HIROSHIMA NOTES: THE LIFE AND WORK OF KENZABURŌ ŌE

August 6th and 9th, 1945, were the dates when the United States dropped atomic bombs upon, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To that end, this week’s arts and culture column is on Japanese novelist, essayist, and Nobel  Prize winner Kenzaburo Ōe.

In 1994, the Japanese writer Kenzaburō Ōe was awarded the Nobel Laureate for creating an “an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.”

Back in 1963, Ōe’s wife, Yukari, was pregnant. Doctors advised the couple that the baby would be severely developmentally and physically disabled, and urged them to abort. They chose otherwise, and their son Hikari was born. He was visually impaired, epileptic, and possibly autistic. He did not speak.

Ōe has written of Hikari’s abysmal oral hygeine, his immovable bulk, the years of laboriously accompanying him to the special school via bus and train and then making the same trip again in the afternoon to fetch him back: hours that could have been spent writing, producing.

Hikari’s awakening began when he heard a bird in the woods. From an interview with Ōe:

“Until my son was four or five years old, he didn’t do anything to communicate with us. We thought that he cannot have any sense of the family. So he looked very, very isolated—a pebble in the grass. But one day, he was interested in the voice of a bird from the radio. So I bought disks of the wild birds of Japan…We continued to listen to that tape for three years…

In the summer when he was six years old, I went to our mountain house, and while my wife was cleaning our small house, I was in the small forest with my son on my shoulders. Nearby there is a small lake. A bird sang, [one of a pair]. Suddenly a clear, flat voice said, ‘It is a water rail.’ Then I shook. Utter silence in the forest. We were silent for five minutes and I prayed for something, there on my head. I prayed, ‘Please, the next voice of that bird and please next the remarks of my son, if that was not my phantom or dream.’ Then after five minutes, the wife of that bird sang. Then my son said ‘It’s a water rail.’ Then I returned to my house with my son and talked to my wife.”

The Ōes went on to have two more children, and the most helpless, the least efficient, became the unlikely “star” around whom the family constellated. Kenzaburō Ōe went on to write novels, essays, and memoirs around the central theme of his disabled son–this Great Fact, this “personal matter”–that has shaped his work, thought, and life. 

Ōe has another abiding concern: the events of August, 1945.

“People say that I’ve been writing about the same things over and over again ever since—my son Hikari and Hiroshima…I read a lot of literature, I think about a lot of things, but at the base of it all is Hikari and Hiroshima.”

For the follower of Christ, the connection is instant and complete. Just as we de-humanize the “defective” or unwanted child, so we de-humanize the “enemy” toward whom we aim atomic bombs, drone strikes, shock-and-awe campaigns. In both cases, we close our eyes: we don’t have to see what we are doing. In both cases, we convince ourselves that the “surgical strike” is actually compassionate. In both cases, we assure ourselves that destroying another human being—under the circumstances—is reasonable, sane, and empowering.

Ōe interviewed hundreds of atomic bomb survivors for his book Hiroshima Notes. In it, he reminds us that the view from the air and the ground are very different. He writes:

“In Hiroshima at dawn on A-bomb Memorial Day, I have often seen many women standing silently, with deep, dark, fearful eyes, at the Memorial Cenotaph and similar places. On such occasions, I recalled some lines by the Russian poet [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko:

Her motionless eyes had no expression;
Yet there was something there, sorrow
or agony,
Inexpressible,
but something terrible.*”

As Dostoevsky observed, “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” It so happens that Hikari Ōe has an uncanny facility for music, and is now a successful classical composer. But Ōe never sentimentalizes Hikari. To sentimentalize children limits our compassion; only in acknowledging the paradox that a developmentally disabled child—any child—is messy, bewildering, and shattering, can we begin to extend our love to everyone.

If loving our enemy were easy, God perhaps wouldn’t have had to take on human flesh to show us what love looks like. And if love were not the deepest desire of the human heart, we would not resonate so deeply with this passage of Ōe’s from a 2007 interview in The Paris Review:

“If there is one area through which I encounter the transcendental, it is my life with Hikari during the past forty-four years…Every night, I wake Hikari to go to the bathroom. When he returns to bed for some reason he cannot put a blanket on himself so I put a blanket on him. Taking Hikari to the bathroom is a ritual and has for me a religious tone. Then I have a nightcap and go to bed.”

* The translation here is from the Japanese version by Sotokichi Kusaka.

2 Replies to “HIROSHIMA NOTES: THE LIFE AND WORK OF KENZABURŌ ŌE”

  1. Heather, leave it to you to tie the obvious with the hidden. Thank you so much for your article. Timely for me on more than one level. I also think of Msgr. Albacete caring for his brother. Will it be a good evening? Will it be a good morning? Then a gift of some words that come with grace. Yes, "All will be well!"

    Enjoying the fruits of your retreat time, photos, riches, dryness, wellspring. You rock!!

  2. I have heard it stated more than once that all wars are really and ultimately a war against God. Against goodness and life itself. It is interesting that of all the cities the US could have chosen to bomb in Japan, one that they chose was the most Catholic and Christian on the entire island: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-bombing-of-nagasaki-august-9-1945-the-un-censored-version/5345274

    How beautiful is the little bit of Oe's writings that I have read since seeing this post. I'm guessing he is not Christian, but he has focused on two great events. The bombings of Japan and the life of his son. And the tenderness with which he writes about his son goes easily to the core of our hearts. That this man instinctively saw the evil of what we did to his people and the fact that God gave him a disabled son to deepen his understanding of the inherent worth of all people, is not a coincidence so far as I can see. God always brings good from evil, and Mr. Oe and his writings are most eloquent examples of this truism.

Leave a Reply to Mary Beth Cancel reply