Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Intellectual Conscience and Self-Cultivation (Shuyo) as Imperatives in Japan's Modernization: Mori Ogai, Youth (Seinen, 1910-11)

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Intellectual Conscience and Self-Cultivation (Shuyo) as Imperatives in Japan's Modernization: Mori Ogai, Youth (Seinen, 1910-11)

Article excerpt


Modernity, with its three stages of industrialization, technological innovation and postmodernism, covered two hundred years in the West - in Japan it was compressed into one century. The "new man" (or "Meiji man") as conceived by the Meiji period (1868-1912), the start of the modern era in Japan, also proved in a way to be an "experiment" under the sign of "modernization" and "westernization", of "modernity" and "tradition". Seemingly a symbol of all the changes imported from Europe, Mori Ogai (1862-1922) raises the issue of modern education in his novel Seinen, proposing a reformulation of traditional Japanese values. By underlining the individual freedom promoted by an élite writer and ideologist of a Japan in course of modernization, the present study aims to discuss from the perspective of ideological aesthetics Mori Ogai's attempt to redefine literature (bungaku) as an "institution" connecting the individual and culture seen as knowledge and power. "Individualism", "universality" and "freedom" are, as Mori Ogai states in Seinen, the most important "issues" in modern Japan. Posing, by means of a literary work, the question of which role Japan would play on the economic, political and cultural world stage, the Japanese writer raises the issue of the intellectual's status and that of "nationalism", understood not in its political sense but rather as individual conscience and national identity.

Keywords: self-cultivation, intellectual conscience, modernity, tradition

The jewel becomes a jewel through polishing. Man becomes really human through training. No jewel shines in its natural state. No novice is characterized by keenness from the very beginning. They must be polished and trained.

Dogen (1200-1253)

Learn from the sages and you may become one.

ZhuXi (1130-1200)

Due to his promotion of Western literary, philosophical and scientific ideas, Mori Ogai (1862-1922) is considered a romantic and idealist "flame" in Japan, a writer and scientist who raised through his work the issue of the intellectual's mission and that of the freedom of thought and expression in Japanese society. Seeing himself as an "eternal malcontent", Mori Ogai particularly revolutionized Japanese literature and thus became, along Natsume SOseki (1867-1916), one of the intellectual giants of the Meiji period (1868-1912).

A child prodigy, Mori RintarO, who remained in the memory of Japanese and world posterity as Mori Ogai, he studies classical Chinese and reads Confucius at the age of five. He then studies Dutch and, at the age of ten, leaves for Tokyo, where he dedicates several years to learning German. A graduate of the Tokyo School of Medicine, he becomes a doctor at the age of nineteen and enlists in the Army Medical Corps. The same year, he is entrusted with the task of studying the Prussian medical administrative system and, three years later, he presents the Ministry of War with an impressive document in twelve volumes. Between 1884 and 1888, he studies medicine in Leipzig and Berlin, and visits France and England. After returning to Japan, he is appointed Professor at the Military Medicine College, where an ascending career takes him to the highest position in Japanese medical hierarchy at the age of forty-three. He takes part in the military campaigns during the Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). Between 1899 and 1902, he is exiled by his superiors to the south of Kyushu Island, as a punishment for his free ideas, but is recalled to Tokyo in 1902. In 1917, he is appointed director of the Imperial Museum and the Imperial Archives. He leads the Imperial Fine Arts Academy and acts as president of the Provisional Japanese Language Committee (see Rimer, 1991: 95-6; see Simu, 1994: 173).

The period in which Mori Ogai is active begins with the promulgation of the Imperial Constitution of 1889, published on February 11, the day of the national kigensetsu celebration, which commemorates the mythical foundation of the nation in 600 BC, when the first Japanese Emperor is said to have descended from the heavens. …

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