Kenzaburō Ōe Ōe, Kenzaburō (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Ōe, Kenzaburō 1935-

Japanese novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, and critic.

One of the foremost figures in contemporary Japanese literature, Ōe is highly regarded for his innovative and intensely imagined fiction examining the sense of alienation and anxiety among members of the post-World War II generation in Japan. His writings are both profoundly intellectual and emotionally raw. Utilizing ideas from the philosophy of existentialism, Ōe portrays the agonies and dilemmas of his characters with concrete precision in ways that point to the universal significance of their suffering.

Biographical Information

Born in a small village on the western Japanese island of Shikoku, Ōe was raised in a prominent Samurai family. Like most Japanese children of his generation, he was taught to believe that the Emperor was a living god. When the Emperor personally announced in a radio broadcast Japan's surrender to the Allied military forces, Ōe and his schoolmates experienced a sense of devastation and disorientation which forever changed their perception of the world. He described his emotions of this period in his memoir Genshuku na tsunawatari (Solemnly Walking the Tightrope): "the strange and disappointing fact was that the Emperor spoke in a human voice like any ordinary man." While Ōe lamented the sense of humiliation and guilt which Japan's defeat and occupation by American troops imposed on his generation, he also embraced the values of democracy which were instilled through the educational system of the occupation forces. While a student at Tokyo University, Ōe read widely in both traditional Japanese and modern Western literature. He was particularly influenced by existentialist philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and by the American tradition of the "anti-hero" as represented in the works of such authors as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Shaped by his ambitious reading habits, Ōe became an unusually erudite and serious young author, and his early stories were awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes. A vocal anti-establishment, pro-democracy activist throughout his career as a writer, Ōe created a minor controversy in Japan when he rejected Japan's highest cultural honor—The Imperial Order of Culture, awarded days after he received the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature—because he considered it a symbolic relic of the Imperial system and "would not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy."

Major Works of Short Fiction

In many of his other short works Ōe depicts individuals who are alienated or isolated from a society that demands conformity and repression of desires—thus offering little opportunity for happiness. Detailing the life of a teenage boy who becomes a right-wing terrorist, "Sebunchin" ("Seventeen") explores modern youth's conflict with society, especially as manifested through violence as well as escapism in the form of masturbation and sexual promiscuity. Basing on the 1960 assassination of the chairman of Japan's Socialist party by a right-wing youth, this tale presents both political conservatives and liberals in an unflattering light. Other stories describe the damaging effects of nationalism and Japan's emperor system. In a subplot of "Mizu kara waga namida o nuquitamoo hi" ("The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away"), the incompetence and ineffectuality of the emperor drives a loyal subject to spur his leader into action by means of a surprise bombing of the palace. "Shiiku" ("The Catch") relates the story of a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner of war whose friendship is destroyed by the senselessness of war and hatred of a foreigner. Ōe also incorporates the theme of mental retardation—based on his own experiences with his impaired son—in some of his writings. For example, "Sora no kaibutsu aguwee" ("Aghwee the Sky Monster") tells of a father who helps arrange the euthanasia of his handicapped child before discovering that surgery would probably have improved the child' s quality of life. Another tale, "Warera no kyōki o ikiru michi o oshieyo" ("Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness"), depicts a father who becomes so close to his mentally retarded son that he is convinced he directly experiences any physical pain his son feels.

Critical Reception

Ōe began to attract the attention of critics while still a university student and has garnered awards for his novels and short fiction throughout his career. Nevertheless, he has offended some Japanese readers with his controversial writing style and his questioning of cultural mores and the political system of their country. In the preface to Ōe's Kojinteki na taiken (A Personal Matter), John Nathan points out that "Ōe consciously interferes with the tendency to vagueness which is considered inherent in the Japanese language. He violates its natural rhythms; he pushes the meaning of words to their furthest acceptable limits. .. . But that is to be expected: his entire stance is an assault on traditional values. The protagonist of his fiction is seeking his identity in a perilous wilderness, and it is fitting that his language should be just what it is—wild, unresolved, but never less than vital."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

*"Shiiku" ["Prize Stock"; also translated as "The Catch"] 1958

"Sebunchin" ["Seventeen"] (novella) 1961

"Chichi yo anata wa doko e ikuno ka?" ["Father, Where Are You Going?"] 1968

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness 1977

Atarashii hito yo mezameyo [O Rouse Up, Young Men of the New Age] 1983

"J" and "Seventeen" (novellas) 1995

*Originally translated as "The Catch" in Saeki Shoichi's antnology The Shadow of Sunrise, 1966.

†Contains translations of stories that were initially published over several years: "Prize Stock"; "Aghwee the Sky Monster" ("Sora no kaibutsu aguwee," 1964); "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness" ("Warera no kyōki o ikiru michi o oshieyo," 1969); and "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" ("Mizu kara waga namida o nuquitamoo hi," 1971).

Other Major Works

Memushiri kouchi [Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids] (novel) 1958

Warera no jidai [Our Age] (novel) 1959

Okurete kita seinen [The Youth Who Came Late] (novel) 1961

SakebigŌe [Outcries] (novel) 1962

Kojinteki na taiken [A Personal Matter] (novel) 1964

Hiroshima nōto [Hiroshima Notebook] (journal) 1965

Man'en gannen no futtobōru [The Silent Cry; also referred to as The Football Game of the First Year of Manen] (novel) 1967

Nichijo seikatsu no bōken [Adventures of Everyday Life] (novel) 1971

Kozui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi [The Waters Have Come in unto My Soul] (novel) 1973

Genshuku na tsunawatari [Solemnly Walking the Tightrope] (essays) 1974

Seinen no omei (novel) 1974

Pinchiranna chōsho [The Pinchrunner Memorandum] (novel) 1976

Dōjidai geemu [The Game of Contemporaneity; also translated as The CŌeval Game] (novel) 1979

The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath [editor] (short stories) 1984

Natsukashii toshi e no tegami (novel) 1987

Frederick Richter (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Circles of Shame: 'Sheep' by Ōe Kenzaburō," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 4, Fall, 1974, pp. 409-15.

[In the following essay, Richter examines the role of shame in the short story "Sheep. "]

On the surface it is paradoxical that Ōe Kenzaburō (b. 1935), a spokesman for the Japanese New Left, admirer of Mao, and student of Sartrean Existentialism, should give thematic treatment to anything quite so traditional as the notion of "shame," a complex emotional response to a variety of situations in Japanese society. Although very much the modern writer and liberated from many of the complexes that burdened older literary figures such as Tanizaki Jun'ichirō and Mishima Yukio, Ōe, in the short story "Sheep," directly confronts the experience of shame with power, subtlety, and insight. Whereas other major Japanese writers generally deal with shame as incidental to their primary thematic concerns, only as part of the psychological makeup of their characters, Ōe pushes his creations headlong into shameful situations where reader and characters are afforded a deeper insight into the na ture of shame, and at times a full-fledged revelation oc curs in which the self is strengthened and achieves a new identity through the ordeal. The originality of Ōe's achievement in his young career lies in the fusion of shame in its traditional setting, calling for a traditional interpretation, with an understanding of shame informed and shaped by Sartrean Existentialism, with its implications for the self in the world.

In The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, Ruth Benedict's very useful but at times overly abstract analysis of Japanese behavioral patterns, shame is clearly given primacy over guilt. Japanese culture is one in which shame is the major sanction for social behavior. Shame, external in nature, is opposed to the internalized conviction of sin. Shame requires an audience, either an actual audience or one that is fantasized. Furthermore, a major difference between guilt and shame is that the latter cannot be relieved by confession or expiation. Shame in Japanese culture, Benedict argues, occurs when there is a failure to balance obligations or to foresee contingencies. Benedict's analysis is applicable in large part to Japanese culture, but it dŌes not cover all the ramifications and complexities of shame which also may be present in the context of Japanese life.

Helen Merrell Lynd's study of shame [On Shame and the Search for Identity, 1958] delves into the experience more extensively. Of the many characteristics she lists for shame and guilt a good number are relevant and are applicable to Japanese culture. First of all, shame and guilt are not opposites; although linked at times, they are distinguishable. Shame is quite often visual exposure, usually physical and sexual in nature. Shame, moreover, involves the whole self, caught up in a diffused anxiety and the sense that one is put upon by life. Guilt, on the other hand, is more related to specific acts, where a transgression is involved. Nor would external and internal differentiae seem to be the crucial criteria. Although an external observer is always presumed to be present, this is not always the case in the ordinary sense of the word, for the "Other" may simply be oneself, especially where there is a failure to reach an ideal, with a resulting sense of inadequacy. This last is particularly applicable to Ōe's longer work, A Personal Matter.

In "Sheep" the structure of shame as embodied in the narrative reveals in part aspects of the above discussion, but also our knowledge of shame is further extended by the very act of communication to us through the medium of art. The story tells of a young man returning home on a bus one dark, foggy night. On the bus is a group of foreign soldiers accompanied by a Japanese prostitute. The young man suddenly becomes the object of the prostitute's attentions and as a result one of the soldiers becomes angry and forces the young man to bend over with his bare buttocks exposed. This greatly amuses the soldiers and soon other male passengers are forced to join the lineup of helpless victims. The soldiers tire of their game and finally leave the bus. One of those watching this disgraceful exhibition, a school teacher, seeks to expose the young man's shame to the public and seeks justice for the soldiers' crude conduct. The young man refuses to cooperate with the police, however, and he attempts to escape to his home and gain relief from the entire ordeal, but the teacher follows him and vows never to relent until he has learned the young man's name and has made his shame public, while bringing the soldiers to justice.

Here shame can be seen as operating on three levels, or circles, inasmuch as the experience of shame is one that envelops, surrounds the entire self and one either wishes to disappear or to break through the circle and escape from the shameful situation. The circles of shame in "Sheep" are distinct but reveal a partial overlap. One of the necessary constituents of a shameful experience is an observer with his own particular values and social status, or at least an awareness and implicit understanding of such is lodged in the consciousness of the observed, the second element in the shameful situation. The observed at least automatically assumes that the observer possesses similar values. The observed is self-conscious, inclusive of the observer, the observer existing in either fact or fantasy. The third constituent is that of the context in which the observed and the observer interact. Given the same observer and observed, but a different context, the experience of shame may be entirely absent. In "Sheep" two circles that are present at the beginning overlap almost completely. The young man is the observed in the eyes of the foreign soldiers (I will touch on the allegorical implications of this later), and he feels anger and helplessness at being exposed by them. Secondly there is the circle of observers constituted by his fellow Japanese passengers on the bus. Their perception of the situation is of course colored by their values and cultural outlook that they share with the young man; again this is within the mind of the observed, but it is also an objective fact. This is the primary experience of shame that lies at the center of the two circles. It is important to emphasize that the significance of the shameful situation bears a difference for each group. The young man is ridiculed in public, thereby not differing from a shameful situation that could be termed a traditional setting, although universal in range. The foreign soldiers, however, as perpetrators of the incident, and the existence of the school teacher, who wishes to be more than a passive observer, change the situation from what might have been left as a terrifying and incongruous experience of shameful physical exposure to another circle on a...

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Hisaaki Yamanouchi (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Abe Kōbō and Ōe Kenzaburö: The Search for Identity in Contemporary Japanese Literature," in Modern Japan: Aspects of History, Literature and Society, edited by W. G. Beasley, University of California Press, 1975, pp. 166-84.

[Yamanouchi is a Japanese educator and author. Here, the critic details various literary methods employed in the works of Abe Köbö and Ōe and explores thematic parallels between the two authors, including alienation, isolation, and the search for identity.]

The literary scene in Japan during the last five years or so has been eventful. The award to Kawabata Yasunari (1898-1972) of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 brought...

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Kenzaburō Ōe with Sanroku Yoshida (interview date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in World Literature Today, Vol. 62, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 369-74.

[In the following interview, which was conducted in 1986, Ōe discusses such topics as the literary and cultural forces that have influenced him and the style and techniques of his fiction.]

[Sanroku Yoshida]: I met with Yōtarō Konaka yesterday. He said that recently Japanese society has created a peculiar mood in which it is rather difficult to discuss matters antinuclear, and that one may be considered childish or immature if one is antinuclear. The major theme of your Flood unto My Soul (1973), The Pinchrunner (1976), and other works is the deracination of...

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Michiko N. Wilson (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Device of Repetition: In Quest of Dialogic Narrative," in The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986, pp. 61-82.

[In the excerpt below, Wilson studies the narrative structureespecially the function of repetitionin "Father, Where Are You Going?," "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, " and "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away. "]

"Father, Where Are You Going?" ("Chichi yo, anata wa doko e ikuno ka?," 1968, hereafter "Father"), "Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness" ("Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo," 1969, hereafter "Teach Us"), and "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears...

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Susan J. Napier (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Death and the Emperor: Mishima, Ōe, and the Politics of Betrayal," in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1, February, 1989, pp. 71-89.

[In the essay below, Napier analyzes the contrasting roles that the Japanese Emperor plays in the works of Ōe and Yukio Mishima. While Ōe is severely critical of the imperial system, Mishima, who came of age during the 1930s, supports the Emperor for patriotic reasons.]

In Japan in the late 1980s, a society that is arguably one of the most modern, pragmatic, and materialist in the world, the problem of the emperor system initially seems almost irrelevant. And yet the imperial house continues to excite...

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Reiko Tachibana Nemoto (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Ōe Kenzaburô's My Tears: A Study in Convergence," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1993, pp. 740-66.

[In this essay, Nemoto compares Ōe's "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, arguing that the two works use similar techniques to critique the actions of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany in World War II.]

The German novelist Günter Grass (b. 1927) and the Japanese novelist Ōe Kenzaburö (b. 1935) are equally well known for their political activism and their writing. They met each other in Japan in 1978, for an interview conducted through the...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Wilson, Michiko N. "Selected Bibliography." In his The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburö: A Study in Themes and Techniques, pp. 145-49. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1986.

List works by Ōe, including stories, and sources of critical commentary.


Sakurai, Emiko. "Kenzaburö: The Early Years." World Literature Today 58, No. 3 (Summer 1984): 370-73.

Surveys Ōe's life and career through 1960.


Gold, Ivan. "A Ray from the Rising Sun." Book World—The Washington Post (11 September 1977): E4.


(The entire section is 280 words.)