The life of a trailblazer: Ogino Ginko, one of the first female doctors in Japan

Mariel Tishma
Chicago, Illinois, United States

 

Photo of Ogino Ginko
Photo of Ogino Ginko. From the National Diet Library. Public Domain. Via Wikimedia.

Ogino Ginko was Japan’s first female doctor of Western medicine. She lived a life full of struggles, achieved a flash of fame, and then quietly retreated into history. She advocated for the rights, safety, and health of women and today should be remembered as an activist and role model to all those balancing who they want to be and who society believes they can be.

She was born in 1851 in what is now Japan’s Saitama prefecture. She was the fifth daughter of a respected and wealthy family, and with that came expectations. At age sixteen she found herself married to the son of a well-respected headman from a neighboring village, a match her family had made for her.1,2 Not long after, the pair divorced, despite the taboo against it at the time. Ogino’s husband had given her a sexually transmitted disease, most likely gonorrhea, so she divorced him.3

Following her divorce, Ogino received Western medical treatment at the Juntendo Hospital in Tokyo. It is unclear how long she spent in the hospital, but her stay was long—at least a few months4 and possibly as long as two years.5 While the medicine effectively managed her disease, the emotional toll of the dehumanizing and humiliating treatment changed her. She felt deep shame about male doctors examining her, and they treated her coldly and mechanically, with little respect for her comfort or modesty.6

Ogino believed that if she had been examined by a woman, her disease would have been handled with sympathy and understanding.7 She spoke to others in the hospital who felt the same. She decided she would become a doctor so women could choose to seek help from another woman.8

Her family provided little support as she pursued medicine and her education.9 Before her marriage she had received only basic schooling in Confucian values. However, her Confucian teacher had noted her passion for learning and guided her towards advanced education.10

In 1875, she enrolled at the Tokyo Women’s Normal School as part of the school’s first class.11 Other “normal schools” were established around this time, training students to be teachers. Many women and girls who enrolled at these schools dropped out, choosing or being forced to marry and leave the academic and professional world. In the first year of the Tokyo Women’s Normal School seventy-four girls enrolled, but in 1879 only fifteen had completed their studies. Ogino was one of the few to graduate.12

Now equipped with more advanced education, Ogino pursued medical school. Quality medical schools were competitive and few and far between for women and men.13 Many women left their home countries to receive medical education abroad. Those who were able to attend women-only medical schools, such as those in the United States, often found lower quality institutions.14 Ogino chose a different path. She wanted to integrate Kojuin, one of Japan’s private, male-only medical schools.15,16 With the help of a teacher from the Tokyo Women’s Normal School17 and Ishiguro Tadanori, a well-known doctor,18 she was allowed to enroll.

She graduated around 1882. At that time, students who had attended officially-recognized schools were licensed to practice upon graduation. Ogino had attended a private school and so would need to pass a licensing exam. Her male classmates easily applied for the two-part test, but Ogino, who had attended the same school, was denied twice. She fought for two long years, once again enlisting the help of Ishiguro and receiving support from Takashima Kauemon, a renowned businessman, to convince the Sanitary Bureau to allow her to take the test.19

Ogino presented female doctors as part of the modernization and westernization of Japan that was ongoing at that time. She argued that the licensing system as a whole was unfair, as the schools that licensed students upon graduation were closed to women, and it was much easier for men to attend these schools than to take the exam. She also suggested that the country needed female doctors to treat diseases that women might not be comfortable bringing to a male doctor—exactly as had happened to her in her early life. To address the lack of precedent for female doctors, she referred to an ancient law that outlined training for female doctors in the Nara period imperial court.20

Finally, she was allowed to take the exam, passed both parts in 1885, and became the first woman licensed to practice Western medicine in Japan.21 She then opened her clinic in Tokyo, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.22 Her fame grew, as did her patient load, but she still agreed to serve as both a health educator and school doctor at the Meiji Women’s School in Tokyo.23

Outside of medicine, she took on the broader fight for women’s rights, which was tied to her conversion to Christianity. She was baptized in 188624 and joined the Kyofukai, or Japanese Christian Women’s Organization. The Kyofukai had similar goals to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in the United States. Both advocated for the protection of women and families by outlawing alcohol. The Kyofukai also worked to outlaw prostitution, support monogamous families, and overturn the cultural tradition of revering men over women.25 The group’s efforts around prostitution may have been personal for Ogino, as she had suffered from and treated women for gynecological diseases that often spread through prostitution at that time. In 1890, Japan founded its house of representatives, known then as the Imperial Diet. Women were not allowed to vote on representatives, but Ogino and many others petitioned that women be granted this vote.26

By 1893 she was at the very height of her career and was interviewed by Jogaku Zasshi (Women’s education magazine). She shared her life story and her determination to practice medicine. She would later publish an essay in the same journal reflecting on past medical women and imagining their future.27

However, the fame was not to last. In 1890 she had met and married Yukiyoshi Shikata, a young and idealistic minister.28 Many were surprised by her choice to marry and by her choice of spouse, but just as she had done when pursuing her career, Ogino disregarded others’ opinions and chose her passion.29 Yukiyoshi dreamed of an ideal, utopian, Christian society, and soon after he married Ogino, he left for Hokkaido to build his dream.30 Ogino would follow him in 1894.31

Outside the bustle of Tokyo, Ogino was no longer able to advance her career. She provided medical care to the settlement, but the utopia eventually failed. She may have continued medical work and activism in Hokkaido, but it was not enough. She attempted to open a new clinic in a larger city but found that her skills were out of date.32 After her husband died, she returned to Tokyo in 1908 and remained there until her death in 1913.33

From a career-focused perspective, this seems like an unsatisfying end to the story of a trailblazer. However, Ogino was driven by her personal vision. First, the passion to care for women who had suffered as she had, then to advance women as a whole, then to marry the man she loved, and finally to pursue a life of peace, faith, and community. She disregarded the blueprint for success and happiness in her time and continues to defy the pattern we might place on her now.

Writing about the history of women in medicine, she said:

“When you look beyond the surface of many doctors, there is always a wife or daughter trying out the art of her husband or her father . . . It can be seen from this that medicine was not developed and carried by men single-handedly, but that they were lucky to have the aid of sincere and trustworthy assistants, who helped to cover up their deficiencies.”34

Ogino Ginko was one of the first women to practice medicine not as an assistant, but as a doctor in her own right. The story of her life is an inspiration to those finding their path today.

 

End Notes

  1. “Ogino, Ginko,” National Diet Library, Japan, 2013, https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/e/datas/43.html?c=13.
  2. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision: “The Past and Future of Women Doctors in Japan” (1893),” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal no. 34 (2008): 10, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42771973.
  3. Mara Patessio, “Female Students and Teachers in Private and Public Schools,” in Women and Public Life in Early Meiji Japan The Development of the Feminist Movement, (U of M Center for Japanese Studies: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 58, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.9340032.5.
  4. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 10.
  5. Mara Patessio, “Female Students and Teachers in Private and Public Schools,” 58.
  6. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Mara Patessio, “Female Students and Teachers in Private and Public Schools,” 58.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Michael Hoffman, “The efforts of Japan’s first female doctor are worth remembering,” Japan Up Close, https://japanupclose.web-japan.org/culture/c20190327_7.html.
  11. Junichi Watanabe, Beyond the Blossoming Fields, trans. Deborah Iwabuchi (Surrey UK: Alma Books, 1970), 99, via the Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/beyondblossoming0000wata/mode/2up.
  12. Mara Patessio, “Female Students and Teachers in Private and Public Schools,” 42.
  13. Junichi Watanabe, Beyond the Blossoming Fields, 55.
  14. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 8-9.
  15. “Ogino, Ginko,” National Diet Library, Japan.
  16. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 5.
  17. Mara Patessio, “Female Students and Teachers in Private and Public Schools,” 58.
  18. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 5.
  19. Ibid, 6-7.
  20. Ibid, 6-7, 10.
  21. Ibid, 6.
  22. Junichi Watanabe, Beyond the Blossoming Fields, 172.
  23. Laura Lynn Windsor, Women in Medicine An Encyclopedia, (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002), 157.
  24. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 14.
  25. Mara Patessio, “Women’s Groups and Their Activities,” in Women and Public Life in Early Meiji Japan The Development of the Feminist Movement, (U of M Center for Japanese Studies: University of Michigan Press, 2011), 116-118, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.9340032.5.
  26. Mara Patessio, “Women’s Groups and Their Activities,” 136.
  27. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 3.
  28. “Ogino, Ginko,” National Diet Library, Japan.
  29. Junichi Watanabe, Beyond the Blossoming Fields, 249.
  30. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 3-4.
  31. “Ogino, Ginko,” National Diet Library, Japan.
  32. Michael Hoffman, “The efforts of Japan’s first female doctor are worth remembering.”
  33. “Ogino, Ginko,” National Diet Library, Japan.
  34. Ellen Nakamura, “Ogino Ginko’s Vision,” 6-7.

 

Bibliography

  • Hoffman, Michael. “The efforts of Japan’s first female doctor are worth remembering.” Japan Up Close. https://japanupclose.web-japan.org/culture/c20190327_7.html.
  • Nakamura, Ellen. “Ogino Ginko’s Vision: “The Past and Future of Women Doctors in Japan” (1893).” U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal no. 34 (2008): 3-18. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42771973.
  • “Ogino, Ginko.” National Diet Library, Japan. 2013. https://www.ndl.go.jp/portrait/e/datas/43.html?c=13.
  • Patessio, Mara. “Female Students and Teachers in Private and Public Schools” in Women and Public Life in Early Meiji Japan The Development of the Feminist Movement. U of M Center for Japanese Studies: University of Michigan Press, 2011. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.9340032.5.
  • Patessio, Mara. “Women’s Groups and Their Activities” in Women and Public Life in Early Meiji Japan The Development of the Feminist Movement. U of M Center for Japanese Studies: University of Michigan Press, 2011. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.9340032.5.
  • Watanabe, Junichi. Beyond the Blossoming Fields. Translated by Deborah Iwabuchi. Surrey UK: Alma Books, 1970. Via the Internet Archive https://archive.org/details/beyondblossoming0000wata/mode/2up.
  • Windsor, Laura Lynn. Women in Medicine An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002

 


 

MARIEL TISHMA is an Assistant Editor at Hektoen International. She has been published in Hektoen International, Bloodbond, Argot Magazine, Syntax and Salt, The Artifice, and Fickle Muses. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a BA in creative writing and a minor in biology. Learn more at marieltishma.com.

 

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