Kenzaburo Oe: Escaping the Emperor System

April 15 1997 / The Times

‘The time has come for Japan to apologise to the peoples of Asia.’

When the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe was in his early twenties he thought constantly about killing himself. Although already a successful novelist and with a beautiful young wife, he felt that his life was without purpose and that his work was sterile, meaningless and stylistically conventional. In those dismal postwar years, Japan itself was still struggling to come to terms with its calamitous defeat, and Oe’s restlessness seemed somehow mimetic of a wider social and moral malaise. Certainly, the mood among the country’s established writers an extraordinary number of whom did, in fact, kill themselves was one of debilitating melancholy. The mood was tinged with a nostalgia for the lost certainties of the past, a past in which the Emperor, the embodiment of an obstinately hierarchical society, was a quasi-divine figure unburdened by mortal concerns. Oe describes the day that he heard Emperor Hirohito announce Japan’s unconditional surrender as one of the most bewildering of his life.

“Since the defeat”, wrote the novelist Yasunari Kawabata in 1947, “I have gone back into the sadness that has always been with us in Japan.” Drowning in his sadness, Kawabata went on to produce a series of elegiac masterpieces, exquisite miniatures revolving around the themes of loss, the perishability of beauty and the irretrievability of the past. He died by his own hand in 1972.

Another suicide was Osamu Dazai who, in 1948, threw himself into a river shortly after publishing The Setting Sun, his marvellous study of an aristocratic family in decline. Then much later, in 1970, Yukio Mishima spectacularly committed seppuku after failing in his preposterous attempt to lead a right-wing coup d’etat. “Mishima’s political, moral and aesthetic principles”, Oe says, “grew out of his regret that the Emperor was not a deity but a human being.” Oe says that he himself was saved from self-destruction when his son Hikari was born, in 1963, with a cerebral hernia, a lesion of the skull through which brain tissue bulged.

Oe is in Britain to lecture at the Brighton Festival and promote the first English translation of his early novel, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids. It was published shortly before Hikari’s birth, a period about which he talks with a sense of shame. “When my son was born I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “Every day I went to the hospital expecting the doctor to tell me that, after a brave struggle for life, he had died. I looked at my son and was completely confused. I had lost all sense of identity.”

Oe was told that if Hikari was to live an operation was required to close the cerebral hernia. The consequence would be that he would be left profoundly handicapped. Unable to face up to the responsibility of the decision, Oe fled to Hiroshima, where he discussed Hikari’s plight with a young doctor who had treated survivors of the atomic blast. It was the defining moment of his life: “I knew then that I had to accept responsibility, and help my son to live,” Oe says.

The operation was a success, and Hikari still lives with his parents in Tokyo. He seldom speaks, suffers from fits and seizures and yet, remarkably, is a talented composer, whose first recording has won prizes.

Oe has written about his relationship with Hikari, most memorably in A Personal Matter, in which a young teacher dreams of murdering his deformed baby boy: “There are only two honest alternatives to this fleeing from my monster of a baby: strangle him with my own hands, or take responsibility for bringing him up.” In the book, as in life, the speaker chose the second option.

Oe’s English is slow and hesitant but fabulously precise. His thick, silver-black hair stands up in alarmed tufts. He has a mournful face which intermittently folds into a brilliant smile. When he laughs which is often his huge ears curl and flap, like a bat’s. He is charming, courteous and serene.

But, for one who appears so still, he is remarkably full of anger. Born on the densely forested island of Shikoku in 1935, Oe has appalled many of his compatriots by saying that his Japanese identity is “something of only relative importance”. Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize last year, he provoked further antipathy by declining the Order of Merit an award bestowed by the Emperor because it was undemocratic. “Even today the Emperor is at the centre of Japan, and I was reluctant to accept a medal from the head of a system of which I don’t approve.”

His work, although not explicitly political, is dark, elliptical and austere. A keen student of European literature, Oe shuns the traditional limpid purity of Japanese prose, preferring long, experimental sentences. His novels are quite unlike those of any other Japanese writer. He seems unusually attached to the obscene, the bizarre and the obscure. Even the accessible Nip the Buds, which describes the struggles of a group of reformatory boys who find themselves isolated in a plague-stricken village as war rages around them, owes more to Camus, Celine or Dostoevsky than, say, Kawabata.

Oe feels that winning the Nobel Prize has provided him with a platform from which to condemn the inequities and absurdities of Japan’s imperial legacy and what he calls the Emperor-system. “I think, if Japan is to become truly democratic, that the time has come for the country to apologise to the peoples of Asia for the destruction we visited upon them in wars of aggression.”

When asked about the role of the writer in contemporary Japan, he sighs despondently. The young, he says, are not interested in literature or political engagement: their lives are ostentatiously empty. To this end, he plans to write no more fiction until he has evolved a new style, a new form “an amalgam of the novel, poem and play” which will also be accessible for children. “You have to catch them young if you want to create a new generation of readers.”