A Personal Matter

by Kenzaburō Ōe

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Characters Discussed

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Bird, a twenty-seven-year-old graduate school dropout who is now a cram-school teacher. Small, thin, and round-shouldered, with a pointed nose, thin lips, cold eyes, and a squawky voice, he still uses the nickname given to him in adolescence. Feeling caged, Bird resisted his marriage by indulging in a four-month drunk and dropping out of graduate school. The birth of his first son, with serious abnormalities, confronts him with a moral dilemma. Instead of killing his child, he decides to stop running away from responsibility and takes both his wife and his child home to an uncertain future.


Himiko, a former college girlfriend of Bird. Now widowed and a full-time sexual adventuress, she takes Bird in during his initial shock at the birth of his baby with two heads. She becomes smitten with his fantasy of escape to Africa and encourages him to destroy the unfortunate child. When Bird assumes full responsibility for the child, she departs for Africa.

Bird’s wife

Bird’s wife, who gives birth to a malformed son later named Kikuhiko. Nameless and blameless, she is the target of Bird’s intense sense of lacking and dissatisfaction in his life.

Bird’s father-in-law

Bird’s father-in-law, the retired chair of the English department at a small private college. Although he got Bird his teaching job, he also undermines Bird’s success by giving him a bottle of liquor the day the baby is born.

Bird’s mother-in-law

Bird’s mother-in-law, who attends her daughter at the birth. She wants to conceal the nature of the baby’s deformity from Bird’s wife.

The Characters

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All of the other characters in A Personal Matter are seen through Bird’s eyes and are important because of their relationship to his central conflict. His wife, her parents, and his son all demand that he mature. Because of his past irresponsibility, his wife and her parents have no reason to trust him. His father-in-law, formerly the chairman of an English department, saw Bird disintegrate after marriage, quitting graduate school and indulging in a long period of drunkenness. It was the father-in-law who arranged Bird’s present job, which Bird does not even attempt to retain after his misfortune in class. Although the mother-in-law does not rebuke Bird, it is obvious that she, not Bird, is the wife’s support during labor and recuperation from childbirth. Bird’s wife at one point tells him that he has never thought of anyone but himself; when the time comes, she predicts, he will be neither responsible nor courageous. Bird, she knows, will let her down. Looking at the baby, Bird feels curiosity, not tenderness. He is convinced that either in the act which produced the child or in some act which will destroy him, he will let down his son as he has his wife and her parents. None of these characters who need to depend on Bird is really individualized; instead, they constitute four voices who attempt to call forth Bird’s adult self but, until the end of the novel, find him to be only a child.

Three characters, themselves deniers of responsibility, encourage Bird to run away as they have done. Kikuhiko appears briefly as the proprietor of a gay bar. His answer to the besetting fears of his own childhood has been to reject the demands of society. Himiko’s lesbian friend has also learned to avoid guilt by refusing to be committed to anything. The most vivid of the characters who counsel flight, Himiko, is particularly interesting because she has constructed an elaborate philosophical argument which permits her to detach herself from the results of...

(This entire section contains 430 words.)

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any act which she has performed. Bird suspects that her philosophy, as well as her promiscuous and purposeless life-style, is the result of her unresolved feelings about the suicide of her young husband. As Himiko talks, her own insecurity is revealed, and as she engages in desperate sexual exploits, her unhappiness is plain.

Finally, Bird must choose between the two sets of characters. The revelation of Himiko’s dissatisfaction with her own life is important, because it indicates that Bird made the right choice when he rejected her and her values.


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Falke, Wayne. “Japanese Tradition in Kenzabur e’s A Personal Matter,” in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction. XV, no. 3 (1974), pp. 43-52.

Kimball, Arthur G. Crisis in Identity and Contemporary Japanese Novels, 1973.

Wilson, Michiko N. The Marginal World of e Kenzabur: A Study in Themes and Techniques, 1986.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search of Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, 1978.




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