Kenzaburō Ōe

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Last Updated on July 22, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

Kenzaburo Oe (oh-ay) was born in 1935 in the village of Ose on the island of Shikoku, Japan, the smallest and most isolated of the four main islands. The third son of seven children, he was six when Japan entered fully into World War II. On August 6, 1945, when Oe was ten years old, the United States Army dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito for the first time spoke on the radio in a “human voice,” announcing the unconditional surrender of Japan. This event was a defining moment in Oe’s life. Up until then, he had been taught, like all Japanese schoolchildren, to fear the emperor as a god and to promise to die for him if he were asked. Every day his turn came to be called to the front of the classroom and be asked: “What would you do if the emperor commanded you to die?” Trembling, Oe would reply, “I would die, Sir. I would cut open my belly and die.” So the truth of the emperor’s divinity, as Oe had been taught it, was declared a lie. He felt betrayed, and his anger became his motivation as a writer as he witnessed the suffering of many Japanese people who were affected by the war.

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In 1954, Oe entered Tokyo University, where he majored in French literature. While there, he published his first story in the student newspaper and received the May Festival Prize for it. Oe’s first commercially published story, “Shisha no ogori” (1957; “Lavish the Dead,” 1965), missed the coveted Akutagawa Prize by one vote, but he did win that prize the following year for his acclaimed story “Shiiku” (1958; “The Catch,” 1966). Oe was a brilliant student of language and philosophy, but he kept to himself. Withdrawn by nature and ashamed of his provincial accent and his stutter, he remained a loner. He lived in a rooming house near the campus, where at night he set about pursuing his writing career in earnest.

Oe’s first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, 1995), reflects his provincial background and was favorably compared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). His next novel, Warera no jidai (1959; Our Age), brought the wrath of the critics down on Oe’s head. Critics deplored the bitter pessimism and honesty of the book, which was published at a time that was being heralded as a bright new beginning for Japan’s reemergence from the devastation of World War II.

In February, 1960, Oe married, and later that year he traveled to Beijing, China, as a representative of young Japanese writers. In 1961, he traveled to the Soviet Union and Western Europe. His fascination with European culture has been lifelong. In June, 1963, his first son, Hikari, was born with serious brain damage. Devastated, Oe put everything else aside and wrote Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter, 1968), for which he won the Shinchosha Literary Prize. The baby boy, whom he called “Pooh,” drastically altered his world. He describes his anguished relationship with the child in Warera no kyki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969, 1975; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, 1977).

While Hikari was growing up, a strong, intensely private bond developed between father and son. In a strange and painful way, Oe and this fragile, deformed child became each other’s best friend, embracing each other as if each carried the key to the other’s destiny. Shortly after Hikari was born, Oe ordered two gravestones to be placed side by side in the cemetery in his native village, for he was convinced that when Hikari died, he too would die.

In the summer of 1965, Oe traveled to the United States for the first time to participate in the Kissinger International Seminar at Harvard University and to deliver a speech about the survivors of Hiroshima. He also visited Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was a major influence on Oe’s work. In 1967, Oe published Man’en gan’nen no futtoboru (The Silent Cry, 1974) for which he won the Tanizaki Prize. In 1967, he also traveled to Australia, in 1968 to the United States, and in 1970 to Southeast Asia.

In 1973, e published a two-volume novel, Kzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (The Waters Have Come in Unto My Soul), which won the Noma Literary Prize. In 1976, he taught at the Colegio de Mexico as a visiting professor. That same year he published Pinchi ran’n chsho (The Pinch Runner Memorandum, 1994). Oe published a collection of short stories in 1980 and two others in 1982.

In 1989, the Belgium-based Europelia Arts Festival hosted Japan and named Oe the recipient of the Europelia Award.O e was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. In the announcement of his prize, Oe was described as an author “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

Kenzabur e (oh-ay) is Japan’s foremost existentialist writer and essayist, whose work deals with the plight of human beings set against the backdrop of postwar Japan. Born in the village of se on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan, e, the third of seven children, lost his father in 1944, and when the emperor acknowledged Japan’s defeat in his first-ever radio address on August 15, 1945, the boy experienced a complete collapse of his world.e, Kenzabur{omacr}[Oe, Kenzaburo]}e, Kenzabur{omacr}[Oe, Kenzaburo]}e, Kenzabur{omacr}[Oe, Kenzaburo]}

It was this sudden awakening to an uncaring universe devoid of a superhuman ruler that led to e’s study of French existentialism and such American writers as Henry Miller and Norman Mailer when he entered Tokyo University in 1954. He graduated with a degree in French literature in 1959. His marriage to Yukari Itami in 1960 produced three children. The fate of the oldest, a mentally disabled son named Hikari, is central to e’s fiction.

e’s 1958 novella, The Catch, turns to the war years, portraying the impossible friendship between a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner of war; it ends in an outburst of collective violence. This work cemented e’s national fame and won for him the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (e was the first student ever to be so honored). That same year he wrote Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, a story of reform-school boys who are abandoned in a remote village when a plague breaks out. The boys make themselves at home in the village, even performing childish versions of hunting ceremonies to ensure the town’s continued prosperity.

The year 1964 was a turning point for e’s work, for in this year the author began fictionalizing his life with his mentally disabled son. A Personal Matter is the seminal work of this period; here, the protagonist, Bird, tries to escape his fate through alcohol and adultery and even arranges to kill his son; in an act of courage, however, Bird returns to his wife and son. In The Silent Cry e makes a mentally disabled son peripheral to a grander saga of a rural rebellion, at the center of which are two brothers who trace their opposing natures through various generations of ancestors. In the collection of four short novels Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, the title work offers a mystic exploration of e’s obsessive topic: A father believes that he can feel the pain of his mentally disabled son, Eeyore. In another story of the collection, Aghwee the Sky Monster, a father follows through with the killing of his child. Life with a mentally disabled son is again e’s subject in the 1976 novel The Pinch Runner Memorandum, in which Mori, the son, is featured in a grotesque tale of fantastic realism. In Djidai gemu (the game of contemporaneity) and Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, e risks an analysis of Japanese culture, focusing first on its past, with a tale about a dissident tribe, and then trying to reshape the stylistics of Japan’s traditional “I novel.”

e’s singlemindedness of theme in much of his writing has met with criticism, as has his style, which matches his content in its deliberate frontal assault on the traditional values and stylistics of Japanese writing and fully incorporates modern and postmodern Western influences. Yet e’s literary skill, merciless exploration of his topic, and stylistic tours de force have brought him great national and international acclaim. In the fall of 1994 e was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his acceptance speech he talked about the power of literature, expressing regret only that in Japan his writing “has not had sufficient power to push back a rising tide of conformity.” The prize triggered the publication of an English translation of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids as well as two volumes of nonfiction. e subsequently completed a science-fiction trilogy titled Moeagaru midori no ki (the flaming green tree), and three other novels. Somersault was inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s release of sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway system in 1995; it revolves around the struggles within a religious cult between the elderly founders and a more militant wing which desires violent action.

In his essays e is an influential voice in the Japanese intellectual community, writing about such political issues as Hiroshima and World War II, as well as about such intellectual questions as the philosophy of existentialism. e is also an outspoken opponent of nuclear military installations, and participated in demonstrations against nuclear weapons.

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