Kenzaburo Oe Interview

Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe Interview

digitally recorded interview with Kenzaburo Oe, 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, made during his April 1999 visit to UC Berkeley, is now available for viewing. Please see below for a transcript of the interview.

Kenzaburo Oe - Conversations with History


Welcome back to Berkeley. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in 1935 in a small island of the Japanese archipelago. I must emphasize that the war between U.S.A. and Japan began when I was six years old. And then at ten years old, I saw the war finished. So my childhood was during the wartime. That is a very important thing.

Were you the first writer in your family?

This is a very delicate problem. My family continued to live [on that island] for two hundred years or more. There are plenty of journalists among my ancestors. So if they had wanted to publish, I think they could have been the first writers. But unfortunately, or fortunately, they didn't publish, so I am the first man who published what I wrote; but my mother was always saying that "You men of our family are always writing the same thing."

You have said in an interview: "The act of trying to remember and the act of creating began to overlap, and that is the reason why I began to write novels."

Yes. If I may add something: I begin my writing by the method of imagination, on the ground of imagination, and toward the imagination.

What books did you read as a young person?

I didn't read many books before nine years old. I was fascinated by the telling of tales of my grandmother. She was talking about almost everything about my family and my district; so it was enough for me. I didn't need any books at that time. But one day, there was some discussion between my grandmother and my mother. And my mother got up very early in the morning, and she packed one kilogram of rice -- we ate rice-- and she went to the small city of our island through the forest. Very late at night she returned. She gave a small doll to my sister, and some cakes for my younger brother, and she took out two pocket books. Tome one, tome two. I found Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. I didn't know the name of Mark Twain, the name of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but my mother said -- and this was the first talk between my mother and I about literature, and almost the last talk. She said, "This is the best novel for a child or for an adult. Thus your father said." (The year before my father had passed away.) "I brought this book for you, but the woman who made the barter with the rice between us said, "Be careful. The author is American. Now the war between U.S. and Japan is going on. The teacher will take the book from your son. [Tell him] that if your teacher asks you who is the author, you must answer that Mark Twain is the pseudonym of a German writer."

You also read, according to your Nobel Prize speech, a book called The Wonderful Adventures of Nils.

Yes, a very famous Swedish feminine author [Selma Lagerlöf], wrote that book, a book for the children of Sweden to study the atlas of their country. [In this book] a kind of trickster is going through all of the country on the back of a small goose. That was also very, very fascinating. So in my childhood only two books are dear and I also continued to read them again and again. I remember almost all of the words of those two books.

And one line in particular stood out for you. When the wanderer in the book returns home, he says, "I am a human being again."

Yes, the hero has become a very small boy through fairy magic and he couldn't believe in the possibility that he would become an ordinary sized human being [again]. When he returns to his house, he secretly comes in the kitchen. His father finds him. Then a very kind, humane passion occurs in the hero; then very naturally he grows to ordinary man's size. Then he shouts, "Oh Mother, again I am a human being." That is very important for me to add.


You have called yourself a writer of the periphery. In part, you are referring to your origins but you also mean more than that. Explain what you mean when you say "I am a writer from the periphery."

I was born on a small island, and Japan [itself] is on the periphery of Asia. That is very important. Our very eminent colleagues believe Japan is the center of Asia. They think secretly that Japan is the center of the world. I always say that I am a writer of the periphery -- periphery district, periphery Japan of Asia, and periphery country of this planet. With pride I say this.

Literature must be written from the periphery toward the center, and we can criticize the center. Our credo, our theme, or our imagination is that of the peripheral human being. The man who is in the center does not have anything to write. From the periphery, we can write the story of the human being and this story can express the humanity of the center, so when I say the word periphery, this is a most important creed of mine.

In A Healing Family, you quote Flannery O'Connor when she speaks of the novelist's habit, the accumulated practice. What is that?

At first, the word habit is not a good word for an artist. So I must use the word habit precisely according to the meaning of Flannery O'Connor. She got that word from her tutor, Jacques Maritain, I believe. Jacques Maritain was in Princeton at that time. Flannery O'Connor was born in 1935, I believe, and shortly after the war she was having conversations through letters with her tutor, and he was talking of the notion of Thomas Aquinas, who was an important figure for Jacques Maritain.

The habit is this: when as a writer I continue to write every day for ten or thirty years then gradually the habit of a writer is molded in myself. I cannot be conscious about it. Or I cannot be unconscious. But anyway, I have a habit to be reborn as a writer. So if I find myself in a crisis that I have never experienced, I can be born, or I can write something, by the power of the habit. Even a soldier or a farmer or a fisherman can be reborn by the power of the habit when he meets the greatest crisis of his life. We human beings are born and reborn and [if] we create our habits as human beings, then I think we can face [a crisis] even though we have not experienced it before. That must be the notion of Flannery O'Connor, and I am a student of Flannery O'Connor.


The birth of your son was the turning point in finding your voice as a writer. You have written that "Twenty-five years ago, my first son was born with brain damage. This was a blow, to say the least. Yet as a writer, I must acknowledge the fact that the central theme of my work throughout much of my career has been the way my family has managed to live with this handicapped child."

Yes, precisely. I wrote it.

When I was twenty-eight years old, my son was born. When I was twenty-eight years old I was a writer, a rather famous writer on the Japanese scene and I was a student of French literature. And I was talking in the voice of Jean-Paul Sartre or [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty. I was always speaking about everything of this work. But when my son was born with very big damage in his brain, I found out one night, I wanted to find encouragement, so I wanted to read my book -- that was the first time I read my book, [the only] book that [I'd] written up to that date -- and I found out a few days later that I cannot encourage myself through my book; [therefore] no one can be [encouraged] by my work. So I thought, "I am nothing and my book is nothing." So I was depressed very strongly; then I was asked by a journalist who was editing a political magazine in Japan to go to Hiroshima, the place the atomic bomb [had been] dropped. There in Hiroshima, in that year the peace movement -- the anti-atomic bomb movement -- was meeting, and in those assemblies there was big fight between the Chinese group and the Russian group. And I was the only independent journalist there. So I criticized both of them.

I found the hospital of the Hiroshima survivors and there I found the very great Dr. [Fumio] Shigeto. In conversation with Shigeto and the patients in the hospital, I gradually found that there is something that encouraged me, so I wanted to follow this sense that there is something. So I returned to Tokyo and went to the hospital where my [newborn] son was, and talked to the doctors about rescuing my son. Then I began to write about Hiroshima, and this was the turning point of my life. A kind of rebirth of myself.

So there was an interplay between what you saw in the victims of Hiroshima and also very importantly what you saw in observing the doctors who were treating the victims. What you observed somehow moved you to another plane in dealing with your own personal tragedy?

Yes. Shigeto said to me, "We cannot do anything for the survivors. Even today we don't know anything about the nature of the illness of the survivors. Even today, so shortly after the bombing, we don't know anything, but we did what we could do. Every day a thousand people dead. But amidst the dead bodies, I continued. So, Kenzaburo, what can I do except that, when they need our aid? Now your son needs you. You must find out that no one on this planet needs you except your son." Then I understood. I returned to Tokyo and began to do something for my son, for myself, and for my wife.

Your novel about the birth of your handicapped son is called A Personal Matter, and your writings on Hiroshima are collected in Hiroshima Notes. You write in the latter: "When the Hiroshima doctors pursue the A-bomb calamity in their imaginations, they are trying to see more deeply and more clearly the depth of the hell into which they too are caught. There is a pathos in this dual concern for self and others; yet it only adds to the sincerity and the authenticity that we sense...." You are saying that in seeing this duality in the doctor, you were helped to see the complexity of the dilemma of Bird, the protagonist in your novel.

Yes. Until then, my little theme was a duality or ambiguity of human beings. [This concept] came from existentialism in France. I think I found out the true duality and how I can be so-called "authentic." But the word "authenticity" must not be so frozen in my case. I used the word from Jean-Paul Sartre. Today I would use another word. It is very simple. I wanted to be strictly an upright man. The Irish poet Yeats said in his poem, "The young man who stands straight." Straightforwardness. Erect. This kind of young man that I wanted to be, but then I used the word "authentic."

Lionel Trilling wrote that confessing to your feelings is one of the most courageous and valuable things a writer could do. That's what you did in A Personal Matter.

Yes. I wanted to do so. At the time I didn't think of the value of being an upright man. I [felt I] must write about myself. Why not? I cannot be reborn and my son cannot be reborn, I felt, [if I don't]. So when I was by the sea [I decided that] I must rescue myself and I must rescue my son. So I wrote that book, I think.


Your son became a composer. Your family -- your wife, your children and yourself -- in caring for him over time identified his ability to communicate. Tell us how that came out.

Until my son was four or five years old, he didn't do anything to communicate with us. We thought that he cannot have any sense of the family. So he looked very, very isolated -- a pebble in the grass. But one day, he was interested in the voice of a bird from the radio. So I bought disks of the wild birds of Japan. I made a tape of fifty specimens of birds -- bird calls. There are the bird calls and a very flat voice, a woman announcer, says the names of the birds. "Tada-dada," then: "Nightengale." "Tada-da." "Sparrow." "This is nightengale; this is sparrow." We continued to listen to that tape for three years. During those three years, when we played the birds' songs, my son became very quiet. So it was needed to make him quiet. My wife must do her work, and I must do my work. So with the bird voices we three lived on.

In the summer when he was six years old, I went to our mountain house, and while my wife was cleaning our small house, I was in the small forest with my son on my shoulders. Nearby there is a small lake. A bird sang, [one of a pair]. Suddenly a clear, flat voice said, "It is a water rail." Then I shook. Utter silence in the forest. We were silent for five minutes and I prayed for something, there on my head. I prayed, "Please, the next voice of that bird and please next the remarks of my son, if that was not my phantom or dream." Then after five minutes, the wife of that bird sang. Then my son said "It's a water rail." Then I returned to my house with my son and talked to my wife.

For a long time, we waited for another voice, but there was not any voice during the night. We didn't sleep. But in the early morning, a small sparrow came to a small tree in front of our window. He made a small sound, and my son said, "It's a sparrow." Then everything began, and we played the sound of a bird, and my son would answer. We made many recordings of birds, even the birds of the U.S.A. and Europe. My son answered very quietly and very correctly if he listened to the name of a bird two or three times. We began to communicate by the word.

"Pooh-chan," -- my son was called Pooh-chan, from Winnie the Pooh -- "what is the bird?" [He would answer after I played the tape.] "Sparrow." "Pooh-chan, what do you want to listen to?" He thinks, [and says,] "Water rail." "Nightingale." Then I would play it.

Then, we began to communicate, and my son was accepted for a school for the mentally retarded, and then very few teachers saw they could not take care of him. They are always playing FM broadcasts of Handel, Bach. Then my son began to listen to the music. After he is concerned with the music, he suddenly forgot almost all the names of the voices of the birds. When my son was sixteen, he had a very strong fit and he lost the sight of both eyes. Through each eye he can see, but not through both. So he cannot look at the piano and the musical score. So he makes a missed note and that is very uncomfortable for him. So he gave up the piano and his mother taught him how to write music. In five weeks, he began to write the music of Bach with a pencil. At first, very simple music. In a year he began to compose his music by himself.

Now he has two compact discs which you were able to buy in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue.

Yes, when I was here eighteen years ago , I was thinking about my son. Now two days ago, I was thinking about my lecture. I went to Tower Records, and I bought some compact discs by Pisaro. I checked [at the record store] and found two of my son's compact discs and played them this morning.

Your son has fulfilled the dreams of Nils -- riding on the wings of birds or, in his case, the sounds of birds.

Yes, so besides [learning from] the birds [like Nils], my son can say, "Yes, I am a human being, I am a man." Besides the discs of my son, I thought "I am a man."

In A Healing Family you write that your son's music has shown you that in the very act of expressing himself, there is "a healing power, a power to mend the heart," and you go on to say, "For in the music or literature we create, though we come to know despair -- that dark night of the soul through which we have to pass -- we find that by actually giving it expression we can be healed and know the joy of recovering; and as these linked experiences of pain and recovery are added one to another, layer upon layer, not only is the artist's work enriched but its benefits are shared by others...."

I add something to my comment there. After writing that essay , I received many questions. And critics said "Oe has become very conservative now. He is a very quiet man; he says, his [son's] music healed him and he can be healed by the compact disc, himself. That is very negative and very conservative," they said. I must answer that. I don't say to be healed in Japanese. The verb "heal" must be used actively. I heal myself. A human being is healed by something. That is a very positive deed of human beings. When I listen to the music of my son, I don't experience any passive deed. I feel I am doing something positive with my son. We are looking out at the same direction. So if someone feels he is healed by the music of my son, even then I believe someone is looking in the same direction as my son. So he is positively healing himself with my son.

So your son is "getting on with his life," as you say. And his example can inspire others, help them "get on" with their lives. And heal themselves in the process.

Yes, precisely, I want to do the same thing. My son's music is a model of my literature. I want to do the same thing.


Do you believe that a writer chooses his themes or do they come upon him?

Nadine Gordimer has written that we don't choose a theme or a situation or story. The theme chooses us, that is the goal of the writer. The time, the days choose us as a writer. We must respond to our time. From my experience I can say the same thing as Nadine Gordimer: I didn't choose the story of a handicapped son, or we didn't choose the theme of a handicapped boy's family. I wanted to escape from that if it were possible, but something chose me to write about it. My son chose me. That is one definite reason I continue to write.

You write in another essay, "The fundamental style of my writing has been to start from my personal matters and then link it up with society and the state and the world."

I think I am doing my works to link myself, my family, with society -- with the cosmos. To link me with my family to the cosmos, that is easy, because all literature has some mystic tendency. So when we write about our family, we can link ourselves to the cosmos. But I wanted to link myself and my family with society. When we link ourselves to society then we don't write very personal matters but we are writing an independent novel.

You say in A Healing Family that the lessons you learned in making a handicapped child an active part of your family were an example of how a society at large should treat the handicapped, and how society should learn from them. In essence, one can create a healing society by creating a healing family.

Yes, I hope so, but I don't want to emphasize the role of the family of the handicapped boy, I don't want to emphasize individuality. Always, when we linked our individual family to society, [it] has social value; if not, I think, we can only write very personal matters through our experience. When I named my first novel about my son A Personal Matter, I believe I knew the most important thing: there is not any personal matter; we must find the link between ourselves, our "personal matter," and society.

What role should the writer play in the politics of his time?

To combine our service to the society -- that is politics. I don't need any role as a policymaker. There are some friends of mine who have become policymakers.

You don't want to be Henry Kissinger.

I was in a seminar with Mr. Kissinger. Mr. Kissinger said in the good-bye party, with a very malicious smile, "The very wicked rabbit makes a smile in the cartoons, Mr. Oe's wicked smile," Mr. Kissinger said.

I am not a wicked person. Against the policymaker, sometimes I make a wicked smile. I am not a man with a policy, doing politics. But from the life of human beings [in my writings], I want to do something for politics. So I must do something through my literature or my essays.

What is that?

I personally can say in my very small voice now I am doing that.

What does a Japanese writer need to add to the discourse in Japan, which apparently is so materialist and apparently lacking in humanist values?

I have criticized Japanese attitudes toward Asia, to the world, [since] before the economic crisis in Japan. Even when we were poor I began to criticize our attitude toward Asia. During the prosperity I continued. After that, now we are in an economic crisis, and I must continue.

In Japan, we wanted to create a truly new national attitude after our defeat in the war. For years, we wanted to create democracy, democratic man, a democratic country. I think we gave up. Fifty years have passed. Now there is an atmosphere of anti-democracy in Japan. So today, not yet, they say ultranationalism must come back, but I feel very ambiguous. A dangerous atmosphere of nationalism is coming in our society. So now I want to criticize this tendency, and I want to do everything to prevent the development of fascism in Japanese society.

Do your novels and humane themes that you focus on contribute to the climate of ideas so that fascism becomes less of a possibility?

When I was in Hiroshima, Dr. Shigeto said, "When you can't think of anything to do, you must do something." So I think if I can have some power to influence young intellectuals, we can organize a different power. Because today's crisis is one of unconscious feeling of ultranationalism in Japan. A very big feeling, atmoshpere. If we write about it precisely, if we attack it, then young intellectuals can become conscious of this feeling. It is very important in the beginning.

These intellectuals might confront these issues and help shape the public debate in the way, in A Personal Matter, the young man Bird confronts the reality of his situation.

Yes, I want to ask young men of Japan, the young intellectuals, to confront their reality.


Several of your works focus on youth; for example, Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, on youth gangs where there are no values and the town has evacuated. What special role do young people have to play in shaping our ideas about the world?

In the end of my new novel, my hero is creating a new charity, not Christian, not Buddhist, but only they are doing something for the soul of him, of the asssembled young men. One day the leader reads a Bible in front of the people, the letter of Ephesians. In Ephesians there are two words: "New Man." Jesus Christ has become a New Man on the cross. We must take off the old coat of the old man. We must become the New Man. Only the New Man can do something, so you must become a New Man. My hero has no program about the future, but he believes that we must create New Man. Young men must become New Man. Old man must mediate to create New Man. That is my creed. I am always thinking about youth's role in Japan.

How should students prepare for the future? First, how to prepare to be a writer? How to prepare to have the positive influence in defining a New Man?

First, I hope young men are upright, independent.

Like Bird.

Yes. Secondly I hope they have imagination. The imagination is not to accept the other's image but to create our own image and more precisely to reform the imagination which was given to us. To be upright and to have an imagination: that is enough to be a very good young man.

You say of Dr. Shigeto, "Without too much hope or too much despair, he had simply dealt with the suffering as best he could," and you go on to say, "He was truly an authentic man."

My professor was a specialist of French Humanism, and he always said to me "What is Humanism? It is to be without too much hope and also too much despair today." Not too much hope, not too much despair. That is the model type of a humanist today. That was my teacher's comment, and I said that to Mr. Shigeto, and he said, "Yes, I know that through my life."

Thank you very much for sharing your reflections with us, and for coming back to Berkeley, and I hope you return again.

Thank you.

Thank you for joining us for this Conversation with History.