Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - Institute of Asian and African Studies

Mori Ôgai, 1862-1922


»Suddenly here I was, standing in the middle of this most modern of European capitals. My eyes were dazzled by its brilliance, my mind was dazed by the riot of color!« (Maihime / Dancing Girl, 1890)

These are the first impressions of the young medical doctor Mori Rintarô, upon arriving in Berlin on 11 October, 1884. Like many students of his generation, 22-year-old Mori had been sent overseas by the Japanese government to acquire modern knowledge in order to assure Japan’s survival in the “storm of world history”. Mori, who was soon to become a successful writer under the pen name Ôgai, was sent to study hygiene and military sanitation. Under the supervision of Robert Koch, Max von Pettenkofer, and other luminaries of science at the time, he entered into the fascinating world of medical research. Drawing inspiration from the liberal atmosphere, which was characteristic of academic life in Leipzig, Dresden, Munich, and Berlin, he also developed a keen interest in European literature, philosophy as well as art, and thus made »transcultural experiences« that would decisively shape his life.

»As a matter of fact, now that I return to Japan, I feel a very different person from when I set out.« (Maihime / Dancing Girl, 1890)

After his return to the island country, Mori gradually advanced over a period of two decades, to the office of Surgeon General, the highest post in the Japanese Army Medical Corps. During the Sino-Japanese War (1894–5) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–5), he served in Northeast Asia and in Taiwan. Untiringly, he promoted the examination of modern as well as traditional bodies of knowledge and their relevance for Japan’s rapid process of transition. At the same time, he was highly committed to creating an atmosphere conducive to the development of the sciences. His participation in the publication and continuous revision of the first Japanese-language compendium on hygiene (Eisei shinpen, 1897 f.), developed into a life-long endeavor.

»I have always felt, ever since those early days, that the time will come when the fruits of scientific research carried out in Japan will be exported to Europe.« (Môzô / Daydreams, 1911)

Leaving the military, Mori was appointed Director of the Imperial Libraries and Museums (1917) and President of the Imperial Academy of Arts (1919). In addition to his professional obligations, he engaged in extensive publication activities, which established his reputation as a versatile man of letters, a passionate translator, and an expert on European intellectual life.

Among his literary works, the lasting impact of the autobiographically inspired novella Dancing Girl (Maihime, 1890) is unparalleled. It describes the tragic relationship between a Japanese student and the dancer Elis in Berlin, and is widely considered the first work of modern Japanese literature. Moreover, the text was translated into a European language for the first time in 1894, establishing its place in world literature.

No less extraordinary was Mori’s productivity as translator and mediator of Western perspectives on the world. He translated a great number of key works of European literature and philosophy via the German language – among which were both parts of Goethe’s Faust that were published on the eve of the First World War. His authoritative translation of The Improvisatore (H. C. Andersen) enchanted generations of Japanese literati. Also the establishment of modern theater in Japan would hardly have been possible without his excellent translations of plays by Hauptmann, Ibsen and many others.

In the prime of his life, Mori passionately advocated freedom of the arts and encouraged a new generation of Japanese writers. In numerous novellas he masterfully broached the issue of how a meaningful existence in modern Japan would have to reconcile local identity with a global perspective.

»I felt that something else must exist behind this role I was performing. […] That this role was life itself, was unthinkable. Surely what lay behind was real life.« (Môzô / Daydreams, 1911)

In the aftermath of political events in the late Meiji period, the icon of cultural relations between Japan and Europe devoted the last decade of his life to historical novels and to biographies, in which he explored the human condition in Japanese history.