Tracing Mori Ogai in Leipzig

by Hanna

Liebigstrasse

Liebigstraße is the street on which the Leipzig University Hospital, where Mori Ogai studied medical hygiene, is located and on which a pension he went for meals used to be located.

Over Christmas, I had the opportunity to go to Germany for two weeks to spend the holiday with my family. Over the trip, I kept a copy of Japan’s first great modern author Mori Ogai’s Deutschlandtagebuch 1884 – 1888 (Doitsunikki, Germany Diary)[1] as travel literature, and went to Leipzig on December 20th to see what I could trace of him there. Leipzig was the first city Mori lived and went to university in after coming to Germany as a military doctor to study hygiene. After returning to Japan, for a Japanese language school application I wrote the following paper about Mori Ogai, which I’ve edited to post here. I’ve included pictures of some of the places I found that were mentioned in his diary.

Mori Ogai was a Japanese citizen visiting Germany more than a century ago, while I am a German citizen currently living in Japan. Despite the differences between us, his experiences studying my culture are similar to my own studying his. His studies and his observations of the people around him, their actions and motivations, – in particular those of his fellow countrymen in their relations with Germans – are penetrating. Mori kept his perspective wide, studying both Western medicine and German literature, but nevertheless kept his focus on his specialties of hygiene and German-to-Japanese translation. Mori Ogai’s ability to keep an awareness of his own subjectivity in relation to the culture he was experiencing made his observations so effective in both social and academic cross-cultural situations.

Mori was determined to learn not only medicine, an inherited profession and the reason he received funding for his studies abroad, but also German culture and literature. In his diary, he writes often about lectures and hygienic facilities he’s visited, and also about his joy of reading literature and his activities in translating German literature into Japanese. Mori’s breadth of interests allowed him to form a well-rounded view of German culture. A breadth of interests in itself, however, is not unique. Most scholars of cultures foreign to their own keep a wide perspective, but it is too easy to presuppose another culture’s strangeness in contrast to one’s own.[2]

Hygiene

The Institute for Hygiene on Liebigstraße. The building looks old enough to have been around when Mori Ogai studied here, whereas almost all the other buildings on the street are newly built or under construction.

In Munich, Mori attended a lecture by a German geologist named Edmund Naumann, who had spent some time in Japan doing research, and was offended by Naumann’s gross generalizations about Japanese culture, especially about Buddhism, which Naumann claimed he could not believe in because women were not considered to have souls.[3] At the reception following the lecture, Mori voiced his objection, saying that many Boddhisatvas were women, and if they could become enlightened, women must also have souls, and proceeded to give a toast to the beautiful souls of women.[4] It is difficult to believe Naumann never saw a statue of a female Bodhisattva in his Japan travels. Naumann was probably too baffled by the differences between his and Japan’s culture to objectively view what he saw. To move beyond a perspective determined by national boundaries, Mori focused on the details of the subject-matter instead of confronting all the strange new stimuli of being in a different culture.

Liebigstrasse_Park

The park at the intersection between Liebigstraße and Thalstraße, where Mori’s apartment was located. Mori must have passed through this park every day on his way to the university.

In his own observations in Germany, Mori was critical and inquisitive of what motivated the people he encountered; for example his writings about Harada Naojiro’s motivations in choosing a German lover,[5] or his own experiences confronting German women, such as coquettish Lieschen in Leipzig.[6] These observations influenced the literature he wrote later, including The Dancing Girl, a short story in the lyric style of German romanticism about the affair between a Japanese man and a German woman. In other words, Mori was conscious of his position as viewer of the environment around him. He could see his own subjectivity and later reaped the benefits of this kind of perspective when he wrote novels and short stories about international relationships. His focused approach in apprehending German culture gave him an understanding of the similarities between it and his own culture, which in his writing, allowed him to create his own style of expression that mixed both cultural heritages.


[1] Mori, Ogai. Deutschlandtagebuch 1884 – 1888. Tübingen.

[2] “The more baffled I was at some bit of behavior, the more I therefore assumed that there existed somewhere in Japanese life some ordinary conditioning of such strangeness.” (Benedict, Ruth. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Boston: 1946. p. 4)

[3] Mori, 115.

[4] Mori, 116.

[5] Harada preferred a barmaid to a beautiful woman of means who wished to become his wife. (Mori, 145)

[6] Mori, 88 and 92.

Mittagessen

After traipsing around cold December Leipzig all morning, I treated myself to a plum cream and gingerbread cake and Viennese Coffee for lunch at zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, perhaps the oldest cafe in Europe.

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