A recreation of Tokyo in the 1880s by one of Japan’s most influential novelists
Mori Ōgai (1862–1922), one of the giants of modern Japanese literature, wrote The Wild Goose at the turn of the century. Set in the early 1880s, it was, for contemporary readers, a nostalgic return to a time when the nation was embarking on an era of dramatic change. Ōgai’s narrator is a middle-aged man reminiscing about an unconsummated affair, dating to his student days, between his classmate and a young woman kept by a moneylender. At a time when writers tended to depict modern, alienated male intellectuals, the characters of The Wild Goose are diverse, including not only students preparing for a privileged intellectual life and members of the plebeian classes who provide services to them, but also a pair of highly developed female characters. The author’s sympathetic and penetrating portrayal of the dilemmas and frustrations faced by women in this early period of Japan’s modernization makes the story of particular interest to readers today.
Ōgai was not only a prolific and popular writer, but also a protean figure in early modern Japan: critic, translator, physician, military officer, and eventually Japan’s Surgeon General. His rigorous and broad education included the Chinese classics as well as Dutch and German; he gained admittance to the Medical School of Tokyo Imperial University at the age of only fifteen. Once established as a military physician, he was sent to Germany for four years to study aspects of European medicine still unfamiliar to the Japanese. Upon his return, he produced his first works of fiction and translations of English and European literature. Ōgai’s writing is extolled for its unparalleled style and psychological insight, nowhere better demonstrated than in The Wild Goose.
The events of my story took place some time ago—in 1880, the thirteenth year of the Meiji era, to be exact. I remember because at that time I was living in a boardinghouse called the Kamijō directly opposite the Iron Gate of the Tokyo University Medical Department, and in the next room lived a student named Okada, the main character in my story. In 1881 a fire broke out in the Kamijō, it burned to the ground, and I was among those burned out. And the events of the story took place, I recall, in the year before the fire.
Most of the occupants of the Kamijō were students in the Medical Department or patients receiving treatment at the hospital attached to it. Nearly every boardinghouse has one boarder who seems to command an unusual degree of respect. Foremost, he is prompt in paying his bills, and is thoughtful of others in various small ways. When he happens to go down the hall past the room where the landlady is sitting by the brazier, he invariably speaks a word to her, and sometimes plops himself down on the other side of the brazier and chats for a while. If he has drinking parties in his room, he asks her to fix some sort of refreshments, or to do other kinds of favors for him. It may seem as though he is demanding special treatment, but in fact he is giving her a chance to add a little extra to his bill. A fellow of this type usually enjoys considerable respect among others, and hence can do pretty much as he pleases. At the Kamijō the student who lived in the room next to mine enjoyed this sort of privileged position to a quite remarkable degree.
This student, Okada, was just a year behind me and thus was due to graduate before long. If I were to describe him, I would begin by mentioning his unusual disposition. He was a handsome fellow, not of the pale, wispy type, but ruddy-faced and solidly built. I don’t recall ever having known anyone with just the kind of face Okada had, though I was friendly with the novelist Kawakami Bizan in his young days, long before the troubles that led to his tragic suicide, and he looked something like Okada. But Okada was a member of the rowing team and much better built than Kawakami.
Though his looks did much to recommend him, they were not the sole reason why he commanded so much respect in our boardinghouse. Above all it was his character and conduct that were impressive. I have known few men who maintained the balance and order in their lives that Okada did. He made no effort to achieve special distinction in his exams, but did what was required carefully and thoroughly so that each term he retained his standing around the middle of the class. And when the time came to relax, he relaxed. After dinner he invariably took a walk, returning without fail before ten. Sundays he went rowing or on a picnic.
Except for those occasions when he spent the night at Mukōjima with his companions on the rowing team, or when he had gone home for the summer holiday, the hours he spent in and out of his room—and I know because I lived next door—were utterly regular. Anyone who had forgotten to set his watch by the noonday gun could get the correct time by going to Okada’s room. Even the clock at the front desk of the Kamijō was on occasion corrected to conform to Okada’s pocket watch. Those around him felt more strongly the longer they observed him that here was a man to be relied on. It was this quality of dependability, rather than any lavishness in spending, that led our landlady, never one for flattery, to praise Okada, though the fact that he paid his rent promptly each month no doubt helped. “Look at Mr. Okada!” was her frequently offered advice. To which some of the other student lodgers, anticipating invidious comparison, would retort, “We can’t all be like Okada!” Thus, before we knew it, Okada had become the standard by which the Kamijō’s residents were measured.
The course that Okada followed in his evening walks was generally the same. Starting out from his lodging, he would take the rather lonely road down Muenzaka, go along the north bank of Shinobazu Pond, where the blackened waters of the Aizome River flow into it, and then make his way up the hill at Ueno. From there he would wander along the narrow bustling streets of Hirokōji and Nakachō, where the Matsugen and Gannabe restaurants were located, through the grounds of the Yushima Tenjin Shrine, past the corner of the gloomy Karatachi Temple, and back home. Sometimes he turned right at Nakachō and returned by way of Muenzaka. This was one of his routes.
At other times he cut through the campus of the university and came out by the Akamon or Red Gate. The Iron Gate of the Medical Department was shut early, so he entered through the Nagaya gate, the one used by the patients, and got across the campus that way. Later the Nagaya gate was torn down and a new black gate put up, the one that now leads out to Harukichō.
After emerging from the Red Gate, he would go along Hongō Street, past the shop where the man pounds dough for millet cakes while performing feats of dexterity, and into the grounds of the Kanda Myōjin Shrine. Then he would walk down to Megane Bridge, at that time still a novel sight, and stroll a while through Yanagihara on the street by the river that has houses on only one side. From there he would go back to Onarimichi, thread through one or another of the narrow alleys on the west of it, and come out in front of Karatachi Temple. This was another route. He almost never took any route other than these two.
Okada seldom stopped on his walks except to browse occasionally at secondhand bookstores along the way. Two or three of the secondhand bookstores in business at that time in Ueno Hirokōji and Nakachō still exist, and in Onarimichi too there are some from that period, though those in Yanagihara have all disappeared. The ones along Hongō Street have nearly all changed location and owners. The reason Okada never turned right when he emerged from the Red Gate was that the streets in Morikawachō, which lies in that direction, are rather narrow and unpleasant to walk along, but also because at that time there was only one secondhand bookstore in that direction.
Okada’s visits to secondhand bookstores were prompted by what nowadays would be termed a “taste for literature.” But at that time the new style novels and plays had yet to make their appearance. In the field of lyric poetry, the haiku of Masaoka Shiki and the waka of Yosano Tekkan were a thing of the future. People read literary magazines such as Kagetsu shinshi, printed on rice paper, or the white pages of Keirin isshi, and regarded the sensuous “fragrant trousseau” Chinese-style poems of Mori Kainan and Kami Mukō as the latest word. I remember because I myself was an avid reader of Kagetsu shinshi. That was the first magazine to carry a translation of a work of Western fiction. As I recall, it was about a student at some Western university who was killed on the way home for the holidays, and had been translated into colloquial Japanese by Kanda Kōhei. That’s the kind of era it was, so Okada’s “taste for literature” meant little more than that he read with interest some event of the times that a scholar of Chinese studies had chosen to work up in literary style.
By nature I’m not much good at making friends with people. Even people I met all the time at school I seldom spoke to unless there was a specific reason to do so. And among my fellow students at the boardinghouse there were few that I ever doffed my cap to. The fact that I happened to be fairly friendly with Okada was due to our common interest in secondhand bookstores.
When I went for a walk I did not follow any fixed route the way Okada did. But since I’m a good walker, I managed to cover pretty much the whole area from Hongō down through Shitaya and Kanda, and whenever I came on a secondhand bookstore I stopped for a look. At such times I frequently ran into Okada, and eventually one or the other of us remarked on how often we bumped into each other at such places.
Around that time there was a store on the corner at the foot of the slope leading to the Kanda Myōjin Shrine that had set out a U-shaped stall spread with secondhand books. One day I spotted a Chinese edition of the Ming dynasty novel Chin P’ing Mei and asked the proprietor how much it was. He said the price was seven yen. I asked if he couldn’t make it five, but he replied, “Mr. Okada a little while ago said he’d buy it if he could get it for six, so I’m afraid I can’t oblige you.” As I just happened to have a little extra money with me at the time, I bought the book at the proprietor’s asking price of seven yen.
Two or three days later when I ran into Okada he started berating me. “You’re a fine one, grabbing up the very book I had my eye on!”
“But the owner of the store said you wouldn’t go above a certain price. If you’re all that eager to have it, I’ll give it to you.”
“No need. Since you’re right next door, I’ll just borrow it when you’re finished.”
I agreed to that, and that was how Okada and I, neighbors who up to then had had little to do with one another, became friends.