Writer probes mystery of Ogai’s German lover

by Toshihisa Onishi

Kyodo

A Berlin-based writer from Osaka Prefecture has chronicled her search for the truth behind a famous short story about a love affair between an elite Meiji Era bureaucrat and a German dancing girl.

Ichika Rokuso, 50, has written two books examining the long-standing mystery surrounding the German girlfriend of author Mori Ogai (1862-1922), believed to be a model for the protagonist in “Maihime” (“The Dancing Girl”).

Rokuso, who has lived in Berlin for 25 years, compiled into her two books — the first published in 2011 and the second this year — her findings in Germany about Ogai’s real-life girlfriend, Elise Marie Caroline Wiegert.

Rokuso said 3½ years of research helped her discover that “Ogai and Elise loved each other deeply,” although their affair did not have a happy ending.

When Rokuso first read the story about 10 years ago, however, she thought it was a “disgusting work.”

“Maihime,” one of the most popular short works written by the literary legend during the early years of his career, describes an affair between bureaucrat Toyotaro Ota, who is studying in Berlin, and the German dancing girl Elis.

“I threw the book at my bed after having read it,” Rokuso said, explaining that she felt resentful about the story, in which Elis goes insane after Ota decides to return to Japan on his own even though he knows she is pregnant with his child.

Ogai, who was also a surgeon in the Imperial Japanese Army, wrote the story based on his own experience in Germany, where he studied medicine for the military during the 1880s.

While Rokuso said she never enjoyed the story, she later became curious about the identity of the woman on whom Ogai had based his character.

In 2009, Rokuso heard from a man in Berlin that Ogai’s girlfriend was a dancing instructor for his grandmother, although the story did not turn out to be true.

She had also heard that there was a German woman believed to have been his girlfriend who had chased Ogai to Japan, and felt she had to find out who the woman really was.

Rokuso moved to Berlin after marrying a German man, a pipe organ maker, whom she had met while he was visiting Japan on business.

She worked as a pottery painter in Japan and continued to paint in Germany. However, it became difficult for her to do the work while raising a child, and she remembered how much she loved writing.

Since deciding to become a writer, Rokuso read a large number of books at libraries while gradually getting opportunities to write for magazines.

In due course, she got hold of documents confirming the existence of Elise and photographs of her. She obtained a death certificate indicating that Elise died at the age of 86 in 1953. These findings evolved into her two books.

Although it is unknown where the woman is buried, Rokuso said, “I want to find her grave and offer her flowers someday.”