The Gay Electro-Ronin: Meet Hiraga Gennai, the "Da Vinci of Japan"

The Gay Electro-Ronin: Meet Hiraga Gennai, the "Da Vinci of Japan"

Having been born the third son of a low-ranking samurai far from Japan's cultural and political centers -- in a time when the country closed itself off from the outside world -- Hiraga Gennai (1728 - 1780) did not have the greatest start in life. But Fate took a liking to him. Fate put one hand around Gennai, outstretched the one holding a cigar into the sky and told him: "I like you, kid. You got moxie. I'll make you a star. Just tell me what you want to be: A physician? Inventor? Copywriter? Art expert? Potter? Satirist? Botanist? Drunken murderer?"

Gennai thought about it, looked Fate in the eyes, and answered: "Yes." Thus began the story of a man who was like a cross between Leonardo Da Vinci, Oscar Wilde, and Don Draper.

Hiraga Gennai Literally Scienced All The Available Science In Japan

A gifted child, Gennai began studying herbology and natural sciences under a medical doctor at around age 13. He eventually became a pharmacologist at a feudal lord's castle, but gave it up to move to Nagasaki because of all the Dutch people there who had the hookup for new strains of sweet, dank science. See, when we said that Japan closed itself off from the world by the time Gennai was born, we meant that literally. In the 1630s, the Japanese shogunate implemented a strict isolationist policy and closed its borders. This was a few years before Monty Python, so they utterly failed to expect the Spanish Inquisition.

Portrait of Hiraga Gennai by Nakamaru Seijuro

Nakamaru Seijuro

And they completely and utterly failed to expect Hiraga Gennai.

The shogunate was really pissed at Catholic Spain and Portugal's attempts to convert Japan to Christianity, and they ended up kicking most foreigners out. They allowed the Netherlands to trade out of a single port because the Dutch were hardcore moderate Protestants. Soon, the Dutch became the only source of western knowledge in Japan, and Gennai wanted it all.

Gennai was so obsessed with learning from the foreign traders, he even started studying Dutch so he could use foreign textbooks. His visit to Nagasaki seemed to have opened his eyes to a much bigger world, so after learning all that he could in the city, he gave up his status and became a wandering ronin scientist. He spent years composing a multi-volume work on the taxonomy of animals and plants:

Natural history books by Honzo Komoku (1802), Gennai Hiraga

Daderot/Wiki Commons

He was an animagus, as well as a professor of herbology. 

He used his knowledge of mining and refining technology to open various mines in Japan, one time finding deposits of asbestos and inventing a way to turn it into an amazing fire-resistant cloth. The government wanted to mass-produce it, but the process was not scalable and generally just a huge pain in the ass (also, weirdly, in the lungs.) Gennai also constructed one of Japan's first thermometers, was the first to cultivate ginseng in the country, and apparently came up with a more efficient way to produce charcoal. He was basically one energy device away from putting all of his inventions together and becoming an 18th-century Iron Man. Also, you'll never guess what he came up with next.

During his second trip to Nagasaki, Gennai acquired a broken Dutch static electricity generator. This was basically sci-fi technology in Japan at the time, consisting of a wooden box, a device to create friction, and a Leyden jar (the precursor to the battery that stored the resulting electricity.) Gennai had never seen anything like it but, him being him, he decided to just ... figure it out. He spent a few years on the "Elekiter" as it came to be known, actually got it working, and used it for exhibitions and as a therapy device.

The Elekiter (replica) exhibited in the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan

Momotarou2012/Wiki Commons

Pain management therapy. Not terrifying torture shock therapy. 

He weirdly never came up with the idea of connecting it to a katana and creating a lightsaber prototype, though. (Thankfully, one anime later fixed that.)

He Had A Lot Of Success Writing About Gay Love And Farts

Another one of Gennai's inventions was a small bamboo toy which was possibly one of the earliest propeller designs in the world. This was one of the many reasons why Hiraga Gennai is sometimes known as "the Leonardo Da Vinci of Japan." Those reasons rarely include the fact that Gennai was gay but they should 'cause, you know, so was Leo. Well probably. The topic of Leonardo's sexuality is still debated. Not so with Hiraga Gennai. We know exactly what revved up his engine (which he probably also invented) because of all the writing he left on the superiority of homosexual sex over straight sex, as well as guides to male prostitutes in Japan.

Site of Hiraga Gennai's Electrical experiment at Fukagawa, Edo

Tak1701d/Wiki Commons

It's why we today honor him with this phallic monument. 

Before we go further, a quick word on homosexuality in Japan. It has been part of the country's culture for millennia and it took many different forms, but what we now understand as bisexuality was generally celebrated as the best way to go. Samurai were expected to have sex with women to continue their lineages, and many of them made frequent visits to Tokyo's Brothel Town. But, young samurai were also commonly in exclusive relationships with older warriors, which was dressed up as training in the art of devotion. Also, it was generally believed that hanging out with women too much diluted one's masculinity, so many people alternated between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Strictly homosexual relationships existed and weren't frowned upon but they were kind of rare. They started to become more popular in the late 17th century, though, and Gennai quickly became one of the voices of that movement.

Gennai wrote frequently about gay love, with Nenashigusa ("Rootless Weed") being one of his most popular works. It tells the story of a monk about to be judged by Enma, the king of the underworld, who seems to want to punish the young man for his homosexuality. But then the monk's attorney shows Enma the picture of the guy the monk fell in love with and Enma gets so horny for the beautiful man, he resigns his position so he can go to go to Earth and try to get with him.

Enma looking at a woman

Kawanabe Kyōsai 

One nice thing about hell: plenty of lawyers around. 

Stuff like this was Gennai's jam. He also wrote light novels and plays but he absolutely loved satire. Eventually, he produced his satirical magnum opus titled Hohi Ron ("A Theory of Farting"), a story about a street performer on Ryogoku Bridge in Tokyo who uses his butt as a musical instrument. There have been countless readings and interpretations of this text. Maybe it's commentary on how, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, all human achievements are as significant as butt toots. Maybe it was a commentary on the commercialization of art. Or maybe it was just meant to be funny, as farts are funny.

He Was One Of Japan's First And Most Successful Copywriters

In Japan, "Doyo no Ushi" is a Chinese zodiac-based "day of the ox" that occurs once or twice in summer, autumn, winter, and spring. But when people today use that term, they almost always mean the summer day of the ox, which falls somewhere between July 20 and August 7 (in 2021, ox day will be celebrated on July 28.) It's the most popular time to eat eel in Japan. Eel is a seasonal summer food but ox day is basically its Super Bowl, with untold number of boxed eel lunches being sold all over the country on that day. It's such a huge deal over there that it feels like it's always been part of the country's culture. But the ox-day eel tradition actually started 250 years ago. When Hiraga Gennai came up with it.

grilled eel

Alpha/Wiki Commons

Electric boxes, electric eels ... what couldn't this man invent? 

The story goes that Gennai's friend had a struggling grilled eel shop and asked the inventor/fart writer if he had any ideas on how to improve sales. His idea was to hang a sign on the store reading something like "Today is the Midsummer Day of the Ox" and ... that was it. That was the entire idea, and it was genius in its simplicity. There had long been a superstition in Japan about how eating things that start with a U on the day of the ox ("ushi" in Japanese) was good for you, so Gennai's idea involved simply reminding everyone that, hey, "unagi" (eel) starts with a U. It was the subtlest of advertising approaches, a sort of "Just putting this information out there. Do with it what you will," and it worked so well, it became part of Japanese culture. This would be like discovering that, say, bacon for breakfast was actually a stealth PR campaign organized by pork belly manufacturers. (Wait, it was? We probably will still continue to eat it, though.)

Gennai's other advertising venture (promoting a toothpowder) didn't make the company a household name for centuries to come, but it shared a lot of similarities with modern marketing campaigns. To help out with the sale of Sosekiko-brand toothpowder (a precursor to toothpaste) Gennai told the owner to stop selling it individually in bags, and instead pack 20 bags into a box and sell it with a slight bulk discount. Then he started to write a pamphlet for the product.

It opened with a short paragraph about the origins of the company and how the owner is just a regular ol' guy like you. He doesn't understand all the science behind it but, gosh darn it, he went out of his way to get the best ingredients recommended by actual smart people, and he really hopes the product will be to your satisfaction. He's of course not selling it for the money. God forbid! He's actually barely making a profit on this because he wanted to make the powder as affordable as possible. 

Pepsodent tooth paste contained irium, described as an ingredient that would whiten yellow teeth.

Science Museum Group

"Plus, I don't make the powder by grinding up the teeth of street urchins, like my competitor." 

The copy stopped short of telling the reader that the owner of the company loves his mother (who has diabetes) and volunteers twice a week at the shelter for dogs that became handicapped while saving orphans from a burning cancer-research center. It was pure psychological manipulation, not unlike the type we see all the time nowadays, but it was created 250 years ago by what we're starting to suspect was a time traveler.

Gennai Helped Create Brand-New Art Styles

Around 1772, when heading back to Nagasaki, Gennai traveled through his home province of Sanuki on Shikoku where he discovered large deposits of clay that would be great for pottery. He petitioned the government to help him set up workshops and kilns that would lessen the country's reliance on imported stoneware, and he got to work using his knowledge of chemistry and glazing to create a pottery style mixing Western and Japanese aesthetics. The result was Gennai ware, which are characterized by their vivid green coloring and elaborate ornamentation. Then, to dunk even harder on all the losers who never created their own art style (as if it was hard), Gennai went again and did it a second time. 

Gennai (Shido) ware sake bottle with design of scholars in garden, earthenware with clear glaze and colored enamels. Edo period, 18th century

LA County Museum of Art

It impressed even those outside the art world, because it stored sake. 

Hanging around Dutch people all those years sadly never resulted in a follow up to A Theory of Farting called The Dutch Oven, but it did basically make Hiraga Gennai one of the biggest experts on European-style art in Japan. A painter himself, he was fascinated by what the West was doing with perspective and shading etc. This was all very different from traditional Japanese paintings, which Gennai was not opposed to (we just can't picture him hating on a style that produced the transcendental "Fart Competitions" series of scroll art) but he just wanted to create something new. He quickly got good at it.

So good, in fact, that when the lord of a northern domain asked Gennai to advise him on the development of his copper mines, the electro-ronin ended up also giving the guy lessons in Dutch-style paintings. He eventually mentored one of the lord's retainers, Odano Naotake, for five years, who later went on to create the Akita Ranga school of West-influence paintings. They were characterized by large foreground subjects like plants, birds or insects, with Japanese landscapes in the back. They're actually quite lovely but, sadly, the school was very short-lived ... because Hiraga Gennai murdered someone.

Hiraga Gennai's Life Ended On A Low Note

Akita Ranga eventually died out after Hiraga Gennai was arrested for murder and, due to their close working relationship, Odano Naotake's name became poison. The weird thing is, we don't know exactly what happened to Gennai at the end of his life. Contemporary sources say that, as time went on, the man became more paranoid and high-strung, possibly because, despite his genius, he was never a commercial success and was constantly on the lookout for patrons. It was either that or Time Travel-Induced Insanity. Tesla apparently also struggled with it.

A Portrait of Kyūkei Hiraga (1728–80) by Momuō Kimura (from the cover of Gisaku-sha Kō Hoi). A collection of Keiō University Library.

Momuo Kimura

Here he is, sucking air from his own time. 

Most everyone agrees that Gennai was arrested for killing someone but the details are somewhat hazy. One theory says that he killed one of his disciples in a fit of self-pitying rage over not getting the kind of recognition he thought he deserved. Another story says that while overseeing the repairs of a feudal lord's mansion, he showed up to work drunk as hell and mistakenly thought that someone had stolen his repair blueprints, so he killed two of his workers. In any case, he was arrested and eventually died in prison of tetanus. 

Though another theory says that he escaped and lived in secret under the protection of powerful government officials because it's so hard to accept that a man with so much talent and potential just blipped unceremoniously out of existence in the dumbest way possible. Not unlike a fart in the wind. We hope Gennai found a little solace in that.

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