From the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, March 3, 1997

Start from the personal

Nobel laureate in literature teaches about intellectual life of his native Japan

By Caroline Moseley

Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature cited by the Swedish Academy for the "poetic force" of his writing, is on campus this year as a visiting lecturer in East Asian Studies and fellow of the Humanities Council.

To date, Oe has published some 20 novels, a series of novellas and nine books of nonfiction, as well as many essays. In his Nobel address (delivered in English), he declared, "The fundamental method of my writing has always been to start from personal matters and then to link them with society, the state and the world in general."

Thus, much of Oe's literary output reflects events in his own life--notably, the birth in 1963 of his first child, a son named Hikari. The baby was born with an abnormality of the skull that would impair physical and mental development for life. Oe's best-known novel,A Personal Matter (1964), is a bitter, darkly humorous and, finally, elevating story of a father's effort to accept his brain-damaged child.

Several months after Hikari's birth, Oe says, "I was sent by a newspaper to interview survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima." Speaking with these physically and emotionally wounded people convinced him of "the nobility of human life. I realized my new baby's life, and all life, should be honored."

This visit also produced Hiroshima Notes (1965) and established Oe as a political and social critic as well as novelist. Always a voice for the political left, in the 1960s Oe opposed the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which allows American military bases in Japan. He has achieved some notoriety in his own country for holding that Japan was not only a victim in World War II, but an aggressor. He has urged Japan to adopt an antinuclear stance and is "committed to peace and global disarmament."

Almost perfect Japanese

Presiding over a classroom is a new experience for Oe. While he has been scholar in residence at the University of California, Berkeley (where he spoke English with his colleagues), and at the Collegio de Mexico in Mexico City (where he spoke French), last semester was his first stint as professor. He taught "The Writer as Artist in Modern Japan," and this semester he is teaching "The Representation of Japanese Intellectuals," both in Japanese. He also conducts some class discussion in English, "doing anything," he says, "that will encourage communication.

"I am enjoying teaching greatly," he continues. "The students express their point of view concretely and clearly. In Japan, when young people speak about literature or philosophy, the discussion is often vague, without accurate definitions of words or concepts. Here, when they speak, they define their terms."

He also praises Japanese language instruction at Princeton, saying "My students speak almost perfect Japanese, and with a very good accent."

An aspect of professorial life that has come as a happy surprise, he says, is "the very open atmosphere between students and teachers." He observes "how free Japanese students and teachers are here. Before I came, I was warned by some ultranationalists that in the U.S., Japanese students, especially women, are segregated from other students. This is simply not true." Early in his tenure at Princeton, Oe submitted an article to Tokyo's Asahi Shimbun , declaring "the fundamentally democratic and free atmosphere in the university."

An aspect of teaching at Princeton about which he is less enthusiastic, he says with a smile, is that "I must evaluate the students, and they must evaluate me--quite a new experience."

This is not Oe's first visit to Princeton. A journalist as well as novelist, five years ago he came to the Institute for Advanced Study "to interview Freeman Dyson, a great thinker about peace and the nuclear age, for a Tokyo television station."

Other connections drew Oe to Princeton as well. "Over many years," he says, "I have read works published by the Princeton University Press in the Bollingen Series." Especially significant to his own intellectual and spiritual development, he notes, were Kathleen Jessie Raine's Blake and Tradition (1968) and Gershom Scholem's Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676 (1973).

In addition, "I knew our famous Japanese physicist, 1949 Nobel prize-winner Hideki Yukawa, had been in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study.

"As a matter of fact," he recalls, "as a child, I wanted to be a physicist. I begged my mother to let me go to Tokyo to study physics. I promised I would win the Nobel Prize for Physics.

"So, 50 years later, I returned to my village and said to my mother, 'See, I have kept my promise. I won the Nobel Prize.' 'No,' said my mother, who has a very fine sense of humor, 'You promised it would be in physics!'"

French major

Oe's village is Ose, in Ehime Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku. "My father was keeper of the forest on our island," he says. "My family had been foresters for 200 years. As a child I enjoyed reading an English encyclopedia of trees. I had an English dictionary but no Latin dictionary to help with the names of trees. My school did not offer Latin classes, but my teacher said, 'You can study French, in which many of the words are very close to Latin.'"

By the time Oe realized that French and Latin, "while related, are completely different," he was immersed in French language and literature. He went on to major in French literatureat Tokyo University, from which he graduated in 1959.

He published his highly praised first novel (Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids , 1958) while still an undergraduate. Now 62, he often speaks of himself as "an old man"--though he rides his bike to Jones Hall every day. "I started writing when I was very young," he explains. "At that time I was anxious to be considered adult, even venerable. For 35 years I continued to be known as a writer who had not yet matured. So, several years ago, I simply decided to become 'an old man.'"

The news of his Nobel award brought "a most unexpected joy" to Oe, his wife and three children at their home in Tokyo. "Every year in the season of Nobel prizes," he says, "Japanese journalists gather in front of my house. Then, one of them hears by portable telephone that Octavio Paz was named, or Derek Walcott, or Nadine Gordimer or Toni Morrison--all writers I very much admire. A big sigh goes up among the journalists, and they vanish.

"This time," he smiles, "they did not vanish."

A voice for Hikari

Oe is pleased that the Swedish Academy "valued Japanese literature." Citing such 20th-century writers as the late Kobo Abe, Masuji Ibuse and Shohei Ooka, he says, "They created a basis for the world's appreciation of Japanese literature. I received the prize because I am still living, but it is partly their prize."

Since being at Princeton, Oe has made his presence quietly known on campus. When not teaching, writing or reading omnivorously in English, French and Japanese, he has given public lectures in the Woodrow Wilson School, the School of Architecture, the Humanities Council and his own department, as well as in the community. In May he is to participate in an interdisciplinary conference on Religion and Imagination cosponsored by his department, the Department of Religion, the Japan Foundation and Asahi Shimbun .

One notable event in which he figured was the November 9, 1996 concert in Richardson Auditorium called "The Music of Hikari Oe." In recent years, Hikari, though still lacking some verbal and cognitive skills, has become a composer of music for piano and flute, with two CDs to his credit. Kenzaburo Oe introduced the program, which was sponsored by East Asian Studies.

When it became clear that his son had a gift for music, says Oe, "I thought I would give up writing. I wrote always to be a voice for Hikari, but when he found his own voice in music I did not need to write further."

Oe announced in Stockholm and in later interviews, "I have already written what I need to write." Soon, however, he found that "I felt very empty without writing. I was a kind of 'hollow man.' I needed to feel real again."

In addition, "My friend [composer] Toru Takemitsu died of cancer. We had been friends since we were in our early twenties. I wanted to write something I could feel was for Takemitsu."

Oe finds his apartment in Princeton conducive to writing what will be his "longest work so far," a novel to be called "Somersault." It concerns "a Japanese fundamentalist movement, an amalgam of Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity," he says. "The hero is a young man strongly influenced by European mysticism, who wants to create a Japanese mysticism."

Writing the novel, says Oe, "helps heal the darkness in my own soul. You know," he muses, "My son is named Hikari, which means 'light.' At his birth, even in my affliction, I named him 'Hikari.'

"Always, in darkness, I seek the light."