‘The Doctor’s Wife’ by Sawako Ariyoshi (Review)

One of my main goals for this year’s January in Japan reading was to get to some books, and writers, I’d been meaning to try for a while, and today’s choice certainly fits that description, with several people having recommended it to me over the years.  We’re heading back to the eighteenth century, where modern medicine is in its infancy, and an ambitious doctor is determined to do his bit to bring the science into the modern age – with the help, of course of a loving wife 🙂

*****
Sawako Ariyoshi’s The Doctor’s Wife (translated by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant, published by Kodansha International) is the story of Kae, a young woman from a well-to-do family in the Wakayama region who becomes fascinated at a young age by a beautiful woman in the neighbourhood.  Otsugi is the wife of the local doctor-surgeon, Naomichi Hanaoka, and Kae is overjoyed when she is later chosen to be the wife of the doctor’s son, and successor, Seishu.  While Kae’s father isn’t convinced, mainly because of the mismatch in status, he’s gradually won over by his daughter’s wishes and his wife’s persuasion, and the young woman goes off to live with her new family, even though her husband is still in Kyoto finishing his medical studies.

In the early days of her life at the doctor’s house, Kae enjoys the novelty of being useful, working hard at weaving to earn money for her husband’s education, and she’s overjoyed at forming what she believes to be a strong bond with her mother-in-law.  However, when her husband finally comes home to take over his father’s business, she realises her mistake.  From the moment the new doctor crosses the threshold, Otsugi begins to brutally snub poor Kae, changing her position from treasured daughter to outcast.  You see, there’s only room for one woman in Shin’s life, and Otsugi will do whatever it takes to monopolise her son’s affections.

The Doctor’s Wife is based on the real-life story of Seishu Hanaoka, the son of a rural doctor, and his obsession with finding a way to operate successfully on patients thought too weak to survive the procedure.  After experimenting with his own anaesthesia over decades (including on animals, so consider this a trigger warning for unwitting readers…), he eventually managed to perfect it and use it in surgery.  Surprisingly, this success came decades before the much-heralded breakthroughs with chloroform and ether in the west, but the advances were largely unknown because of Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Yet as the title suggests, Ariyoshi’s focus here is not on Seishu, but on Kae, the woman behind the legend.  From the first pages, introducing Kae in her childhood, we see her obsession with the beautiful Otsugi, and when the doctor’s wife makes a brief appearance at a funeral, the young girl is stunned:

Others also stared, since Otsugi seldom came to public gatherings.  Her presence that day reminded them of her past, and her youthfulness after bearing seven children amazed them.  Women over forty were generally haggard and unattractive from childbearing and years of hard labour.  But Otsugi looked at least ten years younger than her age and quite elegant and dignified in her funeral attire.  Kae may not have been the only one to see a halo.
p.12 (Kodansha International, 1981)

The seeds are sewn here of a fascination with the doctor’s family, meaning she is keen to accept when the unusual proposal comes.

Of course, in some ways Ariyoshi’s book has an ambiguous title as there are actually two doctor’s wives featured in the novel, Otsugi and Kae, with the main focus being the intense rivalry between them.  Kae is initially overwhelmed by the sudden turn in her mother-in-law’s affections; having welcomed her as a daughter, Otsugi’s jealousy comes to the fore when Seishu returns, leaving the young woman mystified – why would she push her away after selecting her to be her son’s partner?  This feeling soon gives way, though, to one of determination to stand her ground and fight back, using her advantages as Seishu’s partner to gain his trust and affection.

The story, then, is one of a bitter feud between two women determined to occupy the top spot in the young doctor’s affections, and the irony is that in a book featuring two strong, passionate women, they’re doing everything for a man.  Both are willing to make great sacrifices to help Seishu in his career, and this all culminates in the doctor’s human experiments, where both women spend days asleep under the influence of his experimental anaesthesia.

Cleverly, the book sweeps the reader along, keeping our eyes on Kae and Otsugi as we wait to see who will come out on top.  However, there are several other characters featured, too, and it’s only later, far too late, that we see what’s really happening.  In their own way, Otsugi’s daughters, Okatsu and Koriku, are also sacrificed for Seishu’s success, unlikely to marry as they’re needed to bring in money and keep the household running.  While Kae is blinded by her need to win Seishu over, it’s Koriku who sees through all the sacrifices the women are asked to make:

Don’t you think men are incredible?  It seems… that an intelligent person like my brother… would have noticed the friction between you and Mother… But throughout he shrewdly pretended he didn’t see anything… which resulted in both you and Mother drinking the medicine… Well, isn’t it so?  I think this sort of tension among females… is… to the advantage… of… every male. (p.163)

It’s an insight that shatters Kae’s beliefs, but one that comes far too late for most of the family’s women.

The story of Seishu Hanaoka would be fascinating in its own right (a reminder that not everything happened first in the west), but Ariyoshi’s fictional slant on the doctor’s story provides a different, slightly more sombre slant on the tale.  The sacrifices required in every great career, of course, are not always offered up by those who get the glory, and the great woman behind the great man line rings particularly true here.  In fact, there are several, and it’s clear that the doctor’s achievements would have been impossible without the support of an entire family.

With great work by Hironaka and Siller Kostant, The Doctor’s Wife is an absorbing work by an author worthy of further attention.  I have one more of Ariyoshi’s books on the shelves, with another on the way, but there is, alas, one problem for any potential Anglophone readers.  You see, while it’s fairly easy to get your hands on books by the big-name male writers from Japan, most of the titles in this Japan’s Women Writers series from Kodansha International are only available second hand.  I’m sure the irony of this would not be lost on Ariyoshi…

4 thoughts on “‘The Doctor’s Wife’ by Sawako Ariyoshi (Review)

  1. like you i have had this on my shelves for a few years i may try and read it now it sounds like a story of it’s time with the wife being sidelined once the husband had gotten what he wanted almost dickensian sort of scenario

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  2. All three of the Sawako Ariyoshi novels I have read — The Doctor’s Wife, The River Ki, and The Twilight Years — are terrific. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be The Twilight Years, the story of a woman saddled with taking care of her irascible father-in-law.

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