Kenzaburō Ōe

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Kenzaburō Ōe
Ōe in 2012
Ōe in 2012
Native name
大江 健三郎
Born31 January 1935 (1935-01-31) (age 87)
Ōse, Ehime, Japan
OccupationNovelist, short-story writer, essayist
Notable worksA Personal Matter, The Silent Cry
Notable awardsNobel Prize in Literature
Ōe at Japanisches Kulturinstitut Köln/Cologne (Germany), April 11, 2008

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 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature 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 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".[2]

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.[3] After the war, he realized he had been taught lies and felt betrayed. This sense of betrayal later appeared in his writing.[3]

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.

In 1959 and 1960, Ōe participated in the Anpo protests against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty as a member of a group of young writers, artists, and composers called the "Young Japan Society" (Wakai Nihon no Kai).[4] The treaty allows the United States to maintain military bases in Japan, and Ōe's disappointment at the failure of the protests to stop the treaty shaped his future writing.[5][6]

Ōe 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.[7][5]

In 1961, Ōe's novellas Seventeen and The Death of a Political Youth were published in the Japanese literary magazine Bungakukai. Both were inspired by seventeen-year-old Yamaguchi Otoya, who had assassinated Japan Socialist Party chairman Inejirō Asanuma in October 1960, and then killed himself in prison three weeks later.[8] 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,[3] and he was later physically assaulted by an angry right-winger while giving a speech at Tokyo University.[5]

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.[3]

Ōe at a 2013 antinuclear demonstration in Tokyo

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."[9]

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 it being celebrated, and he went in the woods and sat alone until the evening.[10] Ōe later said in an interview, "I've always respected Chomsky, but I respected him even more after he told me that."[11] 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".[12] 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.[13] Ōe has also criticized moves to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which forever renounces war.[14]


Ōe explained, shortly after learning that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, "I am writing about the dignity of human beings."[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

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)".[19] 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.[20] 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."[21]

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.[22] Ōe's admission that Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is his favorite book can be said to find a context in this period.[23]

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.[15]

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".[24] Ōe believes that novelists have always worked to spur the imagination of their readers.[1]

About his son Hikari[edit]

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

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.[25]

In Ōe's 1964 book, A Personal Matter, the writer describes the psychological trauma involved in accepting his brain-damaged son into his life.[26] 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.[27]

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."[28]


Ōe did not write much during the nearly two years (2006–2008) of his libel case. He began writing 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.[29]


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.[30]


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.

Selected works[edit]

The number of Kenzaburō Ōe's works translated into English and other languages remains limited, so that much of his literary output is still only available in Japanese.[33] The few translations have often appeared after a marked lag in time.[34] Work of his has also been translated into Chinese, French, and German.[35]

In a statistical overview of writings by and about Kenzaburō Ōe, OCLC/WorldCat encompasses roughly 700 works in 1,500+ publications in 28 languages and 27,000+ library holdings.[36]

Books available in English[edit]

  • Shiiku, 1957 - The Catch, published in "The Catch and Other War Stories" by Kodansha International (Tokyo) in 1981
  • Memushiri Kouchi, 1958 – Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (translated by Paul Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama)
  • Sevuntiin, 1961 – Seventeen (translated by Luk Van Haute)
  • Seiteki Ningen 1963 Sexual Humans, published as J (translated by Luk Van Haute)
  • Kojinteki na taiken, 1964 – A Personal Matter (translated by John Nathan)
  • Hiroshima noto, 1965 – Hiroshima Notes (translated by David L. Swain, Toshi Yonezawa)
  • Man'en gannen no futtoboru, 1967 – The Silent Cry (translated 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 (translated by Michiko N. Wilson)
  • Atarashii hito yo mezame yo, 1983 – Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (translated by John Nathan)
  • Jinsei no shinseki, 1989 – An Echo of Heaven (translated by Margaret Mitsutani)
  • Shizuka-na seikatsu, 1990 – A Quiet Life (translated by Kunioki Yanagishita & William Wetherall)
  • Kaifuku suru kazoku, 1995 – A Healing Family (translated by Stephen Snyder, illustrated by Yukari Oe)
  • Chugaeri, 1999 – Somersault (translated by Philip Gabriel)
  • Torikae ko (Chenjiringu), 2000 – The Changeling (translated by Deborah Boehm)
  • Suishi, 2009 – Death by Water (translated 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 / "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
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 (published title) Football in the first year of the Manen era(AD 1860) (literal translation) Novel, 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 A title is taken from W.H. Auden's Commentary
1970 壊れものとしての人間
Kowaremono toshiteno ningen
A 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
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(published title)Relatives of life (literal translation) 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
2013 晩年様式集(イン・レイト・スタイル)
Bannen Youshiki shū (In Reito Sutairu)
In Late Style

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Oe, Pamuk: World needs imagination" Archived 2008-05-31 at the Wayback Machine,; May 18, 2008.
  2. ^ "The Nobel Prize in Literature 1994: Kenzaburo Oe (biography)". Nobel media. Retrieved 2013-05-02.
  3. ^ a b c d Weston, Mark (1999). Giants of Japan: The Lives of Japan's Most Influential Men and Women. New York: Kodansha International. pp. 294–295, 299. ISBN 1-568362862.
  4. ^ Kapur, Nick (2018). Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 177. ISBN 978-0674984424.
  5. ^ a b c Jaggi, Maya (5 February 2005). "Profile: Kenzaburo Oë". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-11-22.
  6. ^ Kapur, Nick (2018). Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. p. 216. ISBN 978-0674984424.
  7. ^ Kenzaburo Oe, The Art of Fiction No. 195 The Paris Review
  8. ^ Kapur, Nick (2018). Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. pp. 254, 257. ISBN 978-0674984424.
  9. ^ Onishi, Norimitsu (March 29, 2008). Japanese Court Rejects Defamation Lawsuit Against Nobel Laureate. The New York Times.
  10. ^ Oe, K., & Chomsky, N. (2002). An Exchange on Current Affairs. World Literature Today,76(2), 29. doi:10.2307/40157257, 4/29/2019
  11. ^ Oe, K. (2007, Winter). The Art of Fiction No. 195 [Interview by S. Fay]. Retrieved April 23, 2019, from, 4/29/2019.
  12. ^ "Nobel laureate Oe urges nation to end reliance on nuclear power". The Japan Times. September 8, 2011.
  13. ^ Archived 2013-11-10 at the Wayback Machine Mainichi Daily News, September 15, 2013, "Some 8,000 March in Tokyo Against Restart of Any Nuclear Power Plants" (accessed November 10, 2013)
  14. ^ Archived 2013-11-09 at the Wayback Machine Asahi Shumbun, 18 May 2013, "Writer Oe calls for stopping moves to revise Constitution" (accessed 9 November 2013)
  15. ^ a b c Sterngold, James. "Nobel in Literature Goes to Kenzaburo Oe of Japan," New York Times. October 14, 1994.
  16. ^ a b Wilson, Michiko. (1986) The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburō: A Study in Themes and Techniques, p. 12.
  17. ^ Ōe, The Method of a Novel, p. 197.
  18. ^ Wilson, p. 135.
  19. ^ Ōe, Ōe Kenzaburō Zensakuhin, Vol. 2 (Supplement No. 3). p. 16.
  20. ^ Wilson p. 32.
  21. ^ Wilson, p. 29.
  22. ^ Wilson p. 47.
  23. ^ Theroux, Paul. "Speaking of Books: Creative Dissertating; Creative Dissertating",, February 8, 1970.
  24. ^ Lee, Leo Ou-fan (November 2009). "Always too late". Muse Magazine (34): 104.
  25. ^ Sobsey, Richard Archived 2009-07-01 at the Wayback Machine. "Hikari Finds His Voice," Archived 2007-06-06 at the Wayback Machine Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC), produced by Compassionate Healthcare Network (CHN). July 1995.
  26. ^ Nobel Prize, 1994 laureate biography
  27. ^ WorldCat Identities Archived 2010-12-30 at the Wayback Machine: Ōe, Hikari 1963– 
  28. ^ Wilson, p. 61.
  29. ^ Onishi, Norimitsu (May 17, 2008). "The Saturday Profile: Released From Rigors of a Trial, a Nobel Laureate's Ink Flows Freely". New York Times. Retrieved November 9, 2019.
  30. ^ "Oe's latest novel offers glimmer of hope in a world beset by catastrophe". Archived from the original on 2013-12-16. Retrieved 2013-12-16.
  31. ^ Onishi, Norimitsu. "Released From Rigors of a Trial, a Nobel Laureate's Ink Flows Freely," New York Times. May 17, 2008.
  32. ^ "Novelist Oe inducted into France's Legion of Honor. - Free Online Library". Retrieved 2016-01-28.
  33. ^ Liukkonen, Petri. "Kenzaburo Ōe". Books and Writers ( Finland: Kuusankoski Public Library. Archived from the original on 10 February 2015.
  34. ^ Tayler, Christopher. "The Changeling by Kenzaburo Oe." The Guardian. Friday June 11, 2010. Retrieved on November 9, 2012.
  35. ^ Jing, Xiaolei. "Embracing Foreign Literature." Beijing Review. No. 7 February 19, 2009. Updated February 13, 2009. Retrieved on November 9, 2012.
  36. ^ WorldCat Identities Archived 2010-12-30 at the Wayback Machine: Ōe, Kenzaburō 1935–


  • Ōe, Kenzaburō. (1968). Ōe Kenzaburō Zensakuhin (Complete Works of Oe Kenzaburo).Tokyo: Shinchosha.
  • _____________. (1978). Shosetsu no hoho (The Method of a Novel). Tokyo: Iwanami.
  • Wilson, Michiko N. (1986). The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburō: A Study in Themes and Techniques. Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe. ISBN 978-0-87332-343-7 (cloth) ISBN 978-1-56324-580-0 (paper)
  • Oe, K. (2007, Winter). The Art of Fiction No. 195 [Interview by S. Fay]. Retrieved April 23, 2019, from
  • Oe, K., & Chomsky, N. (2002). An Exchange on Current Affairs. World Literature Today,76(2), 29. doi:10.2307/40157257

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]