One of this century's greatest writers, Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburo Oe, graced the Annenberg School of Communications Feb. 14. Oe, a Japanese expatriate now living in Princeton, N.J., was greeted with a thundering round of applause from a multi-ethnic and multigenerational audience--despite showing up ten minutes late.
"My apologies," stated Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Professor William LaFleur, who later went on to introduce Oe. "But we had to stop by the house of [Edgar Allen] Poe, one of Mr. Oe's great influences." Somehow, the over-capacity crowd did not seem to mind.
Oe (pronounced "oh-eh"), after all, is the recipient of both the 1994 Nobel Prize in literature for his body of work, as well as the prestigious Akutagawa Prize (Japan's equivalent to the Pulitzer), an honor he received in 1958 for a short story he penned entitled "The Catch." Oe later went on to write two books: "A Personal Matter," a semi-autobiographical novel, dealt with the birth of his mentally handicapped son Hikari (who overcame his handicaps to become a composer); "Hiroshima Notes," dealt with his feelings about the atomic bomb, the survivors of Hiroshima and the Japanese imperial family's involvement in World War II.
Despite these impressive credentials, Oe in person is far from imposing. Stylishly attired in a camel-colored suit and blue dress shirt, the bespectacled author comes across as a soft-spoken, down-to-earth gentleman with ample charm and a storyteller's skill at retelling the past.
In his introduction, LaFleur told the audience that in recent years, Oe, a critic of imperial family, has come under critical attack from paramilitary members of Japan's ultra right. Oe "may be one of the few Japanese to find in America a place that may be physically safer," LaFleur said.
"In the center of [Tokyo]," LaFleur continued, "among many of the posters on utility polls, hangs a poster you find quite often that says, 'Shame, shame on Kenzaburo Oe for accepting the Nobel Prize, but refusing to accept Japan's own Order of Cultural Merit,'" an award Oe turned down due to his distrust of the Japanese government.
For the next hour and 50 minutes, Oe talked about the motivations behind this refusal, as well as his early influences and his new life in America.
Oe began by telling the audience about his earliest encounters with Western literature. Born in 1935 in the rural community of Ehime, Shikoku, in southern Japan, a young Oe fell in love with reading shortly after World War II, when Western books became more easily accessible.
"One day, my mother went to the city with two big bags of rice. At the time, the yen was useless. My mother came back with two books, 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' by Mark Twain and 'The Adventures of Nils' by Selma Lagerlof."
Oe, who was only 8 years old at the time, read these two books "every day" until he had memorized them "line by line." Oe's love for literature was further stimulated after the occupation government constructed a "very good library in the city of Matsuyama." It was here that Oe said he developed his love for democracy, since the library did not "segregate Japanese, and also they did not segregate age and children."
Eventually, Oe convinced his mother to let him leave the close-knit community of his village to study French literature at Tokyo University, after promising her to bring back the "Nobel Prize in physics." This odd pledge was in reference to Hideki Yukawa, the highly admired Japanese physicist who had won the Nobel Prize for discovering electrons.
A tough promise to fulfill, one would think. Oe however found humor abundant in this odd guarantee.
"For almost 40 years, I was tortured by my conscience," Oe said. "When I did win the Nobel Prize, however, I could still imagine my mother looking at me and saying 'Shame, shame on Oe. ... I wanted the prize in physics.'"
Oe then talked about his new life in the United States, where he now lives and teaches as a visiting professor at Princeton University. "This move has freed me from the Japanese media," Oe said.
He went on to say that he felt that the move was an educational experience for his handicapped son Hikari, who still resides in Japan. "It will prepare him for our inevitable moment that we are separated."
Oe then finished the event, by declaring his ideal vision of the future: "I dream of a future where young scholars of American and Japanese can speak freely about universal issues."
Originally published on February 25, 1997