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Stronger Than Stereotype : A Conversation With Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe

Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe was named winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. The spotlight of the prestigious award always raises the question of a writer’s “representativeness.” Several years ago, Oe met with Japanese-born writer Kazuo Ishiguro (author of “Remains of the Day,” among other novels), who was raised in England and has written about both England and Japan. The following are excerpts from that conversation, in which the writers addressed the issue of being grounded in a specific tradition and yet speaking to audiences outside it. This dialogue was published in Grand Street magazine in 1991 (Issue 38).

Oe: In my book “The Silent Cry,” I wrote about Shikoku. I was born and grew up in a mountain village on that island. When I was 18, I went to the University of Tokyo to study French literature. As a result, I found myself completely cut off from my village, both culturally and geographically. Around that time my grandmother died, and my mother was getting older. The legends and traditions and folklore of my village were being lost. Meanwhile, here I was in Tokyo, imagining and trying to remember those things. The act of trying to remember and the act of creating began to overlap. And that is the reason I began to write novels. I tried to write them using the methods of French literature that I had studied.

Ishiguro: One of the reasons I think “The Silent Cry” is such a special work is that it’s often difficult for a writer to get a certain distance from very personal events in his life that have touched and disturbed him. This book seems to stem from such an event, but at the same time you seem to have kept control, to have maintained an artistic discipline, so that it actually becomes a work of art that has meaning for everybody. It’s not simply about Mr. Oe. It strikes me that one of the ways in which you manage that is a certain kind of humor, a unique tone. It’s very different from the kind of humor found in most of Western literature, which is mainly based on jokes. In your books, everything has a peculiar sense of humor that is always on the verge of tragedy--a very dark humor. This is one of the ways in which you seem to have been able to keep under control events that must be very close to you. But do you think this sort of humor is something unique to your own writing, or have you gotten it from a larger Japanese tradition?

Oe: I think that the problem of humor is a very important one. This is one of the points in which I differ from Yukio Mishima. Mishima was very strongly rooted in the traditions of Japanese literature, especially the traditions of the center--Tokyo or Kyoto--urban traditions. I come from a more peripheral tradition, that of a very provincial corner of the island of Shikoku. It’s an extremely strange place, with a long history of maltreatment, out there beyond the reach of culture. I think my humor is the humor of the people who live in that place.

Ishiguro: I would be quite interested to hear what you feel about Mishima. I’m often asked about Mishima in England--all the time, by journalists. They expect me to be an authority on Mishima because of my Japanese background. Mishima is very well known in England, and in the West generally, largely because of the way he died. But also I suspect that Mishima’s image confirms certain stereotypical images of Japanese people for the West. Of course, committing seppuku is one of the cliches. He was politically very extreme. The problem is that the whole image of Mishima in the West hasn’t helped people there form an intelligent approach to Japanese culture and Japanese people. It has perhaps helped people to remain locked in certain prejudices and very superficial, stereotypical images of what Japanese people are like. I wonder what you think about Mishima and the way he died, what that means for Japanese people, and what that means for a distinguished author such as yourself.

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Oe: The observations you just made about the reception of Mishima in Europe are accurate. Mishima’s entire life, certainly including his death by seppuku, was a kind of performance designed to present the image of an archetypal Japanese. Moreover, this image was not the kind that arises spontaneously from a Japanese mentality. It was the superficial image of a Japanese as seen from a European point of view, a fantasy. Mishima acted out that image just as it was. He created himself exactly in accordance with it. That was the way he lived, and that was the way he died. Edward Said uses the word orientalism to refer to the impression held by Europeans of the Orient. He insists that orientalism is a view held by Europeans and has nothing to do with the people who actually live in the Orient. But Mishima thought the opposite. He said, in effect, “Your image of the Japanese is me.” But what in fact happened is that Mishima presented a false image. As a result, the conception of Japanese people held by most Europeans has Mishima at one pole and people like Akio Morita, chairman of Sony, at the other pole. In my opinion, both poles are inaccurate.

Ishiguro: I wonder, Mr. Oe, do you feel responsible for how Japanese people are perceived abroad? When you are writing your books, are you conscious of an international audience and of what the books will do to Western people’s perceptions of Japan? Or do you not think about things like that?

Oe: I was interviewed once by a German television station. The interviewer had translated one of my books into German. He asked me whether it was very important to me to be translated into German. I said no, and a deathly silence fell over the studio. The reason I said no is simply that I write my books for Japanese readers rather than for foreigners. Moreover, the Japanese readers I have in mind are a limited group. The people I write for are people of my own generation, people who have had the same experiences as myself. So when I go abroad, or am translated abroad or criticized abroad, I feel rather indifferent about it. The responsibilities I feel are to Japanese readers, people who are living together with me in this environment.

Speaking as a reader, foreign literature is very important to me. William Blake is important to me. I’ve written one book based on Blake, and one based on Malcolm Lowry. Another book was about a Dante specialist who lives out in the country. So in that sense I have been much influenced by foreign literature. I read your books in English, for example. Naturally, I believe that a real novelist is international.

For some reason, Japanese writers tend to stay away from international writers’ conferences. Up to now, at least, there have not been many authors who have gone abroad to speak out about Japan’s place in the world, about the contradictions felt by Japanese writers in the midst of economic prosperity, about the things that trouble them deeply. So for my part I am trying to do that, little by little. Japan has many very capable businessmen and politicians, but as a novelist I want to speak out internationally about things that they never mention. And I think it is meaningful for writers from abroad, especially young writers like yourself, to come to Japan to look closely at this country and to meet Japanese intellectuals. I hope this will lead to a deeper understanding of things such as the difficult role played by Japanese intellectuals amid material prosperity, and to cultural encounters at a genuinely substantial level.


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