Japanese writer wins Nobel Prize for Literature

SJM L OBOE 01 0313

By Mari Yamaguchi | Associated Press

TOKYO – Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, whose darkly poetic novels built on his childhood memories of postwar occupation of Japan and fathering a disabled son, has died. He was 88 years old.

Oe, who was also an outspoken anti-nuclear activist and pacifist, died on March 3, his publisher, Kodansha Ltd., said in a statement on Monday. The publisher did not give further details about his death and said his funeral was held by his family.

Oe in 1994 became the second Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, left, receives the Nobel Prize in Literature from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf at the Concert Hall in Stockholm in 1994. (Gunnar Ask/Associated Press Archives)

The Swedish Academy cited the author for his works of fiction, in which “poetic force creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a bewildering picture of the current human situation”.

His most notable works were influenced by the birth of Oe’s mentally handicapped son in 1963.

“A Personal Matter,” published a year later, is the story of a father facing the darkness and pain of the birth of a brain-injured child. Several of his later works have a damaged or deformed child with symbolic meaning, with stories and characters evolving and maturing as Oe’s son grew older.

Hikari Oe had a cranial deformity at birth that caused mental impairment. He has a limited ability to speak and read, but has become a musical composer whose works have been performed and recorded on albums.

The only other Japanese person to win a Nobel Prize for Literature was Yasunari Kawabata in 1968.

Despite the manifestation of national pride in Oe’s victory, his main literary themes here evoke deep discomfort. A boy of 10 when World War II ended, Oe came of age during the American occupation.

“Humiliation gripped him and influenced much of his work. He himself describes his writing as a way of exorcising demons,” said the Swedish Academy.

Wartime childhood memories heavily colored the story that marked Oe’s literary debut, “The Catch,” about a rural boy’s experiences with an American pilot shot down over his village.

Published in 1958, when Oe was still a university student, the story won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize for New Writers.

He also wrote nonfiction books about the devastation of Hiroshima and the rise of the US atomic bombing on August 6, 1945, as well as about Okinawa and its postwar American occupation.

Oe has campaigned for peace and anti-nuclear causes, particularly since the Fukushima crisis in 2011, and has frequently appeared at rallies.

In 2015, Oe criticized Japan’s decision to restart nuclear reactors after the 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 just to maintain the status quo even after this huge nuclear accident, and even though we all know that another accident would simply end Japan’s future,” said Oe.

Oe, who was 80 at the time, said his life’s final work is to fight for a world free of nuclear weapons: “We must not leave the problem of nuclear power plants to the younger generation.”

The third of seven children, Oe was born on January 31, 1935, in a village on the island of Shikoku, in southern Japan. At the University of Tokyo, he studied French literature and began writing plays.

The academy noted that Oe’s work was heavily influenced by Western writers, including Dante, Poe, Rabelais, Balzac, Eliot and Sartre.

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