Kōbō Abe (1924-1993)

For almost forty years until his death in 1993, Abe Kōbō occupied a central position among avant-garde artists in Japan. Active as a novelist, a writer of film scenarios, a dramatist, and a director of theater pieces, Abe's protean literary activities during complex postwar times in Japan helped strengthen creative currents drawn from international developments in literature rather than from purely Japanese sources. In addition, because Abe's work was appreciated abroad and often translated into English and other languages, he helped attract international attention to issues in postwar Japanese life.


At first examination Abe's work seems removed from the kinds of aesthetic vision and strategies employed by older writers such as Kawabata Yasunari or Tanizaki Jun'ichirō, who were still active after the war and creatively and selectively used themes and attitudes familiar from more traditional literature. Abe's vision appeared to take nothing from the past. Japan as presented in his works is an urban, not a rural, landscape--one filled with buildings, not flowering trees. In this sense he was perhaps in closer touch with a rapidly urbanizing society than were many authors whose writings were shaped by an implicit commitment to a bucolic vision of a Japan that had largely disappeared by the end of the American occupation in the early 1950s.

Abe's upbringing--especially that he was brought up outside Japan and was given early training as a physician--no doubt strongly shaped his attitudes. Although Abe was born in Tokyo, his father shortly thereafter took the family to Manchuria and served as a doctor in Mukden. Abe remained in Manchuria until 1942, when he returned to Tokyo at age eighteen to enter Tokyo University and study medicine. However, caught up in nihilistic attitudes that were beginning to spread among intellectuals as defeat and the end of the war seemed ever nearer, he took no pleasure in preparing for a medical career, for he had lost trust in society.

Yet Abe's medical training may have developed his abilities to describe with precision and detachment both his settings and the emotions of his characters. The objectivity of Abe's style resembles that of other writers--such as the Japanese Meiji writer and intellectual Mori Ōgai or the Russian playwright and writer Anton Chekhov--who were also trained in medicine. Although their works read quite differently and are composed with aims at variance from those of Abe, these writers resemble each other in the cool dissection that characterizes their similar authorial stances.

Perhaps because of a new atmosphere of free expression that blossomed shortly after the war ended in 1945, Abe began to experiment in writing both poetry and fiction. His first works, some published at his own expense, appeared in 1948, the same year he graduated from Tokyo University with his M.D. degree. Encouraged by his early literary successes, Abe soon abandoned any further interest in a medical career. In the early postwar years he joined many important literary groups, one of which included writers who were associated with the journal Kindai Bungaku (Modern Literature) and were attempting to reassert the claims of art and humanism in the difficult years that followed defeat. Hanada Kiyoteru, the intellectual leader of the group, encouraged Abe's interests in European surrealism, which led him in turn to develop Marxist sympathies. By 1950 Abe had become an enthusiastic participant in the avant-garde movement of postwar Japan.

From that time Abe's career moved in three directions. He soon became known as a fiction writer, a playwright and director, and a writer of film scenarios. All three served as means for him to explore and explicate his sometimes gnomic vision of reality, yet Abe is best known, both in Japan and abroad, as a novelist and short-story writer. After winning an important literary prize for his 1950 story "Akai Mayu" (translated as "Red Cocoon," 1972), with its hallucinatory vision of a man without a home, Abe wrote an impressive number of novels. Although he wrote many of the works that earned him the greatest recognition during the early years of his career, Abe continued writing fiction throughout his life. His collection Kabe (The Wall, 1951) won the Akutagawa Prize for its title story and established his thematic hallmark--an alienated protagonist seeking meaning in an indifferent society. Abe was the first major writer in Japan to appropriate this avant-garde theme in order to create plausible and exciting narratives, and his popularity grew quickly.

Abe's novel Dai yon kanpyōki (1959; translated as Inter Ice Age Four , 1970) attracted particular attention and was the earliest of his full-length works to be translated into English. In it Abe borrows strategies from science fiction to buttress his visions of the present confronting the future. The complex, absurdist plot involves a scheme by the Japanese government (although the scheme might be that of any bureaucracy) to obtain and grow human fetuses in order to preserve the human race--in case the polar ice caps melt. Mixing mordant humor and outrageous incidents, Abe spins this wry tale for a serious purpose. He writes in his postscript that he "must understand the future not as something to be judged but something rather that sits in judgment on the present."

In 1962 Abe produced what is surely his most enduring contribution, Suna no onna (translated as The Woman in the Dunes , 1964). Both as a novel and as a 1965 film produced by the celebrated avant-garde director Teshigawara Hiroshi this work remains one of the most widely discussed and appreciated pieces from postwar Japan. Often termed a Kafkaesque morality tale, the novel presents as its central figure the schoolteacher Niki Jumpei, who collects insects. When he travels to a remote area in order to locate a specimen of a particular sand beetle, villagers offer him a place to stay. In a sandpit there he meets a fascinating widow who is soon determined to keep him with her.

At first, Jumpei makes every effort to escape the village and regain his freedom; yet as time goes on, he finds himself strangely attracted to the sensual widow, and he eventually gives up his plan to abandon the woman and the mysterious village in which she lives. In the end, he disappears from the world altogether. Written in the style of a prose poem, the precise message of The Woman in the Dunes is difficult to uncover. The shifting of the sands and the villagers' need to remove the sand drifts from their village constitute a metaphor expressing Abe's sense of the puzzle of human existence, a vision strong enough to make Jumpei's final renunciation of his former life convincing and, indeed, seemingly inevitable.

Tanin no kao (1964; translated as The Face of Another , 1966) was adapted as another popular film produced in 1966 and released in 1967, also by Teshigawara. In this narrative Abe uses motifs from detective fiction to tell the story of a man who, in order to hide a facial disfigurement caused by a scientific experiment, wears a mask that hides his real identity from others. In his new guise the protagonist, who seems to lose his identity, manages to seduce his own wife. Abe uses the multiple roles of these characters to posit the difficulties human beings may find in gaining self-knowledge. The structure of the novel, which conveys information about the protagonist in three notebooks that he has left behind, is complex, for the narrator is an unreliable source of information. Amid layers of irony and ambiguity borne by the narrator's self-obfuscation, the final meaning of the text is somewhat unclear. Reading the narrative, however, remains altogether fascinating, and its obscurity is surely one of the themes that this postwar parable presents.

Moetsukita chizu (1967; translated as The Ruined Map , 1969) also uses techniques from detective fiction. As in several of Abe's works, the plot concerns the loss or disappearance of one marriage partner. The husband has disappeared, and in attempting to find him the detective hired to do so begins with only a matchbox as a clue. He quickly enters what Abe calls "a city as bounded infinity, a labyrinth where you are never lost." As the detective pursues the missing man, the two become complicit partners, as the detective adopts the man's thought patterns and eventually even his identity. The narrative uses various techniques that include some effective theatrical dialogue. The Man without a Map, Teshigahara's 1968 film of the novel, continued their successful partnership.

Abe's novel Hako otoko (1973; translated as The Box Man , 1974) presents, after The Woman in the Dunes, another effective use of metaphor in advancing the narrative. The narrator of this work has decided to cast off all the appurtenances of an ordinary middle-class existence and equip a large cardboard box, which he uses as a kind of cocoon, with enough items to sustain his daily life. He defines himself as a man who "just wanted to run away from seeing and being seen." Free from the constraints of society, the narrator becomes a kind of voyeur, observing others while not being seen. In what might be characterized as an intellectual game, the narrative, which takes many twists and turns, allows Abe to pursue his mordant comments on society.

The peculiar love affair between the narrator and a nurse who works for his doctor, one of the incidents in Hako otoko, serves partly to anticipate certain events in Abe's Mikkai (1977; translated as Secret Rendezvous , 1979), in which a hospital setting becomes central to the story. Filled with recording devices, the hospital becomes a kind of labyrinth in which the protagonist, seeking his missing wife, tries unsuccessfully to discover the truth about her--and about himself. In presenting the fascinating yet ultimately repellent atmosphere of calculated sexuality that pervades the hospital and its inhabitants (including a talking horse), the tone of Mikkai allows the reader to develop little human sympathy for the characters. Instead of the presence of the novel's characters, that of the hospital is most influential. Everyone is dwarfed by its bizarre environment; the husband reflects on problems he faces in finding his wife when he seeks help from the others he has met. He finds that "they were like a bunch of worm-eaten dolls escaped from a junkman's truck, having an insane party."

The cluster of themes, sometimes clear, sometimes obfuscating, that make up Abe's narrative suggest relationships between victim and victimizer that can be found in other works of his. In this novel, however, the reader is presented only with a puzzle, not with any solution. Even the apparent progress of the narrative is called into question by the talking horse, who at one point in the narration comments that "where there is no victim, you see, there is no aggression."

Abe's next major novel, Hakobune Sakura maru (1984; translated as The Ark Sakura , 1988), took seven years to write, and his readers eagerly awaited it. Although some reviewers did not find it successful, the book has many rich passages and provides a series of Abe's powerful commentaries on the emptiness of contemporary life. Rather like the biblical figure of Noah, Mole, the protagonist, has decided that he should select a few special people and put them into an ark, which will bear them through what he sees as the inevitable destruction of his time. During much of the narrative Mole is constructing the ark in a cave far from Tokyo. The selection of characters whom Mole permits to assemble on his ark is a remarkable one: it includes, among others, a bogus dealer in insects and his two shady accomplices. As the time for the launching of the boat approaches, the narrative becomes more complex, as those who are to travel in the ark begin to voice their conjectures, doubts, and suspicions. In the end, however, the accumulated tensions dissolve in the gentle rays that shine on the Transparent Town. As one of the characters observes, "not only utility goods are necessary for survival. Any struggle requires a dream. Spiritual self-sufficiency is the greatest recompense of all." The entire narrative possesses a strange, sometimes hallucinatory quality, and the two-page prose poem that concludes the novel provides one of Abe's most effective, quirky vignettes in wistfully commenting on the whole novel.

Despite the obvious differences of tone and design in each of Abe's fictional works, all of them display some of his continuing concerns. In this respect the novels are loosely linked, for moral concerns and trenchant ironies that Abe merely suggests in one become central objects of his focus in others. Abe also expresses many of these concerns in his theatrical works, to which he devoted much attention throughout his writing career.

His early plays--such as Seifuku (Uniform, 1955) and Doreigari (Slave Hunt, 1955)--show the influence of the Marxist-oriented theater that was so prominent among intellectuals in early postwar Japan. Yet a play such as Yurei wa koko ni iru (produced in 1958; translated as The Ghost Is Here, 1993), Abe's satire on postwar life (in which the dead are used to make money for the living), is relatively free of any particular political doctrines. By the time Omae ni mo tsumi ga aru (1965; translated as "You, Too, Are Guilty," 1979) was produced, Abe's work for the theater was beginning to show the kind of existentialism visible in his fiction, in which an ironic questioning of all established values replaced doctrinaire attitudes.

Abe's most successful work for the theater, Tomodachi (1967; translated as Friends, 1969), is a remarkably effective critique of Japanese communal values, which Abe sees as stifling individual creativity. The "family" that invades the apartment of the hapless protagonist in the course of the play manages to take over and eradicate him--a dramatic sequence that helps Abe's audience feel the significance of the metaphors and ideas underlying the play. Abe's trilogy of short plays, Bō ni natta otoko (1969; translated as The Man Who Turned into a Stick, 1975), which the author also directed, presents variations on some of the same themes. In these three separate one-act plays (representing what Abe calls Birth, Process, and Death) he uses the same actor in all three successive parts to link the works.

In 1973 Abe, sometimes dissatisfied with the quality of production that his plays had received, began his own theater group, the Abe Kōbō Studio, which produced many of his best-known dramas. His wife, the artist Abe Machi, prepared many of the stage designs for these productions. In 1974 this group produced one of his most representative plays, Midori-iro no sutokkingu (1974; translated as The Green Stockings, 1993), a bizarre and often ribald account of how two men, a doctor and his patient, work out their peculiar obsessions on each other. Other well-known productions by Abe's company include Annainin (The Guide, 1976), Suichu Toshi (Underwater City, 1977), and Imeji no Tenrankai (Image Exhibition, 1979), which, under the title of The Little Elephant Is Dead, successfully toured the United States in 1979. Many of these productions emphasized movement rather than dialogue, as Abe attempted to create a theatrical style to express surrealistic images visually. In addition to these plays written for the stage Abe composed both television and radio drama.

In his attempts to unseat his audiences from any dependence on a comfortable, commonsense mentality--sometimes in order to ease or even to force them into confronting what he saw as the bizarre realities of the human condition--Abe was a restless writer. In this effort he used every device available to him, such as those of farce and those of science fiction. His critics have judged some of these experiments to have been more successful than others, yet each successive work revealed some new attempt to achieve his aims.

In part for these reasons, Abe's critical reception, both in Japan and abroad, has sometimes remained ambiguous. For many Japanese readers Abe sheds too much of the Japanese literary tradition: he no longer seems an authentic mirror of what many of his countrymen regard as a range of sentiments peculiar, and important, to their perceptions of their culture. Abe often suggested that, unlike most Japanese, he possessed no particular sense of homeland or indeed of any place to which he, or his generation, truly belonged. His work shares this vision of rootlessness with those works of many other postwar writers around the world, such as Franz Kafka to Alain Robbe-Grillet and Paul Auster, whose characters also inhabit uncertain urban worlds. Many Western critics, seeking some special Japanese quality in works they read in translation, are consequently disappointed or frustrated to discover that Abe's concerns and obsessions resemble those of other contemporary writers around the world.

Yet Abe's work conveys a strong conviction that the parochial is irrelevant as modern culture develops. Some of these convictions may derive from his early Marxist enthusiasms, which posit general principles about how societies function. His basic strategy of composition is most often that of meticulously observing the surface details of life and combining these with an often bizarre central theme. Those surfaces that he describes, often of urban settings and characters, show clearly that Abe is right in asserting that the quality of contemporary life in Japan is by no means unique. With the development in Japan of another generation of young writers such as Murakami Haruki, whose vision of contemporary conditions also features the kinds of similarities that Abe discerns in the human condition, Abe's work may come to stand as the harbinger of a broad new Japanese sensibility.


Rimer, J. Thomas. "Kobo Abe." Japanese Fiction Writers Since World War II, edited by Van C. Gessel, Gale, 1997. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 182.


  • Further Reading
    • William Curry, "Abe Kōbō's Nightmare World of Sand," in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, edited by Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann (Tokyo: Sophia University, 1976), pp. 1-18.
    • Nancy S. Hardin, "An Interview with Abe Kōbō," Contemporary Literature, 15 (1974): 439-456.
    • Brad Leithauser, "Severed Futures," New Yorker, 64 (9 May 1988): 122-126.
    • Alan Levy, "The Boxman Cometh," New York Times Magazine, 17 November 1974, pp. 36-37, 64-71.
    • Nakamura Kiyoshi, Kōbō to Yutaka no sekai (Tokyo: Kongen Shobō, 1983).
    • David Pollack, "The Ideology of Science: Kōbō Abe's Woman in the Dunes," in his Reading against Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp. 121-135.
    • J. Thomas Rimer, "Tradition and Contemporary Consciousness," in his Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions, an Anthology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), pp. 245-270.
    • Sasaki Kiichi, ed., Abe Kōbō: Sakka no sekai (Tokyo: Banchō Shobō, 1978).
    • Nancy K. Shields, Fake Fish: The Theater of Kōbō Abe (New York & Tokyo: Weatherhill, 1996).
    • Takano Toshimi, Abe Kōbō ron (Tokyo: Sanryō Senshō 2, 1971).
    • Tani Shunsuke, ed., Abe Kōbō bungaku goi jiten (Tokyo: Sutajio VIC, 1976).
    • Watanabe Hiroshi, Abe Kōbō (Tokyo: Shimbi Bunko, 1976).
    • Yamanouchi Hisaaki, "In Search of Identity: Abe Kōbō and Ōe Kenzaburō," in his The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), pp. 153-174.