Donald Keene’s Japan (Pt. 35): Searching for a true depiction of Rodin and Ogai’s ‘Hanako’

Donald Keene enjoys hydrangeas at Muryo-ji temple near his home in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, in this photo taken on June 20, 2016. (Provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

TOKYO — One literary theme that captured Donald Keene’s heart is “Hanako,” a short story by Japanese novelist Mori Ogai (1862-1922). He became enchanted with the work after the writer Yukio Mishima recommended it to Keene, who wanted to know Ogai’s best works. This was around the time Keene’s English collection “Modern Japanese Literature” was published in June 1956.

“Hanako” is a real-life figure who modeled for the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. She was an actress born in 1868. Her real name was Ota Hisa, and she went by the stage name Fukuhara Hanako. She traveled to Denmark in 1902 and performed Japanese traditional dance, and she was part of a troupe launched in London in 1905. A while before then, Kawakami Sadayakko had been introduced in Europe, and amid an oriental boom, Hanako had apparently gathered attention as the next popular actress. In 1906, Rodin, who heard about Hanako, came to meet her, and the two worked together for a long time. He created over 50 works themed after Hanako. Ogai wrote his story “Hanako” based on these actual events.

In July 1959, Keene released a piece discussing Ogai’s “Hanako” in a fanzine, and left a message in the bulletin section of the magazine Shukan Shincho reading, “If she’s still alive, I’d like to meet her.” The next week, he got a response from Hanako’s adopted child Ota Hideo. It read “Mother (Hanako) departed this life happily in her home in Gifu on April 2, 1945.” Keene immediately left for Gifu and learned the details from Hanako’s family — an episode indicating how Keene conducted research and interviews with visits to various places, rather than relying on study alone.

Keene’s findings were compiled in English in New Japan Vol. 14, published in 1962 by The Mainichi Newspapers. Under the title “Hanako,” the piece began by introducing a newspaper article on Hanako, who arrived in the U.S. for the first time in 1907 after her success in Europe.


Donald Keene’s manuscript discussing “Hanako,” a story by novelist Mori Ogai (1862-1922). (Maruzen-Yushodo collection, entrusted to the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature; photo provided by the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation)

On October 8, 1907 the celebrated Hanako, the toast of a dozen European capitals, landed in New York. A newspaper headline proclaimed:

Tiny Jap Actress

Now in America

Hanako San, Just 70 Pounds of Ability,

Arrives on the Potsdam.

“She is 26 years old,” the article inaccurately reported, “weighs seventy pounds to the ounce, and is not quite four feet tall … She rose from the position of geisha girl in a Yokohama music hall to her present station as the Bernhardt of the Flowery Empire.” When asked which she preferred, Paris or New York, Hanako unhesitantly replied in her broken English, “Broadway — much better.”

Hanako’s appearance in New York followed triumphs in Europe, but in Japan she has been virtually unknown. In 1901 the adventurous Hanako, then aged thirty-three and an entertainer in the provincial city of Gifu, responded to the call of an impressario who planned to stage a Japanese show in Copenhagen, and with scarcely a word of good-bye to her family, sailed for Europe. At the time many troupes of Japanese entertainers — dancers, acrobats, jugglers and the like — regularly toured the European circuits in half-hour variety turns, lending the evening’s show a suitably exotic flavor.

[Hanako: New Japan Vol.14]


Two former students, seen in the back right, speak about their memories of Donald Keene at Soka City Culture Hall in Saitama Prefecture on June 18, 2023. (Mainichi/Tadahiko Mori)

In 1907, Japan was still a distant country for the U.S. The newspaper article includes a racial slur, and another local paper also looked down on Japanese arts. One can tell Keene was angered by this.


After a successful tour of New England, the Japanese actors headed for the less appreciative American hinterland. The Des Moines Register for November 3, 1907 bears a headline; “THE MARTYR,” A GHASTLY THING. The critic found the faces of the Japanese actors much like those of gorillas.

“I have seen such faces on oriental fans, vases and screens, and I recall some like them in nightmares; but never hitherto have I seen them alive. Hanako, the starred tragedienne of the company, enacts a belle supposed to be irresistibly charming; yet she could be no unsightlier woman unless her pigmy size were increased to ordinary size… She dances awkwardly on stilts, and is clumsily blithesome in antics that make her and the three others look like decrepit, yet still tricky monkeys in a cage.” Hanako’s famous “hara-kiri” scene is described; “The actress uses a trick knife, the blade of which recedes into the handle, and at the same time releases a red fluid so that the illusion of a blade slowly piercing her body to a depth of six inches and of blood spreading from the wound over her white robe is a grisly sight.”

Such intemperate and crude comments would be inconceivable today, when every critic is resolutely determined to prove that he “understands” the culture of distant countries, and all phases of Japanese civilization are treated with extreme deference. In a sense, however, the critic of the Des Moines Register was more acute than the enthusiastic critics in New York and the European capitals: Hanako’s plays were fake; she herself was an actress who could not have appeared on the Japanese stage, and every means legitimate or otherwise was exploited in the hope of intriguing foreign audiences.

[Hanako: New Japan Vol.14]


This Sept. 28, 1959, edition of The Mainichi reports on Typhoon Vera, also known as the Isewan Typhoon, which made landfall on the Kii Peninsula on Sept. 26, 1959. The number of fatalities and missing people totaled 5,098.

While the newspaper article’s ill criticism of the signature “hara-kiri” scenes of Hanako’s troupe is damaging, Keene also seemed to realize the limitations of Hanako’s performances.

Let’s now take a look at how Keene introduced Ogai’s work inspired by Hanako.


Hanako’s meeting with Rodin inspired not only works of sculpture but a short story written in 1910 by the celebrated novelist Mori Ogai. The story relates how a Japanese medical student in Paris accompanies Hanako as her interpreter to Rodin’s studio. The student is ashamed to present such a poor example of Japanese womanhood to the great sculptor: Hanako, though only sixteen (here the author departs radically from the facts!), looks more like a servant than an actress. Rodin, however, seems pleased by the girl and her answers to his questions about her life in Japan, and presently he requests permission to sketch her in the nude. Hanako consents, and the student is asked to withdraw to an adjoining room.

The story concludes with Mori Ogai’s quotation of a description of Hanako’s beauty taken from Rodin’s printed conversations, “She has not a particle of fat on her. Her muscles stand out boldly, like a fox-terrier’s; her tendons are so developed that the joints to which they are attached have a thickness equal to the limbs themselves. She is so strong that she can rest as long as she pleases on one leg, the other raised at right angles in front of her. She seems to be rooted in the earth, like a tree. Her anatomy is quite unlike that of a European woman, but no less beautiful in its unique strength.”

The story Hanako is related in such simple, matter-of-fact terms that at first reading it seems more like reportage than fiction. But Mori Ogai was no mere reporter; he used the framework of the incident to make the point that Rodin, as an artist, was able to detect a beauty in the Japanese girl to which her own compatriot was insensitive. Rodin did not consider Hanako simply as an exotic object, a toy which ran about making strange noises; he sought the vital spark within her. His intuitive appreciation of Hanako made the Japanese student’s commonsense attitude seem superficial and even contemptible. Mori Ogai suggests that understanding requires more than familiarity.

[Hanako: New Japan Vol. 14]


This Dec. 2, 1958, edition of The Mainichi reports that new 10,000-yen banknotes with images of Prince Shotoku Taishi were put into circulation on Dec. 1, 1958. The average starting salary of college graduates at the time was around 13,000 yen.

Rodin expressed his thoughts of Hanako through his sculptures, while Ogai depicted this in a story. Keene, on the other hand, sought to grasp an actual picture of Hanako, who was a legendary figure.

What happened to Hanako after she returned to Gifu? The following is what Keene found out during his interviews with her family.


Hanako in later years often reminisced with her family about Rodin’s kindnesses — how he would send his carriage to the stage door after her performances, how warmly he received her in 1914 when she fled from Germany to his house in Meudon. Rodin insisted that Hanako live in his house as one of the family, and declared his intention of making a new mask which would immortalize her. But the approach of the fighting induced Rodin himself to take refuge in England. When he left France with his wife and Hanako, he divided his money in gold coins between the two women. Shortly before his death in 1917 he directed that Hanako be given two masks of her he had sculpted. She took the masks to Japan in 1923, and they remained in her house in Gifu, the object of pilgrimages by numerous Japanese artists. Hanako’s house was destroyed in 1945 during the bombing of Gifu, but her family managed to save the masks by rushing them to shelter every time an air raid alarm sounded. They are today in a Tokyo collection.

[Hanako: New Japan Vol. 14]


This May 30, 2004, edition of the Mainichi Shimbun’s Gifu Prefecture local edition reports on the unveiling of the stone monument of Japanese actress Hanako in the city of Gifu on the previous day.

Keene was invited to an international forum titled “Rodin and Hanako” held in Gifu in 1996. He gave a lecture on his encounter with Hanako’s story, and joined a panel talk, fulfilling the role of passing it down to the next generation.

Keene’s warm affection for the story of Hanako did not dissipate for the 40 years since his encounter with it.

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This series navigates the past century by following the life of the late scholar Donald Keene, who contributed to the elevation of Japanese culture and literature in the world. News from The Mainichi that made headlines in Keene’s time is introduced alongside Keene’s personal history. The series began in 2022, the 100th anniversary of Keene’s birth — also the centennial of The Mainichi.

(This is Part 35 of a series. The next “Donald Keene’s Japan” story will be published on July 18.)

(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer and Donald Keene Memorial Foundation director)

The original text of Donald Keene’s autobiographies is used with permission from the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation. The foundation’s website can be reached at:

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Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia University. After earning postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Cambridge University, he received a fellowship to study at Kyoto University in 1953. Keene developed friendships with prominent Japanese authors, including Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Over the course of half a century, Keene traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while conveying their charms to the world in English. His main works include a multivolume history of Japanese literature, “Travelers of a Hundred Ages,” and “Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912.” In 2008, Keene received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. The scholar obtained Japanese citizenship in the year following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He died on Feb. 24, 2019, at age 96.

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