On Japan

The Diagnosis: Japan Through the Eyes of Kenzaburo Oe

This article appeared in the Winter 2000 issue of Japanophile.
By Eve Kushner

What is it like to be Japan’s self-appointed gadfly? And why would someone in a straitlaced society blatantly defy social norms and critique those who follow the rules? One might ask these questions of Kenzaburo Oe, who has needled the Japanese in his fiction and essays for four decades. Oe has lambasted the Japanese for everything from clinging to the Emperor System to destroying their culture in an eagerness to westernize. Oe’s words have found an appreciative audience outside Japan; he won the 1990 Prix Europalia and the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature. But inside Japan many have stopped reading his work, and others have even threatened his life. In the early 1960s such personal attacks deeply depressed Oe, who blamed himself for his heavy-handed confrontational style. He has since rededicated himself to his cause and churned out dozens of works that continue his scathing commentary on the Japanese people.

Imperial Palace grounds, Tokyo.

To appreciate how much Oe stands out in Japan, one must see Japanese society from within. Isolated from other countries for centuries, Japan has a remarkable racial, cultural, and linguistic homogeneity. That’s how the Japanese like it: there is a stability in this homogeneity that lends some measure of comfort. As essayist Donald Richie observed after years of living in Japan, “There is a way to pay calls, a way to go shopping, a way to drink tea, a way to arrange flowers, a way to owe money. A formal absolute exists and is aspired to: social form must be satisfied if social chaos is to be avoided.” But the flip side of this homogeneity is a stringent intolerance for deviant behavior. Homosexuals, people with disabilities, Koreans, Okinawans, and mixed-race individuals all face forms of explicit and implicit discrimination in Japan. As late as the 1960s, laws prohibited scarred A-bomb survivors from entering public baths, because the Japanese wanted such people hidden from view.

Oe has always held a certain sympathy for these deviants, perhaps because he himself never fit into mainstream Japan. From his birth in 1935 until he attended Tokyo University, he lived in a rural, isolated village on Shikoku and, as a country bumpkin with a hick accent, felt marginal in Japanese society. Since the 1963 birth of his severely handicapped son, Oe has aligned himself with another misfit. Refusing to institutionalize the boy or let him die, Oe devoted himself to Hikari’s care. Relatives condemned this decision, and people often jeered when the Oes took Hikari out in public. “I’m considered very strange,” Oe says, “because I love my boy and I’m proud of him and I always went walking with him.” Oe has made their relationship the centerpiece of his writing. He has also embraced other outcasts, fighting for their rights and making them the heroes of his novels; his marginal characters often challenge mainstream authority and seize power from regular people.

Oe’s literary structures also cut sharply against Japanese literary expectations. In place of the traditional “I-novel”—a confessional, sentimental genre—he writes a “novel of ideas.” He rarely tells a linear story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Instead, his narrators analyze past events obsessively and get tangled in a convoluted self-analysis that breaks the unity of time readers often expect from novels. Whereas the best-selling novels of Banana Yoshimoto present everyday experiences, Oe fills his fiction with strange, unreal events, making his stories difficult to follow. Even dialogue can confuse the reader, because Oe frequently neglects to identify speakers.

Attracted to Western literature and repelled by the vagueness of Japanese prose, Oe has also forged a new writing style. He strings together precise words with a “clotted, overly specified syntax resembling English,” according to Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama, the translators of Oe’s novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. “His usual working method is first to write a straightforward Japanese sentence, then go over it two or three times, each time bending it out of its usual shape and making it more refractory, highly worked and polysemic. Nothing could be further from the traditional limpidity of Japanese style.” Most Japanese readers and critics don’t welcome this departure from literary norms. Finding Oe’s sentences dissonant and jarring, they say his prose sounds too Western and violates the natural rhythms of Japanese. Oe cheerfully agrees with charges that he writes poorly: “This, over time, has become something of an accepted fact—one, moreover, that I feel is largely true.” But melodious, lyrical sentences aren’t what he’s after: “I don’t write to create beauty,” he has stated.

This is certainly apparent from the pictures he paints. Whereas earlier novelists (like Kawabata) soothed readers with appealing images, Oe assaults Japanese sensibilities with one revolting picture after another: a cucumber stuffed up the anus of a hanged man (The Silent Cry), a red-ocher puddle of vomit with yellow flecks (A Personal Matter), and a cat licking saliva from a man’s mouth (Seventeen). Using the Western literary technique of grotesque realism, he aims to shake readers out of their complacency and force them to examine unpleasant realities. Oe has explained the subversive intention behind his methods: “Faced with power or anything linked to it, the clown, relying on his status as an outsider, raises questions, criticizes them, and laughs at everything under the sun…. This is the kind of clown’s role I would like to assume as a writer.” Fancying himself a clown, a revolutionary, and a critical outsider, Oe still feels like a loyal insider with strong ties to his country. “I want to confirm that I am, above all, a Japanese writer,” he has said.

“I write for the contemporary Japanese,” says Oe. “I want to show them how we look. I hope they will say, after reading my books, ‘This is us, this is what we look like and how we experience our society.’” Oe presents the Japanese with an unflattering image of themselves, but he thinks they need this reality check. “There is a wide and ironic discrepancy between what the Japanese seem like when viewed from the outside and what they wish to look like,” he observed in his Nobel lecture. Oe feels obligated to help the Japanese figure out who they are: “I can think of no people or nation as much in need of a clue for self-recovery as the Japanese.”

In his opinion, Japanese identity has been muddled ever since the 1860s, when Japan opened to the West and began mixing its traditional Eastern ways with modern Western ones. Oe notes that the culture now “evidences a strange blending of first and third world cultures.” World War II confused Japanese identity further, because the people acted as both aggressors and victims. Losing the war and then suffering the humiliations of the Occupation and demilitarization brought the Japanese to their knees. In the postwar era, they have struggled to forge an international identity of which they can be proud—one that has nothing to do with weapons.

The Japanese are presently known for their consumer electronics, but in Oe’s eyes this material success has not resolved Japan’s identity crisis. If anything, the economic boom has further alienated the Japanese from their origins. And now that the economic bubble has burst, Oe’s fiction seems a prescient warning of spiritual malaise. Oe sees modern Japan as a soulless, high-tech wasteland of consumerism. His novel The Silent Cry describes supermarket chains that move into a village, pushing shoddy, mass-market products. Seduced by these wares, the villagers unwittingly begin sacrificing traditional aspects of their lives (including architecture, dance, community spirit, and independently owned businesses), causing the village to lose its identity.

Although Oe lambasts Japan’s modern culture, he is by no means a pure traditionalist—he hates that Japan clings to the outmoded Emperor System. In this method of authoritarian rule, the Emperor was considered a god and the Imperial House symbolized militarism. An obedient subject would gladly fight for Japan and even kill himself for the Emperor. When the United States imposed democracy on Japan in 1945, the Emperor became a mere figurehead. This does not satisfy Oe, who would like to eliminate the Imperial House altogether. For him, its lingering presence means that people have not relinquished their militaristic past and refuse to acknowledge the wartime atrocities they committed under imperial command.

In Oe’s view, the Emperor System prevents the Japanese from thinking critically about anything: “I feel what has been suppressing the arts and the minds of the masses of Japan today is nothing other than the Emperor System.” Having an imperial father figure makes the Japanese into children who never question the rules. Drawn together in their Emperor worship, they can transcend loneliness and avoid defining themselves as individuals.

As an existentialist, Oe believes in self-determination and abhors conformity. Nothing irks him more than an undifferentiated mass of people who cannot think for themselves, which is the subject of Seventeen, a novella published in 1961. The unpopular teenaged protagonist masturbates chronically and hates himself. He escapes his problems by joining a group of militaristic right-wingers and embracing something larger than himself—the Emperor. In the sequel, A Political Youth Dies, the boy assassinates the head of the socialist party. Based on actual political events, Oe’s story hit a nerve in Japan. After the first part appeared, right-wingers threatened Oe’s life, threw rocks through his windows, and harassed him with midnight phone calls. Alarmed, the publisher pulled the sequel from circulation and apologized in a subsequent issue. Oe did not argue, which infuriated leftists. They, too, began sending him menacing letters. To this day he does not want the sequel printed.

These attacks frightened Oe and drove him into a suicidal funk that lasted two years. As he later wrote in an autobiographical novel, “I blamed myself that I did not handle Seventeen and A Political Youth Dies with greater skill…. I could have written without provoking the right wing…. I had lost all prospects of book publishing in the face of rightist threats…. I even felt that novel writing was itself an irremediable error of my life…. It was too late to start all over again.”

Significantly, the first work Oe published after this hiatus was J, a novella with enormous potential to offend. The protagonist faces a choice—he wants to masturbate against women in trains, but his father has offered him work in a factory. J finally decides to be a pervert, not a conformist, “self-deceiving” company man. This courageous, self-actualizing decision seems metaphoric for Oe’s choice at that time; he would go his own way in Japanese society, continuing to criticize the people and thereby remaining an outsider. Oe could have chosen a less confrontational path or left his country altogether, as Salman Rushdie did. Indeed, Oe’s characters dream of faraway places like Africa, and Oe has long felt drawn to Western countries. But he has stayed and fought for his beliefs.

The Japanese remain largely indifferent to his writing, preferring lightweight novels and comic books to his difficult texts. Even his native villagers find his work alienating. As Oe notes, “(They) criticize my novels, say they can’t understand them.” The Japanese did pay attention when Oe won the Nobel; television stations interrupted shows to broadcast news of his award, and sales of Oe’s books surged. Oe puts the matter in perspective: “I was losing my readers in Japan. In the ’60s my books sold 100,000 copies in hardcover, but now only 30,000. Thanks to the Nobel Prize, I think I am recovering readers in Japan.” In fact, more than a million copies of his works sold in Japan that year.

But before long, Oe alienated the Japanese again. Upon returning from Sweden he rejected the prestigious Order of Culture award, which the Emperor customarily bestows on Nobel laureates at his palace. Oe could not stomach this idea. And the Japanese could not tolerate his defiance. Pro-Emperor rightists gathered in front of Oe’s house, issuing threats through a loudspeaker. Posters throughout Tokyo called him a traitor. The rejection enraged even his supporters.

How much longer can this embattled writer keep fighting? Since winning the prize Oe has repeatedly announced that he will no longer write. Never citing his strained relations with the Japanese as a reason, he instead explains that he’s aging and has said what he needs to say. Despite such avowals he has produced several books, including a trilogy. As long as Japan continues in its present direction, Oe will probably have something to say about it—whether or not the Japanese are listening.

Based in Berkeley, California, Eve Kushner writes personal essays and articles. Her nonfiction book, Experiencing Abortion: A Weaving of Women’s Words, came out in 1997.

Works Consulted

Works By Oe

A Healing Family (New York: Kodansha, 1996).

Hiroshima Notes, trans. David Swain and Toshi Yonezawa (New York: Marion Boyars, 1995).

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, trans. with an introduction by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama (London: Marion Boyars, 1995).

Two Novels: Seventeen, J, with an introduction by Masao Miyoshi (New York: Blue Moon Books, 1996).

Other Works

Lindsley Cameron, The Music of Light (New York: Free Press, 1998).

Donald Richie, “Japanese Shapes” in A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan (Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 1992).

Sam Staggs, “Kenzaburo Oe: After the Nobel, a New Direction,”

Publishers Weekly, Aug. 7, 1995, 242(32).

Michiko N. Wilson, The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques (Armonk, N.Y.: Sharpe, 1986).