Hiraga Gennai (平賀源内)

Gennai HIRAGA (1728 - January 24, 1780) was a scholar of Japanese herbalism and Dutch, as well as a physician, writer, inventor and Western-style painter, in the Edo period. His pen names included Kyukei, Furai Sanjin, Fukuuchi Kigai, and Hinka Zeninai, and his posthumous name was Kunitomo. His nickname was Gennai (源内, also written as 元内).

His father was Mozaemon SHIRAISHI (Yoshifusa), and his mother was from the Yamashita clan. He had quite a few siblings.

He was born in Shidoura, Samukawa County, Sanuki Province (present-day Shido, Sanuki City, Kagawa Prefecture). The Hiraga clan was a family of 'foot soldier' called 'ashigaru' of the Takamatsu Domain. Although the Hiraga clan was once a local ruling family of Saku County, Shinano Province, the clan was defeated by Nobutora TAKEDA and his son Shingen TAKEDA during the Period of Warring States that was when Genshin HIRAGA was the clan head. Then those survived moved to Shiroishi City, Mutsu Province, and served the Date clan under the renamed family name, Shiroishi. Later, they moved to the Shikoku region following the Lord of the Uwajima Domain, and returned to farming again in Sanuki.

It is said that when he was a child, Gennai created a work depicting a 'sacred libation' by tooling a hanging scroll. Due to that reputation, at the age of 13 he started studying herbalism and Confucianism under a medical doctor. Moreover, he did activities including becoming a member of a haikai (humorous linked verse) group and composing haikai. In 1748, after his father's death, he became an accounting officer and succeeded his father. Circa 1752, he studied herbalism, Dutch, medicine, oil painting, etc., in Nagasaki for one year. After studying in Nagasaki, he resigned from his duties to the feudal domain and abandoned the headship of the family by adopting his younger sister's husband.

He studied in Osaka and Kyoto, and in 1756 he went to Edo and became a pupil of the herbalism scholar Genyu TAMURA (Ransui), whereupon he studied herbalism. He was also admitted to the Hayashi family in order to learn Sinology, and he boarded at the Sacred Hall at Yushima. In his second period of study in Nagasaki, he learned mining and refining technology. He discovered a mineral deposit in Izu in 1761, becoming a broker of products. He was recognized by a member of the shogun's council of elders 'roju', Okitsugu TANUMA, during this period. He frequently held product expositions, and in 1762, opened the medicine fair 'Toto Yakuhinkai' in Yushima, Edo as the fifth product exposition. He became well known in Edo, and associated with Genpaku SUGITA and others. Although he was reappointed as a vassal of the Takamatsu Domain, he resigned in order to concentrate on scholarship.

He published a book on classification of various materials "Butsurui Honshitsu" in 1763. He became interested in Dutch natural history, and devoted himself to the procurement of foreign books. Because Gennai had not become skilled enough in the language, he let a translating officer read in order to comprehend. He also engaged in some literary activities and wrote dangibon (comical stories that were popular during the Edo period). During the Meiwa era, he was also an entrepreneur. In 1773, he was invited by Yoshiatsu SATAKE to teach mining development. Moreover, he taught Western painting techniques to Naotake ODANO who was the feudal retainer of the Akita clan. He also taught making charcoal in the Chichibu district and passage construction at the Ara-kawa River (Kanto region). Near to Nakatsukyo, Okuchichibu, a building that Gennai designed and stayed for a long time, remains as "Gennaikyo" in the present day.

In 1776, he fixed and restored an electrostatic generator 'erekiteru' that he had obtained in Nagasaki.

He moved to the residence of Hashimoto-cho in the summer of 1779. On November 21, he killed two people by mistake, or "by insanity" according to some opinion, and he was imprisoned. He died in prison on December 18 at the age of 52. His funeral was held by Genpaku SUGITA and others without Gennai's body or a gravestone, since they were not permitted to have them. However, there have been various views in later years, such as that he killed the carpenter Kyugoro AKITAYA and that he escaped and died a natural death under the protection of Okitsugu TANUMA.

His posthumous Buddhist name was Chimireiyu. His cemetery is in Sosen-ji Temple, in Asakusa.

Personality and achievements

Gennai has been called a genius or a man of exceptional talent. As a Dutch scholar, he introduced foreign culture and technology, such as oil painting and mining development, when Japan had closed its doors to the outside world. Moreover, as a writer he is considered the father of light reading. He was also active in many fields, including playwriting such as for traditional Japanese puppet theatre 'Ningyo Joruri' and making pottery such as 'Hiraga yaki'. It is said that since he was a homosexual, he remained single throughout his life, but that he favored and loved Kabuki actors. Particularly, his relationship with Kikunojo SEGAWA II (Roko SEGAWA) is well-known. Gennai's reputation was widely spread among Dutch scholars of those days, including Genpaku SUGITA, who translated a Dutch anatomical text, "Kaitai Shinsho." Genpaku devoted one chapter to dialogs with Gennai in his reminiscences called "Rangaku Kotohajime".
It was Genpaku who wrote on Gennai's tombstone as follows:
"Oh, how extraordinary you were. You favored extraordinary things and have done extraordinary deeds. But I wanted you to die ordinarily on a tatami mat." It appears that Genpaku admired Gennai's talent and lamented his death. His achievements as a scientist include presenting the Dutch electrostatic generator, erekiteru, and the development of asbestos cloth, kakanpu. Some people say he was the inventor of a simple helicopter-like bamboo toy that may have been the first propeller in history. It is also said that his research efforts in regard to gas bags and electricity were also close to practical use. However, the fact that these are ultimately not connected with practical research is one of the reasons that the modern-day assessments of his works have become so polarized. Many people believe that Gennai restored the broken Dutch "erekiteru" without fully understanding how it worked. According to a magazine "Meiwashi" in 1822, Gennai HIRAGA coined the catchphrase "Today is Midsummer Day of the Ox" for an eel shop that suffered slow sales in summer, whereby the custom of 'eating an eel on Midsummer Day to prevent tiredness from the summer heat' began. Moreover, he composed and wrote a so-called commercial song for a dentifrice, "Sosekiko," in 1769 and wrote advertising copy for Takichi OTOWAYA's Kiyomizu mochi in 1775. He received a reward for both works and is considered as one of the first copywriters in Japan. As a Joruri playwright, he worked under the pen name Fukuuchi Kigai. He produced many historical dramas. Most of his works were arranged in five sections or multiple sections, and it has been said that they included elements of ordinary people's lives. He also wrote a preface to Nanbo OTA's "Neboke Sensei Bunshu", which triggered a satirical poem 'kyoka' boom in Edo. Moreover, he wrote pornographic books under the pen name Furai Sanjin, such as, "Nagamakura shitone gassen" and "Naemara initsuden," which have been recognized as masterpieces by later generations.

Under the pen name Suiko Sanjin, he published homosexual-related books such as, Kagemajaya Annaisho including "Kiku no sono" in 1764 and "Nanshoku saiken" in 1775.

He played a role in the flourishing of Japanese woodblock prints 'Ukiyoe', by holding picture-calendar exchange parties with Harunobu SUZUKI. Moreover, he proposed to open an exposition, and "Toto Yakuhinkai" was held in Yushima, Edo as the first exposition in Japan.
Some say he was the author of the following phrase, which is often cited to explain the "introduction, development, turn and conclusion" of a composition:
"There are the daughters of a fiber manufacturer in Sanjo, Kyoto. The elder sister is 18, and younger sister is 10. Feudal lords kill with bow and arrow. The sisters of the fiber manufacturer kill with their eyes."

[Original Japanese]