Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, one of Japan’s most celebrated authors of the post-war era, died on March 3 at the age of 88, according to publisher Kodansha.

Kenzaburo Oe (Nobel Foundation Archives)

Oe was also known as a proponent of Japan’s war-renouncing constitution and an anti-nuclear activist.

Oe was born in 1935 in Uchiko, Ehime Prefecture, and grew up with six siblings. At the age of 18, he began to study French literature at the University of Tokyo.

Oe started writing in 1957, while still a student. His works, from the short story “The Catch,” which won him the Akutagawa Award, to his first novel, “Bud-Nipping, Lamb Shooting” (1958), depict the tragedy of war tearing asunder the idyllic life of a rural youth. “The Catch” was about a boy’s experiences with an American pilot shot down over his village.

In “Lavish Are the Dead” (1957), a short story, and “The Youth Who Came Late” (1961), a novel, Oe portrayed student life in Tokyo, a city where the dark shadows of the U.S. occupation still remained. Apparent in these works are strong influences of Jean-Paul Sartre and other modern French writers.

Crisis struck Oe’s life and literature with the birth of his first son. Hikari was born with a cranial deformity resulting in his becoming mentally handicapped. Traumatic as the experience was, the crisis granted him a new lease on both his life and his literature. Oe wrote “A Personal Matter” (1964), his penning of his pain in accepting the brain-damaged child into his life, and of how he arrived at his resolve to live with him.

Through the medium of humanism, he conjoined his own fate of having to accept a handicapped child into the family with that of the stance one ought to take in contemporary society, and wrote “Hiroshima Notes” (1965), a long essay that describes the realities and thoughts of A-bomb victims. Several of Oe’s novels deal with the aftermath of World War II.

Following this, Oe deepened his interest in Okinawa. Before the Meiji Restoration, Okinawa was an independent country with its own culture. During World War II, the islands became the site of the only battle Japan fought on its own soil. After the war, the people of Okinawa were left to suffer a long U.S. military occupation.

Because of the content of some of his short stories and essays, Oe became controversial in his native country. The essay “Okinawa Notes,” which depicts how members of Japan’s military forced the population on the island of Okinawa to take their own lives during the U.S. invasion in 1945, led to the suing of Oe by two military officers.

“Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness” (1969), a two-volume work, painfully portrays both the agony-laden trials and errors he experiences in his life with his yet unspeaking infant child, and his pursuit of his father he lost during the war. “My Deluged Soul” (1973) depicts a father who relates to his infant child who, through the medium of the songs of the wild birds, has started to communicate with the family, and who empathizes with youths that belong to a belligerent and radical political party.

“Rouse Up, O, Young Men of the New Age!” (1983) depicts his son’s development from a child to a young man, and thus crowns the works he wrote about Hikari, who became a musical composer whose works have been performed and recorded on albums.

Oe embarked on writing “The Flaming Green Tree,” a trilogy composed of “Until the ‘Savior’ Gets Socked” (1993), “Vacillating” (1994), and “On the Great Day” (1995). He announced that with the completion of this trilogy, he would enter into his life’s final stage of study.

Oe’s winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1994 encouraged him to embark on his pursuit of a new form of literature and a new life for himself. “With poetic force (Oe) creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today,” said the  Swedish Academy in awarding the prize.

He was the second Japanese author to win the prize, after Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) in 1968.

In his 70s, Oe said he intended to continue living as a novelist until he died and that the aim of his life’s “late work is to write grotesque novels that defy the present time and society.”

Oe and the late literary critic Shuichi Kato, among others, founded an anti-war civic group, Article 9 Association, in 2004, urging the government to retain the war-renouncing article of Japan’s constitution.

In 2015, Oe criticized Japan’s decision to restart nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 earthquake- and tsunami-triggered meltdown at the Fukushima plant, calling it a risk that could lead to another disaster. He urged then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to follow Germany’s example and phase out atomic energy.

“Japanese politicians are not trying to change the situation but only keeping the status quo even after this massive nuclear accident, and even if we all know that yet another accident would simply wipe out Japan’s future,” Oe said.

Oe, who was 80 then, said his life’s final work was to strive for a nuclear-free world: “We must not leave the problem of nuclear plants for the younger generation.”

In 2021, thousands of pages of his handwritten manuscripts and other works were sent to be archived at the University of Tokyo.

According to Kodansha, Oe’s family has already held a funeral led by his wife, Yukari, and a memorial service will be held later.

Sources: Nobel Foundation, Rafu wire services

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