Kenzaburo Oe has devoted his life to taking certain subjects seriously—victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the struggles of the people of Okinawa, the challenges of the disabled, the discipline of the scholarly life—while not appearing to take himself seriously at all. Although he is known in Japan as much for being a gadfly activist as for being one of the country’s most celebrated writers, in person Oe is more of a delightful wag. Unfailingly modest and lighthearted, he dresses in sport shirts, fidgets a great deal, and smiles easily. (Henry Kissinger, who stands for much of what Oe stands against, once remarked on his “devilish smile.”) Oe’s home, where he spends most of his time in the living room in a chair flanked by manuscript pages, books, and a plethora of jazz and classical CDs, is as comfortable and unpretentious as he is. The Western-style house, designed by his wife Yukari, is in the same Tokyo suburb where Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune once lived. It’s set back from the street, hidden by an abundant garden of lilies, maple trees, and more than one hundred different varieties of roses. With their youngest son and daughter grown and living on their own, Oe and Yukari live in the house with their forty-four-year-old mentally disabled son Hikari.
“The writer’s job is the job of a clown,” Oe has said, “the clown who also talks about sorrow.” He describes most of his fiction as an extrapolation of the themes explored in two novels: A Personal Matter (1964), which recounts a father’s attempt to come to terms with the birth of his handicapped child; and The Silent Cry (1967), which depicts the clash between village life and modern culture in postwar Japan. The first category includes such novels and stories as “Aghwee the Sky Monster” (1964), “Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” (1969), The Pinch Runner Memorandum (1976), Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (1986), and A Quiet Life (1990). They are rooted in Oe’s personal experience of Hikari’s birth (the narrator is usually a writer, and the son is named Mori, Eeyore, or Hikari), but the narrators often make decisions very different than the one Oe and his wife made. The second category includes “Prize Stock” (1958), Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958), and Somersault (1999), in addition to The Silent Cry. These works explore the folklore and mythology Oe heard from his mother and grandmother, and they typically feature a narrator who is forced to examine the self-deceptions he has created for the sake of living in a community.
Oe was born in 1935 in a small village on the island of Shikoku and raised to believe that the emperor was a god. He says he often imagined him as a white bird and was shocked to discover that he was just a regular man with a real voice when he heard him announce Japan’s surrender on the radio in 1945. In 1994 Oe accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature but then declined Japan’s highest artistic honor, the Order of Culture, because of its ties to his country’s emperor-worshipping past. The decision made him a figure of great national controversy, a position he has frequently occupied in the course of his writing life. An early story, “Seventeen” (1961), was loosely based on the 1960 assassination of a Socialist Party leader by a right-wing student who later committed suicide. Oe received both threats from right-wing extremists who felt the novel denigrated the legacy of the imperial government and criticism from left-wing intellectuals and artists who felt it championed a terrorist. He has remained in the political spotlight ever since and considers his activism to be as much his life’s work as literature. When I interviewed him over four days this August, Oe apologetically asked if we could end a little early so that he could meet with organizers from a concerned citizens group.
When Hikari was born in 1963, three years after the Oes were married, Oe had already published both novels and several celebrated short stories—including “Lavish Are the Dead” (1957) and “Prize Stock,” which won the coveted Akutagawa Prize. Critics hailed him as the most important young writer since Yukio Mishima. But the critic Takashi Tachibana has said that “without Hikari there would be no Oe literature.” Hikari was diagnosed at birth with a brain hernia. After a lengthy and risky operation, doctors told the Oes that Hikari would be severely disabled. Oe knew that his child would be ostracized—it was considered shameful to even take a handicapped child out in public—but he and his wife embraced their new life.
The name Hikari means “light.” As a child, Hikari rarely spoke and seemed not to understand when his family tried to communicate with him. The Oes often played recordings of birdcalls and Mozart and Chopin beside his crib to calm him and help him sleep. Then, when he was six, Hikari spoke a complete sentence. While on a walk with Oe during a family vacation, the boy heard a bird’s cry and said, correctly, “It’s a water rail.” Soon he was responding to classical music, and when he was old enough, the Oes enrolled him in piano lessons. Today, Hikari is Japan’s most famous savant composer. He can recognize and recall any piece of music he has ever heard and transcribe it from memory. He can also identify any work of Mozart’s after hearing only a few measures and match it to the correct Köchel number. His first CD, Music of Hikari Oe, broke sales records in the classical category. He spends much of his time with Oe in the living room. The father writes and reads; the son listens and composes.
In conversation Oe moves easily between Japanese, English (in which he is proficient), and sometimes French. But for this interview he requested an interpreter, and I am indebted to Shion Kono, who met the task with extraordinary nimbleness and precision. Oe’s own devotion to language, and particularly to the written word, infiltrates every aspect of his life. At one point during the interview he referenced a biography written about him in order to answer one of my questions. When I asked if he did so because he had trouble remembering certain moments, he looked surprised: “No,” he said. “It is a study of myself. Kenzaburo Oe needs to find Kenzaburo Oe. I define myself through this book.”
Early in your career, you interviewed many people. Are you a good interviewer?
No, no, no. A good interview reveals something that the subject has never said before. I don’t think I have the ability to be a good interviewer because I’ve never been able to extract something new.
In 1960 I was part of a group of five Japanese writers chosen to visit Chairman Mao. We were there as part of the protest movement against the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. I was the youngest of the five. We met him late—at one A.M. They led us out to a dark garden. It was so dark that we couldn’t see that there was a jasmine flower nearby, but we could smell it. We joked that if we followed the scent of the jasmine flower, we would reach Mao. He was an impressive man—an unusually large man, especially by Asian standards. We were not permitted to ask questions, and instead of talking to us directly, he would speak to the premier, Zhou Enlai. He quoted himself from his books—word for word—the entire time. It was so boring. He had a huge can of cigarettes and he smoked heavily. As they spoke, Zhou kept inching the can away from Chairman Mao—playfully—but Mao kept reaching out and inching it back.
The next year I interviewed Sartre. It was my first time in Paris. I took a small room in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and the first voices I heard were those of demonstrators outside shouting “Paix en Algérie!” Sartre was a major figure in my life. Like Mao, he basically repeated things that he’d already published—in Existentialism Is Humanism and in Situations—so I stopped taking notes. I just wrote down the titles of the books. He also said that people should oppose nuclear war, but he supported China having nuclear weapons. I strongly opposed the possession of nuclear weapons by anyone, but I was unable to engage Sartre on this point. All he said was, Next question.
Didn’t you interview Kurt Vonnegut for Japanese television?
Yes, when he came to Japan for the PEN conference in 1984, but it was more of an entretien—two writers in conversation. Vonnegut was a serious thinker who expressed profound ideas in a spirit of Vonnegutian humor. I wasn’t able to extract something important from him either.
I’ve had more success in getting honest opinions through my correspondence with writers. Noam Chomsky told me that when he was a young boy at summer camp there was an announcement that the U.S. had dropped the A-bomb and that the Allied forces would be triumphant. They had a bonfire to celebrate, and Chomsky ran away to the forest and sat there alone until nightfall. I’ve always respected Chomsky, but I respected him even more after he told me that.
As a young man, you labeled yourself an anarchist. Do you still consider yourself one?
In principle, I am an anarchist. Kurt Vonnegut once said he was an agnostic who respects Jesus Christ. I am an anarchist who loves democracy.
Has your political activism ever gotten you into trouble?
Right now I am being sued for defamation for Okinawa Notes. My most important memories of World War II are the use of the atomic bomb and the Okinawa mass suicides in 1945. I wrote Hiroshima Notes about the former and Okinawa Notes about the latter. During the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese military ordered the people on two small islands off of Okinawa to commit suicide. They told them that the Americans were so cruel that they would rape the women and kill the men. They said they were better off killing themselves before the Americans landed. Each family was given two grenades. On the day the Americans landed, more than five hundred people killed themselves. Grandfathers killed sons, husbands killed wives.
I argued that the leader of the defending troops stationed on the island was responsible for those deaths. Okinawa Notes was published almost forty years ago, but about ten years ago a nationalistic movement began that seeks to revise history textbooks in order to erase any mention of the atrocities Japan committed in Asia during the early twentieth century, such as the Nanjing Massacre and the Okinawa suicides. Many books have been published about the Japanese crimes in Okinawa but mine is one of the few still in print. The conservative faction wanted a target, and I became that target. Compared to when the book was published in the seventies, the current right-wing attack against me seems far more nationalistic, part of a resurgence in emperor worship. They claim that the people on the islands died out of a beautifully pure feeling of patriotism for the emperor.
Do you think refusing the Order of Culture in 1994 was an effective protest against emperor worship?
It was effective in giving me an awareness of where my enemies—enemy in the fundamental sense of the word—were and what form they took within Japanese society and culture. In terms of paving the way for future refusals by other awardees, however, it was ineffective.
You published Hiroshima Notes and your novel A Personal Matter at around the same time. Which was more important to you?
I think Hiroshima Notes deals with more important issues than A Personal Matter. As the title suggests, A Personal Matter deals with issues that are important to me—even though it’s fiction. This was the starting point of my career: writing Hiroshima Notes and A Personal Matter. People say that I’ve been writing about the same things over and over again ever since—my son Hikari and Hiroshima. I’m a boring person. I read a lot of literature, I think about a lot of things, but at the base of it all is Hikari and Hiroshima.
In regards to Hiroshima, I experienced it by myself, hearing about it as a child on Shikoku in 1945, and then again through interviews with A-bomb survivors.
Do you try to communicate your political beliefs in your novels?
In my novels, I try not to lecture or to teach a lesson. But in my essays on democracy I do try to instruct. I write as a democrat with a small d. In my work I’ve tried to understand the past: the war, democracy. The issue of nuclear arms was and is a fundamental question for me. Anti-nuclear activism, simply put, opposes all currently existing nuclear weaponry. On that point, it has not changed in the slightest—and neither have I as a participant in that movement. It is, in other words, a hopeless movement.
My ideas really haven’t changed since the sixties. My father’s generation characterized me as a fool in favor of democracy. My contemporaries criticized me for my inaction—for being complacent about democracy. And the younger generation today doesn’t really know about democracy or the democratic postwar period—the twenty-five years after the war. They must agree with T. S. Eliot when he wrote, “Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men.” Eliot was a quiet man, but I am not—or at least I hope not to be.