Kenzaburo Oe was born in 1935, in a village hemmed in by the forests of Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan. His family had lived in the village tradition for several hundred years, and no one in the Oe clan had ever left the village in the valley. Even after Japan embarked on modernization soon after the Meiji Restoration, and it became customary for young people in the provinces to leave their native place for Tokyo or the other large cities, the Oes remained in Ose-mura. Maps no longer show the small hamlet by name because it was annexed by a neighbouring town. The women of the Oe clan had long assumed the role of storytellers and had related the historical events of the region, including the two uprisings that occurred there before and after the Meiji Restoration. They also told of events closer in nature to legend than to history. These stories, of a unique cosmology and of the human condition therein, which Oe heard told since his infancy, left him with an indelible mark.
The Second World War broke out when Oe was six. Militaristic education extended to every nook and cranny of the country, the Emperor as both monarch and deity reigning over its politics and its culture. Young Oe, therefore, experienced the nation’s myth and history as well as those of the village tradition, and these dual experiences were often in conflict. Oe’s grandmother was a critical storyteller who defended the culture of the village, narrating to him humourously, but ever defiantly, anti-national stories. After his father’s death during the war, his mother took over his father’s role as educator. The books she bought him – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Strange Adventures of Nils Holgersson – have left him with an impression he says ‘he will carry to the grave’.
Japan’s defeat in the war in 1945 brought enormous change, even to the remote forest village. In schools, children were taught democratic principles, replacing those of the absolutist Emperor system, and this education was all the more thorough, for the nation was then under the administration of American and other forces. Young Oe took democracy straight to his heart. So strong was his desire for democracy that he decided to leave for Tokyo; leave the village of his forefathers, the life they had lived and preserved, out of sheer belief that the city offered him an opportunity to knock on the door of democracy, the door that would lead him to a future of freedom on paths that stretched out to the world. Had it not been for the drastic change the nation underwent at this time, Oe, whose love of trees is one of his innate qualities, would have remained in his village as his forefathers had done, and tended to the forest as one of its guardians.
At the age of eighteen, Oe made his first long train trip to Tokyo, and in the following year enrolled in the Department of French Literature at Tokyo University where he received instruction under the tutelage of Professor Kazuo Watanabe, a specialist on Francois Rabelais. Rabelais’ image system of grotesque realism, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s terminology, provided him with a methodology to positively and thoroughly reassess the myths and history of his native village in the valley.
Watanabe’s thoughts on humanism, which he arrived at from his study of the French Renaissance, helped shape Oe’s fundamental view of society and the human condition. An avid reader of contemporary French and American literature, Oe viewed the social condition of the metropolis in light of the works he read. Yet, he also endeavored to reorganize, under the light of Rabelais and humanism, his thoughts on what the women of the village had handed down to him, those stories that constituted his background. In this sense, he was again living another duality.
Oe started writing in 1957, while still a French literature student at the university. His works from 1957 through 1958 – from the short story, The Catch, which won him the Akutagawa Award, to his first novel, Bud-Nipping, Lamb Shooting* (1958) – depict the tragedy of war tearing asunder the idyllic life of a rural youth. In Lavish are the Dead (1957), a short story, and in The Youth Who Came Late* (1961), a novel, Oe portrayed student life in Tokyo, a city where the dark shadows of the U.S. occupation still remained. Apparent in these works are strong influences of Jean-Paul Sartre and other modern French writers.
Crisis struck Oe’s life and literature with the birth of his first son, Hikari. Hikari was born with a cranial deformity resulting in his becoming a mentally- handicapped person. Traumatic as the experience was for Oe, the crisis granted him a new lease on both his life and his literature. Overcoming the agony and determined to coexist with the child, Oe wrote A Personal Matter (1964), his penning of his pain in accepting the brain-damaged child into his life, and of how he arrived at his resolve to live with him. Through the catalytic medium of humanism, he conjoined his own fate of having to accept a handicapped child into the family with that of the stance one ought to take in contemporary society, and wrote Hiroshima Notes (1965), a long essay which describes the realities and thoughts of the A-bomb victims.
Following this, Oe deepened his interest in Okinawa, the southernmost group of islands in Japan. Before the Meiji Restoration, Okinawa was an independent country with its own culture. During World War II, the islands became the site of the only battle Japan fought on its own soil. After the war, the people of Okinawa were left to suffer a long U.S. military occupation. Oe’s interest in Okinawa was oriented, politically, toward the lives of the Okinawans living on what became a U.S. military base, and, culturally, to what Okinawa meant to him in terms of its traditions. The latter opened out to a broadened interest in the culture of South Koreans, enabling him to further appreciate the importance of Japan’s peripheral cultures, which differed from Tokyo-centered culture. This pursuit provided realistic substance to his study of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory regarding a people’s culture which led him to write The Silent Cry (1967), a work that ties in the myths and history of the forest village with the contemporary age.
After The Silent Cry, two streams of thought, which at times flow as one, are apparent and consistent in Oe’s literary world. Starting with A Personal Matter is one group of works that depicts his life of coexistence with his mentally-handicapped son, Hikari. Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness (1969), a two-volume work, painfully portrays both the agony-laden trials and errors he experiences in his life with his yet unspeaking infant child, and his pursuit of his father he lost during the war. My Deluged Soul* (1973) depicts a father who relates to his infant child who, through the medium of the songs of the wild birds, has started to communicate with the family, and who empathizes with youths that belong to a belligerent and radical political party. Rouse Up, O, Young Men of the New Age!* (1983), a work in which Oe draws upon images from William Blake’s Prophecies, depicts his son Hikari’s development from a child to a young man, and thus crowns the works he wrote about his handicapped child.
The second group are stories in which Oe relates characters who he establishes in the theater of the myths and history of his native forest village, but who interact closely with life in today’s cities. This world of Oe’s fiction, starting with Bud- Nipping, Lamb-Shooting and followed by The Silent Cry, came to shape the core of his entire literature. Making full use of new ideas of cultural anthropology, these works represent the totality of Oe’s world of fiction, as evidenced in Letters to My Sweet Bygone Years (1987), a work about a young man who, banking on his cosmology and world-view of Dante, strives but fails to establish a politico- cultural base in the forest. Contemporary Games is a story that alternates between myth and history, which Oe supports with the matriarch and trickster principles he draws from cultural anthropology. He rewrote this work in narrative form as M/T and the Wonders of the Forest* (1986). With the aid of W.B. Yeat’s poetic metaphors, Oe embarked on writing The Flaming Green Tree*, a trilogy comprised of Until the ‘Savior’ Gets Socked* (1993), Vacillating* (1994), and On The Great Day* (1995). Oe has announced that with the completion of this trilogy, he will enter into his life’s final stage of study, in which he will attempt a new form of literature. The implication of this project is that Oe deems his effort at presenting his cosmology, history and folk legend as having been brought to full circle, and that he has succeeded in creating, through his portrayal of that place in the valley and its people, a model for this contemporary age. It also implies that he considers Hikari’s becoming a composer, in actuality, surpasses the importance of his own literature about him.
Oe’s winning the Nobel Prize for 1994 has thus encouraged him to embark on his pursuit of a new form of literature and a new life for himself.
*Tentative English titles.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.
Kenzaburo Oe died on 3 March 2023.
Nobel Prizes and laureates
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