Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself

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Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself

by Kenzaburo Oe


A collection of four lectures on Japanese literature and culture delivered in Scandinavia and the United States between 1986 and 1994; published in 1995.


An eminent japanese writer explores his country’s uncertain place in the modern world.

Events in History at the Time of the Lectures

Japan’s postwar rise to affluence

The Lectures in Focus

For More Information

Considered Japan’s leading contemporary novelist, Kenzaburo Oe (pronounced OH-ay) was born in 1935 in a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku. In 1957 Oe graduated from Tokyo University with a degree in French literature, and the following year he won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for his short story Shiiku (1958; The Catch, 1958). Oe married Yukari Ikeuchi in 1960, and three years later had a son, Hikari, who was born suffering from severe brain damage. Much of Oe’s subsequent writing reflects his experience as a father of a mentally disabled son. The motif appears not only in his best known novel, Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter, 1968), but also in later works such as Pinchi ranna chosho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum, 1995) and Shizuka na seikatsu (1990; A Quiet Life, 1996). In general, Oe’s fiction exhibits an elusive poetic style and a deep empathy for the dispossessed or downtrodden. These qualities were cited when, in 1994, Oe became the second Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. His acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself”, is the title piece of the collection considered here. Like its three companion lectures, it offers probing criticisms of modern Japanese culture.

A note about names . In presenting personal names, Japanese usage (in contrast with English) puts the family name first and the given name second. Some recent scholars have begun following this practice when rendering Japanese names into English, for example writing Oe’s name as Oe Kenzaburo. Traditionally, however, most commentators have conformed to English usage when writing Japanese names in English.

Events in History at the Time of the Lectures

Japan after the Meiji Restoration

Japan’s entry into the modern age is commonly held to have Japan with the so-called Meiji Restoration of 1868. Although some reforms were undertaken as early as the 1850s, the Restoration can be considered a rough starting point for the historical background of the cultural topics addressed in Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself. For two and a half centuries before the Restoration era, Japan had remained a closed and essentially feudal society, ruled by a network of local aristocratic lords called daimyo, who were supported by a warrior class known as samurai. Most powerful among the lords was the Tokugawa dynasty (1603-1858), whose successive dynastic leaders monopolized the title shogun (general). Altogether Some 260 daimyo ruled over about three-quarters of Japan’s arable land. Most of the rest was under the direct control of the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled from their political seat in the city of Edo, dominating a figurehead emperor and his ancient but politically enfeebled imperial house. Since coming to power in the early seventeenth century, the Tokugawa shoguns had assiduously warded off outsiders, preventing foreigners—especially Western Europeans—from penetrating Japanese society. During this long period of isolation, the feudal state attempted, with varying degrees of success, to head off any change in the country’s feudal structure and its largely agrarian economy.

Beneath this static surface, however, pressures for change had been building since the early nineteenth century. In response to these pressures, a coalition of young samurai leaders overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate in late 1867.


In addition to his given name, the emperor is also known by a “reign name”: the Meiji Restoration takes its name from Mutsuhito’s reign name of Meiji. Mutsuhito and his successors are listed here, with their dates and reign names:

  • Mutsuhito, reign name Meiji: 1867-1912
  • Yoshihito, reign name Taisho: 1912-26
  • Hirohito, reign name Showa: 1926-89
  • Akihito, reign name Heisei: 1989-

Traditionally Japan’s emperors were popularly thought to be descended from the people’s indigenous gods. Under the Meiji Restoration, Japanese rulers laid new stress on the emperor’s divinity, in order to instill reverence for the emperor and marshal popular support for his regime. Today divinity is no longer part of the imperial image. Yet in other ways, Oe suggests, “Japan’s emperor system, which had apparently lost its social and political influence after the defeat in the Pacific War [World War II], is beginning to flex its muscles again, and in some respects it has already recouped much of its lost power” (Oe, japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 35). Oe is one of a number of present-day Japanese intellectuals concerned about the possibility of a revival of state-centered nationalism in Japan.

Early the following year, they proclaimed the restoration of the imperial house under the newly enthroned young emperor, Mutsuhito, otherwise known as the Meiji emperor. In reality, however, while revered more conspicuously than before, the emperor remained little more than a figurehead. For the next several decades, the actual power in Japan sat with the group of aging samurai who had overthrown the Tokugawa dynasty and curtailed the influence of the daimyo. Under the slogan fukoku kyohei (“enrich the nation, strengthen the army”), they set about overhauling Japan’s political and economic system. Looking to Western models for inspiration, they reversed Japan’s centuries-old policy of isolation while pursuing a strongly nationalistic agenda.

What emerged was a constitutional monarchy along British lines, with the emperor as head of state, and with political authority shared between a legislative assembly, the Diet, and a government of ministries, headed by a prime minister. Edo, the home city of shoguns, was renamed Tokyo (literally, “Eastern Capital”), and became the capital of the new Japan; the emperor’s place of residence was changed from Kyoto to the new capital. The nation’s leaders promoted economic activity, and an industrial revolution of sorts ensued, built on a preexisting foundation of textiles manufacturing. Important new companies included Kanegafuchi Spinning (1889; now Kanebo), Kawasaki Heavy Industries (1896), Yahata Steel Works (1901; now New Japan Steel), Hitachi (1896), and Toshiba (founded in 1939 from the merger of Shibaura Works [1875] and Tokyo Electric [1890]). Even more influential were the broad cartels called zaibatsu, of which the four largest were Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Yasuda (now Fuji Bank). Each of these powerful, family-controlled conglomerates consisted of a number of firms operating in various financial and industrial areas. For example, Mitsubishi’s oldest companies spanned shipbuilding, coal mining, real estate, trade, and banking interests.

To work in the factories and manage the businesses, more and more Japanese began moving to cities, where the enterprises were located. By the 1930s, the six largest cities—Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, Kobe, and Yokohama—together accounted for about one-fourth of the population, up from perhaps one-tenth in 1890. New social groups emerged in the developing cities; conspicuous among these groups were the fashionable, well-educated, and affluent families centered around husbands with white-collar managerial jobs in growing companies. Education itself was an early priority of the modernizing Restorationera leaders, who established a Ministry of Education in 1871, very soon after assuming power. Tokyo University, Japan’s first such institution and still its most prestigious, was founded in 1877. By the 1930s, there were almost 50 colleges and universities in Japan, attended by some 200,000 students. Nearly all of the students were men, in keeping with the state’s promotion of a version of Japanese tradition under which women were encouraged to remain domestic and submissive. Restoration leaders summarized and reinforced this expectation, beginning in the 1890s with a slogan derived from Confucius—ryosai kenbo, or “good wife and wise mother”.

The Restoration leaders’ aim of ending Japan’s isolation included the desire to build a Japanese empire in Asia, one that would rival the world empires of European colonial powers such as Britain, France, and Germany. Proud that their nation was the only one in Asia to succeed in resisting European colonial encroachment, Japanese leaders believed that Japan ought to be an equal partner with the great European powers. This belief lay behind their exhortation to “enrich the nation, strengthen the army”. The newly mechanized Japanese Army was itself an influential proponent of aggressive expansion. From the 1890s into the 1940s, Japan engaged in a series of military actions and territorial conquests aimed at expanding its power on the Asian continent.

1894-95 Japan defeats China in the first Sino-Japanese War, demanding control of the island of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria. France, Germany, and Britain prevent Japan from occupying the peninsula, but Taiwan becomes Japan’s first overseas colony.

1904-05 Japan defeats Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, resulting in Japanese colonial authority over Korea and control of northern Sakhalin Island. Japan also gains possession of the strategic South Manchurian Railway in Manchuria (northern China).

1915 Japan presents the so-called “Twenty-One Demands” to China, insisting on Japanese rights to China’s territory, to its natural resources, and to influence over its domestic and foreign policy. China rejects most of the demands.

1918-22 The Japanese army attempts to conquer parts of Siberia.

1918-22 The Japanese army stages a bombing(the Mukden Incident) on the South Manchuria Railway, using it as a pretext for invading and occupying Manchuria. The so-called Fifteen Year War begins.

1937-39 Japan invades and conquers eastern China. In the city of Nanking in December 1938, General Iwane Matsui supervises the systematic murder of an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners of war, and the rape of tens of thousands of Chinese women, by Japanese soldiers. Called “the Rape of Nanking”, this action becomes the most notorious Japanese war crime of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Matsui is later convicted and executed by an Allied war crimes tribunal.

1939-45 Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia merges into World War II, in which Japan sides with the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) against the Allies (led by Britain and, after 1941, the United States). In the early years of the war, Japan conquers most of Asia and the Pacific islands, including Singapore, the Philippines, and Indochina. Japanese soldiers perpetrate further systematic (and well-documented) war crimes on civilians and prisoners of war.

By the 1930s, Japan was completely under the sway of an alliance between the army and a group of nationalistic bureaucrats. Together they dominated the young emperor, Hirohito, who had ascended to the throne in 1926, and whose divine status they used to rally the people to support their aggressive policies. The militaristic government and the war against China thus enjoyed wide popularity among the Japanese people.


I have tried to define the meaning that the experience of these two cities has for people in Japan and elsewhere … but my fundamental perspective has always been that of the parent of a handicapped child. This is the experience that influences everything I write and everything I do. Thus, for example, my realization that life with a mentally handicapped child has the power to heal the wounds that family members inflict on one another led me to the more recent insight that the victims and survivors of the atomic bombs have the same sort of power to heat all of us who live in this nuclear age. This thought seems almost self-evident when one sees the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, by now frail and elderly, speaking up and taking an active part in the movement to abolish all nuclear weapons. They are, for me, the embodiment of a prayer for the healing of our society, indeed the planet as a whole.

(Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, pp. 34-35)

With the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, which brought the United States into World War II, this alliance led the country into an equally popular war against the United States and the other Allies. The war resulted in a devastating and humiliating defeat for Japan, who surrendered after the United States dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945. Japan became the only nation to suffer the use of nuclear weapons in war, a special perspective that gave rise to a particularly strong anti-nuclear movement there in the postwar era. Oe has been very active not only in supporting the antinuclear movement, but also in advocating the cause of the survivors of the two atomic explosions.

After Japan’s surrender, Allied forces under the United States occupied the country (1945-52). The forces set out with a new group of Japanese leaders to bring political, economic, and social reforms to the shattered island nation. A new constitution was written by American legal scholars, and after being examined by Japanese experts and leaders, it was adopted essentially unchanged—as the Occupation authorities demanded. Declaring that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”, the constitution permanently prohibits Japan from possessing an army (Allinson, p. 234). A major land reform enabled former tenant farmers to own the land they worked, and the zaibatsu—the industrial conglomerates that had profited immensely from decades of militarization—were dissolved. Hirohito was permitted to remain as emperor, but in a nationwide radio address, he renounced his divinity. In Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself Oe recalls his deep shock and disillusionment when, as a ten-year-old boy, he heard this erstwhile omnipotent and cloistered figure speak in a human voice. Oe’s reaction was shared even by many adult Japanese, who throughout decades of violence had trusted and answered the emperor’s call to arms as being divinely inspired.

Japan’s postwar rise to affluence

In 1954, two years after occupation ended, the Japanese government established an armed military unit known as the Self-Defense Force. By the 1990s the force, which stood at a relatively small 250,000 men, was ranked among the world’s top ten armed forces in quality. While its legality under the constitution has survived repeated court tests, the existence of the Self-Defense Force has remained a highly controversial issue, one that reflects the ideological divisions that characterize contemporary Japan. Those on the left—who include Kenzaburo Oe—have continued to condemn it as unconstitutional, reflecting their pacifistic rejection of war and their support of the constitution. “Under the present constitution”, Oe declares, “the so-called Self-Defense Force should not even exist, yet Japan’s military buildup has been enormous” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 36). Those on the right, such as noted author Yukio Mishima (who committed ritual suicide in 1970, in part over the issue), have maintained that Japan should reestablish a traditional army, and that the strict legal limitations restricting the use of force to national self-defense should be abandoned. With the postwar growth of Japan’s economic might, the question of its rearmament has remained a continual and divisive irritant in the nation’s public life.

Another early step the government took after occupation ended was to allow the components of many former zaibatsu to reconstitute themselves. The resulting network of financial alliances and business partnerships is known as the keiretsu system. As Japan’s old companies reestablished themselves under the keiretsu system, they were joined by many new ones, of which the best known in the West is the electronics manufacturer Sony. Meanwhile, Japanese auto manufacturers such as Nissan and Toyota, established in the 1930s, brought in increasing revenues, especially after oil shortages in the 1970s allowed their more fuel-efficient models to outsell larger American cars and thus gain a permanent share of the U.S. market.

Although to some extent pitfalls such as the oil shortage hindered economic growth in Japan during the 1970s, the Japanese economy recovered and enjoyed an unprecedented boom during the 1980s. Auto companies and electronics manufacturers flourished, but the strongest performers were giant Japanese banks such as Sumitomo, Fuji, Sanwa, and Daiichi-Kangyo. However, the banks stumbled badly in the late 1980s, after making bad loans to finance over-ambitious real estate and stock market speculation. Furthermore, Japanese companies failed to make a strong showing in the emerging markets for the computers and software that were revolutionizing so many aspects of life in wealthy nations in the 1990s. So while the computer and internet revolutions fueled U.S. markets during the 1990s, Japan fell into a relative slump. Its effects were limited, however.

Overall most Japanese continued to enjoy a high standard of living, partaking of the same consumer comforts as their affluent American and European counterparts. By the 1990s, Japan’s affluence had brought sweeping demographic changes. Most significantly, urbanization had accelerated sharply since the war, so that 80 percent of Japanese now lived in urban areas, 20 percent of them in cities of over one million people (Allinson, p. 103). One in five households consisted of a single person living alone, many of those being young urban professionals in their twenties or thirties who had postponed marrying and raising a family. Many of Japan’s traditional lifestyle patterns have broken down, and its population has become more mobile and less cohesive. Style and fashion took a high priority among hip young urban Japanese, with new fads trumpeted in glossy magazines and electronic media. Commenting on the contemporary Japanese cultural scene in one of the lectures, Oe criticizes what he calls “Japan’s grotesquely bloated consumer society”, observing that the most popular writers among young Japanese readers are “the copywriters of commercial messages” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 78).

The Lectures in Focus

The contents

Spanning the period from 1986 to 1994, the four lectures collected in Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself are presented in a different order from that in which Oe delivered them, except for the Nobel lecture, which is placed last and was delivered last. The other three appear to have been arranged thematically for the benefit of the reading audience. Likewise, an editor’s note informs the reader that “with the approval of the author, some stylistic revisions have been made to the original English texts of these lectures” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 4).

“Speaking on Japanese Culture before a Scandinavian Audience” (delivered in Scandinavia in 1992; translated by Kunioki Yanagishita). Oe introduces the first lecture by professing that it has been a dream of his since childhood to visit Scandinavia. His favorite children’s book was The Magical Adventures of Nils, about a Scandinavian boy’s fantastic journeys through Sweden. (Published in 1907, the book enjoyed global popularity and was translated into many languages; its author, Swedish novelist and 1909 Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlof, was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). Oe considers several modern European authors whose careers are linked by the twin themes of wanderlust and Scandinavia: Karen Blixen (Danish; 1885-1962; pseudonym Isak Dinesen), Louis-Ferdinand Celine (French; 1894-1961), and Malcolm Lowry (British; 1909-57).

He then gets to the main subject of this first lecture, which he defines as “Japanese culture as seen through the filter of literature” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 16). In the rest of the lecture, Oe approaches this topic by briefly examining the work of three Japanese writers:


Figures indicate percentage of Japanese nonfarm households:

Washing machines72100
Vacuum cleaners4199
Auto mobiles976
Color TVs099
Air conditioners266

(Adapted from Allinson, p. 250)

  • Shikibu Murasaki (c. 978-c. 1076) Murasaki, a lady of the imperial court, wrote the founding masterpiece of Japanese prose literature, The Tale of Genji (also in Literature and Its Times). Considered by many critics to be the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji follows the amorous exploits of its princely hero, Genji; the part that Oe dwells on concerns Genji’s plans for the education of his son, Prince Yugiri. Oe uses this part of the story as an example of how, since ancient times, education in pre-Meiji Japan meant “knowledge of Chinese literature” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 17).
  • Soseki Natsume (1867-1916) Soseki (known by his given name) was, in Oe’s words, “Japan’s greatest writer after the Meiji Restoration” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 21). Oe quotes from Soseki’s novel And Then (1909), in which Soseki characterizes Japanese modernization as a fagade. In Soseki’s view, Oe observes, the Japanese adopted the decadent appetites of Western culture without absorbing Western morality, that is, without the sense of responsibility that Soseki believed essential to individualism. Oe suggests that “this description applies equally well to the Japanese today”, whose appetites, “manifested in every aspect of our greedy consumerism, all but dwarf those of Soseki’s time” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 24).
  • Kenzaburo Oe (1935-) Finally Oe considers his own novels, A Personal Matter (1964; trans. 1968) and The Silent Cry (1967; trans. 1974). These works encompass the two subjects with which Oe has been most concerned. A Personal Matter represents Oe’s attempts to find universal significance in his experience as the father of a brain-damaged son. The Silent Cry, set in a small village like the one Oe grew up in, reflects his desire to explore alternatives to Japan’s “main, Tokyo-centered culture” by celebrating the smaller “peripheral cultures” like that of the novel’s remote village (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 35).

“On Modern and Contemporary Japanese Literature” (delivered in San Francisco in 1990; no translation credit given). Oe traces the beginnings of modern Japanese literature to the Meiji Restoration, when Japanese intellectuals and writers began studying and adapting the literatures of Europe. Summarizing Japanese history since the beginnings of modernization in the Meiji era, he again discusses the career of Soseki Natsume, among others:

Modernization had brought Japan into contact with the West, and, on its victory in the Russo-Japanese War, the people of Japan fell captive to a desire—stimulated by the outside world—for material gains. At the same time, moral urgencies declined. Soseki’s criticism, however, was leveled not just at Japan’s economic pursuit of the West; he criticizes the basic conditions of life as well (like the shabbiness of human dwellings), which had actually deteriorated in the process of modernization.

(Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 45)

Oe goes on to decry what he sees as the “chronic decline” of Japanese literary culture since the rise of Japan’s postwar affluence and the attendant, accelerating consumerism (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 49). He dismisses the commercially successful novels of trendy young writers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshi-moto: “Here we see Japan’s economic boom making itself felt in the literary market” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 50).

“Japan’s Dual Identity: A Writer’s Dilemma” (delivered in 1986 at a conference on the “Challenge of Third World Culture” at Duke University in the United States; translated by Kunioki Yanag-ishita). Oe argues that Japan is torn between two conflicting identities; on one hand, it is itself a third-world country (a term Oe uses somewhat ambiguously); on the other hand, in the modern period, it has been a wealthy oppressor of poorer third world countries. As an example of Japan’s oppression, he points to its aggressive actions against its “fellow third world nations in Asia”, Korea and China, during the period of modernization between the Meiji Restoration and World War II (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 59).

Oe again laments what he sees as the decline of Japanese culture and literature since the 1980s. He also criticizes the, in his view, sterile way that Japanese intellectuals have slavishly and successively embraced such Western intellectual fashions as structuralism and deconstruction (movements for analyzing literary texts and culture) without truly grasping their implications. Oe contrasts more recent Japanese writers with their predecessors in the immediate postwar period. He cites, with approval, such accomplished authors as Kobo Abe, Shohei Ooka, Taijun Takeda, and Yukio Mishma, whose major works spanned the period from the late 1940s (for example, Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, 1949) to the early 1970s (for example, Takeda’s “Mount Fuji Sanitorium”, 1971). “These were people”, he suggests, “who had to endure silence while fascism prevailed prior to and during the war years. Their pent-up frustrations were released in a burst of activity that formed them as intellectuals” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, pp. 68-69).

“Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself” (delivered in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1994; his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature that year; translated by Hisaaki Yamanouchi). In the final lecture, Oe again returns briefly to the favorite books of his childhood, mentioning The Magical Adventures of Nils (mentioned previously) and adding to it another major influence, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884; also in Literature and Its Times). His lecture’s title, he explains, is taken from the Nobel acceptance speech of the only other Japanese author to win the prize for literature, Yasunari Kawabata. Kawabata, who won the prize in 1968, entitled his acceptance speech “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself”. According to Oe, Kawabata did so partly in order “to identify himself” with “the aesthetic sensibility pervading the classical literature of the Orient” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 113).

Respectfully distancing himself from Kawabata, Oe by contrast identifies himself as more in sympathy with Western traditions. For example, he affirms a greater spiritual affinity with Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who won the same prize in 1923. On winning the prize, Yeats was praised by the Irish Senate for having brought Ireland into the ranks of civilized nations, and Oe aspires to perform a similar service for his country. Ultimately, in Oe’s view, such an aspiration would amount to removing the ambiguity of the lecture’s title:

After a hundred and twenty years of modernization since the opening up of the country, contemporary Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity. This ambiguity…is evident in various ways. The modernization of Japan was oriented towards the West, yet the country is situated in Asia and has firmly maintained its traditional culture. The ambiguous orientation of Japan drove the country into the position of an invader in Asia, and resulted in its isolation from other Asian nations not only politically but also socially and culturally. And even in the West, to which its culture was supposedly quite open, it has long remained inscrutable or only partially understood.

(Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 117)

Oe then reaffirms his conviction that the Japanese must uphold their current constitutional renunciation of war, by retaining “the principle of permanent peace as the moral basis for their rebirth” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 119). “To remove the principle of permanent peace”, he declares, “would be an act of betrayal toward the people of Asia and the victims of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 120). In conclusion, he proposes that Japan’s best hope for healing the wounds of the past lies in fully embracing the ideals embodied in the longstanding Western tradition of humanism, a movement that concerns itself with the individualistic and critical spirit, with secular rather than religious concerns, and with the revival of classical literature. He affirms his own allegiance, as a writer and thinker, to that tradition.

Japanese culture and the outside world

As Oe repeatedly stresses in the lectures that make up Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, the Meiji era represents a cultural as well as a historical divide for Japan. In the simplest terms, before about 1850, Japan had looked to the Chinese for cultural inspiration, while after 1850 it has looked increasingly to the West. Japanese literature especially exemplifies this progression, and accordingly in the first lecture Oe declares his intention of discussing “Japanese culture as seen through the filter of literature” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 16). The other lectures share this approach, so that by the end of the book Oe has offered brief discussions of a remarkably large number of influential Japanese authors dating from the mid-nineteenth century, as well as major works from earlier periods. Before and after the Meiji Restoration, Oe suggests, writers exemplify how Japanese culture has both adopted outside influences and adapted them to its own society.

For example, says Oe, the eleventh-century The Tale of Genji (also in Literature and Its Times.) illustrates the central role that Chinese literature played in traditional Japanese education. Not spelled out by Oe are some basic details. From its earliest stages, Japanese literature was inspired by Chinese models and sources. The Japanese language had no written form until Japanese scribes adapted Chinese characters for writing it down in the first several centuries of the Common Era. The earliest surviving works of Japanese literature are two official court histories from the eighth century called the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters”) and the Nihongi (“Chronicle of Japan”). Modeled on similar Chinese works, they include parts in which Chinese characters spell out Japanese words phonetically, as well as sections written in Chinese. This adaptation and modification that has occurred in literature, finds parallels in other important aspects of culture. In religion, for example, Chinese forms of Buddhism and to a lesser extent Confucianism took root in Japan, existing alongside the native traditions that, in the nineteenth century, became known as Shinto.

As Oe remarks, after the Meiji Restoration, the literatures of Europe—especially of Russia, Germany, France, and England—became the sources from which Japanese writers drew their inspiration. Again, literature reflects broader cultural trends, from the founding of Western-style universities in Japan, to the rise of Japanese arms and industry in line with Western forms, to the rampant consumerism of which Oe complains. Over many centuries of development, Japan’s use of Chinese forms resulted in one of the world’s richest cultural traditions. In the years since 1868, that tradition has been further enriched through interaction with Western forms, although some fear at the same time that these more recent changes have undermined the cultural tradition.

“Yamato spirit” and “Yamato race”

Central to understanding Oe’s discussion of The Tale of Genji is an idea that first appears in that early novel, a concept known as “Yamato spirit”. Oe refers to the novel to explain it:

“Only after we have had enough book learning”, Genji explains, “can we bring our Yamato spirit into full play”—Yamato being an old name for Japan. By “book learning” Genji means knowledge of Chinese literature; so he is arguing that it is only after establishing a solid foundation in the Chinese classics that intrinsically Japanese talents can be treated with due respect.

(Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 17)

During Japan’s period of modernization, Oe observes, the expression “Yamato spirit with Chinese learning” was replaced by “Yamato spirit with Western learning” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 20). However”, Yamato spirit, which Oe argues was used in the The Tale of Genji to denote a common Japanese sensibility, had by then come to signify a stronger, more nationalistic patriotism, one that was identified with Japan’s restored emperor system and drive for empire. Thus, “Yamato spirit”, Oe notes, was the Japanese Imperial Army’s rallying cry throughout the World War II era.

Closely related to “Yamato spirit” (yamato damashii) has been the idea of “Yamato race” (yamato minzoku), which was also prevalent during the war years. Combining ideas of racial purity, ethnic homogeneity, and cultural conformity, Japanese authorities used such expressions to propagate a picture of the Japanese as a unified people set above the rest of humanity (even as the realities of empire, migration, and conquest made Japan an increasingly multicultural society in the 1930s and 1940s). During the war, this portrayal was contrasted with Western societies, especially the United States, whose individualism and ethnic plurality were seen as making it weak and inferior.

Writing in the mid-1990s, the historian John Dower saw echoes of such thinking in contemporary Japan:

The truly virulent implications of the mystique of Japanese purity and homogeneity are exposed in Japanese attitudes toward the United States as a heterogeneous society. An unusually vivid expression of this appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1982, when a Japanese official was quoted as stating that “the Japanese are a people that can manufacture a product of uniformity and superior quality because the Japanese are a race of completely pure blood, not a mongrelized race as in the United States”. Since that time, Japanese disdain for ethnically pluralistic societies in general and peoples of color in particular has been exposed on numerous occasions.

(Dower, p. 331)

In the four lectures comprising Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, Oe does not, however, explore such recent manifestations of the Japanese preoccupation with racial purity. He does, on the other hand, point to Japanese wartime propaganda based on “Yamato spirit”, noting that as a child, he believed the wartime propaganda. “Like everyone else at that time, I was made to believe this mad conviction so alien to the [true] Yamato spirit, ‘” as originally propounded in The Tale of Genji (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 20).

Sources and literary context

As noted above, Oe’s major sources of inspiration in general have included his son Hikari and the experiences of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. As should also be clear from the foregoing discussion, Oe has drawn on his wide reading in both Japanese and other world literatures, notably those of Western Europe, for the lectures collected in Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself. A specific inspiration for Oe’s thought becomes clear near the end of the title lecture, when he discusses the Western humanistic tradition in which he places such hope. Oe recalls his own academic studies of French literature under the tutelage of a Japanese professor of the French Renaissance, Kazuo Watanabe, who “dreamed of grafting the humanistic view of man onto the traditional Japanese sense of beauty and sensitivity to nature” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, p. 123). In particular, Watanabe introduced Oe to the Renaissance humanist Frangois Rabelais (French; c 1494-1553), whose satire Gargantua and Panta-gruel Watanabe translated into Japanese during World War II. In addition to influencing Oe’s fiction style, Watanabe’s reverence for humanism deeply shaped Oe’s thought, leading him to value ideals such as tolerance, individual freedom, and pacifism.

In discussing the direction of modern Japanese literature, Oe identifies himself with a tradition called junbungaku, pure literature, “or—as Oe chooses to translate it—“sincere literature, which began with Meijiera novelists such as Soseki Natsume, Ogai Mori (1862-1922), and others. Oe defines the type as “serious literature” or “literature that has…cut itself off from the products published by the mass media; in other words, literature that is not ‘popular’ or ‘mundane’” (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself, pp. 65-66). It is this serious tradition, carried on by postwar writers like Yukio Mishima and Kobo Abe, that Oe says began to decline in the early 1970s. In its place arose the literary reflection of superficial consumerism that, in Oe’s eyes, is represented by popular contemporary authors such as Haraki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. Oe does see hope in some less widely read younger writers, however, citing Yoshikichi Furui, Kenji Nakagami, and Yuko Tsushima as among those addressing deeper social issues.


Oe’s work, hitherto largely ignored in the West, was suddenly accorded wide publicity and attention when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. His Nobel lecture, given after he accepted the prize on Wednesday, December 7, 1994, was broadly reported in the Western news media, including American newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. As his first publication since winning the prize (aside from new printings of older works), Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself received several reviews in prominent British publications, including the Economist and the Sunday Telegraph. It received less notice in the American media, although the Christian Science Monitor ran a brief excerpt (in the May 10, 1995 issue). More detailed assessments could be found in Asian English-language newspapers. Writing in Japan’s Daily Yomiuri, Ron Breines praised the book as “startlingly acute and uncompromising, filled with insight and passion….Each sentence in this small but illuminating book reveals an intellect that is sharp, clear, brilliantly informed and humanistically endowed” (Breines, p. 17).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Allinson, Gary D. The Columbia Guide to Modern Japanese History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Breines, Ron. “Oe Speaks with Unambiguous Voice”, Daily Yomiuri, 2 April 1995, 17.

Dower, John W. Japan in War and Peace: Selected Essays. New York: Norton, 1993.

Giffard, Sydney. Japan Among the Powers: 1890-1990. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Holt, 1984.

Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio & Oe Kenzaburo. Cambridge, Mass.: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1995.

Oe, Kenzaburo. Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures. Tokyo: Kodansha, 1995.

Smith, Patrick. Japan: A Reinterpretation. New York: pantheon, 1997.

Walker, Janet. The Japanese Novel of the Meiji Period and the Ideal of Individualism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Washburn, Dennis C. The Dilemma of the Modern in Japanese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Waswo, Ann. Modern Japanese Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself

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