A Voice of Postwar Japan Wins Nobel for Literature : Asia: Kenzaburo Oe’s prose marks a departure from traditional aesthetics.


Kenzaburo Oe, a Japanese enfant terrible who gave voice to a generation set adrift by the destruction of their values and dreams after World War II, won the Nobel Prize for literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday in Stockholm.

Oe, 59, whose fiction is staunchly modern in both style and substance, marks a clear break from Japan’s traditional aesthetics, represented by such celebrated writers as Yasunari Kawabata. The nation’s only other Nobel laureate in literature, Kawabata won the award in 1968 for such masterpieces as “Snow Country” and “The Izu Dancer” and has defined Japanese literature to the rest of the world for the last 25 years.

Oe, however, infuses his prose with such Western techniques as long sentences dense with adjectives, shunning the delicate simplicity favored by Kawabata and others. He also rejects the elements of Zen mysticism and other trappings of ancient culture found in their works, instead tackling such contemporary topics as nuclear destruction and the cultural dislocation of postwar Japan.


He has described his writing as a way of exorcising Japan’s past. He is outspoken in his criticism against racism, Japan’s military buildup and a national lack of responsibility in the world, especially toward Asia.

“Kawabata represented what came to be packaged as Japanese tradition as exotic differences for a Western reading audience,” said Norma Field, a University of Chicago professor of East Asian studies and author of the highly acclaimed “In the Realm of the Dying Emperor.”

“You don’t have rice fields in Oe. You are able to begin thinking of Japan and postwar society without the immediate baggage of Japanese aesthetics, the special relationship to nature and ancient traditions.”

Ian Hideo Levy, the first Westerner to write a novel in Japanese, who won the prestigious Noma Prize for New Writers last year, said Thursday’s award marks a milestone in Western literary understanding of Japan.

“While Kawabata is great, it always struck me as a crime against Japan that the writer who was grappling with modern society was not recognized,” he said. “In a sense, this award signifies Western recognition of Japan as a modern culture for the first time.”

In announcing the prize, which carries a cash award of $930,000, the Nobel committee hailed Oe’s works for “creating an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament.”


The novelist, who has often said he writes not for the world but for his fellow Japanese, thanked his literary colleagues in brief remarks outside his home in Tokyo’s upscale Seijo section.

“I think the Nobel Prize committee appreciated the achievements of (all) Japanese writers,” Oe said.

Oe was born Jan. 31, 1935, in a village on the southern island of Shikoku as the third of seven children from a distinguished family. He received a degree in French literature at the University of Tokyo in 1959.

He burst onto Japan’s literary scene in the late 1950s with a series of short stories. Oe was the first Japanese writer to draw heavily on American literary traditions, in contrast to the European bias of most of his contemporaries, Levy said.

His favorite American authors were those whose heroes search for “personal freedom beyond the borders of safety and acceptance,” according to his translator, John Nathan. His greatest inspiration has been Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”

In 1958, Oe was awarded the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for his novella “The Catch,” about the experiences of a Japanese boy with a black American pilot shot down and captured by villagers. The prize catapulted the then-23-year-old into fame as Japan’s most important young writer.


Two events in life most dramatically shaped him and his literature. The first was on Aug. 15, 1945, when then-Emperor Hirohito--whom Oe and his contemporaries regarded as divine--announced over the radio that Japan had surrendered to the Allies.

“How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?” Oe wrote plaintively in his “Portrait of a Postwar Generation.”

The obliteration of his nation’s values virtually overnight, as the Allied occupation firmly demystified and secularized the nation’s supreme spiritual symbol, was to become a major theme of his work.

Oe also became known as a staunch leftist, actively demonstrating against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

His second transforming event was the birth in 1964 of a brain-damaged son, Hikari (Light). The tragedy inspired him to write one of his best-known novels, the dark and poetic “A Personal Matter,” about a man faced with the existentialist choice of killing his deformed child to win his freedom. The book’s protagonist gets fired from his job for drunkenness, takes a mistress and plots his child’s death.

Another important work, “The Silent Cry,” in 1967, described the spiritual pilgrimage of two brothers back to their birthplace and the awareness they gain about their nation’s wrenching social changes.


Oe’s career changed drastically after Hikari’s birth. “He began expressing what his brain-damaged son could not and began delving into the very private and primitive realm,” Levy said. The works never regained his earlier originality and raw power, critics say.

But his son turned out to have musical talent as a composer; he won a prize for it last year. Last month, Oe shocked the literary world by announcing he would give up writing, since his son had found his own expression.

But the Nobel laureate still plans to complete his final project, a three-volume novel titled “A Green Tree in Flames.”

Amid Japan’s current climate of “impoverished” social debate, as people steadily lose interest in literature, Field said she hopes the prize will inspire a new generation to rediscover Oe’s works. “I hope they will recover the sense of urgency Oe brought to society with so much three-dimensional vividness,” she said.

Selections From Oe

Excerpts from the work of Kenzaburo Oe:

* From the 1964 novel “A Personal Matter,” translated by John Nathan.

They were watching the midnight news, Bird in bed on his stomach, lifting only his head like a baby sea urchin, Himiko hugging her knees on the floor. The heat of day had departed and like primeval cave-dwellers they were enjoying the cool air in nakedness.

Since they had turned the volume way down with the telephone bell in mind, the only sound in the room was a voice as faint as the buzzing of a bee’s wings.


But what Bird heard was not a human voice endowed with meaning and mood, nor was he distinguishing meaningful shapes in the flickering shadows on the screen.

From the external world he was letting in nothing to project its image on the screen of his consciousness. He was simply waiting, like a radio set equipped with a receiver only, for a signal from the distance, which he wasn’t even certain would be transmitted.


* From the 1967 novel “The Silent Cry,” translated by John Bester:

Even before the eye injury I was already showing more and more clearly a quality of ugliness that often reminded me how mother had prophesied that, when we grew up, my brother would be handsome and I would not. The lost eye merely emphasized the ugliness each day, throwing it into constant relief. My born ugliness would have liked to hang back, silent, in the shadows; it was the missing eye that continually dragged it out into the limelight. Not that I neglected to assign a role to this eye: I saw it, its function lost, as being forever trained on the darkness within my skull, a darkness full of blood and somewhat above body heat.