Wednesday, August 26, 2009

'Beyond the Blossoming Fields'

Beyond the Blossoming Fieldsby Jun'ichi Watanabe
Historical Fiction, 1970 (English translation, 2008)
Alma Books, trade pb, 298 p.
Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Iwabuchi and Anna Isozaki
As a young girl from a wealthy family, Ginko Ogino seems set for a conventional life in the male-dominated society of nineteenth-century Japan. But when she contracts gonorrhoea from her husband, she suffers the ignominy of divorce. Forced to bear the humiliation of being treated by male doctors, she resolves to become a doctor herself in order to treat fellow female sufferers and spare them some of the shame she had to endure.

Her struggle is not an easy one: her family disown her, and she has to convince the authorities to take seriously the idea of a female doctor, and allow her to study alongside male medical students and sit the licensing exam.

Based on the real-life story of Ginko Ogino – Japan’s first female doctor – Beyond the Blossoming Fields does full justice to the complexity of her character and her world in a fascinating and inspirational work of fiction.
Like the blurb says, this really was a fascinating look at the life of the woman who became Japan’s first licensed female doctor, and the intense struggles she underwent to get there. It’s a fictional retelling of her life but it’s based on a true story, which made it all the more poignant. I can’t imagine all the difficulties she had to overcome in what was then an extremely conservative, patriarchal society. Yes, Japan is still somewhat of a conservative, patriarchal society, and some of the attitudes towards woman haven’t really changed all that much, but at least women can become doctors, vote, and have a few other options besides staying in the home now, should they wish it.
At the fringes of the lecture hall, Ginko bore it all in solitude. And the single cause of her isolation was that she was a woman. She had never felt more bitter about her fate. It was an era when women waited to eat until men were finished, walked a few paces behind men and always spoke respectfully when addressing them. When a man had something to say, a woman’s response was expected to be “Yes, I understand”. Women’s concerns were supposed to be confined to housework and child raising.

It was in this context that Ginko, a woman, had suddenly appeared in a classroom full of men. Not only that, but it was a class in the medical field, where only men were allowed. Most people would have sided with the shocked and angry male students, who had always been taught that women were far beneath them. [p. 105]
Ginko seems to have been a bit stubborn, and very strict to herself and those around her, which no doubt helped her achieve all that she did, but it did make her a rather unpleasant person at times. I always find complicated characters to be more interesting to read about though, and I think the author did a wonderful job portraying the different sides of Ginko Ogino's personality.

In addition to Ginko’s story, it was equally fascinating to read about Tokyo in the late nineteenth century, and some of the things that were going on in the background of the story. The transition to the Meiji era after over 250 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the growth of Christianity, the newly-claimed island of Hokkaido and the settlers that went there to start a new life. All of these elements combined to present an engaging historical portrait of the Japan of the time.

The translation was great too; it read very smoothly and allowed me to fully enjoy the story for itself without being distracted by an obvious translation. Even considering its biographic style, I was completely engrossed and had a hard time putting it down. And I’m still thinking of Ginko despite having finished another couple of books since. A fantastic read; it’s one of the best I’ve read so far this year. Highly recommended to anyone with an interest in Japan, or who enjoys well-told stories of strong women.

Interesting side note: This title was selected for the Japanese Literature Publishing Project, which I’d never heard of before but it sounds like a good program. I’m going to have to look for some of their other choices.

From the JLPP website* (according to this posting on the World Literature Forum):
The Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP) was launched in 2002 by the Agency for Cultural Affairs to promote modern Japanese literature overseas. Literary works produced since 1868 are selected by a committee for translation into one or more of four target languages comprising English, French, German, and Russian. Reader response to this project introducing lesser-known gems of modern Japanese literature to the world has been enthusiastic.

As of October 2007, eighty-four works have been selected for translation, with every effort being made to choose a wide range of works to demonstrate the richness and diversity of modern Japanese literature. Of these, fifty works have been published in one or more of the four target languages.

As well as being on sale in bookstores, two thousand copies of each published title are purchased by JLPP for donation to libraries, universities, and other cultural organizations worldwide.
*The JLPP (Japanese Literature Publishing Website): the Japanese site and the English JLPP site are currently under renewal, but the French site and the German site seem to be fine, if you can read either of those languages.

Read an excerpt of Beyond the Blossoming Fields
Wikipedia entry on Ginko Ogino

Thank you to Clémence and Alma Books for the opportunity to read this book.

First sentence: The Toné is the largest river flowing through the Kanto Plain.

Buy this book at: | | | |

My Rating: 4.5/5
(#43 for 2009, Reading Japan Project, Lost in Translation Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge, ARC Reading Challenge, Japanese Literature Challenge 3)

If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. That does sound fascinating. Never heard of this first female doctor in Japan. Thanks for a great review.

  2. You've made this sound irresistable! :) And the JLPP looks like a great resource-thanks for linking! (Although I'm not sure if the French Catalogue will end up being the same as the English one.)

  3. Sounds really interesting. I'm fascinated by strong female characters, especially women who have made a real difference or had such challenging experiences. Great review, thanks!

  4. It sounds fascinating! I will definitely add that to my wish list. Thanks for the great review.

  5. This sounds fantastic. I will be looking out for it for sure.

  6. This sounds like a book I'd absolutely love, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. I find complicated characters more interesting to read about too.

  7. This sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks so much for sharing it with us in your very well done review.

  8. This sounds so fascinating! I am definitely putting it on my list!

  9. Thanks so much for bringing this book to my attention--sounds so good.

  10. Wow, this book sounds awesome. I hadn't heard of it before but it's on my TBR now.

  11. This sounds like a great book. Thank you! I remember being fascinated by the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the US; it would be really interesting to compare the two stories.

  12. Another title to add to my wishlist ;)

    I would like to recommend 2 other books (sorry, I haven't looked around on your blog yet to see if you've already read them):

    1) The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery; my favourite read for 2008! It's about (the daughter of) a tea family in the same period of 'Beyond'. Fiction, but I really think you would like it!

    2) At the moment I am reading Butterfly in the Wind by Rei Kimura, a biographical novel about the unwilling concubine of the 1st American consul in Japan in de mid-1800's. I'm not very far yet but it seems quite interesting!

  13. I love the sound of this one. I'm going to see if I can get my hands of this!! Thanks for the great review.

  14. Mon - I'd never heard of her before reading the book either, but it really was a fascinating read.

    Eva - Hopefully the English version website will be back up before too long. I'd like to check out some of their other titles.

    mariel - I like reading about strong female characters too and it was fascinating to read about her life.

    Moo and Amy - It really was a great story. I hope you enjoy this book if you get a chance to read it.

    Nymeth - Complicated characters have more depth to them I suppose, but they certainly do make for good reading.

    mel u - Thanks, I hope you get a chance to read it.

    Iliana, Dianne and Teddy Rose - I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    ds - That would be really interesting to compare the two stories. I'd never heard of Elizabeth Blackwell before but now I'm curious.

    gnoegnoe - Thanks for the recommendations. I saw The Teahouse Fire in the book store a few months back and added it to my wish list. I hadn't really read any reviews of it so I'm glad to hear how much you liked it.
    I hadn't heard of Butterfly in the Wind before, but it does sound interesting. I'll have to look it up, thanks.

    Staci - Glad you enjoyed the review. I hope you can get your hands on a copy.

  15. I have added this one to my wish list now (and your blog to my reader). I'm hoping I win the book, but if not I will have to hunt this one down.

  16. Alyce - It's a great read! I hope you get a chance to read.


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