Oe Kenzaburo

Oe Kenzaburo

Japanese novelist whose works express the disillusionment and rebellion of his post-World War II generation. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994.
Oe came from a family of wealthy landowners, who lost most of their property with the occupation-imposed land reform following the war. He entered the University of Tokyo in 1954, graduating in 1959, and the brilliance of his writing while he was still a student caused him to be hailed the most promising young writer since Mishima Yukio.

Oe first attracted attention on the literary scene with Shisha no ogori (1957; Lavish Are the Dead), published in the magazine Bungakukai. His literary output was, however, uneven. His first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids), was highly praised, and he won a major literary award, the Akutagawa Prize, for Shiiku (1958; The Catch). But his second novel, Warera no jidai (1959; "Our Age"), was poorly received, as his contemporaries felt that Oe was becoming increasingly preoccupied with social and political criticism.

Oe became deeply involved in the politics of the New Left. The murder in 1960 of Chairman Asanuma Inejiro of the Japanese Socialist Party by a right-wing youth inspired Oe to write two short stories in 1961, "Sebuntin" ("Seventeen") and "Seiji shonen shisu," the latter of which drew heavy criticism from right-wing organizations.

Married in 1960, Oe entered a further stage of development in his writing when his son was born in 1963 with an abnormality of the skull. This event inspired his finest novel, Kojinteki-na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter), a darkly humorous account of a new father's struggle to accept the birth of his brain-damaged child. A visit to Hiroshima resulted in the work Hiroshima noto (1965; "Hiroshima Notes"), which deals with the survivors of the atomic bombing of that city. In the early 1970s Oe's writing, particularly his essays, reflected a growing concern for power politics in the nuclear age and with questions involving the Third World.

Oe continued to investigate the problems of characters who feel alienated from establishment conformity and the materialism of postwar Japan's consumer-oriented society. Among his later works were the novel Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967; The Silent Cry); a collection of short fiction entitled Warera no kyoki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness); and the novels Pinchi ranna chosho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum) and Dojidai gemu (1979; "Coeval Games"). The novel Atarashii hito yo meza meyo (1983; "Awake, New Man") is distinguished by a highly sophisticated literary technique and by the author's frankness in personal confession; it concerns the growing up of a mentally retarded boy and the tension and anxiety he arouses in his family.

Michiko N. Wilson, The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques (1986); Susan J. Napier, Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Oe Kenzaburo (1991).


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