Beyond the Blossoming Fields
By Jun’ichi Watanabe
It may seem like all I do is read books on pioneering women, but I actually finished this book rather closer to the present day than I did She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I just took longer about actually reviewing that one. This was one of those impulse borrows from the library, and I was amazed that I had never before heard the story of Ginko Osino, Japan’s first qualified woman doctor. Although I like to read books from other languages and try to read a few every year, the problem of translation always comes up. I don’t know if the rather strange style used here is Watanabe’s original or a byproduct of translators Deborah Iwabuchi and Anna Isozaki. The fact remains that the book was published in Japan in 1970 and translated into English in 2008. Why is that?
This is based on a true story, but I have no way of knowing how much is artistic license and how much is based on facts. I don’t really care, given it’s a cracking yarn with an extremely charismatic and strong female lead, and set in a time and place about which I know very little: the second half of the 19th century in and around Tokyo. The fact that a woman in Japan would be struggling for acceptance as a doctor at roughly the same time as her counterparts in countries like the UK, the US, and Sweden is interesting to me. The book begins when Gin is barely 18 and is granted a divorce from her husband, which she has sought because he gave her gonorrhoea. At this stage it is an incurable disease and she will never be able to have children. This makes her life officially over, given that society at the time makes a woman a wife, a mother, and a domestic tactician, but no more. But Gin chooses something else—an extremely difficult but ultimately rewarding path. When Gin goes to Tokyo for medical treatment, she is horrified at the brutal way the male doctors examine her. She vows to become a doctor herself so that other women do not have to suffer the way she did.
To say she meets with great opposition is an understatement. When her mother, who has hitherto been a pillar of strength for her, finds out, she is more or less disowned. Her brother sends her money to live on for just one year while she studies. Her older sister Tomoko is shocked but eventually grudgingly respects her. Having come from the gentry class, being penniless in Tokyo is very difficult for Gin. But she is not completely without allies—her family physician, Dr Mannen, and his daughter Ogie, a rare breed of female scholar, help her find Yorikuni Inoue, a top scholar, who teaches her. Fortunately for Gin, she is young, beautiful, aristocratic, self-reliant, with an iron will, formidable intelligence, and a redoubtable work ethic. Also, society is changing, becoming open to Western influence and, though it may be surprising for us students of Western history to hear, forms of emancipation for women, as well as new forms of science, are just some of the innovations slowly filtering through.
Immediately out of study with Yorikuni, Gin is recruited to teach in a small girls’ school before being among the first to study at the Tokyo Women’s Normal School in 1875. However, her concentration on her studies has meant Yorikuni’s proposal of marriage is a big shock. She is in for an even bigger shock when, years later, she realizes that she has lost her teacher’s affection—in the end he prefers a more conventional woman. Having changed her name to Ginko, she faces her biggest challenge yet when enrolled at the Kojuin Medical School, which is openly hostile to women students in general and Ginko in particular. Her fellow students are appalling to her; she has to put up with verbal abuse, taunts, and the return of her illness. Her schoolwork is, without fail, impressive, but she cannot afford the (European) textbooks and must take on tutoring to pay school fees. Not only that, she has to face down a gang rape attempt, erase all aspects of her femininity, and she comes up with an audacious solution to lack of human anatomical models with which to work: she and four scared classmates go to an execution ground to bodysnatch. It is interesting that the exploits of Burke and Hare are ghoulish, but Ginko’s master plan is laudatory—even Ginko’s closest friends cannot understand her desire for real-life bodies; such things in the culture are taboo as bodies were cremated. Illness and overwork plague her. Her mother does not live to see her triumph.
By 1883, she has gotten through medical school, only to come up against a bureaucracy that year after year rejects her application for the medical board exam only because she is a woman “there is no precedent.” She charms her way into being able to take the exam and, of course, passes with flying colors. At the age of 35, she has finally become a licensed physician and enjoys an extremely brief spell of universal acclaim. There is a photo of her in Western dress when she marked the occasion. In May 1885, she opened the Ogino Obstetric and Gynaecological Clinic in Tokyo, and a shift in the book occurs. What has been a one-woman struggle could almost be a version of Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman as she gradually wins over patients and suddenly comes into contact with poverty and social problems. A new aspect of her personality emerges; she has spent many hard years fighting everyone and only relying on herself. Thus she seems strict, perfectionist, and occasionally puritanical with her patients and hospital staff.
The book shifts yet again when Ginko’s frustrated social conscience provides a fertile ground for the levelling and inclusive teachings of Christianity (at its best, an antidote to Japan’s class system much as it would have seemed to early Christians in Roman Judea). In an interesting twist, she becomes a Christian, baptized in November 1885. She becomes active in the Japan Christian Women’s Organization and, in common with similar movements in Europe and on other continents, sincerely believes in destroying prostitution and alcohol, with concurrent medical and scholarly education for women. Her beliefs are put to the test more than once, and she gains attention not only as a medical practitioner, but as a reformer.
Then things take a truly unexpected turn; we never quite spin into Romantic territory, but we are certainly in romantic territory. Namely, for the first time, Ginko falls in love—with a much younger man, a trainee priest whose extremely advanced ideas as well as devotion to her in her over. Because no one will sanction the match, including the very people who innocuously introduced the couple, they are married by Reverend O.H. Gulick in 1890. Ginko’s life will never be the same—it’s difficult to decide whether her life would have been better or worse if she had not married Shikata. Nevertheless, the married couple eventually decides to go to the island of Hokkaido, at that time a wilderness which Shikata compares to the Pilgrims going to Plymouth Rock, to create a Christian paradise. Like so many Christian paradises, this one fails. Living in exile from modern Tokyo society, Ginko eventually loses touch with all she holds dear, and by the time Shitaka dies unexpectedly, she has almost withdrawn from the world. The final chapter of her life is a calm ending to a uphill struggle.
I cannot think of many women I have read about who are more courageous than Ginko Ogino. It seems really strange to me that her story is so unknown (in English, at least). I would recommend Beyond the Blossoming Fields far more fervently than I would Memoirs of a Geisha; surely it should be at least as famous as that book is.