Kenzaburo Oe of Japan, Nobel Prize-winning writer of darkly poetic novels, dies at 88

Nobel Prize winning author Kenzaburo Oe
Kenzaburo Oe of Japan, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1994, has died at the age of 88.
(Jacques Brinon / Associated Press)

Nobel literature laureate Kenzaburo Oe, whose darkly poetic novels were built from his childhood memories during Japan’s postwar occupation and from being the parent of a disabled son, has died. He was 88.

His publisher, Kodansha Ltd., said in a statement Monday that Oe had died of old age March 3. The publisher did not give further details about his death and said his funeral was held by his family.

Oe in 1994 became the second Japanese author awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.


The Swedish Academy cited the author for works of fiction in which “poetic force creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

Oe’s most searing works were influenced by the birth of his mentally disabled son in 1963.

“A Personal Matter,” published a year later, is the story of a father coming to terms through darkness and pain with the birth of a brain-damaged son. Several of his later works have a damaged or deformed child with symbolic significance, with the stories and characters evolving and maturing as Oe’s son aged.

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.

Oct. 14, 1994

Hikari Oe had a cranial deformity at birth that caused mental disability. He has a limited ability to speak and read but has become a musical composer whose works have been performed and recorded on albums.

The only other Japanese writer to win a Nobel in literature was Yasunari Kawabata in 1968.

Despite the outpouring of national pride over Oe’s win, his principal literary themes evoke deep unease in Japan. A boy of 10 when World War II ended, Oe came of age during the American occupation.


“The humiliation took a firm grip on him and has colored much of his work. He himself describes his writing as a way of exorcising demons,” the Swedish Academy said.

‘The Changeling’ by Kenzaburo Oe

March 7, 2010

Childhood wartime memories strongly colored the story that marked Oe’s literary debut, “The Catch,” about a rural boy’s experiences with an American pilot shot down over his village.

Published in 1958, when Oe was still a university student, the story won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa prize for new writers.

He also wrote nonfiction books about Hiroshima’s devastation and rise from the Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. atomic bombing, as well as about Okinawa and its postwar U.S. occupation.

Oe campaigned for peace and anti-nuclear causes, particularly after the 2011 Fukushima crisis, and often appeared at rallies.

In 2015, Oe criticized Japan’s decision to restart nuclear reactors in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami-triggered meltdown at the Fukushima plant, calling it a risk that could lead to another disaster. He urged then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to follow Germany’s example and phase out atomic energy.

“Japanese politicians are not trying to change the situation but only keeping the status quo even after this massive nuclear accident, and even if we all know that yet another accident would simply wipe out Japan’s future,” Oe said.

Oe, who was 80 then, said his life’s final work was to strive for a nuclear-free world: “We must not leave the problem of nuclear plants for the younger generation.”

Oe, the third of seven children, was born Jan. 31, 1935, in a village on Japan’s southern island of Shikoku. At the University of Tokyo, he studied French literature and began writing plays.

Throughout his military career, Kanamine led the investigation into the My Lai Massacre and researched the toxic chemical Agent Orange.

March 10, 2023

The academy noted that Oe’s work has been strongly influenced by Western writers, including Dante, Poe, Rabelais, Balzac, Eliot and Sartre.

But even with those influences, Oe brought an Asian sensibility to bear on his work.

In 2021, thousands of pages of his handwritten manuscripts and other works were sent to be archived at the University of Tokyo.