Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Laureate and Critic of Postwar Japan, Dies at 88
Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel laureate whose intense novels and defiant politics challenged a modern Japanese culture that he found morally vacant and dangerously tilted toward the same mind-set that led to catastrophe in World War II, died on March 3. He was 88.
His publisher, Kodansha, announced the death on Monday. It did not specify a cause or say where he had died.
Mr. Oe (pronounced OH-ay) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 for creating what the Nobel committee called “an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”
Though he often said he wrote with only a Japanese audience in mind, Mr. Oe attracted an international readership in the 1960s with three works in particular: “Hiroshima Notes,” a collection of essays on the long-term consequences of the atomic bomb attacks; and the novels “A Personal Matter” and “The Silent Cry,” which had their genesis in a crisis for him and his wife, the birth of a son with a deformed cranium.
Politically, he was a prominent voice for a generation of dissidents who opposed arming Japan’s defense forces and advocated paying war reparations to China, Korea and other Asian neighbors. He was frequently vilified and occasionally threatened with death by elements on the far right, as when he declined to receive Japan’s Order of Culture in 1994 because it was bestowed by the emperor. “I do not recognize any authority, any value, higher than democracy,” he said.
As if in validation of his objections to the country’s whitewashing of history, he was sued for defamation in 2005 for an essay he had written in 1970 asserting that Japanese officers had coerced hundreds of Okinawans near the end of World War II to commit suicide by telling them that they would be raped, tortured and murdered by advancing American troops. The plaintiffs were a 91-year-old war veteran and surviving relatives of another veteran, but the suit was seized upon by right-wing politicians who wanted references to the military’s involvement deleted from high school textbooks.
Mr. Oe was able to do little writing while the suit was in court, from 2006 to 2008, but the judge ultimately ruled in his favor, saying, “The military was deeply involved in the mass suicides.”
Mr. Oe, a prodigy from a remote forest village on the western island of Shikoku, became the most important young Japanese writer of his time. While still an undergraduate at the University of Tokyo, he won a major literary prize for short stories. In 1958, he published a remarkable first novel, “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids,” about a group of reformatory boys evacuated in wartime to a rural village, where they are ordered to bury rotting carcasses of animals killed by a plague.
But by his mid-20s he was in a deep funk, considering suicide, because he saw no way forward in his writing.
Then, in 1963, came a confluence of events that would change his life. That June, his first child was born with a large mass protruding from a lesion in his skull. Without surgery, doctors told him, the boy would die. With surgery, he would have severe mental handicaps.
At first Mr. Oe just wanted to run away, and he did. While the weeks-old infant lay in a hospital, he accepted a journalism assignment to cover an international antinuclear conference in Hiroshima.
“I was escaping from my baby,” he told The New Yorker in a 1995 interview. “These were shameful days for me to remember. I wanted to escape to some other horizon.”
Mr. Oe set out to interview survivors of the blast 18 years earlier and began to draw courage from their example. They did not want to be “a data set of victims,” as he wrote in an introduction to “Hiroshima Notes.” They wanted to live their lives as free individuals. He met women who chose to have babies regardless of the risk that the children could develop leukemia and die, and he encountered many quiet heroes who, he wrote, “did not commit suicide in spite of everything.”
He was especially influenced by Dr. Fumio Shigeto, director of a Hiroshima A-bomb hospital and a survivor himself, who had become one of the first to understand radiation sickness. In The New Yorker interview, Mr. Oe recalled a story that Dr. Shigeto had told him about a young physician who despaired of being any use against such overwhelming suffering. The doctor said he replied, “If there are wounded people, if they are in pain, we must do something for them, try to cure them, even if we seem to have no method.”
Hearing this, Mr. Oe said, “I felt great shame that I was doing nothing for my son — my son, who was silent and could not express his pain or do anything for himself.”
He returned to Tokyo and chose surgery for the child, who was named Hikari — Japanese for “light.” Hikari lived, though he would need perpetual care and would not progress beyond the level of a 3-year-old in many respects. But he also had a gift for music that blossomed as his parents played recordings of bird song, Mozart and Chopin to soothe him. In time, he was able to express his deepest feelings in music and grew to be a popular composer of pieces for flute and piano.
During this time, Mr. Oe wrote “A Personal Matter,” his first mature novel. In the book, a young man has wrecked his chances of a solid academic career by going on a stupendous drinking binge, and now he has a baby with a diagnosis of brain herniation. He escapes, not to an antinuclear conference, but rather to a former girlfriend who has become a sexual adventurer. Their boozy, steamy days and nights culminate in a plan to turn the infant over to a doctor who will let him die, after which they will go to Africa. But he can’t go through with it. He returns the infant to the hospital for surgery, strengthens his marriage and even wins the respect of his mother-in-law.
Mr. Oe followed with “The Silent Cry,” a much more ambitious work whose psychological intensity is infused with his concerns about Japanese history, cultural integrity and mindless consumerism. Here, a vegetative infant is the underlying source of stress in a hopeless marriage. The father is a morose, one-eyed book translator. He has a firebrand younger brother, who lures him to their home island, Shikoku, with a sham business scheme. And there the two brothers find themselves playing out a conflict that echoes events of a hundred years earlier, when their great-grandfather represented the establishment in the face of a peasant uprising fanned by his younger brother. There is incest and a horrific shotgun suicide. Yet in the end there is something like reconciliation and hope.
“Everything I write begins with the personal,” Mr. Oe once said.
These two early novels, with their motifs of a son with mental disabilities and a search for meaning in post-atomic-bombings Japan, were rootstock for many of his more than 40 subsequent novels and short-story collections, including “Aghwee the Sky Monster” (1964), “Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age” (1986), “A Quiet Life” (1990) and “Somersault” (1999).
“I’m a boring person,” Mr. Oe told The Paris Review in 2007. “I read a lot of literature, I think about a lot of things, but at the base of it all is Hikari and Hiroshima.”
He said one of his methods was “repetition with difference — I begin a new work by first attempting a new approach toward a work that I’ve already written. Then I take the resulting draft and continue to elaborate upon it, and as I do, the traces of the old work disappear.”
Mr. Oe was Japan’s second Nobel laureate in literature, after Yasunari Kawabata in 1968. In style and substance, the two could hardly have been more different. Where Mr. Kawabata mostly wrote sparse, elegant novels and stories on traditional themes, Mr. Oe stretched the Japanese language to its limits with gnarly sentences that dealt head-on with sex, depression, abnormality and the struggle for human dignity. One American admirer, Henry Miller, likened him to Dostoyevsky in his “range of hope and despair.”
Kenzaburo Oe was born on Jan. 31, 1935, in a village in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku. His father, a member of a prominent landowning family, drowned in the Pacific war. On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, his mother was outdoors gathering herbs when she saw a flash in the sky — the atomic bomb explosion over Hiroshima, 100 miles away.
Mr. Oe’s memories of World War II were those of a terrified, disillusioned schoolboy. His teachers would ask the students what they would do if the emperor commanded them to commit suicide. They had to answer: “I would die, sir. I would cut open my belly and die.”
On Aug. 15, Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender to the United States. The 10-year-old Kenzaburo had imagined the emperor as a kind of mystical white bird. He recalled his shock in the essay “A Portrait of the Postwar Generation”: “The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment. We were most surprised and disappointed that the emperor had spoken in a human voice.”
At the University of Tokyo, Mr. Oe majored in modern French literature, but throughout his life his reading ranged widely among American and European writers, with a particular reverence for W.B. Yeats. While his influences included everything from “Huckleberry Finn” to the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of images of grotesque reality, little of this erudition called attention to itself in his fiction. Nor did he allow a bent for preaching to get in the way of a good story. For that, he used his many essays and lectures, in which he staunchly opposed nuclear power and efforts to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution.
Mr. Oe also had a quarrel with Japanese society, arguing that, after 25 years of democracy and intellectual ferment following the war, the country had lapsed into a trough of conformity. It was a period, he argued, marked by one-party rule and “insular, unaccommodating” attitudes that prevented constructive relationships with other Asian countries, much less a meaningful role in world affairs.
Mr. Oe’s survivors include his wife, Yukari, his son Hikari and two other children: a son, Sakurao, and a daughter, Natsumiko. Hikari lived with his parents into middle age, composing his music in the same room where his father wrote and rewrote books.
“I’ve spent my life at home, eating the food my wife cooks, listening to music and being with Hikari,” Mr. Oe said in The Paris Review interview. “I feel I have chosen a good career. Every morning I have woken up knowing that I will never run out of books to read. That has been my life.”