Ōe was born on 31 January 1935, in a small village in Ehime Prefecture on the western Japanese island of Shikoku. He was the third son of seven children. His father had considerable social and governmental status as one who oversaw forests that produced the paper for Japanese banknotes. Ōe’s upbringing was highly traditional. Like most children of his generation, Ōe was taught that the emperor of Japan was a living god and that the Japanese were winning the war, so the surrender of Emperor Hirohito at the end of World War II forever altered his worldview. Ōe’s father died of heart failure the year before the war ended and his mother took charge of his education, sending him to a high school in Matsuyama. He made his first trip to Tokyo at age eighteen, an event he has described as a significant benchmark in his life. Arising from the economic and psychological shock of Japan’s defeat, Ōe, like many of his generation, developed a strongly antiauthoritarian stance. Throughout his career he has criticized authoritarianism in various ways. In 1954 he enrolled at the University of Tokyo to study medicine but later changed his direction to traditional Japanese and modern Western literature, taking a particular interest in the French existentialist philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He was also interested in the concept of the antihero as depicted by American authors like Mark Twain, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Norman Mailer. Ōe graduated with a BA in French literature in 1959. He had by then already earned accolades for his early stories. “Shiiku” (1958; “The Catch”) won the Akutagawa Prize, one of the two most prestigious Japanese literary awards.
Ōe married his wife, Yukari, in 1960, and the first of their three children, Hikari, was born in 1963. Hikari was born with a cranial encephalocele, or brain hernia. Caring, together with his wife, for the welfare of his son has defined Ōe’s path as a writer. In life and in fiction he has argued for a more welcoming and supportive attitude toward the disabled in his home country. Hikari lives with his parents but has found considerable success as a composer of classical music.
Ōe has received numerous prestigious awards throughout his career. His 1967 novel Man’en gannen no fottobōru (The Silent Cry) won the Tanizaki Jun’ichirō Prize. He won the 1973 Noma Literary Prize for the novel Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi (1973; The Waters Have Come in unto My Soul). When Japan took part in the 1989 Europalia Arts Festival, Ōe was awarded the festival’s literary prize. In 1994, Ōe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as an author “who with poetic force creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” His acceptance speech was published as Aimai na Nihon no watashi (1995; “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself”). Shortly thereafter he was also granted Japan’s Imperial Order of Culture, but he rejected the award, despite the prestige it bestowed, because he considered it inconsistent with his anti-imperial, democratic values.
Ōe has stated that he does not align with a religion, adhering instead to rationality for his moral compass and his understanding of people. However, he told interviewer Sarah Fay, “If there is one area through which I encounter the transcendental, it is my life with Hikari during the past forty-four years. Through my relationship with Hikari and through my understanding of his music I’ve glimpsed the transcendental.” In 2005, two retired Japanese military officials sued Ōe for libel over Okinawa nōto (Okinawa Notes) an essay he published in 1970. Ōe asserts in the essay that the Japanese military persuaded civilians to commit suicide with predictions of atrocities they would endure at the hands of occupying forces. The judge agreed that the Japanese military had been deeply involved in the suicides, and Ōe won the suit in 2008. The three-year period of investigation, numerous threats by right-wing groups, and the trial itself were all difficult. Ōe declared that Suishi (2009; Death by Water) would be his final novel. Interviewed at his home in Tokyo, he told Norimitsu Onishi (2008; see Further Reading), “When I turn 75 years old, I expect I’ll have nothing left to write as a novelist. … In any case, I’ll write this and then I can pass away.” He has kept to that promise, with the exception of Bannen yōshikishū: In reito sutairu (2013; New Year Style Collection: In Late Style). In 2021 he donated over 10,000 pages of his manuscripts to the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Letters.
Before the birth of his son, Ōe wrote primarily on political topics from an absurdist perspective. The novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids follows a group of juvenile delinquents evacuated from a reformatory in a remote village on Shikoku during World War II. The children are ostracized by the villagers, who eventually flee the area due to their belief that a plague has broken out and leave the children to fend for themselves. “The Catch” depicts the ill-fated friendship of a Japanese boy and an African American prisoner of war. Ōe examined, through graphic sexual symbolism, the dynamic of dominance and submission that played out in occupied Japan with Warera no jidai (1959; Our Times), in which a college student is influenced by a prostitute. With frank imagery of both sex and violence, Sebunchin (1961; Seventeen) follows a teenager who becomes a terrorist. The story is based on the 1960 assassination of the chairman of Japan’s Socialist Party by a right-wing youth and presents an unflattering portrait of both political groups.
Hikari’s birth in 1963 prompted a new era in Ōe’s career, as the author became intent on giving his son a voice through his own writing. Kojintekina taiken (1964; A Personal Matter), which became Ōe’s first novel to gain international attention, follows a young man nicknamed Bird who, like the author, confronts the birth of a developmentally challenged child. Bird struggles with the choice of allowing the baby to die or accepting life with a son who will be forever dependent upon him. Five years later, Ōe published Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness), the story of a father whose life is consumed by his close bond with his developmentally disabled son. A Personal Matter and Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness are among the relatively few works by Ōe published in English translation before his receipt of the Nobel Prize, and both have received extensive scholarly attention. Subsequent titles with similar thematic elements include Jinsei no shinseki (1989; An Echo of Heaven), Shizukana seikatsu (1990; A Quiet Life), the novels of the Flaming Green Tree trilogy (1993-95), and the memoir Kaifuku suru kazoku (1995; A Healing Family), the latter being a selection of vignettes in which Ōe illustrates his son Hikari’s enrichment of the lives of his family.
Concurrent with his focus on themes related to disability and the responsibility of the individual as both a parent and a citizen, Ōe continued his attention to the aftermath of World War II and the impact of both nationalism and modernization on Japan’s emperor system. Hiroshima nōto (1965; Hiroshima Notes) is based on his visit to Hiroshima in 1964. In that work, Ōe reflects on Japan’s response to the suffering of the victims of the atomic bombings, which he characterized as mired in political bickering. The Silent Cry, sometimes described as Ōe’s early masterpiece, contrasts the lives of two brothers, Mitsusaburō and Takashi, with those of their great-grandfather and his brother. According to family history, the elder brothers battled each other, with one attempting to provoke a great rebellion and the other suppressing it. Mitsusaburō is intent on learning the “truth” of their family past while Takashi is intent in reliving it in the present. This sets the two of them on different paths, with tragic results.
Harking back to the significance of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, Mizukara waga namida o nuguitamau hi (1972; The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away) portrays a loyal subject of the emperor who attempts to spur him into action by bombing his palace. Ōe examined both the modernization of Japan and the effects of cognitive decline in Pinchirannā chōsho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum), the story of a worker injured in a nuclear accident and the son later born to him. Chūgaeri (1999; Somersault) and Torikaego: Chenjiringu (2000; The Changeling), contain echoes of actual events. Somersault was written after the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system and explores cult psychology. The Changeling features a protagonist whose life is much like Ōe’s and a central character who commits suicide by leaping from a building, as did Ōe’s brother-in-law.
Literary critical analysis on Ōe began in the 1960s in Japan. However, substantial articles and books did not appear in the United States until the mid-1980s. Michiko N. Wilson’s The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburō (1986; see Further Reading) drew considerable attention in the early 1990s in the run-up to Ōe receiving the Nobel Prize and has continued to attract the interest of scholars since. Wilson and other literary scholars analyzed Ōe’s writing techniques, especially his use of defamiliarization (from Russian Formalism), grotesque realism, and myth. Yoshio Iwamoto (1979) argued that Ōe has “fully assimilated what Western literature has taught him in both techniques and ideas and has gone on to create a literature of enormous originality, a distinctive Ōe literature, at once Japanese and Western: universal.” Susan J. Napier (1991; see Further Reading) considered The Silent Cry to be Ōe’s “most complete and powerful statement on myth, romanticism, and realism.”
Critics have emphasized Ōe’s deep interest in humanism and existentialism, addressing issues regarding moral choice, shame, hope/despair, ambiguity, uncertainty, and the failure of the imagination in the pursuit of truth. Rodica Frentiu (2011) argued that A Personal Matter exemplifies Ōe’s overarching concern with resisting the evils of post-war contemporary society and “defending and protecting fragile values such as humanism … and the right to life.” Akio Kimura (2007) identified the influence of Faulkner on Ōe’s writing, noting their shared concern for prioritizing “spirit/soul” over nationalist concerns that have led to large-scale death and destruction. Discussions of the humanist themes in Ōe’s works often have addressed how he draws from his experiences as the father of a disabled son. Discussing the short story “Hi o megurasu tori” (1992; Light Circling Bird) and Death by Water, Margherita Long (2020; see Further Reading) argued that the characters based upon Hikari in the two narratives and their relation to music more effectively express Ōe’s humanism than his observations after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant or his “lifelong Left-pacifist response to Hiroshima.” Liz Shek-Noble (2019; see Further Reading) complemented biographical readings of Ōe’s representations of the disabled in three of his early novels by addressing the negative elements of Japanese laws and sociocultural attitudes related to the disabled and eugenics.
Critics have focused on Ōe’s works as metaphorical, left-leaning explorations of the political condition of occupied Japan and post-WWII modern Japan. However, critics have also identified internal contradictions in his writerly stance as liberal, on the one hand, and reactionary, on the other. Margaret Hillenbrand (2007; see Further Reading) examined what she called “occupation” narratives by Ōe that feature similar characters, settings, and plots and exhibit the same misogynistic attitudes about women. Ōe has garnered attention for his nonfiction work in support of atomic-bomb victims and in the expression of a sharply antinuclear stance as well as his opposition to the emperor system. In “The Day the Emperor Spoke in a Human Voice” (2001), Ōe describes the change in worldview he experienced after the emperor announced that the nation had surrendered to allied forces, bringing World War II to an end. The degree to which religion factors into Ōe’s narratives has been a frequent topic of focus for critics, from his investigation into the mentality of believers and cults members to the Christian themes in his later works. Philip Gabriel (2006; see Further Reading) characterized Ōe as an “existential theist,” embracing a spirituality not tied to organized religion.
John R. Wallace. "Kenzaburo Oe." Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 494, Gale, 2022.