Rediscovering History

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.

Memories and Thoughts

“Old age is gradually creeping up on me and as the light of future expectation fades, one tends to look back on oneʼs own shadow. With old age comes a world of retrospection.”

Ōgai– Settling the Accounts / Nakajikiri (1917). Transl. Richard Bowring

“I studied medicine and then worked as a doctor, but as a doctor I never became fully involved with the problems of society. Recently I wrote the following lines: Indecisive and useless like the carving of rotten wood / I have grown old avoiding merely further demotion. / It is as a man of letters that I have been to some extent publicly recognized.’”

Ōgai– Settling the Accounts / Nakajikiri (1917). Transl. Richard Bowring

“As far as history was concerned, my own experiences and encounters led me in the end to create historical biographies for others, despite the fact that it was an area in which I had not originally expected to have been involved. Perhaps the same impetus from the natural sciences that led the writer Zola to investigate the lineage of the house of Rougon-Macquart made my own work take the shape of dreary genealogies.”

Ōgai– Settling the Accounts / Nakajikiri (1917). Transl. Richard Bowring

“When I do examine some word or phrase identified as a flaw in one of my translations, I find myself in agreement only very rarely. Translation of novels and plays is not philological research. One’s work is not completed simply by translating each word individually and arranging the results in lines. And so complaints that words not in the original were added deliberately and accusations that words in the original were intentionally left out do not distress me in the slightest.”

Ōgai – On Translation / Honʼyaku ni tsuite (1914). Transl. M. Treyvaud

“If you ask why I did this, my motives are simple. First, in studying historical documents, I came to revere the ʻnatureʼ (shizen) I found within them, and grew tired of making unnecessary changes. Also, observing that contemporary authors write about their own lives just as they are, I thought that, if they can write about the present ʻas it is,ʼ it must be acceptable to write about the past ʻas it was.ʼ This is the second motive.”

Ōgai – History as it is and History Ignored / Rekishi sono mama to rekishi banare (1914). Transl. Darcy Murray

Biographical Events


30 July 1912: In the 45th year of his reign, Emperor Meiji passes away. The heir to the throne names the incoming era Taishō or “Great Righteousness”.
13 September 1912: On the day of the state funeral (13 September) General Nogi Maresuke and his wife commit ritual suicide, as the funeral procession passes their estate in central Tokyo.
  • September: Editors of the journal Chūō kōron (Central Review) write to representatives of Japanese cultural life and invite reactions on the Nogi’s suicide. In response, Mori works on his first historical tale: “The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon” (Okitsu Yagoemon no isho).
  • October: The Last Testament of Okitsu Yagoemon is published in Chūō kōron. [→ Translations]
  • December: Upon the order of the Military Affairs Bureau of the Army Ministry (headed by General Tanaka Giʼichi) Mori writes a memorandum on the increase of the army by two additional divisions.
  • Mori drafts statutes for the Association of Japanese Artists
  • He is appointed to the national commission for the 4th revision of the Japanese Pharmacopoeia  (Nippon yakkyoku hō).


  • January: The historical tale Abe ichizoku (The Family Abe) which explores the notion of “following oneʼs master into death” (junshi) further, appears in Chūō kōron (Central Review). [→ Translations]
  • The publisher Fuzan Bō prints Moriʼs translation of Goetheʼs Faust. The Tragedy Part One; the second part follows in March.
  • March: Both parts of the Faust translation play in the Imperial Theater (Teikoku Gekijō), Tokyoʼs biggest stage, to a full house. It is the second production of the Modern Drama Society (Kindai Geki Kyōkai), which is advised by the Shakespeare expert Tsubouchi Shōyō and by Mori.
  • April: Chūō kōron (Central Review) publishes the historical tale on the assassin Sahashi Jingorō, who carries out a murder ordered by Tokugawa Ieyasu. [→ Translations]
  • June: The New York Times (22 June) summarizes Moriʼs final report on military sanitation during the Russo-Japanese War.
  • July: The translation of Shakespeareʼs Macbeth commissioned by the Modern Drama Society (Kindai Geki Kyōkai) is published by Keiseisha Shoten. It is based on the German version by Heinrich Voß.
  • September: Moriʼs translation of Macbeth is staged by the Modern Drama Society in the Imperial Theater. The New York Times (26 October 1913) reports about the event.
  • October: In the literary magazine Hototogisu (Lesser Cuckoo) another historical tale – “The Vendetta at Gojiingahara” (Gojiingahara no katakiuchi) – is published. [→ Translations]
  • November: The translation of Ibsenʼs Et dukkehjem appears as “Nora” with Keiseisha Shoten.
  • Moriʼs “Study on Faust” (Fausuto kō) appears with Fuzan Bō. It is based on Goethes Faust by the philosopher Kuno Fischer from Heidelberg.
  • The same publisher brings out “Goethe. A Biography” (Gyōte den), an adaption of Goethe. Sein Leben und seine Werke by Albert Bielschowsky.


August 1914: World War I breaks out. Japan enters war on the side of the Allies and intends to take over areas under German administration in East Asia and the Pacific.
September 1914: The siege of the city of Qingdao begins (surrender on November 7).
  • January: The historical tale Ōshio Heihachirō is published in Chūō kōron (Central Review). It features the life of the neo-confucian scholar (1793–1837), who led a rebellion against the shogunate in 1837. [→ Translations]
  • May: Mori sets out for an inspection tour of the Northern country. His experiences in Sendai, Morioka, Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hirosaki, and Yamagata result in the “Records of a Travel to the North” (Hokuyū ki).
  • The 5th revised edition of Moriʼs New Compendium on Hygiene appears.
  • October: The sculptor Takeishi Kōzaburō completes a stone bust of Mori. The object is displayed in the garden of his family home.


January 1915: The Japanese Prime Minister sends twenty-one demands to the President of the Republic of China.
  • January: The historical tale Sanshō Dayū (Sanshō, the Bailiff) is published in Chūō kōron (Central Review). Based on a Buddhist tale, it explores the experience of violence and coercion and the ability to defy it. [→ Translation]
  • The contribution “History as It Is and History Ignored” (Rekishi sono mama to rekishi banare) to the journal Kokoro no hana (Blossoms of the Heart) explains Moriʼs approach to historical fiction. [→ Translations]
  • In the anthology “Tales from Various Countries” (Shokoku monogatari) translations of numerous stories by European authors are republished. Mori intensifies his efforts to bring together his dispersed works.
  • April: Mori receives the “Order of the Sacred Treasure” (Zuihōshō), first class, which is awarded to high-ranking officers and civil servants for long and meritorious service.
  • August: He is appointed to the “Fine Arts Screening Committee” (Bijutsu Shinsa Iinkai) and heads the Western Painting section.
  • October: Participation in the work of the  “War Merits Screening Committee” (Senbotsu Kōseki Shinsa Iinkai).
  • November: Mori travels to Kyoto to participate in the enthronement ceremony of the Taishō Emperor. His “private records” of the event are published in the dailies, the Tokyo Nichinichi shinbun and the Osaka Mainichi shinbun.
  • Mori submits his resignation to the Army Ministry.


December 1916: The writer Natsume Sōseki dies at the age of fifty.
  • January: The historical tale “The Takase River Boat” (Takasebune), which discusses the issue of euthanasia, is published in Chūō kōron. [→ Translations]
  • Shin shōsetsu (New Novels) features Moriʼs text about the legendary Chinese hermits “Han-shan und Shih-te” (Kanzan Jittoku). [→ Translations]
  • The serial publication of Moriʼs first historical biography (shiden) about the medical doctor and Confucian scholar  Shibue Chūsai (1805–58) in the dailies Tokyo Nichinichi shinbun und Ōsaka Mainichi shinbun begins (until May).
  • March: His mother passes away.
  • April: Resignation as Staff Surgeon General and as Head of the Medical Department in the Army Ministry.
  • His daughter Anne enters primary school.
  • May: Appointment as extraordinary member of the Extraordinary Commission for the Investigation of the Beriberi Disease (Rinji Beriberi Byō Chōsa Iinkai) that he headed earlier.
  • Moriʼs translation of Götz von Berlichingen mit der eisernen Hand. Ein Schauspiel (Götz of the Iron Hand) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1773) appears with the publisher Mita Bungakukai.
  • June: The dailies Tokyo Nichinichi shinbun und Ōsaka Mainichi shinbun serially publish the historical biography of the medical doctor and Confucian scholar Izawa Ranken (1777–1829) (until 1917). Contemporary observers notice autobiographical references.
  • August: Appointment to the “Fine Arts Screening Committee” (Bijutsu Shinsa Iinkai).


  • April: Moriʼs youngest son Rui enters primary school.
  • September: The autobiographical text “Settling the Accounts” (Nakajikiri) is published in the journal Shiron (Discourses). [→ Translations]
  • Reappointment to the “Fine Arts Screening Committee” (Bijutsu Shinsa Iinkai).
  • December: Appointment as Director General of the Imperial Museums and Director of the Imperial Archive.


  • 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.