Japan’s great post-war author was a convinced pacifist and an admonisher and warner into old age. After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima exactly twelve years ago, he unsuccessfully called on his country to phase out nuclear power. He received the Nobel Prize in 1994.
Oe was something like the social conscience of Japan. Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt once said that Oe “apparently played the same role in his country as Günter Grass did in Germany – the polluter”. Both winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature – Oe’s correspondence with Grass was published in Germany in 1995 – addressed the lessons of their countries’ painful pasts in both their work and their deeds.
Strong European influences and influences
For many, Oe was the first modern writer in Japan with strong European influences and influences, not least through French existentialism. However, Oe achieved his literary breakthrough with his early story “Der Fang” (1958) about the world of experiences and adventures of children through impressions of the war. It was not always easy to read, “consumable”, especially for readers in the western world.
Oe liked to turn European reading habits upside down (“I don’t make it easy for my readers”), but his literary status was soon recognized even before the Nobel Prize was awarded – Henry Miller even brought Oe close to Dostoyevsky. Oe himself called his narrative style “grotesque realism” and liked to refer to the French poet François Rabelais (1494-1553).
But German authors such as Grimmelshausen and Goethe also impressed him. Shortly before his 80th birthday, a German translation of his autobiographical essays in “Light shines on my roof” was published. It is about his mentally handicapped son Hikari, who composes classical music. The birth of his son was also the subject of what is perhaps his best-known novel, the masterpiece “A Personal Experience” from 1964. “An act of self-exposure hardly known in European literature,” wrote one critic.
Co-founder of a citizen organization
In Japan, Oe co-founded a civic organization campaigning for the preservation of Article 9 of the post-war peace constitution. Oe, who was long considered a literary loner or left-wing intellectual “citizen fright”, repeatedly spoke up on the subject. When the government of the recently assassinated right-wing conservative ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe passed, among other things, a law to increase the punishment for treason and to strengthen the role of the military, Oe warned that Japan was relapsing into the times that led to the Second World War. “I feel that Japan is at a turning point.”
Another central topic for Oe, who was born on January 31, 1935 on the island of Shikoku in southwestern Japan into a noble samurai family and remained shaped by his rural origins, was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, where in May of this year the G7 -Summit of western economic powers takes place.
“Hiroshima must be engraved in our memories: it is a catastrophe even more dramatic than natural disasters because it is man-made. To repeat this through the same disregard for human life in nuclear power plants is the worst betrayal of the memory of the victims of Hiroshima,” Oe said in an interview after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
The Swedish Nobel Prize Committee, which honored Oe with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, not only recognized Oe’s literary work, but also his role as a social critic and a warning against the uncritical Westernization of his homeland. Oe, who once called himself the “black sheep” of Japanese literature, counted Thomas Mann among his role models when it came to combining literary and socio-political significance.