Kenzaburo Oe: Bridging the generation gap


In the wake of the terrorist attacks in America, large bookstores have put together special displays on Islam and terrorism, while the cult idolization of the prime minister continues with the publication of a coffee-table book of Koizumi photos (Jun-chan lounging in a robe!). However, as always in recent years, the best-seller list is dominated by life-advice and entertainment titles. The latest life-advice best-seller comes from the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe.

In the 16 essays of ” ‘Jibun no ki’ no shita de” (“Under One’s Own Tree”; Asahi Shimbun-sha), Oe writes of his own childhood and of what he has learned as a novelist and as a father in the hope that his experiences might be of some help to children today. No doubt owing to its origins in Oe’s interactions with children at weekend Japanese schools abroad (he corrected their compositions and talke to them about his own childhood), the book is a rather odd mix of nostalgia, life lessons and writing lessons.

For example, in one essay Oe remembers the months of rain and flooding in his isolated village in Shikoku soon after the end of World War II. One day, several men came running down the street shouting that people were being carried along by the raging river — “Hito ga nagareru ga!” (Oe interrupts his story to comment on the function of the second “ga”: to add emphasis and express surprise) — and Oe and the other children ran to the town’s concrete bridge. They were horrified to see a young girl clinging to the roof of a house, swept away in the flood, that was headed directly toward a pillar of the bridge.

Realizing the danger she was in, she calmly jumped to the roof of another house and passed safely below the bridge. After that, whenever Oe read about “choix” and “dignite” in Sartre at college he always thought of her jumping from one roof to the other. He learned from her that humans must be prepared in life to make decisions for themselves and to act on them resolutely.

In another wartime episode, Oe recalls how angry he was when his father told him to return the coupon he had won at school for an India-rubber ball from Singapore. As a second grader he had been excited at the chance to buy one of the balls sent back to Japan by brave Japanese soldiers fighting in Southeast Asia. He couldn’t see the logic of his father’s asking him how he would feel if soldiers were to come to his village and take away dried persimmons to send back to the children in their own country. How could other soldiers be as brave as Japanese soldiers? What did a valuable resource like rubber have to do with dried fruit?

Thinking about it now, he is impressed by how naturally conservative children are, wanting to believe what they are taught and wanting things to stay the way they are. He had felt threatened by his father’s words but gradually came to recognize their truth.

In this way, Oe takes up such topics as why children should go to school, the importance of role models, withstanding gossip and the problems of violence and suicide.

In a review of the book in Shukan Asahi (Sept. 21), the novelist Hisashi Inoue relates his first impression of what a new departure this book was for Oe in content, writing style, and even the physical look and feel of the book. He singles out the illustrations by Oe’s wife Yukari and the contribution they make to the overall good feeling of the book, and is struck by the universality of the rural Japan portrayed there — Oe’s village in Shikoku was exactly like Inoue’s childhood village in Tohoku.

However, the book’s success seems to be due more to anxiety over children and schools today than to nostalgia for the past. According to Aera (Sept. 24), it is most popular among mothers in their ’30s and ’40s, and is also being adopted by teachers for classroom use. Recently Oe’s novels have been selling in the 50,000-60,000 range, but some 170,000 copies of “Ki” have already been printed since it was first released in July.

One educator told Aera that Oe’s book gave her the courage to urge reluctant students to continue attending school, but she did feel some qualms since the situation in Japan’s school system today is very different from that in Oe’s day. It is hard to help psychically wounded students to develop self-esteem and to form new relationships at a time when competition, productivity and efficiency have been incorporated into education. She also feels that Oe’s positive philosophy is based on a faith in the family, but she sees many children who are not blessed with strong and dependable family ties.

Why did Oe feel compelled to directly address young people for the first time and write such a book? Now 66, he reports having experienced a turning point as a novelist in recent years. Until he received the Nobel Prize at the age of 59 he had been striving to widen his world beyond that of a country boy. However, after turning 60 his friends started dying and he became more conscious of his own mortality. He resolved to live deeply, rather than widely, and felt a new desire to pass on something of himself to the young. He thinks one main theme of the book is his affirmation of the connections between his child self and his adult self; only after the age of 60 could he fully accept the self forged in that small village.

Another new Oe book that is rather odd from an American viewpoint is a dialogue between him and conductor Seiji Ozawa, “Onaji toshi ni umarete” (“Born in the Same Year”). As the title indicates, the main rationale for the book seems to be the fact that Oe and Ozawa were both born in 1935, although the immediate impetus was a newspaper dialogue on the occasion of their both being granted honorary degrees from Harvard last year.

Finally, perhaps also in response to the current age of change and uncertainty, another Japanese novelist has embarked on an educational project. In “Ojiisan wa yama e kanemoke ni” (“The Old Man Went to the Mountain to Make Money”), Ryu Murakami has rewritten several traditional children’s stories to foster new attitudes toward money and investment. The morals of the stories are things such as the necessity of calculating risk, or the importance of developing a portfolio in life, and asset utilization!