The Doctor’s Wife by Sawako Ariyoshi (1931–86) gives a fictional account of the life of Hanaoka Seishū, who lived from 1760 to 1835 and performed the first known operation under anesthesia in 1805, 37 years before the use of ether in the United States and 42 years before the use of chloroform in England. The novel reveals the plight of women in a traditional Japanese household.
Since she was eight years old, Kae has admired the beautiful and clever Otsugi. She is thrilled when Otsugi visits her father to ask that Kae marry her son, Seishū, who is attending medical school at the time. After Kae’s father rebuffs the request by saying that his daughter will be 24 when Seishū has completed medical school and thus will too old to marry, Otsugi arranges for the marriage to take place with the groom in absentia.
Kae adjusts to her life “with the family for which she had been longing.” After her sisters-in-law, who treat her with kindness, do their jobs around the house, they spend the rest of the day weaving cloth at looms. When Kae learns that the cloth is sold for money which Otsugi saves and sends to Seishū in Kyoto, she joins Okatsu and Koriku at the weaving. Her love for her husband, whom she has never seen, grows, and she continues to revere her mother-in-law. When Seishū returns home, however, Kae begins to feel left out. She becomes jealous of Otsugi, and “the beautiful intimacy between the two—the bride and the mother-in-law who had sought her—terminated upon the arrival of the loved one they had to share.”
Seishu¯ begins experimenting with stray animals in an attempt to find a substance that will work as an anesthetic for surgery. He directs his energy and attention to his scientific research, and the household revolves around him and his medical pursuits. When he makes his discovery, he faces his next challenge: determining the proper dosage for a human being. Both mother and wife insist that he use them as subjects. Finally Seishū agrees to experiment on both. He administers an anesthetic on his mother but uses a weakened form and omits the poisonous part of the substance. Later, with Kae’s urging, he uses a stronger dosage on his wife that includes the poison. Kae has headaches and trouble with her eyes after the first experiment and loses her eyesight completely after the second experiment. Seishū, absorbed in his medical interests, ignores the sacrifices of the women in his life who make his success possible—his two sisters as well as his mother and wife—and fails to recognize the rivalry and conflict between Otsugi and Kae as they compete for his affection.
Each of the two women, Otsugi and Kae, “risked her life to help the doctor achieve his dreams,” announces Shimomura Ryoan, Seishū’s younger brother, who is also a doctor. After their deaths, the two women and Seishū are buried in a row; Seishū’s tombstone is larger than those of his mother and his wife. In the final sentence of the novel, Ariyoshi shows the fate of the two women—and her view of the prevailing condition of Japanese women: “If you stand directly in front of Seishū’s tomb, the two behind him, those of Kae and Otsugi, are completely obscured.”
Ariyoshi, Sawako. The Doctor’s Wife. Translated by Wakako Hironaka and Ann Siller Kostant. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1981.
“Ariyoshi, Sawako.” In Contemporary Authors, vol. 105. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982.
Schmieder, Rob. “Review of The Doctor’s Wife, by Sawako Ariyoshi.” Library Journal 104 (1979): 207.