“Anything is possible if done
with conviction. I was the only one
who could achieve my ambitions.”
Of you just started thinking, “Hm, this is cool and all, but where are all the radical Japanese ladies?” please join me as we revisit one so spectacular that it’s startling we haven’t all heard of her bravery, brains, and brilliant work: Ogino Ginko, the woman who opened the door to medical school for women in Japan.
Ginko was born to the Ogino family in 1851, just two years before the start of the Meiji Restoration (aka a time when white folks showed up and started ordering Japanese people around, a move you may be familiar with from similar historical story lines all over the world for all of time). After Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy “opened” Japan to the West in 1853 (could he be any more entitled?), the country was saddled with some seriously unfair trade treaties and a sudden urge to Westernize to compete in the world market. By the 1870s, national projects like fukoku ky¯ohei (rich country, strong army) and bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment) saw fiefs supplanted by official prefectures and feudal samurai lords ousted by new government, class, and legal systems. Modernization swept through railways, communications, banks, factories, and mines, as well as the institution of compulsory education for all children—to a point. Middle schools and universities remained men-only zones; so if you were a woman, postprimary education was not happening unless you wanted to become a teacher or a midwife. There just wasn’t much that women were allowed to do. Take it from the Japanese officials who, on a trip to the United States, came face-to-face with the pants-wearing Civil War physician Dr. Mary Walker and wrote how they couldn’t wait to get back to their own country, where “the woman rules within [the home] but she has no role outside it.”
Ginko was the fifth daughter of the village headman in the town that is currently Kumagaya (about an hour north of Tokyo). At age sixteen she made what her family considered a good match and married the son of a wealthy director of Ashikaga Bank. Tragically, marriage was not so great for Ginko—her husband was less of a “good match” and more of a jerk who eventually gave her gonorrhea. In 1870s Japan, there weren’t a whole lot of grounds on which women could divorce their husbands, but thankfully “my creep husband gave me an STD” was one of them, and three years later Ginko was able to free herself. The disease was treatable, but that didn’t make the healing process any easier. On top of the terrible shame of her husband’s infidelity, Ginko endured almost two years of medical visits, during which a doctor examined her delicate parts, before fully recovering. Infuriated and mortified by the whole episode (“being examined by a male doctor was always a misery,” she said), Ginko dreamed of a country where women would never have to endure the same pain. Humiliation at the hands of doctors wasn’t an issue only for women with STDs, either; pregnant women in Japan would almost never get check-ups out of embarrassment about their bodies. Feeling so “acutely” that Japan needed lady physicians, she decided to become one.
For her formative education, Ginko had attended Tokyo Women’s Normal School (today’s Ochanomizu University). Now she had to worry about getting into a medical program, which at the time were universally brograms. With the help of Ishiguro Tadanori, president of the Red Cross Society, and the feminist activist Shimoda Utako (who would later found two schools for women), Ginko was able to sit in on classes at the K¯ojuin, a private school at K¯oju Hospital. Taking classes at the K¯ojuin was challenging, and not just because of the coursework. The other students acted deplorably toward Ginko, and the entire institutional structure didn’t care one iota about helping her. Because Ginko was tough as nails, she endured the abuse from students and teachers alike, and she did it while supporting herself financially (because her family was really not down with the whole “I’m going to be a doctor now” situation).
Her endurance paid off, and Ginko graduated from the K¯ojuin in 1882. Happy ending, right? Not so fast: as part of the new laws established by the Meiji government to better regulate national health standards, one could become a licensed medical practitioner only by passing two state examinations—exams that women, of course, weren’t permitted to take. Ginko requested that the government allow women to sit for the exam, writing a very kind letter, which one can only imagine officials cackled over before slowly ripping it to pieces. Sensing she would have to go hard or go home, Ginko dug up historical precedent from the Ry¯o no gige, an eighth-century legal commentary, and marched directly into the office of Nagayo Sensai, director of the national hygiene bureau. The official was so impressed with her evidence and determination, he decided that, from 1884 on, women would be allowed to take the National Physician Licensing Examination. Of the three women who sat for the tests that year, Ginko was the only one who passed.
Once licensed, Ginko wasted no time. She opened the Ogino Hospital in Yushima to create a specialized space for obstetrician/gynecologists and managed to land a plum gig as a staff doctor at Meiji Gakuin Women’s University. After marrying a Protestant priest in 1890, Ginko and her second husband headed north to Hokkaid¯o, where she set up a practice and helped countless women in need. On top of all that, Ginko was also part of the newly formed Tokyo Women’s Reform Society, also called the Tokyo Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But where similar organizations around the world were concerned primarily with stopping people from drinking too much, the Tokyo society had other goals. They wanted the Meiji Restoration to expand and modernize opportunities for all Japanese people. In particular, the society opposed such oppressive traditions as women remaining silent in front of men, killing themselves to protect their virginity, selling their bodies to help their parents earn money, and changing their appearance after marriage (by blackening their teeth and shaving their eyebrows, in accordance with the beauty standards of the time). Thankfully for us in the future, Ginko wrote at length about her experience of becoming a doctor, as well as the overall advancement of women in Japan, in the journal Jogaku Zasshi, whose English title, The Magazine of Women’s Education or Ladies’ Enlightenment, sounds awesome no matter how you translate it.
In 1908, following her husband’s death, Ginko moved back to Tokyo and continued to run Ogino Hospital until her death from hardened arteries in 1913. Today she is remembered as a feminist and a pioneer; she even has a minor planet named after her (10526), which, if we ever get around to starting that all-lady space colony, would be the perfect place to live happily and healthily ever after. But the best way to honor Ginko is to let her story teach you to find your strength. After all, as Ginko once said, “to learn from the past is the true nature of learning.”