Kenzaburō Ōe

Kenzaburō Ōe
Kenzaburō Ōe

Ōe, in 2005
Born January 31, 1935 (1935-01-31) (age 76)
Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, Japan
Occupation Novelist, Short story writer, Essayist
Nationality Japanese
Period 1950–present
Notable work(s) A Personal Matter, The Silent Cry
Notable award(s) Nobel Prize in Literature

Kenzaburo Oe at Japanisches Kulturinstitut Köln/Cologne (Germany), 2008.11.04

Kenzaburō Ōe (大江 健三郎 Ōe Kenzaburō?, born January 31, 1935) is a Japanese author and a major figure in contemporary Japanese literature. His works, strongly influenced by French and American literature and literary theory, deal with political, social and philosophical issues including nuclear weapons, 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."[1]



Ōe was born in Ōse (大瀬村 Ōse-mura?), a village now in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku in Japan. 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 took over his father's role as educator. The books she bought him - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils - left him with an impression Ōe says 'he will carry to the grave'.[citation needed]

After attending local school, Ōe transferred to a 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. He 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.

Ōe now 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 then.

In 2004, Ōe lent his name and support to those opposing proposed changes in the post-war Japanese constitution of 1947. His views were seen as controversial by those who wanted Japan to abandon the constitutional impediment to "the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes," which is explicitly renounced in Article 9.[2]

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."[3]

Oe has been involved with pacifist and anti-nuclear campaigns and written books about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 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”.[4]


Ōe's output falls into a series of groups, successively dealing with different themes. He explained, shortly after learning that he'd been awarded the Nobel Prize, "I am writing about the dignity of human beings."[5]

After his first student works set in his own university milieu, in the late 1950s he produced several works (such as 飼育 (Shiiku), known as 'The Catch', 'Prize Stock', or 'Prize Catch', made into a film by Nagisa Oshima) and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids) focusing on young children living in Arcadian transformations of Ōe's own rural Shikoku childhood.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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)".[9] 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.[10] 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."[11]

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.[12] Ōe's admission that Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is his favorite book can be said to find a context in this period.[13]

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".[14] More generally, Ōe believes that novelists have always worked to spur the imagination of their readers.[1]

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness introduces 'Mori' as a name for the 'idiot-son' (Ōe's own term); 'Mori' means both 'to die' and 'idiocy' in Latin, and 'forest' in Japanese. This association between the disabled boy and the forest recurs in later works such as The Waters Are Come in unto My Soul and M/T and the narrative about the marvels of the forest.

The Nobel laureate believes that he is a very Japanese writer. He said, "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.[5]

Ōe's novella The Catch, about the treatment of an African-American soldier shot down during World War II by Japanese villagers, was made into a film by Nagisa Oshima and released in 1961.

According to Leo Lee Ou-fan 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.'[15]

Writing about his son, Hikari

Book cover of the 1996 English version of Kenzaburō Ōe's book about his handicapped son and their life as a family.

Kenzaburō Ōe credits his son for influencing his literary career. Kenzaburō tried to give his son a "voice" through his writing. Several of Kenzaburō's books feature a character based on his son.[16]

In Kenzaburō's 1964 book, A Personal Matter, the writer describes the pain involved in accepting his brain-damaged son into his life.[17] Hikari figures prominately 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 Kenzaburō was awarded the Nobel Prize. The 1996 book, A Healing Family, celebrates the small victories in Hikari's life.[18]


Ōe did not write much during the nearly two years he was involved in a trial from 2006 to 2008. 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. Another projected character is a contemporary young Japanese woman who “rejects everything about Japan” and in one act tries to destroy the imperial order."[19] In this, as in so much else, Kenzaburo Ōe remains the master of an ambiguous Japanese expression, exploring that which is neither white nor black, but somewhere in between.[20]


Selected works

The number of Kenzaburo Ōe's works translated into English and other languages remains limited. His literary output includes many publications which are still only available in Japanese.[21]

In a statistical overview derived from writings by and about Kenzaburo Ōe, OCLC/WorldCat encompasses roughly 700 works in 1,500+ publications in 28 languages and 27,000+ library holdings.[22]

List of books available in English

  • Memeushiri Kouchi, 1958 - Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (trans. by Paul Mackintosh & Maki Sugiyama)
  • Sebuntiin, 1961- Seventeen (Trans. by Luk Van Haute)
  • Seiteki Ningen 1963 Sexual Humans, published as J (Trans. by Luk Van Haute)
  • Kojinteki na taiken, 1964 - A Personal Matter (trans. by John Nathan)
  • Hiroshima noto, 1965 - Hiroshima Notes (trans. by David L. Swain, Toshi Yonezawa)
  • Man'en gannen no futtoboru, 1967 - The Silent Cry (trans. by John Bester)
  • Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo, 1969 - Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1977)
  • Mizukara waga namida wo nuguitamau hi, 1972 - The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1977)
  • Pinchiranna chosho,' 1976 - The Pinch Runner Memorandum (trans. by Michiko N. Wilson)
  • Atarashii hito yo mezame yo, 1983 - Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (trans. by John Nathan)
  • Jinsei no shinseki, 1989 - An Echo of Heaven (trans. by Margaret Mitsutani)
  • Shizuka-na seikatsu, 1990 - A Quiet Life (trans. by Kunioki Yanagishita & William Wetherall)
  • Kaifuku suru kakozu, 1995 - A Healing Family (trans. by Stephen Snyder, ill. by Yukari Oe)
  • Chugaeri, 1999 - Somersault (trans. by Philip Gabriel)
  • Torikae ko (Chenjiringu), 2000 - The Changeling (trans. by Deborah Boehm)
Year Japanese Title English Title Comments
1957 奇妙な仕事
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 Short story awarded the Akutagawa prize
1958 見るまえに跳べ
Miru mae ni tobe
Leap before you look Short story
Memushiri kouchi
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids His first novel
1961 セヴンティーン
Seventeen Short novel
1963 叫び声
Seiteki ningen
The sexual man (Also known as "J") Short story
1964 空の怪物アグイー
Sora no kaibutsu Aguī
Aghwee the Sky Monster Short story
Kojinteki na taiken
A Personal Matter Awarded the Shinchosha Literary Prize
1965 厳粛な綱渡り
Genshuku na tsunawatari
The solemn rope-walking Essay
Hiroshima nōto
Hiroshima Notes Reportage
1967 万延元年のフットボール
Man'en gan'nen no futtobōru
The Silent Cry Awarded the Jun'ichirō Tanizaki prize
1968 持続する志
Jizoku suru kokorozashi
Continuous will Essay
1969 われらの狂気を生き延びる道を教えよ
Warera no kyōki wo ikinobiru michi wo oshieyo
Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness
1970 壊れものとしての人間
Kowaremono toshiteno ningen
Human being as a fragile article Essay
Kakujidai no sozouryoku
Imagination of the atomic age Talk
Okinawa nōto
Okinawa Notes Reportage
1972 鯨の死滅する日
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
1973 同時代としての戦後
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
1976 ピンチランナー調書
Pinchi ran'nā chōsho
The Pinch Runner Memorandum
1979 同時代ゲーム
Dojidai gemu
The Game of Contemporaneity
1980 (現代 ゲーム)
Ume no chiri
Sometimes the Heart of the Turtle
1982 「雨の木」を聴く女たち
Rein tsurī wo kiku on'natachi
Women listening to the "rain tree" Awarded the Yomiuri Literary Prize
1983 新しい人よ眼ざめよ
Atarashii hito yo, mezameyo
Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! Awarded the Jiro Osaragi prize
1984 いかに木を殺すか
Ikani ki wo korosu ka
How do we kill the tree ?
1985 河馬に嚙まれる
Kaba ni kamareru
Bitten by the hippopotamus Awarded the Yasunari Kawabata Literary Prize
1986 M/Tと森のフシギの物語
M/T to mori no fushigi no monogatari
M/T and the Narrative About the Marvels of the Forest
1987 懐かしい年への手紙
Natsukashī tosi eno tegami
Letters for nostalgic years
1988 「最後の小説」
'Saigo no syousetu'
'The last novel' Essay
Atarashii bungaku no tame ni
For the new literature Essay
Kirupu no gundan
The army of Quilp
1989 人生の親戚
Jinsei no shinseki
An Echo of Heaven Awarded the Sei Ito Literary Prize
1990 治療塔
Chiryou tou
The tower of treatment
Shizuka na seikatsu
A Quiet Life
1991 治療塔惑星
Chiryou tou wakusei
The tower of treatment and the planet
1992 僕が本当に若かった頃
Boku ga hontou ni wakakatta koro
The time that I was really young
1993 「救い主」が殴られるまで
'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
1994 揺れ動く (ヴァシレーション)
Yureugoku (Vashirēshon)
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
1995 大いなる日に
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
Kaifukusuru kazoku
A Healing Family Essay with Yukari Oe
1999 宙返り
2000 取り替え子 (チェンジリング)
Torikae ko (Chenjiringu)
The Changeling
2001 「自分の木」の下で
'Jibun no ki' no shita de
Under the 'tree of mine' Essay with Yukari Oe
2002 憂い顔の童子
Ureigao no dōji
The Infant with a Melancholic Face
2003 「新しい人」の方へ
'Atarashii hito' no hou he
Toward the 'new man' Essay with Yukari Oe
Nihyaku nen no kodomo
The children of 200 years
2005 さようなら、私の本よ!
Sayōnara, watashi no hon yo!
Farewell, My Books!
2007 臈たしアナベル・リイ 総毛立ちつ身まかりつ
Routashi Anaberu rī souke dachitu mimakaritu
The beautiful Annabel Lee was chilled and killed
2009 水死
sui shi
Death by Water

Nobel lecture

Ōe's Nobel lecture on December 7, 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 in his escapism from the terror of World War II. He described surviving various hardships in his life 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.


  1. ^ a b "Oe, Pamuk: World needs imagination," Yomiuri Shimbun. May 18, 2008.
  2. ^ Junkerman, John. "The Global Article 9 Conference: Toward the Abolition of War," Japan Focus. May 25, 2008.
  3. ^ Onishi, Norimitsu. "Japanese Court Rejects Defamation Lawsuit Against Nobel Laureate," New York Times. March 29, 2008.
  4. ^ "Nobel laureate Oe urges nation to end reliance on nuclear power". The Japan Times. September 8, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c Sterngold, James. "Nobel in Literature Goes to Kenzaburo Oe of Japan," New York Times. October 14, 1994.
  6. ^ a b Wilson, Michiko. (1986) The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburō: A Study in Themes and Techniques, p. 12.
  7. ^ Ōe, The Method of a Novel, p. 197.
  8. ^ Wilson, p. 135.
  9. ^ Ōe, Ōe Kenzaburō Zensakuhin, Vol. 2 (Supplement No. 3). p. 16.
  10. ^ Wilson p. 32.
  11. ^ Wilson, p. 29.
  12. ^ Wilson p. 47.
  13. ^ Theroux, Paul. "Speaking of Books: Creative Dissertating; Creative Dissertating," New York Times. February 8, 1970.
  14. ^ Wilson, p. 61.
  15. ^ Lee, Leo Ou-fan (11 2009). "Always too late". Muse Magazine (34): 104. 
  16. ^ Sobsey, Richard. "Hikari Finds His Voice," Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), produced by Compassionate Healthcare Network (CHN). July 1995.
  17. ^ Nobel Prize, 1994 laureate biography
  18. ^ WorldCat Identities: Ōe, Hikari 1963– 
  19. ^ a b Onishi, Norimitsu. "Released From Rigors of a Trial, a Nobel Laureate’s Ink Flows Freely," New York Times. May 17, 2008.
  20. ^ Altman, Daniel. "A Relaxing Tradition Dips a Toe in the 21st Century," New York Times. January 20, 2008.
  21. ^ Books and Writers: Kenzaburo Ōe
  22. ^ WorldCat Identities: Ōe, Kenzaburō 1935-


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