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Black and white photo of Ōgai Mori sitting in chair

Ōgai Mori. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Japan News/Yomiuri Shimbun reports that freelance writer Ichika Rokuso has uncovered a photo of Elise Marie Caroline Wiegert, thought to be the inspiration and model for Elise in the short story “Maihime” (“The Dancing Girl”), written by late 19th/early 20th century Japanese writer Ōgai Mori.

Mori studied in Berlin, returning to Japan in September 1888 (“Maihime” was published in 1890). Elise Wiegert apparently followed Mori to Japan. Richard Bowring, a scholar in Japanese studies, sheds some light on the events surrounding Elise’s appearance.  In an essay following his translation of “Maihime”  (available here) he quotes Mori’s younger sister, Kimiko Koganei:*

Then early on the morning of 24 September Mother came over from Senju and told me that my brother had been followed to Japan by a girl with whom he had been on intimate terms in Germany, and that she was now staying at the Seiyaken in Tsukiji. I was absolutely amazed…

Male members of the family, including Kimiko’s husband Yoshikiyo Koganei, anxiously visit Elise for a period of time, seemingly uncertain as to how to handle the situation.  Kimiko then reports:

In the midst of all the comings and goings, it seemed that Elis gradually came to understand the situation more clearly every day, and then all of a sudden she resigned herself to going back to Germany…

My husband was busy for a couple of days… but when he went to see her at the Seiyoken again she was in the best of spirits… He commented on her artlessness: “Elis is really a nice girl; almost too naive. I wonder how [Mori] got to know someone like her?”

Is this a case of unrequited love?  Did Mori take unfair advantage of Elise’s naivety?  It’s tough to say.  But there are passages in “Maihime” in which the main character shows affection for the character Elis, and agonizes over the possibility of separation:

There is no need to describe it in detail here, but it was about this time that my feeling for her suddenly changed to one of love and the bond between us deepened. The most important decision of my life lay before me. It was a time of real crisis. Some perhaps may wonder and criticize my behavior, but my affection for Elis had been strong ever since our first meeting.

Of course, “Maihime” is fiction, but the parallels with Mori’s personal life are strong enough to keep us speculating.  Bowring discusses “Maihime” and Mori’s personal life in his essay, which I invite you to read directly.*  It is quite intriguing, especially after reading the story, to think about who the real Elise was.

Ichika Rokuso, the freelance writer who unearthed Elise Wiegert’s photo, has written a book entitled Sorekara no Elise (Elise in Later Years, それからのエリス), to be released on September 3rd and available for pre-order on amazon.co.jp.  This is his second work on the subject.  The first was Ōgai no koi maihime erisu no shinjitsu (鴎外の恋 舞姫エリスの真実), roughly translated as “The truth of the dancer Elise’s love of Ōgai,” also available on amazon.  Both titles are in Japanese.

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* Bowring’s translation and essay appear in Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Summer, 1975), pp. 151-176, published by Sophia University.  Bowring indicates Koganei’s quotations first appeared in the article “Tsugi no Ani,” in the magazine Tōhaku, in 1937.  They were later published in the book Ōgai no Keizoku.