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Kenzaburo Oe (1935-)


Japanese novelist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Oe has often dealt with marginal people and outcasts and isolation from individual level to social and cultural levels. Another central theme - as in the works of a number of other Japanese writers - is the conflict between traditions and modern Western culture.

"My observation is that after one hundred and twenty years of modernisation since the opening of the country, present-day Japan is split between two opposite poles of ambiguity. I too am living as a writer with this polarisation imprinted on me like a deep scar." (from Nobel Lecture, 1994)

Kenzaburo Oe was born in a mountain village on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main Japanese islands, where his family had lived for centuries. The village and the forests surrounding it later inspired several of Oe's pastoral works. Oe's father died in the Pacific war in 1944, and in the same year he lost his grandmother, who had taught him art and oral performance. After attending a local school, Oe transferred to a high school in Matsuyama City. He won an admission to the University of Tokyo, where he studied French literature and received his B.A. in 1959. His final-year thesis was on the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre. Another important French writer for Oe was Albert Camus.

During these years he started to write and explore his childhood, when the World War II had filled his mind with horror and excitement. His early works expressed the of the degradation and disorientation caused by Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. Sex and violence labelled his depiction of rootless young people. Oe wanted to experiment with language and create a new way of literary expression, which would capture the social and psychological changes that took place in his home country. He also had to cope with a personal handicap, the inferiority complex of a shy young man from the country, who stuttered and spoke with heavy Shokoku accent.

Oe's first novel Memushiri kouchi (1958, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids), which has been compared to Golding's Lord of the Flies and Camus's The Plague, and won the Akutagawa Prize given to young writers of fiction. Between 1958 and 1964, Oe wrote several stories that reflected the life of a college student, but they did not gain critical success. In 1960 he travelled to China as a member of Japan-China Literary delegation. Later Oe created contacts to Chinese dissident writers living in the United States. In the 1960s, Oe joined New Left movement. He became one of most important the voices of the postwar generation. Oe's strong sense of social involvement led him in the anti-American Security Treaty protests in 1960, he was an antinuclear spokesman and involved in radical causes. Although gaining the status of highly influential political writer, Oe never joined any political party.

In his early novels Oe explored the nature of antisocial violence as well as perverse sexuality, as in his 1958 novella Memushiri kouchi. In an early story, Shiiku (1958, Prize Stock), the hero is propelled from the innocent world of childhood into adulthood by various acts of madness, raging from the madness of war to the temporary insanity of his father, who murders a prisoner of war with an ax. Themes of madness appear in his works as metaphors for the human condition, among them Hiroshima noto (1964), an essay about the public madness of nuclear warfare. Sora no kaibutsu Aguī (1964, Agwhee the Sky Monster) was a sly variation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (1898), where a young father, a composer, has allowed his child to die at the hands of unscrupulous doctors and is visited by a ghost baby called Aghwee. The tale is narrated by a young student who has been hired to watch the composer.

Right-wing activism was Oe's subject in Sevuntīn (1961, Seventeen), which was based on an actual historical incident. The protagonist is a pathetic adolescent. Involved in terrorism, he assassinates a socialist politician and then kills himself in the emperor's name. Later Oe returned to the theme in the novella The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. This work, which has been counted as one of the most "difficult" texts for reader or translator in modern Japanese literature, was a sustained attack on the famous writer Mishima Yukio, who attempted a right-wing coup in 1970 and subsequently committed suicide by seppuku. The English translator of the book, John Nathan, has described meeting Oe at a party at Mishima's house during which Oe insulted the host. Oe has has contested the claim. The novella also criticizes the emperor system, and warns of the dangers of fanatical beliefs.

Oe married in 1960 Yakari Itami; they had three children. His wife is the younger sister of Juzo Itami, an acclaimed director of such films as Tampopo, The Funeral and A Taxing Woman. In 1963 he became the father of a baby boy, Hikari (which means 'light'), who was born with congenital abnormality of the skull. When the doctors advised Oe and his wife to let Hikari die, he rejected their advice. The birth of Hikari was a turning point in Oe's life and in his literary career. Much of Oe's later fiction examined relationship between disabled and nondisabled people. Hikari turned out to be exceptionally gifted in music, and he is acknowledged as one of the most famous composers in Japan.

"He was that kind of man: no one would find it odd that he should let his wife go alone to a party while he remained in his study working on a translation (something, in fact, that we were collaborating on)." (from The Silent Cry)

Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967, The Silent Cry) won the Tanizaki Junichiro Prize. It depicted two urban brothers, who return to their village in the mountains. From The Silent Cry Oe became increasingly interested in rural folk legends. Kojinteki na taiken (A Personal Matter, translated into English in 1968), was received enthusiastically in America. Bird, the novel's protagonist, is a young man who dreams of exploring Africa and attempts to escape the responsibility of having fathered a brain-damaged child. Bird plots with an old girlfriend to murder the child. In the course of the story, he grows up but befoe it he has a marathon sex session and vomits in front of his students.

Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo (1969), consisting of four novellas, won the Noma Literary Prize, and was translated into English entitled Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness in 1978. In Pinchi ran'nā chōsho (1976) a father and idiot son lead an army of marginals against the Japanese establishment. Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (1973) won the Naoma Literary Prize. Atarashii hito yo, mezameyo (1983) marked the return to the life of musically talented Hikari, who was turning twenty. The Japanese critics named it the book of the year and it received the Osaragi Jiro Prize for non-fiction. A Quiet Life (1996) had again autobiographical elements. A famous Japanese writer, whose first name begins with K, leaves his mentally retarded son in the care of his daughter Ma-Chan, to spend a year in the University of California as a writer in residence. Ma-Chan writes her thoughts in a diary. "Regardless of which elements are fact and which are fiction, ''A Quiet Life'' belongs to the literary genre of the confession; by rediscovering the family life he has neglected, a writer comes to terms with the human losses he has suffered in the course of gaining literary eminence." (John David Morley in The New York Times, November 17, 1996)

Oe has also published essays and short stories. His first book after the Nobel Prize, The Healing Family, tells about his son Hikari. His major works from the 1990s include trilogy Moeagaru midori no ki, an exploration of themes of faith and salvation, with complex allusions to William Blake, Dante, and William Butler Yeats. Oe has once said "Yeats is the writer in whose wake I would like to follow." Chiryou tou (1990) was a dystopian novel. Chūgaeri (1999, Somersault), about a movement called the Church of the New Man, was based on the nerve gas attack on the metro in 1995 in Tokyo. A religious doomsday cult was responsible for the act of terrorism, in which twelve people were killed. Although Oe is considered by many the finest writer in Japan today, his social criticism has been rejected.

Oe has travelled abroad widely. In 1961 he travelled to Western and Eastern Europe, in 1965 and 1968 to the United States, in 1968 to Australia, and in 1970 Southeast Asia. He has been visiting professor at the Colegio de México, Mexico City in 1976, and the University of California at Berkely. In 1989 the Europelia Arts Festival named Oe the recipient of the Europelia Award.

For further reading: Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, ed. by K. Tsuruta and T. Swann (1976); Oe Kenzaburo and Contemporary Japanese Literature by Hisaaki Yamanouchi (1986); The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo by M.N. Wilson (1986); Escape from the Wasteland by Susan Jolliffe Napier (1991); Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier (1993); The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe by Lindsley Cameron (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 3, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English, ed. by Olive Classe (2000) - Other Japanese writer awarded with the Nobel Prize: Yasunari Kawabata - See: William Blake, whose mystical poems and prophesies (Book of Thiel etc.) inspired Kenzaburo Oe when he was writing  Atarashii hito yo, mezameyo (Awake, New Man).

Selected works:

  • 'Shisha no ogori', 1957 (short story)
    - Lavish Are the Dead (tr. 1965)
  • 'Kimyo na shigoto', 1957 (short story)
  • 'Shiiku', 1958 (short story)
    - The Catch, in The Catch and Other War Stories (edited by Saeki Shoichi) / Prize Stock (translated by John Nathan, in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, 1977)
  • Miru mae ni tobe, 1958
  • Memushiri kouchi, 1958
    - Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh, Maki Sugiyama, 1995)
  • Warera no jidai, 1959
  • Seinen no omei, 1959
  • Sevuntīn, 1961
    - Seventeen (in Two Novels, translated by Luk Van Haute, 1996)
  • Seiji Shōnen shisu, 1961 (published in Bungakukai)
  • Okurete kita seinen, 1962
  • Sakebigoe, 1962
  • Sekai no Wakamono tachi, 1962
  • Seiteki ningen, 1963
  • Nichijo seikatsu no boken, 1964
  • Sora no kaibutsu Aguī, 1964
    - Aghwee the Sky Monster (translated by John Nathan, in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, 1977)
  • Kojinteki na taiken, 1964
    - A Personal Matter (translated by John Nathan, 1968)
  • Hiroshima noto, 1965
    - Hiroshima Notes (translated by David L. Swain, Toshi Yonezawa, 1982)
  • Genshuku na tsunawatari, 1965
  • Man'en gan'nen no futtobōru, 1967
    - The Silent Cry (translated by John Bester, 1974)
  • Ōe Kenzaburō zensakuhin, 1966-67 (6 vols.)
  • Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo, 1969
    - Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels (contains The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away; Prize Stock; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness; Aghwee the Sky Monster, translated by John Nathan, 1977)
  • Chichi yo anata wa doko e ikuno ka?, 1968
  • Jizokusuru kokorozashi, 1968
  • Kowaremono toshiteno ningen, 1970
  • Okinawa nōto, 1970
  • Kakujidai no sozouryoku, 1970
  •  Mizukara waga namida wo nuguitamau hi, 1971
  • Genbakugo no ningen, 1971
  • Doujidai toshiteno sengo, 1972
  • Waga namida o nuguitamu hi, 1972
    - The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away (translated by John Nathan, in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, 1977)
  • Kujira no shimetsusuru hi, 1972
  • Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi, 1973 (2 vols.)
  • Dojidai to shite no sengo, 1973
  • Jokyo e, 1974
  • Bungaku noto, 1974
  • Kotoba ni yotte: Jokyo/Bungaku, 1976
  • Pinchi ran'nā chōsho, 1976
    - The Pinch Runner Memorandum (translated by Michiko N. Wilson and Michael K. Wilson, 1994)
  • Shosetsu no hoho, 1978
  • Dojidai gemu, 1979
  • Gendai denkishu, 1980
  • Oe Kenzaburo dojidai ronshu, 1981
  • Shomotsu—sekai no in'yu, 1981 (with Yujiro Nakamura and Masao Yamaguchi)
  • Chushin to shuen, 1981 (with Yujiro Nakamura and Masao Yamaguchi)
  • Bunka no kasseika, 1982 (with Yujiro Nakamura and Masao Yamaguchi)
  • Hiroshima kara Oiroshima e: '82 Yōroppa, 1982
  • Kaku no taika to ”ningen” no koe, 1982
  • "Ame no ki (Rain Tree)" o kiku onna-tachi , 1982
  • Atarashii hito yo, mezameyo, 1983
    - Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age (translated by John Nathan, 2002)
  • Ikani ki wo korosu ka, 1984
  • Nihon Gendai no Yumanisuto Watanabe Kazuo o Yomu, 1984
  • Ikikata no teigi: Futatabi jokyo e, 1985
  • Shosetsu no takurami, Chi no Tanoshimi, 1985
  • Kaba ni kamareru, 1985
  • The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, 1985 (ed.)
  • M/T to mori no fushigi no monogatari, 1986
    - M/T ja kertomus Metsän ihmeestä (suom. Kai Nieminen, 1995)
  • Natsukashī tosi eno tegami, 1987
  • Saigo no syousetu, 1988
  • Atarashii bungaku no tame ni, 1988
  • Kirupu no gundan, 1988
  • Jinsei no shinseki, 1989
    - An Echo of Heaven (translated by Margaret Mitsutani, 1996)
  • Shizuka-na seikatsu, 1990
    - A Quiet Life (translated by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall, 1996)
  • Chiryou tou, 1990
  • Jinsei no habitto, 1992
  • Boku ga hontou ni wakakatta koro, 1992
  • Moeagaru midori no ki, 1993
  • Shosetsu no keiken, 1994
  • Kaifukusuru kazoku, 1995
    - A Healing Family, 1996 (translated by Stephen Snyder, ill. by Yukari Oe, 1996)
    - Hikarin perhe (suom. Jaana Kapari, 1997)
  • Gestern, vor 50 Jahren - Ein deutsch-japanischer Briefwechsel, 1995 (with Günter Grass)
    - Just Yesterday, Fifty Years Ago (translated by John Barrett, 1999)
  • Aimai na Nihon no watashi, 1995
    - Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, 1995
  • Nihongo to Nihonjin no kokoro, 1996
  • Watakushi to iu shosetsuka no tsukurikata, 1998
  • Chugaeri, 1999
    - Somersault (translated by Philip Gabriel, 2003)
  • Torikae ko (Chenjiringu), 2001
    - The Changeling (translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm, 2010)
  • Iigataki nageki mote, 2001
  • Ureigao no warabe, 2002
  • Nihyakunen no kodomo, 2003
  • Sayonara, watashi no hon yo!, 2005
  • The Novels of Oe Kenzaburo, 2009 (edited by Yasuk Claremont)

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