- The destination of the soul: this is what I, led on by Nils Holgersson, came to seek in the literature of Western Europe. I fervently hope that my pursuit, as a Japanese, of literature and culture will, in some small measure, repay Western Europe for the light it has shed upon the human condition.
A Personal Matter' (1964)
- One day Bird had approached his father with this question; he was six years old: Father, where was I a hundred years before I was born? Where will I be a hundred years after I die? Father, what will happen to me when I die? Without a word, his young father had punched him in the mouth, broke two of his teeth and bloodied his face, and Bird forgot the fear of death.
- It takes a person of great care and insight to watch for any abnormality in the green grass even while it grows abundantly and healthily.
- Understanding comes hard to persons of high rank who are accustomed to phony lifestyles that involve no daily work.
- The dead can survive as part of the lives of those that still live.
- If any suffering was fruitless it was the agony of a hangover; what he suffered now could not expiate suffering of any other kind.
- It's a little bit like what Akari said to his grandmother in Shikoku, during her final illness: 'Please cheer up and die!
- We naturally try to forget our personal tragedies, serious or trifling, as soon as possible (even something as petty as being scorned or disdained by a stranger on a street corner). We try not to carry these things over to tomorrow. It is not strange, therefore, that the whole human race is trying to put Hiroshima, the extreme point of human tragedy, completely out of mind.
- The people of Hiroshima went to work at once to restore human society in the aftermath of the great atomic flood. They were concerned to salvage their own lives, but in the process they also salvaged the souls of the people who have brought the atomic bomb.
- Now I was just a transient in the valley, a one-eyed passerby too fat for his years, and life there had the power to summon up neither the memory nor the illusion of any other, truer self. As a passerby I had a right to insist on my identity.
- Every time you stand at a crossroads of life and death, you have two universes in front of you; one loses all relation to you because you die, the other maintains its relation to you because you survive in it. Just as you would take off your clothes, you abandon the universe in which you are still alive. In other words, various universes emerge around each of us the way tree limbs and leaves branch away from the trunk.
Shizuka-na seikatsu (A Quiet Life) (1990)
- To talk of prayer after admitting he professed no faith was, in my opinion, a breach of common courtesy. In this sense, he did make a social blunder, for which I think he well deserved some minor castigation.
- p 13
- I think the question for him is, how is a faithless person to cope with life. This is where he believes he can find something upon which to establish a literary career. You know, don’t you, how often he talks of Yeats? This goes way back, to when he was very young.
- p 52
- He said he didn’t care if he went to heaven or hell, because neither could be more fearful than absolute nothingness; salvation and damnation were one and the same if the only thing out there was total nothingness.
- p 54
- I don’t think young people need to see the face of the deceased.
- p 63
- There could be joy in destruction, too, couldn’t there? Isn’t Jesus Christ’s Second Coming supposed to occur only after a lot of unmitigated destruction? But again, human history is fraught with tragedies in which man spared no effort to destroy with millenarian joy, only to learn that no messiah appeared afterwards.
- p 90
- The ideal teacher student relationship exists when the student is better than the teacher.
- p 92
Japan, The Ambiguous, and Myself (1994)
- The fundamental style of my writing has been to start from my personal matters and then to link it up with society, the state and the world.
- Kawabata Yasunari, the first Japanese writer who stood on this platform as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered a lecture entitled Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. It was at once very beautiful and vague. I have used the English word vague as an equivalent of that word in Japanese aiming. This Japanese adjective could have several alternatives for its English translation. The kind of vagueness that Kawabata adopted deliberately is implied in the title itself of his lecture. It can be transliterated as "myself of beautiful Japan". The vagueness of the whole title derives from the Japanese particle "no" (literally "of") linking "Myself" and "Beautiful Japan".
The vagueness of the title leaves room for various interpretations of its implications.
- Under that title Kawabata talked about a unique kind of mysticism which is found not only in Japanese thought but also more widely Oriental thought. By 'unique' I mean here a tendency towards Zen Buddhism. Even as a twentieth-century writer Kawabata depicts his state of mind in terms of the poems written by medieval Zen monks. Most of these poems are concerned with the linguistic impossibility of telling truth. According to such poems words are confined within their closed shells. The readers can not expect that words will ever come out of these poems and get through to us. One can never understand or feel sympathetic towards these Zen poems except by giving oneself up and willingly penetrating into the closed shells of those words.
- In the rest of my lecture I would like to use the word "ambiguous" in accordance with the distinction made by the eminent British poet Kathleen Raine; she once said of William Blake that he was not so much vague as ambiguous. I cannot talk about myself otherwise than by saying "Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself".
- After the end of the Second World War it was a categorical imperative for us to declare that we renounced war forever in a central article of the new Constitution. The Japanese chose the principle of eternal peace as the basis of morality for our rebirth after the War.
I trust that the principle can best be understood in the West with its long tradition of tolerance for conscientious rejection of military service. In Japan itself there have all along been attempts by some to obliterate the article about renunciation of war from the Constitution and for this purpose they have taken every opportunity to make use of pressures from abroad. But to obliterate from the Constitution the principle of eternal peace will be nothing but an act of betrayal against the peoples of Asia and the victims of the Atom Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- At the nadir of the post-war economic poverty we found a resilience to endure it, never losing our hope for recovery. It may sound curious to say so, but we seem to have no less resilience to endure our anxiety about the ominous consequence emerging out of the present prosperity. From another point of view, a new situation now seems to be arising in which Japan's prosperity is going to be incorporated into the expanding potential power of both production and consumption in Asia at large.
- I am one of the writers who wish to create serious works of literature which dissociate themselves from those novels which are mere reflections of the vast consumer cultures of Tokyo and the subcultures of the world at large.
- My mentally handicapped son Hikari was awakened by the voices of birds to the music of Bach and Mozart, eventually composing his own works. The little pieces that he first composed were full of fresh splendour and delight. They seemed like dew glittering on grass leaves. The word innocence is composed of in — "not" and nicer — "hurt", that is, "not to hurt". Hikari's music was in this sense a natural effusion of the composer's own innocence.
- "The voice of a crying and dark soul" is beautiful, and his act of expressing it in music cures him of his dark sorrow in an act of recovery. Furthermore, his music has been accepted as one that cures and restores his contemporary listeners as well. Herein I find the grounds for believing in the exquisite healing power of art.
This belief of mine has not been fully proved. 'Weak person' though I am, with the aid of this unverifiable belief, I would like to "suffer dully all the wrongs" accumulated throughout the twentieth century as a result of the monstrous development of technology and transport. As one with a peripheral, marginal and off-centre existence in the world I would like to seek how — with what I hope is a modest decent and humanist contribution — I can be of some use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind.
Conversations with History interview (1999)
- "Conversation with Kenzaburo Oe" by Harry Kreisler in Conversations with History, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley (16 April 1999)
- Literature must be written from the periphery toward the center, and we can criticize the center. Our credo, our theme, or our imagination is that of the peripheral human being. The man who is in the center does not have anything to write. From the periphery, we can write the story of the human being and this story can express the humanity of the center, so when I say the word periphery, this is a most important creed of mine.
- I have a habit to be reborn as a writer. So if I find myself in a crisis that I have never experienced, I can be born, or I can write something, by the power of the habit. Even a soldier or a farmer or a fisherman can be reborn by the power of the habit when he meets the greatest crisis of his life.
- The verb "heal" must be used actively. I heal myself. A human being is healed by something. That is a very positive deed of human beings. When I listen to the music of my son, I don't experience any passive deed. I feel I am doing something positive with my son. We are looking out at the same direction. So if someone feels he is healed by the music of my son, even then I believe someone is looking in the same direction as my son. So he is positively healing himself with my son.
- I think I am doing my works to link myself, my family, with society — with the cosmos. To link me with my family to the cosmos, that is easy, because all literature has some mystic tendency. So when we write about our family, we can link ourselves to the cosmos.
- I think, we can only write very personal matters through our experience. When I named my first novel about my son A Personal Matter, I believe I knew the most important thing: there is not any personal matter; we must find the link between ourselves, our "personal matter," and society.
- A dangerous atmosphere of nationalism is coming in our society. So now I want to criticize this tendency, and I want to do everything to prevent the development of fascism in Japanese society.
- In the end of my new novel, my hero is creating a new charity, not Christian, not Buddhist, but only they are doing something for the soul of him, of the assembled young men. One day the leader reads a Bible in front of the people, the letter of Ephesians. In Ephesians there are two words: "New Man." Jesus Christ has become a New Man on the cross. We must take off the old coat of the old man. We must become the New Man. Only the New Man can do something, so you must become a New Man. My hero has no program about the future, but he believes that we must create New Man. Young men must become New Man. Old man must mediate to create New Man. That is my creed.
- To be upright and to have an imagination: that is enough to be a very good young man.
Paris Review interview (2007)
- The writer’s job is the job of a clown …the clown who also talks about sorrow.
- In principle, I am an anarchist. Kurt Vonnegut once said he was an agnostic who respects Jesus Christ. I am an anarchist who loves democracy.
- I am the kind of writer who rewrites and rewrites. I am very eager to correct everything. If you look at one of my manuscripts, you can see I make many changes. So one of my main literary methods is “repetition with difference.” I begin a new work by first attempting a new approach toward a work that I’ve already written — I try to fight the same opponent one more time. Then I take the resulting draft and continue to elaborate upon it, and as I do so the traces of the old work disappear. I consider my literary work to be a totality of differences within repetition.
I used to say that this elaboration was the most important thing for a novelist to learn.
- Fundamentally a good author has his or her own sense of style. There is a natural, deep voice, and that voice is present from the first draft of a manuscript. When he or she elaborates on the initial manuscript, it continues to strengthen and simplify that natural, deep voice.
- I was on a promotional tour in Great Britain, and I stopped in Wales. I was there for three days and I ran out of books to read. I went to a local bookstore and asked the person working there to recommend some books in English. He suggested a collection by a poet who was from the area but warned me that the book wasn’t selling very well. The poet was R. S. Thomas, and I bought everything they had. As I read him, I realized that he was the most important poet I could be reading at that point in my life.
- I don’t have faith nor do I think I will have it in the future, but I’m not an atheist. My faith is that of a secular person. You might call it “morality.” Throughout my life I have acquired some wisdom but always through rationality, thought, and experience. I am a rational person and I work only through my own experience. My lifestyle is that of a secular person, and I have learned about human beings that way
Quotes about Ōe
- Kenzaburo Oe has devoted his life to taking certain subjects seriously — victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the struggles of the people of Okinawa, the challenges of the disabled, the discipline of the scholarly life — while not appearing to take himself seriously at all. Although he is known in Japan as much for being a gadfly activist as for being one of the country’s most celebrated writers, in person Oe is more of a delightful wag