|BIG IN JAPAN
|Courtesy of Kyodo Photo Service
Born on the island of
Shikoku in 1935, the son of a successful paper merchant, Nobel Prize-winning writer Oe
grew up in an isolated, rural setting, his fertile imagination encouraged by his
grandmother' retelling of legends and folk tales. He was an introverted, dreamy child,
who excelled first at math and then at literature.
Realizing the potential shown by his high school studies, Oe moved to the mainland in 1954
to enter Tokyo University. His fiction was published first in student magazines, and soon
drew the attention of the literary world outside. In 1958 his short story
"Shiiku" (Prize Stock) won the Akutagawa Prize for Literature, and in the same
year his first novel came out - "Memeshiri Kouchi" (Nip the Buds, Shoot the
Kids). Oe, following his graduation at the age of 23, plunged directly into a career as a
full-time writer. In 1960 he married Yukari, the sister of film director and old
high-school friend, Itami Juzo.
In the sixties Japan saw its new-found economic prosperity shaken by recurring student
riots over the US-Japan defense treaty. Recording the atmosphere of nuclear paranoia
following the Cuban missile crisis, Oe found himself under attack from both left and
right-wingers for refusing to bow down to party dogma. The year 1963, however, was to
bring a very personal tragedy; the couple's first son, Hikari, was born with a cerebral
hernia - the surgery to save the infant's life resulted in irreversible brain damage.
The family's endurance of this adversity contributed to the intense novels "A
Personal Matter" and "The Silent Cry," the latter acknowledged by many as
the greatest postwar Japanese novel thus far. This was not just a personal matter for Oe,
however; this awakened him to the rough treatment of the physically and mentally
handicapped in a Japan which valued homogeneity and conformity and tended to ignore any
Oe continued to write throughout the '70s and '80s, while giving the best care possible to
Hikari (the name means light). His interests and influences diversified into many new
fields, even science fiction, the one constant element being his support for the
underprivileged and the maladjusted.
In 1994, Oe was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the second postwar Japanese
novelist to win it. In his acceptance speech, he portrayed Japan as a nation suffering
from schizophrenia, refusing to acknowledge past and present problems. This, along with
his turning down the Imperial Order of Culture award, led to more attacks from the
Following this furor, Oe shocked everyone once again when he announced that he was giving
up writing fiction altogether. The main reason, he stated, was a feeling that he had been
writing and lecturing on behalf of his son for so many years - and now his son had started
a career as a composer, working first for NHK. Years of diligent care and attention had
paid off, with Oe Hikari being able to express himself through music.
Whether he writes fiction again or not, Oe Kenzaburo's published works stand as a
testament to what he has referred to, in his personal life, as "the exquisite healing
power of art."
John Paul Catton