Mori Ôgai’s “Vita Sexualis”


The writings of Mori Ôgai (1862-1922) “exercised profound influence on later Japanese authors, who sought to emulate the severely masculine style and understated manner of narration,” according to Donald Keene, the most important explicator of Japanese writers to American readers. What is most peculiar about his autobiographical 1909 novel Vita Sexualis is that it is a “case study” of the development of sexual desire but unlike the male characters in the novels of Tanizaki, Mishima, or Oe (not to mention the western psychiatric tradition of “case histories”), the “case”—the protagonist Kanai Shizuka—has very little (if any) sexual desire. Mr Kanai “suspected that perhaps unlike the rest of the human race he might be indifferent to such desires, that he might have an extraordinary natural disposition which might be called frigiditas” (25). He graduates from college, at age 20, still a virgin, perhaps the only student to complete his studies without having sex with anyone, male or female.

Besides being a literary figure in early 20th-century Japan, Mori was Japan’s surgeon general when Vita Sexualis was published in the seventh issue of a literary magazine, Subaru, which he had founded. (The whole issue was censored a month following publication, and Mori was officially reprimanded by the Minister of War.)

Professionally interested in the emerging German science of sex, Mori thought that European “naturalist” fiction (such as Zola) was too preoccupied with sex. There is something so typically Japanese about boldly writing naturalistically about sex and at the same time not including any explicit sex! Not that purity or puritanism are anywhere in the neighborhood: there are allusions to masturbation, homosexuality, incest, prostitution, erotica, etc., and there is not the slightest pretense that Japanese in general are lacking in sexual desire. Quite the contrary! Most everyone else except Kanai Shizuka have abundant libido.

The earliest sexual memory is of a book of woodblock prints with couples in positions that mystified the boy, and what he took to be a leg (if you’ve seen the erotic Japanese wood block prints with extremely exaggerated male and female genitalia, this confusion is more comprehensible).. Moreover, he “didn’t realize in the least that this kind of human behavior had any connection to human desire.” (39)

Being the second youngest boy in his dormitory, and not at all inclined to submit sexually, the eleven-year-old was unpleasantly surprised to learn “that the word ‘boy’ [shônen] had the meaning of being an object for sodomy” (58). He manages to elude would-be seducers, but describes the sexual culture of Tokyo students as being divided into two types.

Older boys who pursued female sexual partners and engaged in some degree of heterosociality were nanpa, variously translated into English as “smoothies,” “softies,” or (in this translation) “mashers.” Mori’s label for those spurning sexual and social involvement with females was kôha (literally, “hard” or “obdurate”). “Roughnecks” contrasted to “smoothies” is preferable to the use of “queer” for those who were “manly and casual in their dress” (62), though “toughs” in contrast to “dandies” seems to me better still. Like the original sense of “effeminate” in English, the carefully dressing nanpa, interested in and spending time with women, were looked upon with scorn by a masculinist homosocial kôha, whether the latter loved boys or rejected sexual entanglements and desires of any sort. And Mori records that the nanpa also viewed the kôha as superior, more masculine, etc.

Mori represented his youthful self/protagonist as lacking sexual desire and determinedly warding off insistent kôha until he had a good kôha friend who made Mori exempt from importuning. Koga is devoted to the way of boys, but considers his own shared room off-limits. Hemni, another prominent tough (whose courting Shizuka avoided but was prepared to ward off with his dagger) turns “masher” (85), and later on Koga accepts an arranged marriage.

After reacting coolly both to the seduction by a friend’s mother and by one of the most famous courtesans in the country, “it so happened that I left Japan without marrying anyone.” He has some encounters with German women hurling themselves at him, not always getting out of their way. Upon his return (at age 25) he married a woman who died after giving birth to a son. Then at age 32 he marries a seventeen-year-old second wife. There is not a word about desire—in this book about the development of desire—for either wife.

I would conclude that the book is about avoiding sex, except that I am puzzled by its being censored. I guess that showing students acting on their sexual desires was forbidden. Other than writing a book about the development of sexual desire in which no sexual desire develops, what I found most interesting was the portrait of the toughs and the dandies. And that the objects of desire, the beautiful boys (bishônen), don’t count. There are two types, those interested in girls and those interested in boys, and neither of the desired boys or girls seem to be accorded subjectivity, agency, or any desire, though adult female seductresses may have some desire (within the view contained in this book).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


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