Oe Kenzabur: Biography & Literary Contributions

Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level english courses and has a master's degree in english.

This lesson will examine the life and works of Japenese writer Kenzaburo Oe. This lesson has a brief biography and we will explore some of the characteristics of his writing.


Kenzaburo Oe has seen great change in his native Japan. Born in 1935 in a small village, he was raised to worship the Emperor as a god. By the time he was 10, however, Japan was devastated by its loss in World War II. Oe lived through years of rebuilding and Japan's move toward a more western modernity. As Oe began to write fiction, he established himself as an outspoken critic of Japanese society, and as such became a controversial figure in his home country.

Oe's writing was also influenced heavily by his son, Hikari. Hikari was born in 1963 and became mentally disabled after a brain operation. Oe and his wife devoted themselves to their son despite the stigma Japanese culture placed on the handicapped. Under their care, Hikari flourished into a musical savant who currently composes and records classical music. Once Hikari was born, much of Oe's fiction was semi-autobiographical, involving a writer protagonist and his disabled son.

In 1994, Oe won the Nobel Prize for Literature, securing his place as a respected writer in Europe and the U.S. That same year, he declined Japan's highest honor for art - the Order of Culture - because this award had ties to Japan's Emperor System. To this day, Oe continues to live in Japan and write. In a 2007 interview with the Paris Review, he said he spends a third of his time reading, a third writing, and the other third devoting himself to his son Hikari.

Literary Contributions

Japan's Critic

Much of Oe's fiction focuses on exposing the problems in Japanese society. In 1967, Oe's novel The Silent Cry explored the clash between Japan's ancient customs and its post-war modernity. These themes are echoed in other works like 1958's Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids and 1999's Somersault. In the novella 'Seventeen' and its sequel, 'A Political Youth Dies' (written in the 1960s), Oe criticizes the conformity in Japanese life. Oe based these novellas on actual political events and enraged the right-wing traditionalists with his depiction of a boy committing a terrorist act in the name of the Emperor. When he bowed to pressure from the right and pulled back the circulation of the sequel, Japanese leftists were enraged as well. Oe found himself receiving threats from both sides.

A Personal Angle

Despite his interest in political and social critique, Oe also has a strong inclination to delve into his personal life in his fiction. As mentioned, his son, Hikari, features prominently in his writings. Soon after Hikari's birth, Oe wrote A Personal Matter (1964). This novel tells the story of a father struggling with the birth of his handicapped son, and ultimately embracing him. His short story 'Aghwee the Sky Monster', also written in 1964, tells this story from another angle, with another outcome - the father in this one rejects the handicapped son. Oe continues to write semi-autobiographically in novels such as The Pinch Runner Memorandum (1976) and A Quiet Life (1990).

Literary Characteristics

Celebrating Outcasts

Oe's fiction flies in the face of conformity and celebrates outcasts from society's margins. Oe's embrace of his handicapped son went against mainstream Japanese society, which looked down upon the handicapped. In a country where such people are often institutionalized, Oe chose to proudly stand by his son. His writing reflects this, as he made Hikari the subject of many books. Beyond Hikari, his novels and stories are full of other outcast-type characters. The heroes of Oe's books are those that challenge authority and refuse to conform.

Provoking with Shocking Imagery

Oe departs from traditional Japanese writing with his often shocking descriptions that offend the reader's senses. Oe uses 'grotesque realism', a technique borrowed from literary traditions from the west. He describes bodily functions in graphic detail and doesn't shy away from sexual imagery. Oe intends to shock with this technique, hoping to force the reader to confront unpleasant things. Oe has said he considers himself a sort of outsider 'clown' whose job is to shake up the status quo and try to expose deeper truths with his writing.

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