Hiraga Gennai

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  • Born: 1728
  • Died: An'ei 8/12/18 (24 Jan 1780)
  • Other Names: 白石国倫 (Shiraishi Kunimune)
  • Japanese: 平賀 源内 (Hiraga Gennai)

Hiraga Gennai was a polymath, a rangaku scholar and writer of popular fiction.

Gennai was born Shiraishi Kunimune, son of Shiraishi Shibazaemon, a low-ranking samurai official in Takamatsu han on Shikoku. He was educated in herbal medicine, among other subjects, from a young age. In 1752, he was sent to Nagasaki, where he studied a variety of "Dutch studies" subjects, including oil painting and Western science. He changed his name to "Hiraga" at the age of 21 to suggest a more esteemed heritage, after one of his Sengoku period ancestors. Gennai soon afterwards (1754) decided to eschew his hereditary responsibilities to his family, and his han, and to instead pursue his scholarly interests. Having already become head of the family after his father's death in 1749, he passed that position to a cousin or brother-in-law, and made a formal request to the daimyô to be excused as well from his inherited position as overseer of rice storehouses in his native area of Shido-ura. The following year (1755), he continued to experiment with things he learned in Nagasaki, producing pedometers and compasses.

Excused from his responsibilities to Takamatsu han, but still forbidden from entering the service of any other han, Gennai became a ronin, and journeyed to Edo to pursue his scholarly interests, departing Takamatsu in 1756/6. There, he studied under herbalist Tamura Chinsui, as well as at the official shogunate school of Confucian learning, and at Kamo no Mabuchi's private kokugaku academy. In Edo, he engaged in a wide variety of studies and experiments, producing a variety of maps, a number of experiments in ceramics, embossed paper, and other materials, and writings on topics ranging from botany and sheep husbandry to mining, asbestos manufacture, and electric generators. He became quite prominent in scholarly circles in Edo, associating with scholars, thinkers, writers, and artists including Sugita Genpaku, Katsurakawa Hoshû, Morishima Chûryo, Ôta Nanpo, Sô Shiseki, Shiba Kôkan, Koikawa Harumachi, and Nakagawa Jun'an of Obama han, a fellow student of Chinsui's.

Gennai went by a series of art-names depending on the field of activity. As a painter he was known as Kyûkei (鳩渓); as a gesaku (popular fiction) writer, Fûrai Sanjin (風来山人) and Tenjiku Rônin (天竺浪人); and as a ningyô jôruri playwright, he went by Fukuchi Kigai (福内鬼外).

In 1757, at the urging of his teacher Tamura Chinsui, he organized a conference or convention on medicines, at the Yushima Seidô, which was so successful that it came to be repeated on an annual basis. These exhibitions of herbs and medicines, brought from all across the country by physicians and scholars, are counted as a major development in the history of precursors to the "museum" in Japan.

Gennai became a prominent and popular fiction writer beginning around 1763, the year he published Nenashigusa and Fûryû Shidôken den. He is also known for writing a number of texts related to shûdô (aka nanshoku), including guides to kodomoya (brothels of young male prostitutes).[1]

He discovered asbestos at the Nakatsugawa on Mt. Chichibu, and experimented with the production of fireproof garments. Around the same time, he began writing on mining, a project of writing thoughts on "national development" which continued into his last years. Along with Sugita Genpaku, he made visits to Edo's Nagasaki-ya every spring, meeting with representatives of the Dutch East India Company and obtaining books and other materials for further pursuing an encyclopedic knowledge of the West.

After his puppet play Shinrei yaguchi no watashi had its stage debut, at the orders of Tanuma Okitsugu, Gennai returned to Nagasaki to study, specifically towards becoming a translator of Dutch books. He did not translate very many materials, but tried his hand at oil painting, and returned to Edo in 1772 having obtained wool and felt, new materials to experiment with. The following year, he was invited to Akita han to help with the redevelopment of their mining operations. While there, he trained daimyô Satake Shôzan and domainal official Odano Naotake in ranga (Western-style oil painting); the pair would lead others in painting in oils, developing their own school/style today called Akita ranga.

Gennai went into a depression beginning in 1776. Though his reproduction of a Dutch electricity generator, among other projects, were successful, the Chichibu mines, and various other projects, were not, and Gennai experienced periods of great frustration and exasperation, flying into fits of rage at times. He toyed around with a number of popular publications, perhaps hoping they would be a productive distraction, but in 1779/11, he killed someone in a fit of rage. He died a month later in prison; Sugita Genpaku's epitaph on Gennai's grave reads "An extraordinary death for an extraordinary man."


  • "Hiraga Gennai." Asahi Nihon rekishi jinbutsu jiten 朝日日本歴史人物事典. Asahi Shimbun.
  • Yonemoto, Marcia. Mapping Early Modern Japan. University of California Press, 2003. pp109-128.
  1. Joshua Mostow, "Wakashu as a Third Gender and Gender Ambiguity through the Edo Period," in Mostow and Asato Ikeda (eds.), A Third Gender, Royal Ontario Museum (2016), 29.