Authors: Kenzaburō Ōe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Japanese novelist, short-story writer, and essayist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Memushiri kouchi, 1958 (Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, 1995)

Warera no jidai, 1959

Yoru yo yuruyaka ni ayume, 1959

Seinenno omei, 1960

Okurete kita seinen, 1962

Sakebigoe, 1963

Kojinteki na taiken, 1964 (A Personal Matter, 1968)

Nichyoseikatsu no boken, 1964

Sora no kaibutsu aguwee, 1964 (novella; Aghwee the Sky Monster, 1977)

Man’en gannen no futtoboru, 1967 (The Silent Cry, 1974)

Nichijo seikatsu no boken, 1971

Kōzui wa waga tamashii ni oyobi, 1973

Pinchi rannā chōsho, 1976 (The Pinch Runner Memorandum, 1994)

Dōjidai gemu, 1979

Atarashii hito yo mezameyo, 1983 (Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, 2002)

Natsukashii toshi e no tegami, 1987

Jinsei no shinseki, 1989 (An Echo of Heaven, 1996)

Chiryōtō, 1990

Shizuka na seikatsu, 1990 (A Quiet Life, 1996)

Chiryōtō wakusei, 1991

Moeagaru midori no ki, 1993-1995 (includes “Sukuinushi” ga nagurareru made, 1993, Yureugoku “vashireshon,” 1994, and Ōinaru hi ni, 1995)

Chūgaeri, 1999 (2 volumes; Somersault, 2003)

Torikaeko, 2000 (also known as Chenjiringu)

Ureigao no doji, 2002

Short Fiction:

“Kimyo na shigoto,” 1957

“Shisha no ogori,” 1957 (“Lavish the Dead,” 1965)

Miru mae ni tobe, 1958

“Shiiku,” 1958 (“The Catch,” 1966; “Prize Stock,” 1977)

Kodoku na seinen no kyuka, 1960

“Sebuntin,” 1961 (“Seventeen,” 1996)

“Seiji shonen shisu,” 1961

Seiteki ningen, 1963

Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo, 1969 (Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, 1977)

Gendai denikshu, 1980

“Ame no ki” o kiku onnatachi, 1982

“Rein tsurī” o kiku onnatachi, 1982

Ika ni ki o korosu ka, 1984

Kaba ni kamareru, 1985

Boku ga hontō ni wakakatta koro, 1992


Sekai no wakamonotachi, 1962

Genshuku na tsunawatari, 1965

Hiroshima nōto, 1965 (Hiroshima Notes, 1982)

Jisokusuru kokorozashi, 1968

Kakujidai no sōzōryoku, 1970

Kowaremoto to shite no ningen, 1970

Okinawa nōto, 1970

Dōjidai to shite no sengo, 1973

Bungaku noto, 1974

Jōkyō e, 1974

Kotoba ni yotte, 1976

Shōsetsu no hōhō, 1978

Ōe Kenzaburō dojidaironshu, 1981

Sengo bungakusha, 1981

Kaku no taika to “ningen” no koe, 1982

Atarashii bungaku no tame ni, 1988

Bungaku sainyūmon, 1992

Aimai na Nihom no watakushi, 1995 (Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures, 1995)

Kaifuku suru kazoku, 1995 (A Healing Family, 1996)

On Politics and Literature: Two Lectures, 1999

“Jibun no ki” no shita de, 2001

Edited Text:

Nan to moshirenai mirai ni, 1985 (The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, 1985)


Kenzaburō Ōe (oh-ay) is Japan’s foremost existentialist writer and essayist, whose work deals with the plight of human beings set against the backdrop of postwar Japan. Born in the village of Ōse on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan, Ōe, the third of seven children, lost his father in 1944, and when the emperor acknowledged Japan’s defeat in his first-ever radio address on August 15, 1945, the boy experienced a complete collapse of his world.{$I[AN]9810000915}{$I[A]{Omacr}e, Kenzabur{omacr}[Oe, Kenzaburo]}{$I[geo]JAPAN;{Omacr}e, Kenzabur{omacr}[Oe, Kenzaburo]}{$I[tim]1935;{Omacr}e, Kenzabur{omacr}[Oe, Kenzaburo]}

Kenzaburō Ōe

(©The Nobel Foundation)

It was this sudden awakening to an uncaring universe devoid of a superhuman ruler that led to Ōe’s study of French existentialism and such American writers as Henry Miller and Norman Mailer when he entered Tokyo University in 1954. He graduated with a degree in French literature in 1959. His marriage to Yukari Itami in 1960 produced three children. The fate of the oldest, a mentally disabled son named Hikari, is central to Ōe’s fiction.

Ōe’s 1958 novella, The Catch, turns to the war years, portraying the impossible friendship between a Japanese boy and a black American prisoner of war; it ends in an outburst of collective violence. This work cemented Ōe’s national fame and won for him the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (Ōe was the first student ever to be so honored). That same year he wrote Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, a story of reform-school boys who are abandoned in a remote village when a plague breaks out. The boys make themselves at home in the village, even performing childish versions of hunting ceremonies to ensure the town’s continued prosperity.

The year 1964 was a turning point for Ōe’s work, for in this year the author began fictionalizing his life with his mentally disabled son. A Personal Matter is the seminal work of this period; here, the protagonist, Bird, tries to escape his fate through alcohol and adultery and even arranges to kill his son; in an act of courage, however, Bird returns to his wife and son. In The Silent Cry Ōe makes a mentally disabled son peripheral to a grander saga of a rural rebellion, at the center of which are two brothers who trace their opposing natures through various generations of ancestors. In the collection of four short novels Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, the title work offers a mystic exploration of Ōe’s obsessive topic: A father believes that he can feel the pain of his mentally disabled son, Eeyore. In another story of the collection, Aghwee the Sky Monster, a father follows through with the killing of his child. Life with a mentally disabled son is again Ōe’s subject in the 1976 novel The Pinch Runner Memorandum, in which Mori, the son, is featured in a grotesque tale of fantastic realism. In Dōjidai gemu (the game of contemporaneity) and Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, Ōe risks an analysis of Japanese culture, focusing first on its past, with a tale about a dissident tribe, and then trying to reshape the stylistics of Japan’s traditional “I novel.”

Ōe’s singlemindedness of theme in much of his writing has met with criticism, as has his style, which matches his content in its deliberate frontal assault on the traditional values and stylistics of Japanese writing and fully incorporates modern and postmodern Western influences. Yet Ōe’s literary skill, merciless exploration of his topic, and stylistic tours de force have brought him great national and international acclaim. In the fall of 1994 Ōe was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his acceptance speech he talked about the power of literature, expressing regret only that in Japan his writing “has not had sufficient power to push back a rising tide of conformity.” The prize triggered the publication of an English translation of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids as well as two volumes of nonfiction. Ōe subsequently completed a science-fiction trilogy titled Moeagaru midori no ki (the flaming green tree), and three other novels. Somersault was inspired by the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s release of sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway system in 1995; it revolves around the struggles within a religious cult between the elderly founders and a more militant wing which desires violent action.

In his essays Ōe is an influential voice in the Japanese intellectual community, writing about such political issues as Hiroshima and World War II, as well as about such intellectual questions as the philosophy of existentialism. Ōe is also an outspoken opponent of nuclear military installations, and participated in demonstrations against nuclear weapons.

BibliographyCargas, Harry James. “Fiction of Shame.” The Christian Century 112 (April 12, 1995): 382-383. Brief biographical sketch, commenting on Ōe’s theme of guilt over Japanese attraction to Western customs and rejection of their own traditions and guilt over the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which violates the samurai code of honor.Napier, Susan J. Escape from the Wasteland: Romanticism and Realism in the Fiction of Mishima Yukio and Ōe Kenzaburō. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991. An excellent, in-depth comparative analysis of key texts by both writers. The book provides great insight into the literary imagination of these two important, yet very different, writers.Napier, Susan J. “Marginal Arcadias: Ōe Kenzaburō’s Pastoral and Antipastoral.” Review of Japanese Culture and Society 5 (December, 1993): 48-58. An intelligent critical study of the treatment of nature in Ōe’s works. Relates Ōe’s often fantastic and grotesque description of rural life to the author’s childhood at the remote margins of Japanese society. Successfully analyzes Ōe’s connection to the traditions of Western pastoralism.Ōe, Kenzaburō. “Kenzaburō Ōe: After the Nobel, a New Direction.” Interview by Sam Staggs. Publishers Weekly 242 (August 7, 1995): 438-439. Ōe talks about his decision to discontinue writing fiction; discusses his lifestyle and his relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.Remnick, David. “Reading Japan.” The New Yorker 70 (February 6, 1995): 38-44. Recounts a meeting with Ōe, in which the writer talks about his life and art. Discusses Ōe’s obsession with his mentally disabled son in several of his stories and his place in modern Japanese culture and literature.Swain, David L. “Something Akin to Grace: The Journey of Kenzaburō Ōe.” The Christian Century 114 (December 24-31, 1997): 1226-1229. Brief profile, discussing Ōe’s sense of native place, his sense of marginalization, and his literary cosmopolitanism; briefly discusses An Echo of Heaven and A Healing Family.Wilson, Michiko Niikuni. “Kenzaburō Ōe: An Imaginative Anarchist with a Heart.” The Georgia Review 49, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 334-350. Combines a good overview of Ōe’s life with a sophisticated interpretation of his literary output. Argues convincingly that the outstanding features of Ōe’s fiction are a complete rejection of evil, a tenderness for all humans, and a biting irony.Wilson, Michiko Niikuni. The Marginal World of Ōe Kenzaburō: A Study in Themes and Techniques. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1986. An attempt at dealing with the weird, grotesque, and perverse imagination of Ōe by showing–or attempting to show–how two short stories and three novels present the relationship of a corpulent father and his mentally disabled son by establishing a unity of theme, a chronological development, and an ironic turn of events.World Literature Today 76 (Winter, 2002). Four essays form a special section dedicated to analyzing Ōe’s recent work.Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “In Search of Identity: Abe Kōbō and Ōe Kenzaburō.” In The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978. Draws parallels between Abe and Ōe respecting their treatment of themes and mutual concern in the search for identity. The ideas of identity, authenticity, and alienation that Ōe attempts to use are Western themes stemming from the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Ōe seeks to graft these themes onto a Japanese culture that, although it has been rapidly modernized, still manages to maintain some strong traditions. Yet Ōe insists on using antisocial characters, whether juvenile delinquents, sexual perverts, or vicious criminals, whom he treats as “fallen angels,” while he himself dreams of a “pastoral community.”Yoshida, Sanroku. “Kenzaburō Ōe: A New World of Imagination.” Comparative Literature Studies 22 (Spring, 1985): 80-96. Ōe is presented as the leading Japanese literary reformer, who, rejecting literary elitism and high art, holds that literature should be democratic and should appeal to the masses in didactic terms. Ōe sees literature under the obligation to protest against social evils, which, in his view, have only political solutions. Hence he believes that political ideology has a legitimate place in literature.Yoshida, Sanroku. “Kenzaburō Ōe’s Recent Modernist Experiments.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 26 (Spring, 1985): 155-164. A general view of Ōe’s innovative narrative techniques, including his characterizations, his recurrent themes, and his stylistic practices. Stylistically he is said to have attempted to wed the structure of the Japanese language to Indo-European structure. He also indulges widely in grotesque and animal imagery. His narrative techniques include scrambled chronologies and spatial narrative structure. His characterizations feature a voiceless narrator, switched identities, and a character who turns out to be the author’s Doppelgänger.
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