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.
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.
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."