Oe Warned Us

Japan’s second Nobel laureate, who died earlier this month, would not let his nation forget the dehumanization of war

It often seems that writers these days have a way of dying just as the danger that they tried hard to warn readers about grows especially severe, and this is true in the case of Japanese author Kenzaburo Oe, who passed away on March 3 at age 88. He was the second man of letters from his country to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, after Yasunari Kawabata, and was both a voracious and wide-ranging reader and an author of uncommon prolificity. Oe read obsessively and in cycles. Five years for this subject, three years for that author. It hardly does Oe justice to say that he was a deeply curious person who sought out, and met, a range of characters over the course of his life, including Kurt Vonnegut, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Mao Tse-Tung, and corresponded with many others.

‘The Crazy Iris’ by Kenzaburo Oe.

Among the works for which people will remember Oe are his essays in Hiroshima Notes and a collection of short stories that he edited, The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath. Maybe the title of that last book needs little explanation, but the idea was to mark the fortieth anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Obviously, Oe felt a deep concern about a possible recurrence of the nuclear horrors that his country experienced and that may yet recur in a world plagued with rogue states and Vladimir Putin. But in Oe’s view, Japan is not blameless. Accounts of his life and times and some of his own statements leave no doubt that he enraged the nationalist right in Japan with his urgent warnings about where his own nation’s militaristic zeal led in the last century and might again lead.

At one point in a long interview in the Paris Review, covering everything from his drinking habits to his creative process to his family’s reaction, or lack thereof, on hearing that he had won the Nobel, Oe let slip that he did not get along with another famous Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, or to put it more exactly, Mishima despised him. The reasons are not far to seek. Mishima’s novels are full of passages where we see the aftermath of American bombing raids on Japan’s rural communities and shrines, and Mishima tends to dwell on the civilian casualties of such attacks. Mishima feels loyal to the Emperor, will not repudiate his country’s wartime aims, and bristles with anger toward the Allies.

Oe, by contrast, saw inhumanity in a lot of places and wrote some of his most resonant works as a way of grappling with the guilt he felt over the conduct of Japanese soldiers and civilians during the war. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize went to Oe for his 1958 novella “Prize Stock.” This is an account of events in a remote village much like the one where Oe spent his childhood on the island of Shikoku, and the narrator is plainly Oe himself. One day, the crash of a U.S. bomber in the hills results in the capture of a black airman, whom the villagers lock up in a cellar as they await orders from the heads of the prefecture about what to do.

The tensions inherent in this scenario are obvious. No one acknowledges how much the premise of Neil Jordan’s 1992 movie The Crying Game owes to “Prize Stock,” with the difference that the captors in that film are IRA terrorists and their black captive belongs to the British, not the American, military. In Oe’s work, the identity of the downed airman confounds the reductionist, storybook narrative of white aggressors and noble natives that the characters, much like Yukio Mishima, prefer to believe, but that is not the reason “Prize Stock” is so harrowing. Except for the children of the village, no one recognizes the humanity of the captive or wants to help him. As you can guess, things don’t turn out well. A villager resorts to savagery toward the captive and feels his own actions to be right and good.

Oe illustrates just how fast decency goes out the window and people who believe themselves to have suffered nobly in the name of a cause resort to the brutality they so readily impute to the other side. These are the dangers of nationalist zeal. Perhaps Mishma loathed Oe not for a reason suggested in the Paris Review interview—that Oe called Mishima’s wife a certain four-letter term—but because Oe would not let Mishima and others forget just how simplistic and selective they were in their identification with Japan’s civilian victims, their fierce nationalism, and their hatred of America.

It is all the sadder when writers die just when the need for their wisdom is strongest, when the demon that assumed hideous form in their most passionate writings jeopardizes us all. German writer and intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who wrote essays about the dangers of the consolidation of electronic data and the loss of privacy, left this world last Thanksgiving Day during an escalating scandal over the misuse of customer data and other abusive practices on the part of Munich-based payment processor Wirecard. We lost British historian Paul Johnson at a time when his analysis of an expansionist Russian state has never been more relevant.

If there is one thing we might wish for Oe’s legacy, it is that his efforts to warn his countrymen about the dangers of rampant nationalism and demonization of other peoples not fall on deaf ears. But these are crazy times, and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is the latest in a series of leaders who have shown increasing contempt for the postwar constitution that severely limited the size and role of the Japan’s military.

If you told survivors of Bataan, Corregidor, and Pearl Harbor that Japan is radically increasing its military spending and opening new bases with missile capabilities, without so much as a murmur of concern from other powers, they might find it a joke in extremely poor taste. But the trend is real and will surely accelerate. We’ve got to counter the threat from China, and the books of a dead novelist who pretended to be his nation’s postwar conscience will be lucky to end up in a remainder bin at the local mall.



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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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