Examining Japanese Modernity

1906–1912 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), as well as 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 translator and commentator on contemporary currents in Europe, Mori made no less important contributions to Japanese cultural life at the beginning of the 20th century.

Memories and Thoughts

“Kimura was a man of letters. A government employee, he was engaged in trivial, time-consuming, mindless work, and though his head was already balding with age, he had absolutely no influence whatsoever. As a man of letters he was known to some degree. Oddly enough, though what he wrote was hardly worth mentioning, he did have a reputation of sorts. But that wasnʼt all. Once he had gained a name for himself as a writer, he had been transferred to a provincial office and promptly forgotten, like someone who had died. It was only after he had begun to go bald that he was transferred back to Tokyo, and consequently recovered his position as a writer. His career had been one of many turnabouts.”

Ōgai - Play / Asobi (1909). Trans. James M. Vardaman, Jr.

“How and what to write? I am exhausted when I return home from the government office. People usually have a drink at dinner and then cheerfully go to sleep until the next morning. But I turn the lamp low and sleep for just a while, with the resolution of getting up shortly. At midnight I wake up. My mind is a little recovered. I stay up from then until two oʼclock and write.”

Ōgai - Exorcising Demons / Tsuina (1909). Trans. John W. Dower

“Then what word would I use to express my own feelings properly? The term ʻresignationʼ would be appropriate, I believe. And this is true not only of my feelings about the literary arts. I have these feelings about many aspects of our lives in general. Now on those occasions when others feel I must be pained over my own situation, I am contrary to their expectations, quite unconcerned. Now perhaps it can be said that the situation represented by ʻresignationʼ suggests a lack of self-respect. On this point, however, I feel no need in particular to justify myself.”

Ōgai - My Point of View / Yo ga tachiba (1909). Trans. J. Thomas Rimer

“I really do wonder if the Japanese actually know what it means to live. After they enter primary school, they try with all their might to finish, to hurry up and finish. They think there is a life ahead of them. Once they leave school and get a job, they try to perform and complete that job. And again they think thereʼs a life out there ahead of them. But there isnʼt. The present is a single line dividing past and future. If you canʼt find your life on this line, you canʼt find your life anywhere. So what on earth am I doing now?”

Ōgai - Youth / Seinen (1910-11). Trans. Shoichi Ono and Sanford Goldstein

“He felt that Oson, although a wizened old man, seemed like someone who would lose his composure if he mingled with innocent young men, a man who was always grumbling and nasty, a man who wrote novels and plays the way a surveyor measures land with a rod and tape.”

Ōgai - Youth / Seinen (1910-11). Trans. Shoichi Ono & Sanford Goldstein

“I thought deeply, deeply, over my own attitude of the bystander which has been with me since I was born. I possess no incurable illness. Yet I am one fated since birth to be a bystander. From the time when I first began to play with other children, and even when I grew to adulthood and made my way in the world, and with every kind of person in society, I have never been able to throw myself into the whirlpool and enjoy myself to the depths of my being, no matter what kind of excitement may have been stirred in me. Even though I have made my appearance on the stage of human activity, I have never played a role worthy of the name. The most I have achieved has been the position of a supernumerary. And indeed I have felt most like myself when I had no need to mount that stage and, like a fish in water, could remain at ease among the bystanders.”

Ōgai – Ghost Stories / Hyaku monogatari (1911). Trans. J. Thomas Rimer

Biographical Events


  • January: Mori returns to Japan after the war against Russia.
  • August: He resumes his service as Commander of the Medical Detachment of the Imperial Guard Division in Tokyo and Acting Director of the Army Medical College.
  • September: Following a suggestion by former Prime Minister Yamagata Aritomo, Mori and his friend Kako Tsurudo form the “Evergreen Society” poetry circle (Tokiwa Kai, existing until 1917).
  • October: Mori’s study on the German Playwright Gerhart Hauptmann is published by Shunyōdō.


September 1907: The writer Tayama Katai (1872-1930) publishes his work Futon in the journal “New Fiction” (Shin shōsetsu), which helps the naturalistic movement make a breakthrough in Japan. His portrayal of a writer’s attraction to a student is met with controversy.
  • March: Mori forms the “Seaview Villa Poetry Circle” (Kanchō Rō Kakai). The meetings, which continue until 1910, are attended by Yosano Hiroshi (Tekkan) and Sasaki Nobutsuna, among others.
  • July: Purchase of a lot in the village of Hiari at the coast of Chiba prefecture and construction of the summer cottage “Villa Seagull” (Ōsō).
  • August: Birth of his son Fritz (Furitsu). Suffering from whooping cough, the child passes away the following year.
  • September: Appointment to the first “Fine Arts Screening Committee” (Bijutsu Shinsa Iʼinkai), which is responsible for organizing annual art exhibitions of the Education Ministry.
  • November: He is promoted to the rank of Staff Surgeon General (gunʼi sōkan). As highest ranking medical officer, he also heads the Medical Department in the Army Ministry (Rikugun Shō Imukyoku).


  • January: Moriʼs younger brother Tokujirō passes away at the age of forty.
  • February: Death of (second) son Fritz (Furitsu) from whooping cough.
  • May: Appointment to the “Extraordinary Committee for the Investigation of Kana Usage” (Rinji Kanazukai Chōsa I'inkai) by the Education Ministry.
  • The “Extraordinary Committee for the Investigation of the Beriberi Disease” (Rinji Kakke Chōsakai) is established by the Army Minister, following a suggestion by Mori who is appointed interim head of the committee.
  • June: Robert Koch and his wife visit Japan. Mori prepares and co-organizes the welcome festivities. Discussion of future research on beriberi.
  • November: In a petition to the Education Ministry, Mori criticizes the treatment of writers by the government and proposes the establishment of an Academy of Arts.


February 1909: The playwright, actor and translator Osanai Kaoru (1881-1928) founds the theatre group “Free Stage” (Jiyū Gekijō), which stages translations of the plays of Ibsen, Chekov, and other contemporary European authors.
October 1909: Itō Hirobumi, former Resident-General of Korea and Chairman of the Privy Council (Sūmitsu-In) is assassinated in Harbin by Korean independence activist An Chung-gun. 
  • January: Supported by Mori, the monthly literary magazine Subaru (Pleiades) is founded by Kinoshita Mokutarō, Kitahara Hakushū and other writers. It advocates romanticism and is published until 1913.
  • Against this background, Mori resumes his literary activities and works on the story “Half a Day” (Hannichi). The text in colloquial style (kōgotai) allows insights into the conflict-ridden family life in the Seaview Villa.
  • March: The column Mukudori tsūshin (News by a Grey Starling) first appears in Subaru. Until 1914, Mori continues to report concisely on cultural and scientific trends in Europe and North America.
  • In the same issue appears his story Half a Day. [→ Translations]
  • May: Birth of second daughter Anne (Annu).
  • July: Mori receives the academic degree “Doctor of Letters” (bungaku hakase) by Tokyo Imperial University.
  • Wita sekusuarisu (Vita sexualis) appears in the magazine Subaru. [→ Translations] This autobiographically inspired, parodic narrative criticizes the great attention paid to the subject of sexuality by the naturalist movement.
  • End of the month, the Censorship Department of the Home Ministry prohibits sale of this issue.
  • August: Due to the publication of Wita sekusuarisu, Mori is reprimanded by Deputy Army Minister Ishimoto Shinroku.
  • Mori publishes the first reference in Japanese to the works of Rainer Maria Rilke in the magazine Subaru.
  • October: The first Japanese translation of Rilke (the play Das tägliche Leben, 1901) appears - also authored by Mori - in the journal Taiyō under the title Kajō chahan.
  • November: Moriʼs translation of John Gabriel Borkman by Ibsen is staged as first production of the group “Free Stage” (Jiyū Gekijō) in the Yūraku Za. Osanai Kaoru instructs the kabuki actors and female impersonators in the use of European theatrical methods.
  • Deputy Army Minister Ishimoto Shinroku asks Mori to publish fictional works under a pseudeonym in future.


May 1910: Plans of Japanese anarchists and socialists to assassinate the emperor are discovered. Numerous activists are arrested, and eleven defendants - among them the well-known anarchist Kōtoku Shūsui and his former partner Kanno Suga - are executed, the following January.
August 1910: Following the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1910, Korea is claimed within the territory of the Japanese state.
  • January: Mori initiates a vaccination program against typhus in all army divisions (until the end of the year).
  • January-February: Mori contributes to the reorganisation of the Faculty of Arts at Keiō University.
  • March: Last meeting of the “Seaview Villa Poetry Circle” (Kanchō Rō Kakai).
  • The serial publication of the novel Seinen (Youth) in Subaru begins (until August 1911). The novel traces a young provincial man’s search to find his identity as a modern writer. Mori ironically portrays himself as the aged writer Mori Ōson. [→ Translations]
  • May: The reorganized Faculty of Arts at Keiō University publishes the first issue of the literary magazine Mita bungaku (Literature from Mita). The campus of the private university is situated in Mita. Numerous works by Mori will appear in this periodical.
  • June: The story Fushinchū (Under reconstruction), which offers critical observations regarding Japanese modernity, is published in Mita bungaku. [→ Translations]
  • July: The story Hanako features Auguste Rodinʼs Japanese model of the same name, and appears in Mita bungaku. [→ Translations]
  • In the story “Play” (Asobi) - published in Mita bungaku, as well - Mori casts himself as a small government official who has lost hope for a meaningful life within the modern bureaucratic machine. [→ Translations]
  • November: The short text Chinmoku no tō (Tower of Silence, Mita bungaku) satirizes the governmentʼs fear of “dangerous thoughts” in foreign books. [→ Translations]


  • February: Birth of his son Louis (Rui).
  • The translation of “Lonely Lives” (Sabishiki hitobito) by German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann appears in the Yomiuri newspaper (until April).
  • Mita bungaku publishes the autobiographically inspired story Casuistica. It treats Moriʼs experience as assistant physician in his father’s practice.
  • March: In Mōzō (Delusions) – another publication in Mita bungaku – Mori sheds light on the stages of his intellectual biography. He envisions a polyphonic world of science in which Japan can make a significant contribution. [→ Translations]
  • His earlier contributions to medical studies in German language are republished as Japan und seine Gesundheitspflege (“Japan and its Public Health System”) by the Medical Department of the Army Ministry.
  • May: Mori is appointed to the “Literature Committee” (Bungei Iʼinkai) by the Ministry of Education. After the High Treason Incident, the committee is supposed to promote conservative literature.
  • July: The Literature Committee commissions Mori to translate Goetheʼs Faust.
  • September: The serial publication of Gan (The Wild Goose) in Subaru begins. [→ Translations] It tells the story of unfulfilled love against the background of social transformations from the Edo to the Meiji period.
  • The customers of the publisher Hakubutsukan elect Mori as most important Japanese translator of his time.
  • October: In Hyaku monogatari (A Hundred Tales), which appears in Chūō kōron (Central Review), Mori elaborates upon his feeling of being a “bystander” in Japanese society.

1912 (until July)

July 1912: Emperor Meiji passes away. For his contemporaries, the event marks the end of a period that witnessed Japan’s rapid transition to modernity.
  • January: The story Ka no yō ni (As if) is published in Chūō kōron (The Central Review). It introduces the fictional figure of the young nobleman Hidemaro, who explores the tension between modern rationality and Japanese identity. The title refers to the philosophy of Hans Vaihinger regarding the relevance of fictions for modern life. [→ Translations]
  • Mori finishes his translation of Goetheʼs Faust.
  • March: His brother Junzaburō marries the daughter of the scholar family Yonehara from Moriʼs birthplace Tsuwano.
  • April: Mori begins to revise his New Compendium of Hygiene (first published with Koike Masanao in 1897).
  • May: The story Shakkuri (Hiccup) is featured in the journal Chūō kōron. It introduces the thought of German philosopher and Nobel prize winner for literature (1908) Rudolf Eucken to Japanese readers. [→ Translations]
  • Mori edits pioneering (female) author Yosano Akiko’s translation of the Heian period novel Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) into modern Japanese.
  • June: Mori and the linguist Ueda Kazutoshi convince the Literature Committee to support a project on the 8th century “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” (Manyōshū). The objective is to reconstruct the authentic text of the oldest Japanese poetry anthology (not realized).
  • Newly appointed to the “Fine Arts Screening Committee” (Bijutsu Shinsa Iʼinkai), which organized the annual art exhibition of the Education Ministry in the following year.


  • Bowring, Richard John: Mori Ōgai and the Modernization of Japanese Culture, Cambridge et al.: Cambridge University Press 1979.
  • Kobori Kei’ichirō: Mori Ōgai: Nihon wa mada fushinchū da (Mori Ōgai: Japan is still under construction), Minerva Shobō 2013.
  • “Nenpu” (Chronicle), Ōgai zenshū, vol. 38, Iwanami Shoten 1975: 545–58.
  • Rimer, J. Thomas: Mori Ōgai, Boston: Twayne Publishers 1975.
  • Schamoni, Wolfgang: Mori Ōgai: Vom Münchener Medizinstudenten zum klassischen Autor der modernen japanischen Literatur, München: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek 1987.
  • Yamasaki Kuninori: Hyōden Mori Ōgai (A critical biography of Mori Ōgai), Taishūkan Shoten 2007.