Kenzaburō Ōe

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Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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 Withdrawn by nature and ashamed of his provincial accent and his stutter, he remained a loner.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....

(The entire section is 1,585 words.)