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‘The Doctor’s Wife’ fictionalizes the life of Japan’s pioneering anesthetist

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“Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes,” the comedian Jim Carrey once joked. Sawako Ariyoshi’s novel “The Doctor’s Wife,” based on historical facts and first published in 1978, tells of the woman behind real-life pioneer surgeon Seishu Hanaoka, who used general anesthetic long before any doctor the West. In this fictionalized biography, the medical breakthrough is aided by Hanaoka’s wife Kae, who stays forever eclipsed by her famous spouse.

The Doctor’s Wife, by Sawako Ariyoshi
174 pages
Kodansha, Fiction.

Set in Kishu province (modern-day Wakayama Prefecture), the story begins around 1780, when Kae enters an arranged marriage with medicine student Seishu. She is drawn less to him than to his mother, the dazzling Otsugi, a woman devoted to her own beauty and her son’s career. While Seishu tests a herbal anesthetic, a feud ensues between Kae and Otsugi, as they vie for the young doctor’s approval. In a morbid loyalty contest, both women offer themselves for experiments with his newly concocted drug, which ends tragically.

A leading woman writer in Japan and a best-selling author in France, Ariyoshi here goes beyond the cliche of the meek wife and bad mother-in-law. She ends with a call for solidarity: Seishu’s dying sister explains how female division helps men to be selfish.

“Medicine guards its secrets well,” writes Ariyoshi, which is still true today. Equally current — and universal — is the search for a healthy balance between spousal support and personal ambition.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.