Who is Kenzaburo Oe?

Mary McMahon

Kenzaburo Oe is a Japanese author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994. Kenzaburo Oe is well known for his haunting works that challenge readers to think critically about their lives. Born only six years before the outbreak of the Second World War, Kenzaburo Oe was greatly moved by the events of the war and his childhood, spent steeped in Japanese military culture. Much of his fiction integrates the small community he grew up in, the clash between city and countryside, a mystical cosmology, and unique mythology. It also challenges many traditional Japanese values.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in the forests of Shikoku in 1935.
Kenzaburo Oe was born in the forests of Shikoku in 1935.

Kenzaburo Oe was born in the forests of Shikoku in 1935, to a family that had traditionally lived a small village life for hundreds of years. In an era when many young Japanese began to leave their homes for Tokyo, Oe's family continued to live an uninterrupted rural life. Oe's family contained many storytellers, who told the young boy fantastical legends about Japan, many of which were incorporated into Kenzaburo Oe's later work.

Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.
Kenzaburo Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.

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During the Second World War, Kenzaburo Oe was exposed to a new set of myths and legends about Japanese national history and the Japanese military tradition. At the end of the war, Kenzaburo Oe was exposed to many new experiences and different value systems, which drove him to consider a life radically different than the one his family had lived for generations. At the age of 18, Kenzaburo Oe decided to go to Tokyo as a student of French literature, because he felt that Tokyo offered more opportunities for him to grow. His work is heavily influenced by the writing of the French philosophers as a result.

Kenzaburo Oe began writing while he was at Tokyo University, publishing his first short story, The Catch, in 1958 and winning the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. He also wrote his first novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, exploring the war and its influence on Japanese youth. Oe also wrote about the war in Hiroshima Notes a long and very critical essay published in 1965. In 1957 and 1961, respectively, Kenzaburo Oe wrote Lavish are the Dead and The Youth Who Came Late, books about student life in Tokyo and the changes in traditional Japanese values that the war had brought about.

In the mid 1960s, Kenzaburo Oe's work took a divergent path due to immense changes in his personal life. In the early 1960s, his first son, Hikari, was born. The child was severely handicapped, and Kenzaburo Oe struggled with his son and their relationship. In a radical departure from traditional Japanese values regarding personal problems, Kenzaburo Oe wrote several books about Hikari and Oe's emotions surrounding his son, including A Personal Matter (1964) and Teach Us to Outgrow our Madness (1969). Kenzaburo Oe's books about Hikari read as intensely personal explorations of emotion and experiences and are sometimes uncomfortable for the reader. In My Deluged Child (1973), Oe struggles with ideas surrounding communication with the handicapped and how they can be overcome, making the book a touchstone for many in the disabled rights movement.

Kenzaburo Oe also became fascinated by the division between rural forest life and the world of urban Japan. He wrote a number of books exploring this division and integrating his personal mythology. The books read like strange anthropological explorations of a hidden world, as his characters struggle with their identities and spirit of place. Some of Kenzaburo Oe's forest novels are very playful, incorporating history, reality, and the myths humans build, while others are more serious explorations of the human condition. These novels include The Silent Cry (1961), Letters to my Sweet Bygone Years (1987), M/T and the Wonders of the Forest (1986) and The Flaming Green Tree (1995).

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