COLUMN ONE : Anguish Turns to Song of Joy : For years, Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe wrote the words his brain-damaged child could not speak. Now a gift for music has given the Nobel winner’s son his own voice.


It should have been a crowning moment in the life of Kenzaburo Oe, Japan’s brilliant, brooding novelist who won last year’s Nobel Prize in literature: June 13, 1963, the day his first son was born.

Except that the baby did not look like a son. Or even a human. A monster . A two-headed monster with half his brains spilling out, Oe thought as he took his first look at the baby with the red, pinched face, mouth agape in a soundless scream, the tiny head swaddled in bloodied bandages.

Oe’s reaction was expressed through Bird, the hero of his celebrated 1969 novel, “A Personal Matter.” The book mirrors his life--in particular, the hellish week when he faced the choice between death and life for his son, freedom or bondage for himself:


Like Apollinaire, my son was wounded on a dark and lonely battlefield that I have never seen, and he has arrived with his head in bandages. I’ll have to bury him like a soldier who died at war .

But the boy did not die.

No longer would the sweet, easy tears of mourning melt it away as if it were a simple jelly. Swaddled in skin as red as shrimp which gleamed with the luster of scar tissue, the baby was beginning ferociously to live.

The baby was still alive when Oe returned from a short writing assignment to Hiroshima, where the astonishing bravery of the atomic bomb survivors filled him with shame about his own attitudes. When the agonized victims had every reason to commit suicide but did not, when the doctors had every reason to give up but never faltered in trying to heal and comfort their patients, how could he deny the tiny life struggling to survive, his very own son?

Oe chose life--an operation to cut away the protruding brain mass and cover the hole in the skull with a plastic plate. He named his son Hikari: light.

Hikari is now 31. He is epileptic and knock-kneed. He is nearsighted and cross-eyed. He understands only simple conversations.

But from the depths of a damaged brain, he hears the melodies of an inner music. He has learned to transfer those chords to paper. Hikari has become a composer of classical music.

In the last three years, he has released two CDs--short, simple compositions for flute, piano and guitar. Even before his father won the Nobel Prize, both CDs turned gold, with average sales of 160,000--a smash in Japan’s classical recording industry, which considers 10,000 sales a hit. In January, his CDs were released in the United States by Denon Records.


And Hikari is bound for further fame. His uncle, noted filmmaker Juzo Itami (“Tampopo,” “A Taxing Woman”), has launched a project based on Oe’s novel about a family’s disabled son, “A Quiet Life.”

Hikari’s success as an artist marks a new passage for father and son. For three decades, Oe has served as Hikari’s alter ego, expressing through his works what his son could not articulate for himself. The mission consumed him, changed his writing and, some say, drew his focus away from the broad social issues that created his original celebrity as the voice of Japan’s disenchanted postwar generation.

Now, at 60, Oe says that mission is over.

“Hikari has learned to communicate directly with society himself,” says Oe, with a satisfied smile.

This man whose prose pounds with the power of vivid metaphor and intricate ideals quickly came to terms with a fate that gave him a son incapable of speaking complex sentences. Since then, father and son have forged a symbiosis that has nourished and challenged them both.

Hikari has expanded Oe and inspired him, fed his dreams and filled his life. He has changed Oe’s very concept of manhood, says the writer, who revealed his own transformation in “A Personal Matter.”

The protagonist Bird begins the novel with a brawl--one way men have proven their worth through the ages--and ends it with a far more exacting measure of manhood: All I want is to stop being a man who continually runs away from responsibility.


It was thus for Oe.

On a recent evening, he stood sauteing onions that Hikari had minced as they made curry, an occasional ritual to give Oe’s wife, Yukari, a break. As Oe stirred the onions in the blackened wok, he recalled his days as Japan’s enfant terrible . He stunned the literary world by winning the coveted Akutagawa Prize while still in college in 1958, with unapologetically leftist works.

But the success oppressed him. He says he was immature and dangerously unstable, staggering under his fame and the fearsome burden of being the spokesman for an entire generation set adrift by the destruction of their values after World War II. And then his creative juices ran dry. He had nothing to write. He says he felt doomed.

Oe felt his son’s birth personified his life’s dead end. But as he anguished in a Dante’s hell of indecision over what to do, he was forced into an inescapable showdown with himself and his fears.

What was he trying to protect from that monster of a baby that he must run so hard and so shamelessly? What was it in himself he was so frantic to defend? The answer was horrifying--nothing! Zero!

Admitting his emptiness, Oe chose to fill himself with the lifelong responsibility to cherish and nurture a brain-damaged son. His choice replenished him, giving him new power and creative direction and even a sort of spiritual meaning for a confirmed agnostic.

“I felt I was reborn,” Oe said. “My creed became: ‘If we can live through our difficulties, we can find a new dimension in life.’ Without this accident, my life would have been doomed as a decadent writer who lived desperately and died early. I would have stopped writing and possibly committed suicide.”


Oe thought he was saving Hikari that summer day when he decided on the operation. But in fact, he says, Hikari saved him.

The family calls Hikari “Pooh-chan,” a term of endearment coined when he was a baby and resembled Winnie the Pooh. Now tall and heavyset, he still is the center of an adoring family: his parents, sister Natsumiko, 27, and brother Sakurao, 25.

They live in a handsome two-story home opening onto a garden of potted pansies and camellia trees in Seijo Gakuen, a tony Tokyo neighborhood peopled by the likes of Seiji Ozawa, the Boston Symphony conductor. Hikari and Ozawa frequent the same noodle shop, where they swap musical ideas and are collaborating on a piece for the conductor’s birthday this summer.

On the recent curry night, Oe protectively held Hikari’s arm as he guided him through the spotless neighborhood streets on a trip to the supermarket. “Pooh-chan, what do we need for curry? Onions, right? Carrots, right? You go find a good curry powder and buy it, OK? Understand? Understand?”

Hikari listens intently and nods, his eyes glued straight ahead. Off he goes, stopping only at intersections he knows he must not cross alone. “Once he has his objective, he moves very quickly,” Oe says.

Hikari’s attentive mother has carefully shaped her son’s objectives. Noticing his keen ear for sound when he was a baby, she filled their home with Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven and sang him lullabies. His father bought recordings of birdcalls after he saw Hikari perk up whenever he heard birds outside.


The breakthrough came when Hikari was 6. Strolling with his father along a path near the family’s summer home, Hikari heard chirping. Imitating the narrator he had heard so many times, the boy gravely intoned: “This is a water rail.” They were the first words he ever spoke.

Prodded by his parents, he memorized all 70 birdcalls on the record, although he lost interest in them a year after starting school. He showed a ferocious interest in classical music instead. His mother began teaching him piano when he was 9 and hired a teacher two years later when his vision problems and hand-eye coordination made the going rough.

At 15, Hikari developed epilepsy and lost what skill he had. But his instructor, Kumiko Tamura, had begun to teach him to write down what he was playing.

One day, Hikari presented Tamura with the scrawlings of a simple score. She thought it was a snippet of Beethoven or Mozart he had memorized. But it was Hikari’s first composition; he was 13.

Blessed with what Oe calls “an absolute sense of music,” Hikari composes in his head, without a piano, drawing upon the vast array of notes stored in the depths of his memory. He can hear a song, even the first few notes, and immediately name the chord and key--a skill he shyly showed visitors by cupping his hand to indicate the song in question was written in C.

Hikari continued to write: a composition for a school event at 18, a collection published by his family at 20, works for small concerts around town.


His big break came in 1991, when he was “discovered” by Hiroyuki Okano, head of Western music for the Nippon Columbia record company. Okano had been fascinated by drawings of Hikari’s musical compositions in one of Oe’s books and proposed a collaboration. The result, “The Music of Hikari Oe,” was released in 1992 and became the biggest classical music seller in Nippon Columbia’s history, Okano says.

He says the smashing sales cannot be explained merely by the father’s fame or by curiosity about Hikari’s disabilities. “Hikari’s music is very fresh,” Okano says. “Before Hikari, most classical CDs were geared toward commercialism or the scholarly extreme. But Hikari created a new music approachable by a broader audience.”

Some critics call his music pure and beautiful and say that’s why it sells so well. Others deem it unremarkable. Musician Ryuichi Sakamoto says in the January issue of Eureka, a Japanese arts magazine, “There should be a line between the artistic merit of music and the issue of the handicapped. Should all the music created by the handicapped be given credit?”

Oe says Hikari’s first CD expressed a freshness and innocence, a joy and a lightness. But he detected something different in his son’s second disc, released last year: “a dark soul screaming.”

When Hikari was small, Oe tried to awaken the spark of imagination by coaching him to dream with tales of kangaroos at the foot of his bed. But his son showed irritation with the entire business of dreams and declared: “I don’t believe there are kangaroos.”

The matter was closed until Hikari composed a song, now on his second CD, called “Dreams.” It conveyed an agony that shocked Oe. “I wondered if Hikari had this kind of dream,” Oe says. “Or if he doesn’t, I wondered if this scream comes through his soul.”


Asked why his son’s soul would be crying, what darkness he might be fighting through, the novelist shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know.”

Hikari does not cry. But he laughs. On this day, he is languidly wheezing out a tune on his accordion during a music class at his public vocational center. Suddenly, he emits a loud noise that did not come from his instrument. His teachers and classmates turn to him in glee. He turns pink and giggles.

He commutes to the center daily, usually delivered by his brother in the morning into the care of Shizue Ito, director of the Karasuyama Welfare Workplace in western Tokyo. Ito is a small, dynamic woman who flutters about in incessant motion and clucks warmth to her charges like a mother hen.

Hikari is one of 50 workers, all mentally disabled by conditions ranging from Down’s syndrome to autism. They generally spend their mornings in simple labor--weaving scarves, cleaning the parks--and are paid accordingly. In the afternoons, they learn activities from cooking to music.

Hikari’s specialty is assembling clothespins and packaging them in plastic. He is skilled--but slow, Ito says with an affectionate laugh. His colleagues average $90 a month; Hikari usually brings in $11 or so.

The reason may be the inner music he hears. While his cohorts package their clothespins one after another, Hikari spends much time laying his out on the table in intricate, beautiful patterns. He seems to be arranging notes to a musical masterpiece, his teachers say.


“He doesn’t make much money, but his patterns are beautiful!” Ito says.

He loves to watch sumo wrestling, but gets depressed when his heroes lose. He doesn’t get angry easily. But he becomes visibly upset when his colleagues at the center don’t do as they are told, or when in another setting he sees scenes suggestive of sexuality.

Ito says the Oe family has had an immeasurable impact on public attitudes toward the disabled by encouraging Hikari’s high-profile career and opening their home to media interviews. Although gains have been made here in the last 10 years--the disabled now are guaranteed a public education, for instance--facilities are still widely lacking, and many families hide their children away for fear of social ridicule, Ito says.

Not everyone approves of Hikari’s prominence. A magazine recently featured a survey: “Does Oe flaunt his disabled son too much?” Most refrained from clear answers--with some pointing out that the media, not Oe, initiate the pieces about the pair. But such grumbles were apparent when the writer brought his son to the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm last year and allowed TV cameras to record his disco dancing.

It is not likely that Hikari sees himself as a crusader to heal society’s misunderstanding of the disabled. But as he steadfastly meets life head-on--battling epilepsy, a weakening memory and a gradual slowdown in his musical output--those around him find strength and healing.

When he was 15, Hikari suffered his first epileptic seizure. Oe was burned out, crushed by the death of his mentor professor and thrashing around for a new direction in his work.

The family agonized over treatments and whether they would be able to manage this frightful development. But Hikari’s condition stabilized and he proved resilient. His comeback, Oe says, propelled the writer to make his own breakthrough: He discovered the works of the English poet William Blake, which inspired him in a different literary direction--a series of short stories.


In 1996, Oe plans to move to the United States for a year to study at Princeton in search of a new literary form for the final work of his life: a healing message to bring about the “deep reconciliation of human beings,” Oe says.

Hikari will be with him, as his muse and his touchstone.

“By the guidance of Hikari, I have continued to live and to write,” Oe says. “Sometimes I am afraid of the possibility that there is a God who gave him to me.”

Tokyo Bureau researcher Chiaki Kitada contributed to this report.