BORN: 1935, Ehime, Shikoku, Japan
Prize Stock (1958)
A Personal Matter (1964)
The Silent Cry (1967)
An Echo of Heaven (1989)
One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Oe is highly regarded for intensely imagined and formally innovative novels examining the sense of alienation and anxiety among members of the post–World
War II generation in Japan. Oe's fiction is both profoundly intellectual and emotionally raw.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Traditional Japanese Upbringing Born in 1935 in a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku, Oe was raised in a prominent samurai family in accordance with traditional Japanese beliefs. Like most Japanese children of his generation, Oe was taught to believe that the emperor was a living god. When Emperor Hirohito personally announced in a radio broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied military forces, thus marking the conclusion of World War II, Oe and his schoolmates experienced a sense of devastation and disorientation that forever changed their perception of the world.
Embracing the “Antihero” While Oe lamented the sense of humiliation and guilt that Japan's defeat and occupation by American troops imposed on his generation, he also embraced the values of democracy that were instilled through the educational system of the occupation forces. While a student at Tokyo University, Oe read widely in traditional Japanese, French, and modern Western literature. Reflecting his ambitious and erudite reading habits, Oe's early stories were awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes.
From Student to Professional Writer While still a university student, Oe established his literary reputation with his first novella, The Catch (1958), which tells the story of a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner of war whose friendship is destroyed by the brutality of war. The Catch won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, and from this success, Oe moved directly from student to professional writer. Also written in 1958, Oe's first novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, explored the impact and influence of World War II on Japanese youth.
Political Protest In 1960 Oe married Yukari Ikeuchi, daughter of movie director and essayist Mansaku Itami (pseudonym of Yoshitoyo Ikeuchi). That same year, he became an active participant in the movement protesting revision and renewal of the United States–Japan Security Treaty. On his first foreign excursion as part of a group of Japanese writers, he traveled to China, where he had an audience with Mao Tse-tung. In October, the chairman of the Japan Socialist Party, which was opposed to the Security Treaty, was in the middle of a public speech when he was stabbed to death by a young right-wing radical. Oe was shocked to discover that a member of the postwar generation, born even later than he, could be transformed into an ardent right-wing imperialist.
Personal Transformation In 1963 Oe's eldest son, Hikari, was born handicapped with a brain hernia as a result of an abnormality in his skull. This incident came as a shock to Oe both in his personal and literary life. In 1964 he published Kojinteki na taiken (translated as A Personal Matter in 1968), one of the most important monuments of his literary career, in which a young schoolteacher called Bird dreams of escaping to Africa, but a handicapped child is born to his wife.
In 1994, after his son Hikari had made a name for himself as a composer, Oe stirred up controversy by announcing that, since his son had come to express himself better through his music than he could through writing about him, once he finished the novel he was currently writing, he would abandon the writing of novels. In October of that same year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
When Oe declared that he was finished with the novel form, he had just passed the age of sixty, which in Japan is customarily viewed as the time for a new departure in one's life. He turned primarily to writing essays. When Oe's close friend Tôru Takemitu, a famous composer, died of cancer in 1996, Oe mourned and decided to resume his creation in the novel form in memory of Takemitu. In 1997 Juzô Itami (pseudonym of Yoshiharu Ikeuchi)—a distinguished movie director, Oe's close friend since boyhood, and the brother of Oe's wife—committed suicide by jumping off a building. This incident caused Oe great personal sorrow, and he sought to illuminate the truth of what happened through exploring facts and visionary fictions.
Since the 1990s Oe's name has appeared in the media outside of the literary realm. In 2004, he was cited as opposing controversial changes to the postwar Japanese constitution of 1947. In 2005, he was sued for libel by two military officers in the Japanese army. The controversy centered around his statements that the Japanese army ordered civilians to commit mass suicide during the Okinawa campaign by U.S. military forces rather than be taken as prisoners of war by the U.S. Army. While involved in the case, Oe did not write or publish much. He emerged from silence when the charges against him were dismissed in 2008. Recently, the New York Times reported that he has started a new novel that features a character based on his father, who drowned during World War II. At present, Oe lives in Tokyo with his three children.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Oe's famous contemporaries include:
Harlan Ellision (1934–): Ellison is an American fiction and television writer best known for his work on Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–1969) and Outer Limits (1963–1965).
Elvis Presley (1935–1977): Presley was an American musician and actor who has been a major cultural icon since his early career.
Václav Havel (1936–): Havel is a Czech writer and politician who served as the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–1992) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).
Don DeLillo (1936–): DeLillo is an American novelist considered one of the pioneers of postmodern fiction.
Ryoji Noyori (1938–): Noyori is a Japanese chemist who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001.
Works in Literary Context
Oe is one of the outstanding representatives of contemporary Japanese literature. In a literary career extending over several decades, he has produced a large volume of works, and in Japan he has received several prestigious literary awards, including the Akutagawa Prize (1958), the Tanizaki Jun'ichirô Prize (1967), and the Noma Literary Prize (1973). He has also been highly praised overseas, receiving the Europelia Award from the European Community (1989), the Italian Mondelosso Prize (1993), and the Nobel Prize in Literature (1994). These works were influenced, in part, by such existentialist philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and by the American tradition of the “antihero,” as represented in the works of such authors as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Oe's critical essays have incorporated a variety of writers from the East and the West: Sartre, Mailer, Faulkner, Melville, William Blake, William Butler Yeats, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante, and Chi-ha. Oe does not imitate these writers; rather he employs what he has learned from them in his own acts of literary creation.
The citation for the Nobel Prize noted that through his “poetic force” Oe “creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” He was likewise hailed for his relentless search for ways in which mankind can survive together beneath the threat of nuclear annihilation, and for his writing about his symbiotic relationship with his handicapped son. His works have been translated into many languages, including English, German, and French.
Oe's Structuralism In 1976, when Oe was forty-one, he spent a brief period lecturing in English at the Colegio de México on postwar Japanese intellectual history. His decision to reside for a time in Mexico served as an opportunity for him to reconsider in clear terms the issue of marginality that had been at the forefront of his consciousness since he first left his village home and to consider it a topic in world history. In the theoretical work he published after his return to Japan, Shosetsu no hoho (1978, Methodology of the Novel), he conclusively declares, “One must stand on the side of marginality in order to be able to grasp the essence of the dangers attending our contemporary age.”
During this visit, Oe read a book published the previous year by the cultural anthropologist Masao Yamaguchi that enabled him to deepen his consciousness and solidify the methodology behind his structuralist theories while in Mexico. Some deride Oe as a “structuralist-come-lately,” but it is safe to say that for many years he had been an unconscious structuralist, interested in the relationships among various cultural practices as well as in the linguistic connections among the myriad of elements that make up language. Oe's conscious use of structuralist methodology begins with Dôjidai gemu, a work that takes the form of a letter written from a teacher living in Mexico to his twin sister. Oe's adoption of structuralism in the late 1970s began with the concept of “defamiliarization” in the Russian formalist linguistic theories of Viktor Shklovsky and with the “grotesque realism” of Mikhail Bakhtin. From there, he proceeded to study the structuralist-oriented cultural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the comparative religion theories of Mircea Eliade. His approach to structuralism inspired him to focus his attentions on Europe, where these theories originated. At the same time, as a citizen of Asia, he had a deep-seated interest in the anti-dictatorial poetry of South Korea's Kim Chi-ha, a body of work which merges art with the fight against political repression and relies on a four-hundred-year-old traditional narrative structure called Pansori to frame its stories.
Fusing Japanese and Western Culture Another striking feature of Oe's writing since the 1980s has been his bold adoption of a literary technique that seems at first glance a return to the traditions of Japanese autobiographical fiction in the shishô setsu (I-novel) form. Deeply interlaced with this tradition of autobiographical fiction is another significant thread in Oe's writing, which involves the simultaneous attempts both to confront and fuse with Western culture.
Oe has produced many works of fiction but has also written essays and critical pieces. In these works Oe appears as a “product of postwar democracy,” as a parent with a handicapped child, and as a supporter of the weaklings who have been oppressed and shunned by harsh reality. He examines the victims of the atomic bombing and discusses the struggles of the people of Okinawa, who continued to suffer under the twenty-seven-year-long American occupation, after the end of World War II. These problems do not represent passing interests for Oe but are, in fact, as the title of one of his essay collections suggests, Jizoku suru kokorozashi (1968, Continuing Hopes).
Born in the margins of Japan, Kenzaburo Oe has for many years made use of unremitting self-examination as a means of pursuing questions of the periphery and the center as well as the ways in which mankind can live together beneath the nuclear menace. By groping for a pathway to hope in the future, he has never averted his eyes from the despair of the present as he has persistently asked how man should live in the present age. His work has thus contributed significantly not merely to Japanese literature but to the literature of the entire world.
Works in Critical Context
With the exception of politically and legally motivated criticisms, like the libel lawsuit brought against Oe by two military officers in 2005, critical reaction to Oe's works has been predominantly adulatory. Despite the minor reservations of some critics with regard to its “happy” ending, A Personal Matter was internationally recognized as a masterpiece and a triumph of personal expression—a novel clearly autobiographical in content, but which transcends its literal narrative to symbolize the entire postwar spirit of malaise among Japanese intellectuals. Critic Stephen Iwamoto writes, “The relationship between Kenzaburo Oe and his mentally and physically handicapped son Hikari has furnished the author with the materials and inspiration for countless works—short stories, novels, lectures, commentaries, and essays.”
Oe's most universally acclaimed novel, The Silent Cry (1967), is a formally innovative and densely poetic portrayal of Takashi and Mitsusaburo, two brothers who clash over their differing interpretations of their tumultuous family history. Utilizing a method of temporal displacement and unity, Oe constructs the narrative as the surreal juxtaposition of a political uprising in 1860 (the year Japan was forced to ratify a treaty opening up commerce with the United States) and the brothers's struggle a hundred years later. In addition to its complex narrative structure, The Silent Cry exhibits a preoccupation with violence and physical deformity that some critics have linked with the methods of “grotesque realism,” a brand of exaggerated satire which was pioneered by the French Renaissance writer François Rabelais. Similarly, it was lauded by the Nobel committee as “Oe's major mature work,” and its complex narrative framework has been compared with the magic realism of Colombian novelist and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez.
Many critics argue that Oe's deliberate coalescence of modern Western and traditional Japanese forms has made him difficult to interpret and translate in either Japanese or English, and the fact that few of his works have been translated into English has limited the amount of criticism devoted to him outside of Japan. However, because Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize, scholars foresee an influx of academic interest, English translations, and criticism in years to come.
Responses to Literature
- Oe has acknowledged that the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre has influenced his own philosophy and literary style. Do the concerns of existentialist philosophy, drawn from a European intellectual movement, strengthen Oe's novels or distract from their ability to analyze Japanese culture?
- In his introduction to The Crazy Iris, Oe writes that his “anthology of A-bomb short stories is an effort to make the original A-Bomb experiences a part of the shared experiences of peoples throughout the world.” What hurdles do you think a Western reader must overcome to make the atomic bomb truly a “shared experience”? Is it possible for readers from outside Japan to partake in this shared experience? Why or why not?
- Critics note that Oe combines Western and non-Western perspectives, styles, and concerns in his novels. Brainstorm some particular scenes in Oe's texts where these Western and non-Western perspectives and styles clash or merge. Then, write an essay describing what effect you think this has on his writing.
- In his essays, Oe asserts a particular kind of political responsibility shared by authors and activists throughout the world. Write a personal statement about the kinds of political responsibilities you think global citizens share. Are there any responsibilities unique to authors?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Characterizing life as profoundly absurd, Oe portrays the unique agonies and dilemmas of his characters with concrete precision in ways that point to the more universal significance of their suffering. Here are some other works with a similar theme:
The Age of Reason (1945), a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre. This novel is concerned with the conception of freedom as the ultimate aim of human existence.
The Plague (1947), a novel by Albert Camus. This novel faces questions about the human condition through the story of medical workers laboring in a plague-swept city in Algeria.
Lord of the Flies (1954), a novel by William Golding. This novel analyzes the unraveling of human culture by following a group of boys stuck on a deserted island as they attempt to govern themselves.
Cameron, Lindsley. The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe. New York: Free Press, 1998.
Tsuruta, Kin'ya and Thomas E. Swann, eds. Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel. Tokyo: Sophia University Press, 1976.
Watanabe, Hiroshi. Oe Kenzaburo. Tokyo: Shinbisha, 1973.
Wilson, Michiko. The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques. Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1986.
Yoshida, Sanroku. “Oe Kenzaburo: A New World of Imagination.” Comparative Literature Studies (1985).
Wilson, Michiko N. “Kenzaburo Oe: An Imaginative Anarchist with a Heart.” Georgia Review (Spring 1995).
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.'"
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Antioch Review, Summer 2003.
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Booklist, August 1996; December 1, 2002.
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OE, Kenzaburo. Japanese, b. 1935. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Essays. Career: Novelist and short story writer, 1952-. Awarded Nobel Prize for Literature, 1994. Publications: IN ENGLISH: Shiiku (novella; Title means: The Catch), 1958; Hiroshima Notes (essays), 1963; Adventures in Daily Life (fiction), 1964; Kojinteki na taiken (fiction), 1964; Man'en gannen no futtoboru (fiction; title means: Football in the First Year of Mannen), 1967; Personal Matter, 1968; Silent Cry, 1974; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, 1977; The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, 1984; (ed.) Fire from the Ashes, 1985; Pinch Runner Memorandum, 1994; Japan, the Ambiguous and Myself (lectures), 1995; Nip the Bud, Shoot the Kids, 1995; Quiet Life, 1996. Also writes in Japanese. Address: 585 Seijomachi, Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo, Japan.