A Personal Matter

by Kenzaburō Ōe

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Critical Context

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Contemporary Japanese fiction is preoccupied with the relationship between tradition and the modern world. From a hierarchical society in which behavior was governed by a strict and unchanging code, Japan has changed to a Westernized culture in which for many people there are no moral and social guides. Some novelists now emphasize the need for retaining traditional Japanese values and customs even in a changing society. Others, such as Kenzabur e, accepting the loss of the old society, follow their characters in a search for individual standards.

The winner of both the Akutagawa Prize, while he was still a student, and later of the prestigious Tanizaki Prize, e has been critically praised for his work in various genres, including essays, short stories, and novels. His first significant work, the short story “Shiiku” (“The Catch”), published in 1958, revealed a sympathy with the outcast: The story deals with a black American airman whose plane crashes near a Japanese village during World War II. In 1963, e’s first child was born with a severe disability requiring surgery not unlike that described in A Personal Matter. Images of estrangement and deformity recur throughout his fiction, often in connection with the threat of nuclear annihilation—a foretaste of which e had when he went to Hiroshima in the early 1960’s to write about survivors of the atom bomb. Because he addresses problems which affect young people throughout the world, it is not surprising that e is becoming increasingly well-known in the West.

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