Kenzaburō Ōe Biography


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Kenzabur e (oh-ay) was born in 1935 in the village of se 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 e 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 e’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, e would reply, “I would die, Sir. I would cut open my belly and die.” So the truth of the emperor’s divinity, as e 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.

In 1954, e 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. e’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). e 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 Withdrawn by nature and ashamed of his provincial accent and his stutter, he remained a loner.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.

e’s first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, 1995), reflects his provincial background...

(The entire section is 817 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 767 words.)