Books / Reviews | ESSENTIAL READING FOR JAPANOPHILES

Kenzaburo Oe’s ‘Seventeen and J: Two Novels’: 1960s Japan on the brink of social revolution

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

In October 1960, following a series of mass, violent protests against the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, the chair of the Socialist Party, Inejiro Asanuma, was attacked and stabbed to death by a 17-year-old nationalist student who later hanged himself in custody.

Seventeen and J: Two Novels, by Kanzaburo Oe, Translated by Luk Van Haute.
204 pages
FOXROCK BOOKS, Fiction.

In December that year, an inflammatory short story by Shichiro Fukazawa depicted a revolution that leads to the public decapitation of the emperor’s family. The book prompted an attack on the publisher Hoji Shimanaka’s home by another 17-year-old nationalist, who stabbed the publisher’s wife and killed his maid.

In January 1961, into this ferocious political bear pit stepped Oe’s short story “Seventeen,” depicting a masturbation-obsessed youth who turns to violent nationalism as a form of self-empowerment. Published in the same month as Yukio Mishima’s iconic short story, “Patriotism,” it too contemplates the intersectionality of eroticism and political belief.

Both Mishima and Oe would find themselves the victims of right-wing death threats and abuse in 1961, experiences that haunted both men, and Oe’s controversial sequel to “Seventeen,” published in February 1961, was not subsequently republished.

Instead, this volume includes his 1963 story, “Sexual Humans,” called here simply “J,” which depicts the tangled sexual relations between a dissolute artistic crowd and the protagonist’s subsequent exploits as a chikan (molester) on Tokyo trains. On the cusp of the 1960s sexual revolution and the anti-Vietnam War movement, these works are intriguing primers on the seething social turbulence of the age.