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Oe, Kenzaburo

Kenzaburo Oe

Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe (born 1935) is considered the leading contemporary writer in his language. A 1994 Nobel Prize winner in literature for a body of work that often makes reference to his developmentally disabled son Hikari, Oe has also been a vociferous critic of modern Japanese society and politics. Considered one of Japan's more liberal intellectuals, Oe was described by Modern Japanese Writers contributor Dennis Washburn as "a writer driven by an urgent sense of moral and spiritual crisis."

Born on January 31, 1935, Oe grew up in the village of Ose, located on Shikoku, one of Japan's four main islands. His entry into school coincided with Japan's involvement in the global conflict that became World War II. On August 6, 1945, when Oe was ten years old, U.S. planes dropped the world's first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima; three days later, Nagasaki was also leveled. Japan's Emperor Hirohito surrendered on August 15 in a radio announcement that stunned the country. Oe suddenly quit school a few weeks later. As he explained in a lecture reprinted in World Literature Today, "until the middle of that summer, our teachers—who earlier had taught us that the emperor was a god, had made us bow in reverence to his portrait, and had preached that Americans were not human but rather demons or beasts—now started saying things that were quite the opposite, and all too matter-offactly at that."

After hiding in the forest during the hours he was supposed to be in school for a few weeks, Oe became ill when the rainy autumn weather arrived, and he was nursed back to health by his widowed mother. Resuming his education, he attended high school in Matsuyama, also on Shikoku, and entered the University of Tokyo in 1954. Initially, he studied science and math, but eventually switched to French literature. He became politically active as well, co-founding the Young Japan Group with a number of other students when the terms of a controversial 1951 U.S.-Japan security treaty were renewed in 1960. The agreement compelled the United States to defend a demilitarized Japan in the event of attack, and in exchange Japan allowed the presence of U.S. military bases, including a large one in the port city of Okinawa. Oe and other Japanese who had come of age during World War II objected to the controversial agreement, for they believed it would draw Japan into a war of aggression against U.S. enemies in Asia.

Literary Acclaim Came Swiftly

In 1957 Oe's first published short story won a school prize. A 1958 novella, Shiiku ("The Catch"), also won honors from the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Literature. His first novel, Memushiri kouchi, made Oe an overnight literary sensation in Japan. The story—translated as Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids—is set on Shikoku during the war years, and follows the fate of a group of juvenile delinquents sent there. The local residents are hostile to the boys, and when an outbreak of disease comes, the Shikoku villagers flee the island and leave the teens to die. The boys survive, however, and even take into their fold an ostracized Korean boy and an abandoned girl. When the islanders return, they hide their actions from the authorities, and all but one of the boys—the narrator—agree to go along with the lie. Oe's first novel "set the tone for much of his later writing," noted Financial Times contributor David Pilling. "While mainstream writers were basking in Japan's miraculous transition to peace and prosperity, Oe was dredging up its filthy past and asking uncomfortable questions about its present."

Oe was still at the University of Tokyo when Shiiku was published, and he graduated in 1959 after completing a thesis on the work of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. A year later he married Yukari Itami, the daughter of a well-known Japanese screenwriter, and found himself the youngest delegate in a group invited to Communist China to meet with leader Mao Tse-tung. His next work was the novella Seventeen and its sequel, Death of the Political Youth. Both novels are based on an actual event that occurred in Japan in 1960 when a 17 year old assassinated the leader of Japan's socialist party, then committed suicide. In Oe's story, the youth is a sexual deviant whose personality disorder makes him an easy target for a right-wing political group. Both Oe and the publisher of the literary journal in which the novellas first appeared consequently received death threats.

Distraught by Birth of Son

During the early 1960s Oe traveled extensively, visiting the Soviet Union and even lunching with Sartre in Paris, after which the two men attended a political demonstration. Oe later said that, despite his early acclaim, he suffered from depression during this period of his life, a condition exacerbated by the birth of his son Hikari in 1963. The boy was born with a large growth on his head and a lesion that exposed his brain tissue. The doctors believed surgery was necessary to save Hikari's life, but told Oe and his wife that it would likely result in severe brain damage. Unable to decide whether to let the infant die or approve the operation, Oe fled to Hiroshima, where he worked on an assignment about the atomic-bomb survivors and the city's anti-nuclear movement. Oe later said that it was his meeting with the head of Hiroshima's Red Cross hospital, Dr. Fumio Shigeto, that changed his life. Shigeto told Oe about a dentist who was filled with despair in the weeks following the atomic catastrophe, when the hospitals were filled with the thousands who had been badly burned or sickened from radiation. "If there are wounded people, if they are in pain, we must do something for them, try to cure them, even if we seem to have no method," Oe recalled Shigeto as saying. Afterward, he said the city "assumed a central place in my work and became a way for me to think about our society, our world—about what it means to be human."

Oe and his wife decided to allow doctors to operate on Hikari, who did suffer brain damage as a result. The experience became the basis for Oe's next novel, Kojinteki na taiken, published in 1964 and translated into English as A Personal Matter four years later. It is the first of several fictional works from Oe's pen to feature a protagonist whose child is born severely disabled. In the story, a young husband cannot deal with the trauma, and descends into a spiral of alcoholism and infidelity as he waits for his newborn son to die in the hospital. He even spirits the infant away one day and takes him to an abortionist, but undergoes a change of heart. Oe requested that his Hiroshima Notes be published simultaneously with the novel, since he felt the two experiences were so intertwined. Pilling, writing in the Financial Times, called A Personal Matter "arguably the most painful and powerful post-war Japanese novel."

Oe went on to write a number of other prize-winning short stories and novels, some of them touching on the threat of nuclear power while others revisit the author's soul-searching over his severely disabled son. His works were not always well received in Japan, for his literary style eschews the Japanese tendency toward ambiguous language in favor of a far more frank approach. He includes episodes of sexual depravity and violence, and almost always casts a critical eye on Japanese society, politics, and long-held attitudes.

"Those Disgraceful Five Weeks"

Oe's 1983 novel Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age! once again features a narrator, called "K," who has a disabled son. The boy is entering adulthood, and the father, a scholar and writer, struggles to write a reference book of sorts for his son's upcoming 20th birthday, with definitions of everything in the boy's world. He refers to the boy as Eeyore, after the Winnie the Pooh character, and recalls the time just after Eeyore's birth when he wished the boy would die. "No powerful detergent has allowed me to wash out of my life those disgraceful five weeks," the narrator thinks. A group of young social activists criticize the father and the way in which he has centered his life and work around the boy. A student who objects to the narrator/author's politics kidnaps the son, but abandons him in the Tokyo subway. "The novel's artistry lies partly in its structure, each chapter ending with the father taking heart from his son," noted Guardian critic Maya Jaggi. "Far from fettering his family, Eeyore brings levity: 'Every day, joy rang out in me at the sight of him,'" Jaggi quoted from Oe's book. "Rescued after the ordeal of his kidnapping, Eeyore 'looked back at me blankly as always, as though unmoved, but tension melted from his face and body and the soft creature that always appeared in this way rose to view with a radiance that was blinding.'"

In Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age! the father notes that his son is a musical prodigy, and this is indeed what became of Hikari, whose name means "light." Like some autistic children, he was overly sensitive to noise from an early age, but Oe and his wife discovered he had an uncanny ability to recognize bird calls. He spent much of his time listening to music when not in school, and learned to play the piano. By age 13, he began composing music for it, and the first of several CD's containing his work was released in 1992.

Refused to Meet Emperor

After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, Oe announced that, since he no longer felt the need to speak for his talented son through his literature, he planned to take a break from fiction. That same year he was also honored with the Bunka Kunsho, or Order of Culture award, bestowed by the Emperor of Japan, but he refused it, thus inciting a minor scandal. To decline it, his detractors said, was an insult to the emperor. Oe explained his reasons in a Publishers Weekly interview with Sam Staggs: "I rejected the award because it comes from the Emperor," he said. "One goes to the palace and receives it, but my creed is I don't want to go in front of His Majesty. I want to live like the ordinary people and not make any personal relationship with the Emperor."

A spate of English translations of Oe's early works followed his 1994 Nobel honors, including his debut novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Other titles, among them An Echo of Heaven, A Healing Family, and A Quiet Life, also reached a wider audience. True to his word, Oe wrote no more fiction in 1990s, but then came forward with the first in a trilogy of novels that he claimed would serve as his epitaph. In Somersault, published in 2003, an older artist returns to Japan after years away, and becomes fascinated by a local extremist cult not dissimilar to the Aum Shinrikyo group that carried out a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. As Oe explained in his Publishers Weekly interview, critical and commercial acclaim has never been his goal. "I don't write to create beauty," he told Staggs. "I write for the contemporary Japanese. I want to show them how we look. I hope they will say, after reading my books, 'This is us, this is what we look like and how we experience our society.'"


Modern Japanese Writers, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001.

Newsmakers, Gale, 1997.

Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 2nd edition, St. James Press, 1997.


Antioch Review, Summer 2003.

Billboard, April 1, 1995.

Booklist, August 1996; December 1, 2002.

Christian Century, April 12, 1995.

Financial Times, June 28, 2003.

Guardian (London, England), August 24, 2002.

Lancet, August 22, 1998.

Nation, May 15, 1995.

New Leader, January-February 2003.

Publishers Weekly, August 7, 1995; April 8, 1996; October 7, 1996; October 14, 1996; January 28, 2002.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2002; Summer 2003.

Time, October 24, 1994.

World Literature Today, Spring 1996; Winter 1997; Summer 1997; Spring 2002.


Business Week Online, (March 21, 2002).

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Oe, Kenzaburo

Kenzaburo Oe (kĕn´zäbŏŏr´ō ō´ā), 1935–, Japanese writer, b. Ose, on the island of Shikoku. At 18, he left his remote village and traveled to the capital, where he studied at Tokyo Univ. and began writing. In 1958 he won the Akutagawa Prize for a short story and published his first novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (tr. 1995).

Five years later the birth of his severely brain-damaged son marked a turning point in his life and work. His best known novel, A Personal Matter (1964, tr. 1968), deals with a father's slow acceptance of his similarly handicapped infant son. Several of his other works concern this theme. In life, he and his wife have devoted much of their lives to their son's care.

Oe's other works include more than 20 novels, among them The Silent Cry (1967, tr. 1974), The Pinch Runner Memorandum (1976, tr. 1993), and A Quiet Life (1990, tr. 1996), several short-story collections, essays, and Hiroshima Notes (1965, tr. 1995), which chronicles the courage of the victims of the nuclear attack. His often angry and politically charged tales, his recurrent themes of abnormality, sexuality, and marginality, and his gritty, realistic style set him apart from the mainstream Japanese literary tradition. Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. Somersault (2003), his first novel since winning the prize, concerns a terrorist religious cult and its charismatic leader. The Changeling (2010) is a highly autobiographical novel that revolves around the suicide of the main character's filmmaker brother-in-law, an event that mirrors the Oe's own experience.

His firstborn son, Hikari Oe, 1963–, although initially uncommunicative and still only minimally functional, developed impressive musical abilities and has become an accomplished composer.

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