Kenzaburo Oe, a Nobel Prize-winning author whose emotionally searing novels and essays bridged the personal and political, grappling with the legacy of World War II in Japan and with his own experience raising a son with disabilities, died March 3. He was 88.
Mr. Oe (pronounced OH-eh) lost his father and grandmother during World War II, came of age during the U.S. occupation of Japan and rose to become one of his country’s most acclaimed authors, writing novels that channeled Japan’s postwar malaise and disillusionment in prose that was lyrical and often thorny, with long, complex sentences that unspooled across the page.
Many of his books examined the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, when he was 10, and his relationship with his developmentally disabled son Hikari, who was born in 1963 with a brain herniation. “I’m a boring person. I read a lot of literature, I think about a lot of things, but at the base of it all is Hikari and Hiroshima,” he told the Paris Review in 2007.
From those two subjects, as well as his broader interests in Japanese history and politics, Mr. Oe crafted what the Swedish Academy described as “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” The academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in literature in 1994, making him the second Japanese author to receive the honor, after Yasunari Kawabata in 1968.
Mr. Oe was perhaps best known for his semi-autobiographical 1964 novel “A Personal Matter,” about a man named Bird who turns to sex and booze after the birth of his brain-damaged son. The protagonist wants to run off to Africa and feels shame and self-loathing while trying to decide whether to let his child live or die. At one point he embraces despair, an experience that Mr. Oe likened to “digging a vertical mine shaft in isolation; it goes straight down to a hopeless depth and never opens on anybody else’s world.”
While the novel’s tone was often bleak, the book was “inherently comic,” author Jonathan Franzen said in a Wall Street Journal interview, noting that Mr. Oe charted the absurdist course of a man “in flight from reality.”
It was a journey Mr. Oe knew firsthand, drawing on his response to his son’s birth the previous year.
Mr. Oe, who was 28 at the time, was asked by doctors whether they should go ahead with an operation that would give Hikari a chance to live — “but,” as he later put it, “with terrible, terrible difficulties.” Before making a decision, he fled the hospital in Tokyo, accepting a journalistic assignment to write about an anti-nuclear conference in Hiroshima.
“I was escaping from my baby,” he told the New Yorker in 1995. “These were shameful days for me to remember. I wanted to escape to some other horizon.”
Even before the birth of Hikari, his first child, he had been struggling with thoughts of suicide, unsure of his identity as a writer and his place in the world.
He took a break from the nuclear conference to visit the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, where he spoke with survivors of the bombing and some of the doctors who treated them. A physician explained that even when it was unclear how to cure such patients, they had an obligation to try.
“He told me this story, and I felt great shame that I was doing nothing for my son — my son, who was silent and could not express his pain or do anything for himself,” Mr. Oe said. The novelist returned to Tokyo and, along with his wife, approved the operation. The procedure was successful, and Mr. Oe found himself transformed as well. “With the birth of my son,” he said, “my heart opened.”
Drawing on his experience in Hiroshima, Mr. Oe wrote a best-selling nonfiction book about the atomic bombing and its legacy, “Hiroshima Notes” (1965). He also campaigned against nuclear weapons and energy, which became an increasing focus after the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant.
Throughout his career, Mr. Oe embraced pacifist and left-wing political causes, opposing the country’s imperial traditions and seeking to force readers to confront the country’s complicity in wartime atrocities.
His nonfiction book “Okinawa Notes” (1970) condemned the Japanese military for coercing many of the island’s residents to kill themselves during the U.S. invasion in 1945, and received renewed attention in 2005, when Mr. Oe was sued for defamation by a former Japanese military officer and the family of another, who denied his account of the mass suicides.
“The conservative faction wanted a target, and I became that target,” he told the Paris Review in 2007, noting that the lawsuit was filed amid a right-wing movement to whitewash the country’s history, with government officials championing an effort to strip textbooks of references to military “coercion” in the suicides.
Mr. Oe won the case, with the lawsuit dismissed in 2008 by an Osaka judge, and returned to writing, determined to finish one more novel about the war.
“When I turn 75 years old, I expect I’ll have nothing left to write as a novelist,” he told the New York Times, paging through a handwritten manuscript of the book that became “Death by Water” (2009). “In any case,” he continued, “I’ll write this, and then I can pass away.”
The third of seven children, Kenzaburo Oe was born in Ose, a mountain village in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands, on Jan. 31, 1935. His father worked on textiles and drowned in a flood during World War II, according to the Times. His mother took over his education, encouraging his interest in world literature by buying books like “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
During wartime, he and his classmates were asked each morning, “What would you do if the emperor commanded you to die?” Their reply: “I would die, sir, I would cut open my belly and die.”
The news of Japan’s surrender, announced on the radio by Emperor Hirohito, came as a shock. “We were,” he wrote, “most confused and disappointed by the fact that the Emperor had spoken in a human voice, no different from any adult’s. … How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?”
Mr. Oe went on to study French literature at the University of Tokyo, where he immersed himself in existentialism and wrote his thesis on Jean-Paul Sartre. He was still in school when he published his short story “The Catch,” also known as “Prize Stock,” a tale of lost innocence about a downed American pilot who befriends a group of Japanese children before taking one of them hostage. The story won the 1958 Akutagawa Prize, a top honor for rising authors.
With encouragement from composer Toru Takemitsu, one of his closest friends, he published his first novel that same year. Titled “Nip the Buds, Gun the Kids,” it was about a group of schoolchildren evacuated to a rural village during wartime. It was followed by some three-dozen books, including the novel “The Silent Cry” (1967), about an unsuccessful revolt, and the nonfiction book “A Healing Family” (1995), about Hikari, who rarely spoke but became a successful composer.
Mr. Oe, who described himself as “an anarchist who loves democracy,” battled with the far right for much of his career. His 1961 novella “Seventeen,” inspired by a Socialist Party leader’s assassination by a 17-year-old militant, led him to go into hiding for a time as he received death threats from right-wing extremists. The second part of the book, a sexual satire in which a right-wing character masturbates while thinking of the emperor, was never republished.
Mr. Oe received further threats shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize, when he declined Japan’s Order of Culture because it was awarded by the emperor.
Mr. Oe was married for 63 years to Yukari Oe, an illustrator and the sister of one of his best friends, filmmaker Juzo Itami, the director of “Tampopo.” In addition to their son Hikari, they had another son, Natsumiko, and a daughter, Sakurao. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
After winning the Nobel, Mr. Oe said he remained focused on writing for a Japanese audience, and professed not to care what Western critics thought of his work. Still, he lamented that Japanese people remained “inscrutable in the eyes of Europeans and Americans.”
“You can understand other Nobelists, they are available to you in the United States,” he continued in the New York interview, before rattling off the names of prizewinning writers from Poland, Saint Lucia and Russia. “But there is not much of a Western desire to understand the people who make all those Hondas. I don’t know why.”