(Friday Night History) Ogata Kōan, Connector

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There’s a kind of person in history you might have encountered before. They’re the sort of person who seems to know everyone, seems to connect lots and lots of people who you didn’t realize had that connection, and thereby makes currents of influence, communication, inspiration a lot clearer. The history of late Edo Japan has its share of people like this, so tonight, let’s talk about Ogata Kōan, a famous Osaka based doctor and polymath.

Detail of a 1901 painting of Ogata Kōan.

Born in Ashimori (in modern day Okayama Prefecture), he was born into the samurai caste, but chose to focus his efforts on scholarship and medicine, especially Dutch medicine. Studying during the 1830s first in Edo with Japanese teachers and then in Nagasaki with a visiting Dutch physician, by 1838 he began his own career as a teacher. Ogata set up his school, Tekijuku 適塾, in Osaka.

Osaka, then as now, was one of Japan’s major cities, and was also a city under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was not the Shogun’s capital, but it was the nearest thing in western Japan, and the myriad feudal domains of Japan maintained some measure of presence there. A primary reason for this was that this was one of the main centers of rice brokers in Japan. Why does this matter? Because the wealth of feudal domains was measured primarily in their agricultural output in rice, but you can’t buy necessities with rice and nothing else, and a bale of rice is a pain in the ass to make change out of, don’t you think? So, the feudal domains would bring their rice to Osaka, and exchange it for paper bills. Osaka brokers significantly grew their own political power this way, too– so much so that Masuya Heiemon (Masuhei for short), the broker with whom the Date of Sendai domain were contracted, once bragged “Masuhei is Sendai!”
This meant that Osaka was a major transportation hub and a place where many people from very different places and statuses of origin had a chance of crossing paths amidst the pursuit of official or mercantile business. So it was a good place for Ogata to set up his school. And this choice of location at the crossroads of so many people from so many domains is exactly why even though his school might not necessarily be a household name, many of his students went on to very prominent roles in the fields of military leadership, government, education, literature, and more.

Some of Tekijuku’s most notable alumni include Sano Tsunetami, Ōmura Masujirō, Fukuzawa Yūkichi, Hashimoto Sanai, Ōtori Keisuke, Nagayo Sensai, Tezuka Ryōsen, Mitsukuri Shūhei, Takamatsu Ryōun, and many others. Several of these names are people who have appeared in earlier weeks’ installments of Friday Night History. We’ve heard about Sano for the past few weeks because he went on to be a key leader in the Saga domain under the leadership of Nabeshima Naomasa, in which role he later met Samuel Pellman Boyer, the topic of last week’s post. Otori Keisuke was a Shogunate Army general and later a diplomat in the Meiji government. Takamatsu Ryōun was a key figure in the founding of the Japan Red Cross. Fukuzawa Yūkichi was a journalist, entrepreneur, and educator who founded Keio University. Tezuka Ryōsen in particular is the ancestor of legendary mangaka Tezuka Osamu, whose manga about his ancestor’s life, Hidamari no Ki included scenes in the Ogata school.

I encourage you to look up each of these names and see what you can find out abut them on your own. All told, quite a lot of important people in the development of Japan from the 1850s onward.
Tekijuku’s focus was Dutch studies– Ogata was a doctor, after all. But Dutch studies encompassed more than medicine, and there was a range of topics in what we’d now call STEM that were all taught there, along with instruction on the Dutch language itself, for many of the books from which Ogata taught were not translated. Not everyone who went to Tekijuku became a doctor, but the education available at Tekijiku became instrumental in setting Ogata’s students up for later success. But learning about that shared educational experience, in what was a very small private school, can help us appreciate how he, like Osaka itself, connected people.

Ogata Kōan’s work extended beyond instruction, of course. He was still a practicing doctor, and some of his fame to this day is also in his work on inoculations against smallpox. Again, we’ve covered this in prior weeks– Nabeshima Naomasa and Ogata Kōan’s circles had significant overlap for many years. He was also a translator of Dutch works into Japanese, and an author of original works including the first Japanese book on pathology, Byōgaku Tsūron. If you’re able to read kanbun, the National Diet Library has a scanned copy here: https://dl.ndl.go.jp/info:ndljp/pid/995413 Near the end of his life, he even became an official physician to Tokugawa Iemochi, 14th shogun, as well as serving as official physician of the Shogunate Army’s infantry barracks in Edo. Ogata’s career was cut short upon his death from tuberculosis in 1863, but his impact on Japan, through his students, continued for many decades.

Tekijuku as it stands today.

Oh, and the old building of Tekijuku, the Ogata school, is still in Osaka today. But the school grew into something much bigger: it is a forerunner of today’s Osaka University, which maintains an archive of documents and other materials pertaining to Tekijuku: https://www.tekijuku.osaka-u.ac.jp/ja

I’m Nyri and this has been a connective #FridayNightHistory!

Now– questions?


  • Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Autobiography of Yukichi Fukuzawa. Translated by Eiichi Kiyooka. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966).
  • Ann Bowman Jannetta. The Vaccinators: Smallpox, Medical Knowledge, and the ‘Opening’ of Japan. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).
  • “Koan Ogata 1901.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Koan_Ogata_1901.jpg Accecssed 17 December 2020.
  • Marius Jansen. Sakamoto Ryoma in the Meiji Restoration. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) p. 18. 
  • Miyagi Kenshi Vol. 2 (Sendai: Hōbundō, 1966), p. 674.
  • Miyoshi Masao. As We Saw Them. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2005.
  • “Shozo Shiryo no Shokai” 所蔵資料の紹介 Osaka Daigaku Tekijuku Kinen Sentaa https://www.tekijuku.osaka-u.ac.jp/ja/center/introduction Accessed 17 December 2020
  • “Tekijuku no Gaikan” 適塾の外観 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tekijuku_06.jpg Accessed 17 December 2020

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