Ginko Ogino was just sixteen when her mother and older sister arranged her marriage, as was custom in nineteenth-century Japan. When she returned home violently ill three years later, overcome with fever and infection due to gonorrhea, her family was shamed. Her story begins here, though, for during her embarrassing treatment in the male-dominated hospital, she determined that she would become a doctor so other women wouldn’t have to be so disrespected for being treated for such infections, especially when the infection was the fault of a spouse.
Beyond the Blossoming Fields by Jun’ichi Watanabe (published 1970, translated by Deborarh Iwabuchi and Anna Isozaki in 2008) is a novelization of Ginko Ogino’s life story. Watanabe succeeds in illustrating the difficulties Ginko faced, both struggles from her family and struggles from the male hierarchy surrounding her. I shuddered as she described the verbal sexual assaults she received as she attended the all-male medical school. She had no recourse against the assaults, since even the school leaders did not think she should be there.
Ginko’s story is inspiring. As a Japanese woman in the early years of Meiji Japan (1870s), she was not respected or expected to do anything other than marry, raise children, and take care of her mother-in-law’s home. Yet, Ginko fought for women’s rights and succeeded. A few years after getting her medical license, she fell in love with a young man. They married and she followed him to the rural Hokkaido. Watanabe suggests that this led to her lack of subsequent prominence in medical history; if she had remained single in Tokyo, she would have made further progress and been a well-known name in medical history. Nonetheless, I think the fact that she married who she wanted to marry, despite family discouragement, still showed her ability to choose for herself. No one would tell her what to do. Women should have just as many rights as men.
If Beyond the Blossoming Fields has a fault, it is the writing style, which I was not impressed by. Watanabe seemed to be writing a combination of biographical history as well as a novel, and occasionally stepped into serious digressions that read like historical fact rather than fiction. For example, when Ginko graduates from medical school, she has to wait to take the licensing exam. The author says, “On 23rd October 1883, the Grand Council of State had decreed a new system of medical licensing regulations…” (page 133) followed by two paragraphs about the licensing history and rules. Then the book returns to Ginko’s story. Such historical digressions, while useful to a biography, gave the book an awkward feel. It was hard to keep remembering that this book is a novel and not a biography, and yet the conversations and discussion of Ginko’s thoughts and feelings obviously turned the account into a fictionalized novel. It was not well constructed in that respect.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed Ginko’s story. I’m so glad for women like her who took a stand for women’s rights in an era in which women did not have them. For modern women interested in women’s rights, her story is worth learning from. If you are interested in learning more about Ginko Ogino but do not want to read the novel, see the brief entry at Wikipedia.