Authors: Kōbō Abe

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Japanese novelist and playwright

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Owarishi michi noshirube ni, 1948

Baberuno tō no tanuki, 1951

Mahō no chōku, 1951

Kiga dōmei, 1954

Kemonotachi wa kokyō o mezasu, 1957

Daiyon kampyōki, 1958-1959 (serial), 1959 (book; Inter Ice Age 4, 1970)

Ishi no me, 1960

Suna no onna, 1962 (The Womanin the Dunes,1964)

Tanin no kao, 1964 (The Face of Another, 1966)

Moetsukita chizu, 1967 (The Ruined Map, 1969)

Hako otoko, 1973 (The Box Man, 1974)

Mikkai, 1977 (Secret Rendezvous, 1979)

Hakobune sakura maru, 1984 (The Ark Sakura, 1988)

Kangarū nōto, 1991 (The Kangaroo Notebook, 1996)

Tobu otoko, 1994

Short Fiction:

Kabe, 1951

Suichū toshi, 1964

Yume no tōbō, 1968

Four Stories by Kōbō Abe, 1973

Beyond the Curve, 1991


Seifuku, pr., pb. 1955

Yūrei wa koko ni iru, pr. 1958 (The Ghost Is Here, 1993)

Omae ni mo tsumi ga aru, pr., pb. 1965 (You, Too, Are Guilty, 1978)

Tomodachi, pr., pb. 1967 (Friends, 1969)

Bō ni natta otoko, pr., pb. 1969 (The Man Who Turned into a Stick, 1975)

Gikyoku zenshū, pb. 1970

Imeiji no tenrankai, pr. 1971 (pr. in U.S. as The Little Elephant Is Dead, 1979)

Mihitsu no koi, pr., pb. 1971 (Involuntary Homicide, 1993)

Gaido bukku, pr. 1971

Midoriiro no sutokkingu, pr., pb. 1974 (The Green Stockings, 1993)

Ue: Shin doreigari, pr., pb. 1975

Three Plays, pb. 1993


Mumei shishū, 1947


Uchinaro henkyō, 1971


Abe Kobo zenshū, 1972-1997 (30 volumes)


Kōbō Abe (ahb-eh) was one of Japan’s most prolific postwar writers; his novels, plays, and stories focus on the alienation of contemporary men and women. Born Kimifusa Abe in Tokyo, he lived until the age of sixteen in occupied Mukden, China, where his physician father worked and taught at the Japanese-run Manchurian School of Medicine. The Japanese colony in which his family lived grew with Japan’s expansive presence on the Asian continent in the 1920’s and 1930’s. War with China broke out in 1937, and Abe returned to Tokyo in 1941 to attend school and receive military training. His early interests included insect collecting and mathematics. Following in his father’s footsteps, Abe entered the medical school of Tokyo Imperial University in 1943, specializing in gynecology. He interrupted his studies, however, to return to Manchuria. Following his repatriation at the end of the war, he resumed his university courses. He and his wife, Machi, were married while Abe was a student. She became an artist and set designer, and her drawings illustrate many of her husband’s later literary works. They had a daughter named Neri.{$I[AN]9810001019}{$I[A]Abe, K{omacr}b{omacr}[Abe, Kobo]}{$I[geo]JAPAN;Abe, K{omacr}b{omacr}[Abe, Kobo]}{$I[tim]1924;Abe, K{omacr}b{omacr}[Abe, Kobo]}

Kōbō Abe

(Library of Congress)

Abe was an indifferent student and not really interested in medicine; he was permitted to graduate after he promised not to practice. By this time, his father had died, and Abe may have felt released from pressures to become a doctor. A collection of his poems, Mumei shishū (poems of an unknown poet), was privately printed in 1947. He received his medical degree in 1948, and his first piece of fiction, Owarishi michi no shirube ni, was published the same year in Kosei. In this story about a self-imposed exile in Manchuria, he explored themes that would continue to provide him with material: human identity and the experience of being separated from one’s homeland. “Kabe” (the wall) and “S. Karuma-shi no hanzai” (S. Karuma’s crime) together garnered the 1951 Akutagawa Prize; these and other early works–“Dendorokakariya” (1949; dendrocacalia), “Akai mayu” (1950; “The Red Cocoon”), Baberu no tō no tanuki (a badger in the tower of Babel), and Mahō no chōku (the magic chalk)–explored existential concerns and show evidence of his appreciation of the works of Fyodor Dostoevski, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Franz Kafka. Abe was frequently compared to Kafka because of his use of labyrinthine images and insectlike characteristics.

In his early writings, Abe developed a style rooted in realism yet tinged with surrealism and the irrational. His pieces in the period from 1950 to 1955 focused on nameless, often homeless ordinary humans in impersonal cities being transformed into other forms, a motif presaged in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) and Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (pr. 1959). Transformation (into cocoons, plant stalks, walls) could be either a positive force leading to a new way of life or a negative one destroying the psyche. Abe made his 1955 short story “A Stick,” a commentary on dehumanization, into a play in 1957; it was later combined with two other short works into the three-act drama The Man Who Turned into a Stick. Kemonotachi wa kokyō o mezasu (the beasts go homeward) features an autobiographical plot concerning a seventeen-year-old boy abandoned in Manchuria after World War II and his search for his homeland and his identity.

A variation on the theme of identity and place is developed in The Woman in the Dunes. Here a male teacher, trapped at the bottom of a sand pit with a woman, struggles with a seemingly pointless existence, as they both strive to keep the hole from filling up with collapsing sand. The protagonist finally accepts the freedom the sand pit gives him, in contrast to his former life in the city; indeed, the sexual liberation he enjoys with the woman is a fulfillment he had not experienced on the outside. This novel won the 1962 Yomiuri Literature Prize and was made into an award-winning 1964 film by Hiroshi Teshigahara.

Set in the future, Inter Ice Age 4 deals with the choices a computer scientist must face as a melting polar ice cap forces him to choose between helping to save the human race through the bizarre application of his scientific work and dealing with the personal consequences of the mutation that threatens his wife and unborn child. Another science-fiction theme is used to explore the concept of identity in The Face of Another. In this story, a scientist who has been disfigured in a laboratory explosion has a new face made for himself; using it as a mask, he seduces his own wife, only to lose her when she recognizes him. The Ruined Map uses a detective plot to posit that freedom is gained through the dissolution of the self. The Box Man, too, is set in the city; its protagonist lives in a cardboard box and has various reactions to the “others” on the outside.

To ensure proper interpretation of his pieces, Abe began to direct his own productions at the Abe Studio, which he founded. Among Abe’s plays, Friends is the most widely performed and appreciated, both in Japan and in the West. An absurdist piece, it depicts a family of eight who take over the apartment of “the Man.” Ultimately, they shut him in a cage and he dies, victimized by those who ostensibly were assuaging his loneliness. Many of Abe’s writings reflect the postwar Japanese intellectual’s interest in Marxism and alienation. A leading leftist thinker, he was for a time a member of the Japanese Communist Party but was expelled after writing an unflattering report of his 1956 visit to several Eastern European countries. His writings, however, go beyond the strictly political to wrestle with sociological and psychological issues: the modern sense of rootlessness and of lost identity.

Beyond the Curve was the first collection of Abe’s stories to appear in English. These twelve stories, written between 1949 and 1966, concern the fragile identity of protagonists who are confused strangers lost in the postwar landscape.

Unlike his contemporary Yukio Mishima, who used many traditional Japanese cultural elements, Abe studiously excluded them so as to give a more universal meaning to his work. In fact, the critic Hisaki Yamanouchi noted that Abe was “probably the first Japanese writer whose works, having no distinctly Japanese qualities, are of interest to the Western audience because of their universal relevance.”

Abe’s intellectual debt to Western existentialists has been noted frequently, yet his originality in applying existentialist thought to Japanese culture must be acknowledged as well. Faced with absurdities both humorous and tragic, his characters are caught in dilemmas in which the real and the imagined become hopelessly blurred. Though these characters are often merely sketches and the plot lines are vague, illogical, and dreamlike, Abe’s writings have been widely hailed as expressive of the crises faced by human beings in a technological, urbanized society. Abe died in 1993 at the age of sixty-eight.

BibliographyCassegård, Carl. Shock and Naturalization in Contemporary Japanese Literature. Folkestone, England: Global Oriental, 2007. Uses the concepts of “naturalization” and “naturalized modernity” to analyze how modernity has been experienced and depicted in post-World War II Japanese literature. Emphasizes the works of Abe as well as writers Yasunari Kawabata, Haruki Murakami, and Ryū Murakami.Cornyetz, Nina. The Ethics of Aesthetics in Japanese Cinema and Literature: Polygraphic Desire. New York: Routledge, 2007. Explores Japanese literature and film from the 1930’s through the post-World War II period by studying the ethical dimensions of Japanese aesthetics. Describes how works by Abe and others were influenced by changing artistic, political, and intellectual issues.Currie, William. “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. Contribution to an informative and comprehensive collection of essays on twentieth century Japanese fiction presents a detailed analysis of The Woman in the Dunes.Goodman, David. Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960’s: The Return of the Gods. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 1988. This translation of five plays representative of the period provides commentary by a leading Japanese critic. The central thesis is that the decade of the 1960’s was characterized by disillusionment with the radical politics of the pre-World War II era and a quest for viable alternatives.Iles, Timothy. Abe Kōbō: An Exploration of His Prose, Drama, and Theatre. Fucecchio, Italy: European Press Academic Publishing, 2000. Study devotes individual chapters to Abe’s prose, drama, and techniques for training actors. Examines numerous themes in Abe’s work, including the function of existentialism and the absurd, the relationship between society and the individual, and Abe’s attempts to reshape humankind into a form capable of dealing with modern society’s urbanization, alienation, and fragmentation.Keene, Donald. Five Modern Japanese Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. The chapter devoted to Abe in this volume features biographical material as well as commentary on The Woman in the Dunes and his other novels.Kimball, Arthur G. “Identity Found.” In Crisis in Identity and Contemporary Japanese Novels. Rutland, Vt.: C. E. Tuttle, 1973. The Woman in the Dunes is analyzed in detail.Lidin, Olof G. “Abe Kōbō’s Philosophy of the Box.” In Transcultural Understanding and Modern Japan, edited by Klaus Kracht and Helmut Morsbach. Bochum, West Germany: Studienverlag N. Brockmeyer, 1983. An interpretive essay.Marks, Alfred H., and Barry D. Bort, eds. Guide to Japanese Prose. 2d ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Short introductions to Abe’s major translated works.Martins Janeira, Armando. Japanese and Western Literature: A Comparative Study. Rutland, Vt.: C. E. Tuttle, 1970. Gives a brief overview of Abe’s works.Olsen, Lance. Ellipse of Uncertainty: An Introduction to Post-modern Fantasy. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. In one of the first studies to examine the intersection of fantasy and postmodernism in literature, Olsen develops working definitions of these terms and then analyzes various postmodernist fantasy works.Pollack, David. Reading Against Culture: Ideology and Narrative in the Japanese Novel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992. Investigates works by Japanese novelists in terms of their ideology, use of narrative, and treatment of the self and of Japanese culture. Chapter 6 is devoted to discussion of Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes.Rimer, J. Thomas. Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Includes brief references.Rimer, J. Thomas. A Reader’s Guide to Japanese Literature. 2d ed. New York: Kodansha International, 1999. Comprehensive volume provides an introductory overview of Japanese literature. Includes a short exploration of The Woman in the Dunes.Schnellbächer, Thomas. Abe Kōbō, Literary Strategist: The Evolution of His Agenda and Rhetoric in the Context of Postwar Japanese Avant-Garde and Communist Artist’s Movements. Munich, Germany: Iudicium, 2004. Examines the essays Abe wrote between 1947, when he was repatriated from Manchuria, and 1962, when he was expelled from the Communist Party, by placing these writings within the context of the political and artist groups in which he was active and the broader issues in post-World War II Japanese literature.Shields, Nancy K. Fake Fish: The Theater of Kōbō Abe. New York: Weatherhill, 1996. Provides plot summaries of the plays that were produced in the Abe Studio, the theater group that Abe began in 1971. Also discusses techniques used and themes developed in the plays and provides descriptions of Abe’s rehearsal sessions.Shinkokai, Kokusai Bunka, ed. “Abe Kōbō.” In Introduction to Contemporary Japanese Literature, 1956-1970: Synopses of Major Works. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1972. Gives a brief overview of his works.Takaya, Ted T., ed. and trans. Modern Japanese Drama: An Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Abe’s role in modern Japanese theater is discussed.Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. “Abe Kōbō and Ōe Kenzaburō: The Search for Identity in Contemporary Japanese Literature.” In Modern Japan: Aspects of History, Literature, and Society, edited by W. G. Beasley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Revised in The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature (1978).
Categories: Authors