Two events have shaped Kenzaburo Oe's life and career with cataclysmic force: the Japanese surrender in World War II, which occurred when he was 10; and the birth of his brain-damaged son in 1963.

Between them, these experiences have spawned two dozen novels, decades of political activism, a position atop the Japanese literary firmament and, yesterday, the Nobel Prize in literature. The only other Japanese to win the prize, worth $930,000 this year, was Yasunari Kawabata in 1968.

The 59-year-old Oe (pronounced OH-eh) reacted modestly to the news. "Whenever I was named as a candidate, I always thought it was a joke," he said at an impromptu news conference outside his Tokyo home. "I never thought about winning the prize."

He paid tribute to such masters as Kobo Abe and Shohei Ohoka, saying, "I won the prize thanks to the accomplishments of modern Japanese literature."

In its citation, the Swedish Academy rather vaguely credited Oe for creating "with poetic force" a world "where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today."

For Oe, the discomfort and confusion began very early. He was first taught that the emperor was a living god. "What would you do if the emperor commanded you to die?" Oe was asked in school every morning. Like the other children, he replied: "I would die, sir, I would cut open my belly and die."

Then, on an August day in 1945, the emperor announced the Japanese surrender on the radio, revealing that he was a mortal man after all.

"The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment ...," Oe wrote in the essay "A Portrait of the Postwar Generation." "How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?"

At the precarious age of 10, Oe found his whole world undermined. "In a single day," his translator John Nathan wrote in 1976, "all the truth Oe had ever learned was declared lies. He was angry and he was humiliated, at himself for having believed and suffered, and at the adults who had betrayed him."

The anger remained to fuel him as a writer. "The Catch," which appeared in 1958 and is probably his most famous short story, is an allegory of lost innocence.

A black American pilot is taken prisoner in a remote Japanese village during the war. The local children are enthralled, eventually losing completely their fear of this immense fellow. "How can I describe how much we loved him, or the blazing sun above our wet, heavy skin that distant, splendid afternoon ... the voices hoarse with happiness," the narrator wonders.

Then, as the pilot is being transferred to the police, he takes a boy hostage and is killed. Once again, this was no god, just another mortal.

In 1963, the writer's wife, Yukari, gave birth to their first child. Removal of a growth on the infant's head left him brain-damaged; friends say the doctors thought the boy should be allowed to die -- an option the couple turned down. His name is Hikari, meaning "light" or "brilliance," but he's called Pooh, after the nursery character.

The damaged child figures in many of Oe's works, often at a bare remove from reality. From the 1969 novella "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness": "Rain or shine, not figuratively but in fact, the fat man and his son bicycled once a day to a Chinese restaurant and ordered pork noodles in broth and Pepsi-Cola. In the days before his son was quite so fat, the fat man would sit him in a light metal seat which he attached to the handlebars. And how often he had been obliged to fight with policemen who held that the metal seat was illegal, not to mention riding double on a bike!"

The child in this story is called Eeyore.

The subject receives its fullest discussion in the 1964 novel "A Personal Matter," where the narrator tries to resolve whether to permit his brain-damaged child to die or let him grow up miserable and in pain.

Oe has kept this autobiographical preoccupation in his later work while continuing to speak out about the environment, nuclear weapons and other causes. But the recent novels haven't inspired the same degree of adulation.

"I have sensed from informed readers a fair amount of disappointment," Nathan, the translator, said yesterday. "He has become the big honcho, the dean of Japanese literature, but people see a pedagogical, didactic streak. He's become harder and harder to read."

But if his influence has waned, his commitment hasn't. Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and the man who published Oe's first book in this country, tells the story of what happened when he went to visit the writer in 1991:

"He insisted on meeting us at the airport. We got there about 4 o'clock, but Oe didn't show up. It got to be 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock. Finally I was able to call and get his wife, and she said he left in plenty of time to get there. Well, it turned out that on the way to the airport he saw this demonstration about the treatment of students in China.

"Oe got out of the cab and made a speech -- in favor of the students, naturally. Pretty soon there was a whole tie-up of traffic. The TV cameras came and shot the whole thing. He was about three to four hours late getting to us."

The writer, once he finally saw Rosset, was "very, very apologetic. But I didn't mind, because I knew that the urge to get involved in a cause was something he couldn't control."

Eventually, people weary of Cassandras. "He troubles them a bit, brings up questions the Japanese don't want to think about," said Susan Napier, author of "Escape From the Wasteland," a study of Oe's work. "He calls himself the canary in a coal mine -- he feels he has to be the one to warn people."

In 1961, in an episode that prefigured the Salman Rushdie affair, Oe wrote a scorching story about a young right-wing terrorist who masturbates while having a vision of the emperor. The right wing was enraged, and Oe was subjected to various kinds of harassment and pressure. A fanatic came looking for the publisher of the magazine that printed the story; he wasn't home but his maid was killed. Oe went into hiding for a time. The complete story has never been reprinted.

Politics aside, everyone who knows Oe stresses that he's a lot of fun personally. "He's very funny, not always doom and gloom," said Napier, who is not only a specialist on his work but is in one of his novels as a character. "He uses people horribly," she said with a laugh.

A Limited Audience Oe was once interviewed on German television by his German translator. "He asked me whether it was very important to me to be translated into German," the novelist recalled in a 1991 interview in the magazine Grand Street. "I said no, and a deathly silence fell over the studio. The reason I said no is simply that I write my books for Japanese readers rather than for foreigners.

"Moreover, the Japanese readers I have in mind are a limited group. The people I write for are people of my own generation, people who have had the same experiences as myself. So when I go abroad, or am translated abroad or criticized abroad, I feel rather indifferent about it."

Nevertheless, Oe has been a recognized commodity in this country since the late '60s, if never as well known as Kawabata, Yukio Mishima or Junichiro Tanizaki. Grove Press published "A Personal Matter" in 1968, and nine years later the collection "Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness." Both have remained available ever since, and were reprinted as recently as a few months ago. Yesterday, Grove ordered 20,000 copies more of each.

Oe's other major work available in this country is the novel "The Silent Cry," saluted by the Swedish Academy as "one of {his} major works. At first glance it appears to concern an unsuccessful revolt, but fundamentally the novel deals with people's relationships with each other in a confusing world in which knowledge, passions, dreams, ambitions and attitudes merge into each other."

"By the time we got in this morning, the entire stock of 'The Silent Cry' was gone from the warehouse," a spokeswoman for the publisher, Kodansha, said yesterday. Kodansha has three more novels in the process of being translated.

Oe, meanwhile, says he's retired. On Sept. 18, the Japanese television network NHK presented an hour-long documentary on the writer, showing him completing the last page of a trilogy of novels. "It's finished," he said, "and my work as a novelist is finished."

It's possible this was mere authorial exhaustion. Writers often say they're through; they want an audience to plead for more. But Nathan sees something more complex at work. He traces it to the fact that Pooh, who works making clothespins in a center for disadvantaged adults, has survived, and even in a sense thrives. Pooh is now a composer: He has produced two CDs of avant-garde music.

"My sense is that the child has figured in Oe's work as a double metaphor -- there's always this constraint and burden from which the father figure has to distance himself in order to come into his own and be redeemed. It's a struggle, and also a liberation," said Nathan, a professor of Japanese cultural studies at the University of California.

"Symbolically, this represents the burden the postwar generation has to live with," he added. "If the child is now an adult, on his own and ready to meet his own fate, then the father is free to pursue other paths."

Yesterday, Oe reaffirmed his decision to stop writing fiction. "I will try to find a new form of literature, one that is different from the novel but where I can express myself." He indicated he would meditate on the problem for a few years first.

Oe's Nobel wasn't a particular surprise, although the Swedish Academy managed to keep its usual tight lid on things. After three winners who write in English -- a streak that was achieved only once before, in the early '50s -- it was clearly time to pay attention to another language.

The last-minute betting, however, was that it would be someone closer to home, maybe even the Swede Tomas Transtromer. "Europe Stands in Line for Literature Prize," said a headline Wednesday in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

A young father is with the lover he has taken after learning his firstborn child suffers from a birth defect.

"They were watching the midnight news, Bird in bed on his stomach, lifting only his head like a baby sea urchin, Himiko hugging her knees on the floor. The heat of day had departed and like primeval cave-dwellers they were enjoying the cool air in nakedness.

"Since they had turned the volume way down with the telephone bell in mind, the only sound in the room was a voice as faint as the buzzing of a bee's wings.

"But what Bird heard was not a human voice endowed with meaning and mood, nor was he distinguishing meaningful shapes in the flickering shadows on the screen.

"From the external world he was letting in nothing to project its image on the screen of his consciousness. He was simply waiting, like a radio set equipped with a receiver only, for a signal from the distance which he wasn't even certain would be transmitted."

-- From "A Personal Matter,"

translated by John Nathan