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Junichi Watanabe’s Beyond The Blossoming Fields illustrates the inspiring story of Ginko Ogino – famously known as Japan’s first female doctor.
Review by Aparna V. Singh
I’ll admit, I’ve always been a bit of a Japan fan-girl. So, when I saw a book called Beyond The Blossoming Fields by Junichi Watanabe, based on the life of Ginko Ogino, Japan’s first female doctor, I had to pick it up, combining as it did my interests in Japan and the lives of women.
As it turns out, the ‘first female doctor’ bit is not entirely correct; there were female doctors practicing in Japan even before Ginko Ogino, but it is true that in the late nineteenth century, she was the first woman to be officially certified as a doctor, after completing a formal course of study in Western medicine.
Beyond The Blossoming Fields is the story of Ginko’s struggle to become a doctor, at a time when women in Japan were severely condemned even for reading books, leave alone doing anything as ‘unfeminine’ as working with flesh and blood. How unimaginably uphill the task must have been for Ginko is evident from the many instances in the book where she is thwarted repeatedly – by her family from who she must coax permission and money to study, by her fellow students who bully and harass her for polluting their all-male environment, and by a government that lets her study but lays many obstacles in her path to get the license to practice.
Ginko’s desire to become a doctor and help other women originates from one of the most humiliating events of her life when as a patient afflicted with gonorrhea (thanks to a philandering husband) she is forced to expose her private parts to a male doctor. For a woman brought up in the traditional Japanese culture of the day, this was as, if not more distressing than the disease itself.
Although based on Ginko’s life, Beyond The Blossoming Fields cannot strictly be called a biography. It is something of a cross between a novel and a biography, with the first half being more akin to a novel and indeed, the more interesting part of the book. Junichi Watanabe recreates Ginko’s story, filling in the bare events with his own version of her struggle, colouring it in with what she may have thought and felt. The first half also offers an excellent window into the hierarchy bound family and society of Japan at the time; thankfully, the author does not fall into the temptation of setting a single rebel against all of hidebound society. There are people like Ginko’s mother and sister, women deeply bound up in the norms of the time and yet sympathizing with her aspirations.
The second half, dealing with Ginko’s life after becoming a doctor reads a little less colourfully, and it is almost as if having accomplished the thing she wanted, her life offers no further inspiration for the writer. In the way that fiction can sometimes be more illuminating than fact, the second half seems to stick more to fact – and is the poorer for it.
Nevertheless, Beyond The Blossoming Fields is a highly readable account of a woman who gets to her goal against incredible odds. It is also a reminder of just how many battles women around the world have had to fight, to get to where we are today.
Publishers: Alma Books.
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Founder, Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas and conversations
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