People Writers

Kenzaburō Ōe

Kenzaburō Ōe 1

Kenzaburō Ōe was a contemporary Japanese writer.  He was born in Ōse on January 31, 1935.  Ōse is located in the Ehime prefecture on Shikoko, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan.  Kenzaburō has six siblings.  He was the third eldest.  The children were insulated with the story telling of their grandmother.  The recited folklore, myths and histories of Japan had a lasting impact.

Papa Kōtare Ōe owned a bark stripping business that provided materials for making paper currency.  He died in 1944 during the Pacific War.  The matriarch Koseki Ōe decided to place an emphasis on education.  She introduced Kenzaburō to classic novels that included The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Both of the adventures were early influences.

The author was educated in the public school system during the height of militarism in Japan.  The students were forced to pledge their loyalty to Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) and taught a narrow vision of the world.  Ōe felt betrayed after uncovering the lies.  This disdain permeated his writing years later.  He finished high school in Matsuyama in 1953 with top marks and transitioned to the University of Tokyo to study French Literature.

Shikoko stop – Photo Credit:

First Publications

Kenzaburō Ōe was a student when his first story was published in 1957.  The short tale was set during the American occupation of Tokyo and appeared in Bungakukai magazine.  His follow-up Shiiku (飼育) was awarded the Akutagawa Prize a year later.  It was made into a film called The Catch (1961) and directed by Nagisa Oshima.  His novella Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids was released in 1958 and translated into English in 1995. 

His style was rooted.  He continued to write about Japan.  The polished prose evolved into the novellas Seventeen and The Death of a Political Youth in 1961.  Both covered the assassination of the chairman of the Japan Socialist Party Inejirō Asanuma.  The perpetrator Otoya Yamaguchi had a radical following that resulted in death threats to those involved with the story.  The periodical apologized.  The author did not.   

A Personal Matter (1964) chronicled the psychological trauma he experienced after learning his son was brain-damaged.  Ōe pledged to give his son a voice through his writing.  He was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature in 1994 after his continued adaptation.  The Emperor of Japan presented him the Order of Culture.  The author promptly refused after stating he accepts nothing less than democracy.  A Healing Family was circulated two years later and celebrates the small successes in his beloved child’s life.

Kenzaburō Ōe
Kenzaburō Ōe – Photo Credit: wiki commons

Late Career

Two retired Japanese military officers sued Kenzaburō for libel over his Okinawa Notes.  The case lasted from 2006 to 2008 and was centered on allegations that the military pressured Okinawa citizens to commit suicide during the Allied invasion of 1945.  The charges were dismissed.  The author did not write during the ordeal.  Death By Water was about his father.  It was released in 2009.

Bannen Yoshikishu was his final novel.  It was distributed in 2013 and the sixth that presented author Kogito Choko as the main protagonist.  Choko is considered Ōe’s alter ego.  The plot is set during the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.  The tremors shift the premise of an ongoing novel to one fixated on the age of catastrophe and the strife of senescence.

Kenzaburō Ōe married Yukari Itami in 1960.  Her father was the director Mansaku Itami.  Her sister Juzo worked behind the camera too.  The couple had three children.  Hikari was the first and born with a brain hernia.  The surgery left him disabled for life.  Hikari lived with his parents.  He often composed music in the same room his father developed prose.  Ōe passed away on March 3, 2023.  He was eighty-eight years old.

Okinawa – Photo Credit: R9 Studios FL

Kenzaburō Ōe Bibliography

English TitleJapanese TitleYear
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids 芽むしり仔撃ち (Memushiri kouchi)1958
A Personal Matter 個人的な体験 (Kojinteki na taiken)1964
Hiroshima Notes ヒロシマ・ノート (Hiroshima nōto)1965
The Silent Cry (Football in the Year 1860) 万延元年のフットボール (Man’en gan’nen no futtobōru)1967
The Pinch Runner Memorandum ピンチランナー調書 (Pinchi ran’nā chōsho) 1976
Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! 新しい人よ眼ざめよ (Atarashii hito yo, mezameyo) 1983
An Echo of Heaven (Relatives of Life) 人生の親戚 (Jinsei no Shinseki) 1989
A Quiet Life 静かな生活 (Shizuka na seikatsu) 1990
Somersault 宙返り (Chūgaeri) 1999
The Changeling チェンジリング (Chenjiringu)2000
Death by Water 水死 (Sui shi) 2009

“The dead can survive as part of the lives of those that still live.”

– Kenzaburō Ōe
Kenzaburō Ōe 1
Kenzaburō Ōe on the mic – Photo Credit: Thesupermat

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