on his return to Japan four years later.

In addition, entries in his diary, Doitsu Nikki, which he kept during those years, and elements of his earliest short stories suggest that he fell in love with a German woman. “Maihime,” Mori’s first short story, reveals the dilemma faced by the protagonist, Ota Toyotaro, who meets a young German dancer, Elise, while studying in Germany. The two fall in love, but Ota learns that he must return to Japan to clear his name; he agonizes over his decision to leave the pregnant Elise behind, symbolizing the modern Japanese struggle to reconcile a traditional sense of duty and cultural responsibility to the individuality and self-direction experienced in the West.

Mori’s European experiences influenced his thinking, and he became known as an angry young man (a self-proclaimed “eternal malcontent”) for his activity in medical and literary journalism. He published his own and other works of fiction in his literary magazine, Shiragami-zoshi, which included translations of European and American writers as well as literary criticism. In addition, he published a collection of romantic lyrics, called Omokage (vestiges), that developed experimental meters and rhyme yet held traditional meters as acceptable as new ones. Omokage occupies an important position in the development of modern poetry in Japan.

A man of tremendous energy and intelligence, Mori quickly achieved success as a writer and a surgeon. After an unsuccessful one-year marriage that ended in 1890, Mori served as an army surgeon in both the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) before being promoted to surgeon general. He also championed the cause of the working classes in health and urban planning projects, insisting on the importance of building regulations and public hygiene. He campaigned against traditional medicine in favor of a modern, scientific approach, but he defended Japanese housing and diet as healthier than those of the Europeans.

His zealous pursuit of cultural reconciliation drew criticism, however, and he spent the years 1900-1902 in the remote town of Kikura, banished for his efforts to bring Japanese art and science too quickly into the modern era. Other than the early stories set in Germany, Mori produced primarily translations for a period of about eighteen years, although his stories’ use of internal frames, a German influence, marks the beginning of time sequence concerns in Japanese literature. The work produced after this period of silence reflects Mori’s growing recognition that European Romanticism, with its self-absorbed vision of the world, must be committed to realism. The early stories reflect his European experience, but his later work, from 1909 to 1912, incorporates these ideas into a Japanese framework.

Mori’s ability to synthesize and merge experiences is reflected in his critical writing, which makes a connection between medicine and literature, as well as in his stories and plays, which demonstrate a sort of medical naturalism. (Main characters die of whooping cough, tuberculosis, typhus, and other diseases.) In addition, his novel Youth reveals Mori’s awareness of Henrik Ibsen, Friedrich Nietzsche, Goethe, and other philosophers. Vita Sexualis, which was banned as pornography, challenged the restrictive view of the naturalists and supported Mori’s contention (as stated by the hero of Youth) that a writer must treat both the body and the soul in order to construct a “spiritual naturalism.” The Wild Geese also deals with sexual awareness, although its greatest attraction lies in its atmosphere of pathos, for in this short novel all communication between individuals fails.

Mori’s growing sense of personal alienation and his awareness that the modernization of Japan, which he had facilitated, threatened traditional social patterns led to frustration and bitterness. His final work remains unfinished, but his life and works represent in microcosm the whole process of modernization in Japan.

BibliographyBowring, Richard John. Mori Ōgai and the Modernization of Japanese Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Provides a detailed discussion of historical, biographical, and critical implications, including illustrations and an appendix of Mori’s numerous translations.Hill, Christopher. “Mori Ogai’s Resentful Narrator: Trauma and the National Subject in ‘The Dancing Girl.’” Positions 10, no. 2 (2002): 365-398. Finds a nationalist literary agenda in Mori’s story “Maihime.”Marvin, Marcus. Paragons of the Ordinary: The Biographical Literature of Mori Ōgai. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993. Studies Mori’s practice of biography as a literary form.Rimer, J. Thomas. Mori Ōgai. New York: Twayne, 1975. A basic literary biography, with critical commentary and a bibliography.Washburn, Dennis. “Manly Virtues and the Quest for Self: The Bildungsroman of Mori Ōgai.” Journal of Japanese Studies 21, no. 1 (1995): 1-32. A study of Mori’s novel Youth.
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