Ōe in 2012
|Born||31 January 1935 (age 85)|
Ōse, Ehime, Japan
|Occupation||Novelist, short-story writer, essayist|
|Notable works||A Personal Matter, The Silent Cry|
|Notable awards||Nobel Prize in Literature |
Kenzaburō Ōe (大江 健三郎, Ōe Kenzaburō, born 31 January 1935) is a Japanese writer and a major figure in contemporary Japanese literature. His novels, short stories and essays, strongly influenced by French and American literature and literary theory, deal with political, social and philosophical issues, including nuclear weapons, nuclear power, social non-conformism, and existentialism. Ōe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 for creating "an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today".
Ōe was born in Ōse (大瀬村, Ōse-mura), a village now in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku. He was the third son of seven children. Ōe's grandmother taught him art and oral performance. His grandmother died in 1944, and later that year, Ōe's father died in the Pacific War. Ōe's mother became his primary educator, buying him books such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, whose impact Ōe says "he will carry to the grave".
Ōe remembers his elementary school teacher claiming that Emperor Hirohito was a living god, and asking him every morning, "What would you do if the emperor commanded you to die?" Ōe always replied, "I would die, sir. I would cut open my belly and die." At home in bed at night he would acknowledge his reluctance to die and feel ashamed. After the war, he realized he had been taught lies and felt betrayed. This sense of betrayal later appeared in his writing.
Ōe attended high school in Matsuyama. At the age of 18, he made his first trip to Tokyo and in the following year began studying French Literature at Tokyo University under the direction of Professor Kazuo Watanabe, a specialist on François Rabelais. Ōe began publishing stories in 1957, while still a student, strongly influenced by contemporary writing in France and the United States. He married in February 1960. His wife, Yukari, was the daughter of film director Mansaku Itami and sister of film director Juzo Itami. The same year he met Mao Zedong on a trip to China. He also went to Russia and Europe the following year, visiting Sartre in Paris.
In 1961, Ōe's novellas Seventeen and The Death of a Political Youth were published by a Japanese literary magazine. Both were inspired by seventeen-year-old Yamaguchi Otoya, who assassinated the chairman of Japan's Socialist Party in 1960, and then killed himself in prison three weeks later.
Yamaguchi had admirers among the extreme right wing who were angered by The Death of a Political Youth and both Ōe and the magazine received death threats day and night for weeks. The magazine soon apologized to offended readers, but Ōe did not.
Ōe lives in Tokyo. He has three children; the eldest son, Hikari, has been brain-damaged since his birth in 1963, and his disability has been a recurring motif in Ōe's writings since.
In 1994 Ōe won the Nobel Prize in Literature and was named to receive Japan's Order of Culture. He refused the latter because it is bestowed by the Emperor. Ōe said, "I do not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy." Once again, he received threats.
In 2005, two retired Japanese military officers sued Ōe for libel for his 1970 essay, Okinawa Notes, in which he had written that members of the Japanese military had coerced masses of Okinawan civilians into committing suicide during the Allied invasion of the island in 1945. In March 2008, the Osaka District Court dismissed all charges against Ōe. In this ruling, Judge Toshimasa Fukami stated, "The military was deeply involved in the mass suicides". In a news conference following the trial, Ōe said, "The judge accurately read my writing."
Ōe has been involved with pacifist and anti-nuclear campaigns and has written books regarding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Hibakusha. After meeting prominent anti-nuclear activist Noam Chomsky at a Harvard degree ceremony, Ōe began his correspondence with Chomsky by sending him a copy of his Okinawa Notes. While also discussing Ōe’s Okinawa Notes, Chomsky’s reply included a story from his childhood. Chomsky wrote that when he first heard about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he could not bear a celebration for the bombing of Hiroshima, and he went in the woods and sat alone until the evening. Ōe later said in an interview that,” I’ve always respected Chomsky, but I respected him even more after he told me that,”. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, he urged Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to "halt plans to restart nuclear power plants and instead abandon nuclear energy". Ōe has said Japan has an "ethical responsibility" to abandon nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, just as it renounced war under its postwar Constitution. He has called for "an immediate end to nuclear power generation and warned that Japan would suffer another nuclear catastrophe if it tries to resume nuclear power plant operations". In 2013, he organized a mass demonstration in Tokyo against nuclear power. Ōe has also criticized moves to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which forever renounces war.
Ōe explained, shortly after learning that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, "I am writing about the dignity of human beings."
After his first student works set in his own university milieu, in the late 1950s he produced works such as Shiiku (飼育), about a black GI set upon by Japanese youth (made into a film, "The Catch" by Nagisa Oshima in 1961) and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, focusing on young children living in Arcadian transformations of Ōe's own rural Shikoku childhood. He later identified these child figures as belonging to the 'child god' archetype of Jung and Kerényi, which is characterised by abandonment, hermaphrodism, invincibility, and association with beginning and end. The first two characteristics are present in these early stories, while the latter two features come to the fore in the 'idiot boy' stories which appeared after the birth of Hikari.
Between 1958 and 1961 Ōe published a series of works incorporating sexual metaphors for the occupation of Japan. He summarised the common theme of these stories as "the relationship of a foreigner as the big power [Z], a Japanese who is more or less placed in a humiliating position [X], and, sandwiched between the two, the third party [Y] (sometimes a prostitute who caters only to foreigners or an interpreter)". In each of these works, the Japanese X is inactive, failing to take the initiative to resolve the situation and showing no psychological or spiritual development. The graphically sexual nature of this group of stories prompted a critical outcry; Ōe said of the culmination of the series Our Times, "I personally like this novel [because] I do not think I will ever write another novel which is filled only with sexual words."
Ōe's next phase moved away from sexual content, shifting this time toward the violent fringes of society. The works which he published between 1961 and 1964 are influenced by existentialism and picaresque literature, populated with more or less criminal rogues and anti-heroes whose position on the fringes of society allows them to make pointed criticisms of it. Ōe's admission that Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is his favorite book can be said to find a context in this period.
He explains, "I have always wanted to write about our country, our society and feelings about the contemporary scene. But there is a big difference between us and classic Japanese literature." In 1994, he explained that he was proud the Swedish Academy recognized the strength of modern Japanese literature and hoped the prize would encourage others.
According to Leo Ou-fan Lee writing in Muse, Ōe's latest works tend "toward bolder experiments with the technique of 'defamiliarization' by negotiating his narratives across several imaginary landscapes pertaining to painting, film, drama, music and architecture". Ōe believes that novelists have always worked to spur the imagination of their readers.
Ōe credits his son Hikari for influencing his literary career. Ōe tried to give his son a "voice" through his writing. Several of Ōe's books feature a character based on his son.
In Ōe's 1964 book, A Personal Matter, the writer describes the pain involved in accepting his brain-damaged son into his life. Hikari figures prominently in many of the books singled out for praise by the Nobel committee:
Hikari's life is the core of the first book published after Ōe was awarded the Nobel Prize. The 1996 book, A Healing Family, celebrates the small victories in Hikari's life.
Hikari was a strong influence on Father, Where are you Going?, Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, and The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away, three novels which rework the same premise—the father of a disabled son attempts to recreate the life of his own father, who shut himself away and died. The protagonist's ignorance of his father is compared to his son's inability to understand him; the lack of information about his father's story makes the task impossible to complete, but capable of endless repetition, and, "repetition becomes the fabric of the stories".
Ōe did not write much during the nearly two years (2006–2008) of his libel case. He is beginning a new novel, which The New York Times reported would feature a character "based on his father", a staunch supporter of the imperial system who drowned in a flood during World War II.
Ōe published a new book at the end of 2013. Named Bannen Yoshikishu and published by Kodansha (English title is In Late Style).
The novel is the sixth in a series with the main character of Kogito Choko, who can be considered Ōe's literary alter ego. The novel is also in a sense a culmination of the I-novels that Ōe has continued to write since his son was born mentally disabled in 1963.
In the novel, Choko loses interest in the novel he had been writing when the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami struck the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011. Instead, he begins writing about an age of catastrophe, as well as about the fact that he himself is approaching his late 70s.
In 2006, the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize was established to promote Japanese literary novels published in the last year. The winning work is selected solely by Ōe. The winner receives no cash award, but the novel is translated into other languages.
The number of Kenzaburo Ōe's works translated into English and other languages remains limited, so that much of his literary output is still only available in Japanese. The few translations have often appeared after a marked lag in time. Work of his has also been translated into Chinese, French, and German.
|Year||Japanese Title||English Title||Comments|
Kimyou na shigoto
|The Strange Work||His first short story|
Shisha no ogori
|Lavish Are The Dead||Short story|
Tanin no ashi
|Someone Else's Feet||Short story|
|Prize Stock / "The Catch"||Short story awarded the Akutagawa prize. Made into a film in 1961 by Nagisa Oshima and in 2011 by the Cambodian director Rithy Panh|
Miru mae ni tobe
|Leap before you look||Short story|
|Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids||His first novel|
|The sexual man (Also known as "J")||Short story|
Sora no kaibutsu Aguī
|Aghwee the Sky Monster||Short story|
Kojinteki na taiken
|A Personal Matter||Awarded the Shinchosha Literary Prize|
Genshuku na tsunawatari
|The Solemn Rope-walking||Essay|
Man'en gan'nen no futtobōru
|The Silent Cry(published title) Football in the first year of the Manen era(AD 1860) (literal translation)||Novel, awarded the Jun'ichirō Tanizaki prize|
Jizoku suru kokorozashi
Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo
|Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness|
Kowaremono toshiteno ningen
|A Human Being as a fragile article||Essay|
Kakujidai no sozouryoku
|Imagination of the Atomic Age||Talk|
Kujira no shimetsu suru hi
|The Day Whales Vanish||Essay|
Mizukara waga namida wo nuguitamau hi
|The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away|
Doujidai toshiteno sengo
|The Post-war Times as Contemporaries||Essay|
Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi
|The Flood Invades My Spirit||Awarded the Noma Literary Prize|
Pinchi ran'nā chōsho
|The Pinch Runner Memorandum|
|The Game of Contemporaneity|
|Sometimes the Heart of the Turtle|
Rein tsurī wo kiku on'natachi
|Women Listening to the "Rain Tree"||Awarded the Yomiuri Literary Prize|
Atarashii hito yo, mezameyo
|Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!||Awarded the Jiro Osaragi prize|
Ikani ki wo korosu ka
|How Do We Kill the Tree ?|
Kaba ni kamareru
|Bitten by the Hippopotamus||Awarded the Yasunari Kawabata Literary Prize|
M/T to mori no fushigi no monogatari
|M/T and the Narrative About the Marvels of the Forest|
Natsukashī tosi eno tegami
|Letters for Nostalgic Years|
'Saigo no syousetu'
|'The Last Novel'||Essay|
Atarashii bungaku no tame ni
|For the New Literature||Essay|
Kirupu no gundan
|The Army of Quilp|
Jinsei no shinseki
|An Echo of Heaven(published title)Relatives of life (literal translation)||Awarded the Sei Ito Literary Prize|
|The Tower of Treatment|
Shizuka na seikatsu
|A Quiet Life|
Chiryou tou wakusei
|The Tower of Treatment and the Planet|
Boku ga hontou ni wakakatta koro
|The Time that I Was Really Young|
'Sukuinushi' ga nagurareru made
|Until the Savior Gets Socked||燃えあがる緑の木 第一部 Moeagaru midori no ki dai ichi bu|
The Flaming Green Tree Trilogy I
|Vacillating||燃えあがる緑の木 第二部 Moeagaru midori no ki dai ni bu|
The Flaming Green Tree Trilogy II
Ōinaru hi ni
|On the Great Day||燃えあがる緑の木 第三部 Moeagaru midori no ki dai san bu|
The Flaming Green Tree Trilogy III
Aimai na Nihon no watashi
|Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures||Talk|
|A Healing Family||Essay with Yukari Oe|
Torikae ko (Chenjiringu)
'Jibun no ki' no shita de
|Under the "Tree of Mine"||Essay with Yukari Oe|
Ureigao no dōji
|The Infant with a Melancholic Face|
'Atarashii hito' no hou he
|Toward the "New Man"||Essay with Yukari Oe|
Nihyaku nen no kodomo
|The Children of 200 Years|
Sayōnara, watashi no hon yo!
|Farewell, My Books!|
Routashi Anaberu rī souke dachitu mimakaritu
|The Beautiful Annabel Lee was Chilled and Killed|
|Death by Water|
Bannen Youshiki shū (In Reito Sutairu)
|In Late Style|
Ōe's Nobel lecture on 7 December 1994 entitled "Aimai na Nihon no watashi" (Japan, the Ambiguous and Myself) began with a commentary on his life as a child and how he was fascinated by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, which he used to take his mind off from the terror of World War II. He described surviving various hardships by using writing as an escape, "representing these sufferings of mine in the form of the novel," and how his son Hikari similarly uses music as a method of expressing "the voice of a crying and dark soul."
Ōe dedicated a large portion of his speech to his opinion of Yasunari Kawabata's acceptance speech, saying that the vagueness of Kawabata's title and his discussions of the poems written by medieval Zen monks were the inspiration for the title of his acceptance speech. Ōe, however, stated that rather than feeling spiritual affinity with his compatriot Kawabata, he felt more affinity with the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, whose poetry had a significant effect on his writings and his life, even being a major inspiration for his trilogy, A Flaming Green Tree and the source of its title. Ōe stated, "Yeats is the writer in whose wake I would like to follow." He mentioned that based on his experiences of Japan, he cannot utter in unison with Kawabata the phrase "Japan, the Beautiful and Myself". Ōe also discussed the revival of militaristic feelings in Japan and the necessity for rejecting these feelings, and how Ōe desired to be of use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind.
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