Ōe Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to leftist, antiwar activist Japanese writer Kenzaburō Ōe brought worldwide attention to the author’s views and to the radical developments in postwar Japanese literature.

Summary of Event

The announcement that Kenzaburō Ōe, one of Japan’s most popular writers, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature came on October 13, 1994. Because this prize represents such a great achievement, Ōe became an overnight celebrity. Photographs of the author and stories about his life appeared in newspapers around the world. Reporters stormed his home to question him about his reaction and what significance the prize would have for him and his family. Nobel Prize in Literature;Kenzaburō Ōe[Oe]
[kw]Ōe Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1994)
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Nobel Prize in Literature;Kenzaburō Ōe[Oe]
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[g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1994: Ōe Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09020]
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Ōe, Kenzaburō
Ōe, Hikari
Sartre, Jean-Paul

The award of the prestigious Nobel Prize to the fifty-nine-year-old Ōe came as a surprise to the literary world. In spite of his popularity in his own country, Ōe had not been widely published in English or in other languages. His last book to be published in English was Nan to moshirenai mirai ni (1985; The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, 1985), Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, The (Ōe) a decade before; the English translation had sold only modestly. According to an article in The New York Times, the writers who were considered most likely to receive the Nobel Prize in 1994 had been the German novelist and playwright Peter Handke, the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, and Hugo Claus, a Belgian poet, playwright, and novelist who writes in Flemish.

Little was known of Ōe outside Japan, and foreign journalists had difficulty writing their first articles about him. All the media reported that he was best known for his gripping accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II and for his many works in which he describes his struggle to come to terms with the birth of a son who was deformed and mentally disabled. These two factors, which have had such prominence in Ōe’s published fiction and essays, are closely related. Ōe was deeply concerned about the genetic effects of atomic radiation and suspected that his son’s deformity might have been one of them.

The Nobel Prizes are traditionally presented in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, who established the awards in 1901. Nobel Week in Sweden is a spectacular event, bringing together notables from all over the world. The king of Sweden and the royal family officiate, and many banquets, balls, cocktail parties, dinners, and press conferences are held before and after the presentation of the awards. Each winner has a chauffeur-driven limousine and a room at the elegant Grand Hotel, and each receives a monetary award of 7.2 million Swedish kronor (equal to about $936,000 at 1994 exchange rates).

Kenzaburō Ōe was accompanied to Stockholm by his wife. His Nobel Prize lecture, presented to the assembled international dignitaries and their guests, was characteristically modest and succinct. As a sort of homage to Yasunari Kawabata, Kawabata, Yasunari Japan’s only previous Nobel laureate in literature, Ōe titled his lecture “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself” (Kawabata’s Nobel lecture was titled “Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself”). He told the audience that Japan was divided between past and present, old customs and new innovations, between the influence of the East and the West. “The modernization of Japan,” he said, “has been oriented toward learning from and imitating the West. Yet the country is situated in Asia and has firmly maintained its traditional culture.” Always especially concerned about the folly of war, he cautioned that Japan was moving away from its official policy of pacifism, which was adopted as part of its constitution after its disastrous defeat in World War II and subsequent occupation by American military forces under General Douglas MacArthur.

Ōe took advantage of the occasion to pay tribute in his lecture to some of the Western thinkers who had influenced his thought and work. One of the writers he mentioned was Mark Twain, whose novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) was one of his all-time favorites. He was particularly impressed by the young Huck Finn’s rejection of established conventions and his search for truth. Ōe also paid tribute to William Blake, William Butler Yeats, George Orwell, and François Rabelais, as well as Korean writer Kim Chi Ha and Chinese writers Chon I and Mu Jen. He spoke of the “brotherhood of world literature” to which he belonged.

Ōe’s speech exemplified the broadened worldview of modern Japanese writers and intellectuals in general. He alluded to Japanese aggression during the 1930’s and 1940’s. He did not go so far as to apologize for his country’s actions, but he indicated that Japanese imperialism had been only one aspect of the effect of “inhuman technology” (of which the atomic bomb was the supreme obscenity). He reminded his audience that the Japanese constitution had specifically underwritten the principle of permanent peace as the moral basis for the nation’s rebirth. He neither blamed nor forgave the Americans for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but he implied that the horrible events and their aftermath were also aspects of the same moral blindness that had led Japan into war.

Ōe concluded his speech as follows: “As one with a peripheral, marginal, and off-center existence in the world, I would like to seek how—with what I hope is a modest, decent, and humanist contribution—I can be of some use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind.”


“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote British poet Rudyard Kipling in his “Ballad of East and West” in 1889. Only a little more than one hundred years later, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Kenzaburō Ōe symbolized to the entire world that East and West had indeed met and were continuing to form an important part of the intercultural integration and cross-fertilization taking place all around the globe. This phenomenon of the twentieth century was the result of fantastic developments in transportation and communication that Kipling could not have foreseen. It was also in part the result of two great world wars that shattered empires and had an even more shattering effect on traditional beliefs of the peoples of the East and West.

Kenzaburō Ōe.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Ōe was only ten years old when a U.S. bomber dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, one of the most dramatic and far-reaching events in world history. The atomic standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States was to become the centerpiece of the Cold War, which lasted for almost half a century and created what another Nobel Prize winner, William Faulkner, was to call “a general and universal physical fear.” The Japanese realized that it was impossible to sustain a war against such an awesome weapon. Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender, and Japan was occupied by American military forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Tokyo and many other Japanese cities already lay in ruins. This disastrous period in Japanese history had a powerful impact on the Japanese people, including the young Ōe. It was to have lifelong effects on his thought and writing.

Ōe lost faith in the divinity of the Japanese emperor and in most traditional Japanese beliefs. As a student majoring in French literature at the University of Tokyo, he was profoundly influenced by Western writers. Perhaps the most important influence in his intellectual life was French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who is best known as the father of existentialism. This highly influential post-World War II philosophy holds that life has no meaning or purpose beyond the goals the individual sets for him- or herself. Ōe adopted from Sartre the passionate belief that literature must take sides in political issues.

The most important aspect of Ōe’s being honored with the Nobel Prize was that it brought worldwide attention to modern Japanese literature. Ōe himself acknowledged in his Nobel lecture that he was only one of a new wave of Japanese writers who had made a radical departure from the themes and styles of the traditional literature of their native land. Ōe took advantage of that momentous occasion to call attention to many other writers who shared his values.

Japan has a literary tradition unsurpassed by that of any other nation. Japan;literature The roots of Japanese literature may be traced directly to the even older literature of China. Japanese art has had a powerful influence on Western art, as can be seen in the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. In modern times, Japanese motion pictures, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), have had a potent influence on international cinematography. Japan’s literature, however, has not received the attention from the rest of the world accorded to the literatures of Western nations. Ōe’s recognition as a Noble laureate helped to change that by encouraging the translation of his and other Japanese writers’ works into other languages.

Right after the announcement of Ōe’s Nobel Prize, American publisher Grove/Atlantic announced plans to print an additional twenty thousand copies of English translations of each of three Ōe books: The Crazy Iris, and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, Warera no kyōki o ikinobiru michi o oshieyo (1969, 1975; Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness: Four Short Novels, 1977), Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (Ōe) and Kojinteki na taiken (1964; A Personal Matter, 1968). Personal Matter, A (Ōe) The American subsidiary of the Japanese publishing firm Kodansha promised ten thousand new copies in English of Ōe’s Man’en gan’nen no futtoboru (1967; The Silent Cry, 1974), Silent Cry, The (Ōe) and M. E. Sharpe, a publisher in Armonk, New York, made immediate plans to print several thousand additional copies of the English translation of Ōe’s novel Pinchi rannā chōsho (1976; The Pinch Runner Memorandum, 1994). Pinch Runner Memorandum, The (Ōe) Marion Boyars Publishers quickly brought out an English-language translation of Ōe’s first novel, Memushiri kouchi (1958; Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, 1995). Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (Ōe) Such is the prestige of the Nobel Prize in Literature that practically overnight, Kenzaburō Ōe became a household name and Japanese literature gained worldwide attention. Nobel Prize in Literature;Kenzaburō Ōe[Oe]

Further Reading

  • Cameron, Lindsley. The Music of Light: The Extraordinary Story of Hikari and Kenzaburo Oe. New York: Free Press, 1998. Biographical work focuses on the relationship between Kenzaburō Ōe and his mentally disabled son, Hikari, who is a musical savant. Discusses the creative interdependence between father and son.
  • 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. Compares and contrasts two of the most popular and influential writers of postwar Japan. Presents detailed discussion of many of Ōe’s stories and novels. Includes bibliography.
  • Ōe, Kenzaburō. An Echo of Heaven. Translated by Margaret Mitisutani. New York: Kodansha International, 1996. Novel has an international theme, suggesting the broadening of Ōe’s interests and influence after he won the Nobel Prize. The story concerns a Japanese woman whose search for religious meaning takes her on a pilgrimage from Japan to a California commune, then to Mexico, where she comes to be venerated as a saint by superstitious peasants.
  • _______. A Healing Family. Translated by Stephen Snyder. New York: Kodansha International, 1996. Collection of personal essays about Ōe and the people closest to him, especially his mentally disabled son, Hikari. The theme throughout is the healing power of family love. Includes delicate sketches and watercolors by Ōe’s wife, Yukari, who also contributed an afterword.
  • _______. Hiroshima Notes. Translated by David L. Swain and Toshi Yonezawa. London: Marion Boyars, 1995. Describes a series of visits the author made in the period 1963-1965 to Hiroshima, the city that was obliterated by a U.S. atomic bomb in the closing days of World War II.
  • _______. Interview by Sanroku Yoshida. World Literature Today 62 (Summer, 1988): 369-374. Relaxed, informal interview covers a wide range of topics, including politics, Japanese literature, foreign literature, recent historical events, and relations between the sexes. Includes discussion of many of Ōe’s literary works. Serves as a good introduction to the author as a modest, concerned, inquisitive, widely read, and likable human being.
  • _______. Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures. New York: Kodansha International, 1995. Slim volume contains English translations of speeches Ōe made to foreign audiences in the period 1990-1994. Provides an excellent introduction to Ōe’s political, philosophical, and artistic views.
  • _______. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. Translated by Paul St. John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama. London: Marion Boyars, 1995. Novel is representative of Ōe’s work. Displays his bitterness, his evocation of myth and archetype, and a prose style heavily influenced by Western writers, which breaks away from Japanese tradition. Describes the adventures of fifteen delinquent teenagers during the dark days of World War II, when Japan was facing defeat.
  • Wilson, Michiko N. The Marginal World of Oe Kenzaburo: A Study in Themes and Techniques. 1986. Reprint. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Presents a close analysis of Ōe’s narrative techniques using tools of European literary criticism. Helpful for an understanding of the powerful influence of Western literature on Ōe’s work.
  • Yoshida, Sanroku. “The Burning Tree: The Spatialized World of Kenzaburo Oe.” World Literature Today 69 (Winter, 1995): 10-16. Brief article provides an excellent overview of Ōe’s life, work, artistic objectives, and philosophy.

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