World Literature

Kenzaburo Oe

 

BORN: 1935, Ehime, Shikoku, Japan

NATIONALITY: Japanese

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Prize Stock (1958)

A Personal Matter (1964)

The Silent Cry (1967)

An Echo of Heaven (1989)

Somersault (1999)

 

 

Kenzaburo Oe. Kenzaburo Oe, 1999, photograph. AP Images.

 

Overview

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 Troru 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 Juzro 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).

Wole Soyinka (1934-): Soyinka is a Nigerian writer considered by many to be Africa's best playwright. In 1986 he became the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Elvis Presley (1935-1977): Presley was an American musician and actor who has been a major cultural icon since his early career.

Vaclav 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’ichiro 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 Mexico 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 ofstructuralist methodology begins with Dojidai 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 ‘‘defam- iliarization’’ 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 Levi-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 shisho 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.

 

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.

 

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 Francois 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 Garcia Marquez.

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

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. 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.

4. 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?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Cameron, Lindsley. The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

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).

Periodicals

Wilson, Michiko N. ‘‘Kenzaburo Oe: An Imaginative Anarchist with a Heart.’’ Georgia Review (Spring 1995).