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BIG IN JAPAN
Oe Kenzaburo

Oe Kenzaburo
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 exceptions.

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 right-wingers.

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

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298: Miura Yuichiro
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297: Iron Chef
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296: "Katte wa ikenai"
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278: Oe Kenzaburo
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