The Incomparable Legacy of Japanese Humanist Ōe Kenzaburō

Ōe Kenzaburō was a leading influential political and cultural writer of 20th-century Japanese literature. Let’s take a look at his life and accomplishments.

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Ōe Kenzaburō was a major figure in contemporary Japanese literature. He was renowned for his writings that dealt with socio-political and philosophical issues, such as nuclear weapons and existentialism. Several of his novels covered the effect of World War II on Japan, influenced by Ōe’s post-World War II generation. 

Ōe Kenzaburō was a leading figure in Japanese literature because of his unwavering political views that incorporated into his writing. Let’s take a look at his life and accomplishments to celebrate the 29th anniversary of the announcement of Ōe Kenzaburō winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Author Background

Ōe Kenzaburō was born in 1935 to a wealthy Japanese family. He attended school and university in Japan, where at the latter, he would draw much inspiration from French and American literature. He published his first piece in 1957, the short story Shisha no ogori (Lavish Are the Dead). In the following years, he would write several more short stories, as well as novels and essays focusing on the occupation of Japan or the aftermath of World War II on Japan.

Ōe took inspiration from current political events happening in Japan at the time, like in his novella Seventeen and The Death of a Political Youth, both of which drew inspiration from the 1960 assassination of Inejirō Asanuma, Japan Socialist Party chairman. These novellas spurred death threats from far-right supporters, one of whom later assaulted Ōe when he gave a speech at Tokyo University. 

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe, book cover of Oe and his son.

Alongside his politics, Ōe’s works also commonly incorporate his strong sense of family. Several of his books feature a character based on his son, Hikari. The characters Ōe made in the likeness of his son are often disabled in some way, a nod to how Hikari was diagnosed as autistic and developmentally disabled when he was born. Ōe’s most popular book, A Personal Matter, is a fictional rendition of Ōe’s own journey being a father to a disabled son. With each appearance Hikari makes in his father’s works, it’s clear that Ōe is reminding himself as much as the reader that his son is as human as anyone else, even if he is sometimes harder to reach.

Ōe Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

The Swedish Academy announced Ōe as the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature on October 13, 1994. On their selection of Ōe for the award, the academy described him as “[who with] poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” Ōe was the second Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, the first being Yasunari Kawabata in 1968.

Although the academy praised many of Ōe’s works in their nomination of him, they regarded his novel The Silent Cry as his masterpiece. The Silent Cry follows two brothers as they return to their home village. Each brother grapples with his own demons while together they suffer underneath the weight of siblings’ mysterious deaths and the legacy of their great-grandfather’s political heroism. The novel encompasses several themes frequent in Ōe’s writing, like grief and uniting against an oppressive political force.

The Silent Cry by Ōe Kenzaburō, book cover

[Ōe] with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.

The Swedish Academy on awarding Ōe

In the same year, he won the Nobel Prize, Ōe was also chosen to receive Japan’s Order of Culture, an award given to recipients who contribute significantly to “Japan’s art, literature, science, technology, or anything related to culture in general.” Ōe declined the Order of Culture because he refused to accept any award or title that was bestowed by Japan’s emperor. 

Ōe’s last novel, Bannen Yoshikishu (roughly translated to “Yoshimitsu in later years” in English), was released is 2013. Although this work marked the end of his writing career, he remained politically active and acted as an inspiration and advocate for Japanese literature until his death on March 23, 2023.

Author Ōe Kenzaburo photographed holding his 1994 Nobel Prize award for literature.

Despite making a literary career out of discussing post-World War II Japan, Ōe Kenzaburo was equally admired and resented in his native country. Many critics disparaged his writing for its clear Western influences, even though his stories centered around Japan and Japanese culture. He also received backlash for his status amongst Japan’s postwar youth, which he gained by encouraging his readers to question the motivations of authority.

But for every critic he endured, there was a person to give praise. Ōe’s writing may be controversial, but it is also undoubtedly human, encompassing the messy, complex situations that all humans encounter in their lifetimes. Ōe’s legacy stems from not just his prose or political views but also his accurate depiction of humanity that captures the good, the bad, and all the complex parts in between.

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