JAPAN, THE AMBIGUOUS, AND MYSELF
A tree there is that from its topmost bough
Nobel Lecture, December 7, 1994
KENZABURO OE Tokyo, Japan
During the last catastrophic World War I was a little boy and lived in a remote,
wooded valley on Shikoku Island in the Japanese Archipelago, thousands of miles
away from here. At that time there were two books by which I was really fascinated:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Adventures of
Nils. The whole world was then engulfed by waves of horror. By reading Huckleberry
Finn I felt I was able to justify my act of going into the mountain forest
at night and sleeping among the trees with a sense of security which I could
never find indoors. The protagonist of The Adventures of Nils is transformed
into a little creature, understands birds' language and makes an adventurous
journey. I derived from the story sensuous pleasures of various kinds. Firstly,
living as I was in a deep wood on the Island of Shikoku just as my ancestors
had done long ago, I had a revelation that this world and this way of life there
were truly liberating. Secondly, I felt sympathetic and identified myself with
Nils, a naughty little boy, who while traversing Sweden, collaborating with
and fighting for the wild geese, transforms himself into a boy, still innocent,
yet full of confidence as well as modesty. On coming home at last, Nils speaks
to his parents. I think that the pleasure I derived from the story at its highest
level lies in the language, because I felt purified and uplifted by speaking
along with Nils. His worlds run as follows (in French and English translation):
"Maman, Papa! Je suds grand, je suds de nouveau un homme!" cria-t-il.
"Mother and father!" he cried. "I'm a big boy. I'm a human being again!"
I was fascinated by the phrase 'je suds de nouveau un homme!' in particular.
As I grew up, I was continually to suffer hardships in different realms of life
- in my family, in my relationship to Japanese society and in my way of living
at large in the latter half of the twentieth century. I have survived by representing
these sufferings of mine in the form of the novel. In that process I have found
myself repeating, almost sighing, 'je suds de nouveau un homme!' Speaking like
this as regards myself is perhaps inappropriate to this place and to this occasion.
However, please allow me to say that 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. I hope you will forgive me for talking about my personal
matters a little further.
Half a century ago, while living in the depth of that forest, I read The Adventures
of Nils and felt within it two prophecies. One was that I might one day
become able to understand the language of birds. The other was that I might
one day fly off with my beloved wild geese - preferably to Scandinavia.
After I got married, the first the first child born to us was mentally handicapped.
We named him Hikari, meaning 'Light' in Japanese. As a baby he responded
only to the chirps of wild birds and never to human voices. One summer when
he was six years old we were staying at our country cottage. He heard a pair
of water rails (Rallus aquaticus) warbling from the lake beyond a grove,
and he said with the voice of a commentator on a recording of wild birds: "They
are water rails". This was the first moment my son ever uttered human words.
It was from then on that my wife and I began having verbal communication with
Hikari now works at a vocational training centre for the handicapped, an institution
based on ideas we learnt from Sweden. In the meantime he has been composing
works of music. Birds were the originators that occasioned and mediated his
composition of human music. On my behalf Hikari has thus accomplished the prophecy
that I might one day understand the language of birds. I must say also that
my life would have been impossible but for my wife with her abundant female
force and wisdom. She has been the very incarnation of Akka, the leader of Nils's
wild geese. Together with her I have flown to Stockholm and the second of the
prophecies has also, to my utmost delight, now been realised.
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
aimaina. 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.
It can imply 'myself as a part of beautiful Japan', the particle 'no' indicating
the relationship of the noun following it to the noun preceding it as one of
possession, belonging or attachment. It can also imply 'beautiful Japan and
myself', the particle in this case linking the two nouns in apposition, as indeed
they are in the English title of Kawabata's lecture translated by one of the
most eminent American specialists of Japanese literature. He translates 'Japan,
the beautiful and myself'. In this expert translation the traduttore
(translator) is not in the least a traditore (betrayer).
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 the 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.
Why did Kawabata boldly decide to read those extremely esoteric poems in Japanese
before the audience in Stockholm? I look back almost with nostalgia upon the
straightforward bravery which he attained towards the end of his distinguished
career and with which he made such a confession of his faith. Kawabata had been
an artistic pilgrim for decades during which he produced a host of masterpieces.
After those years of his pilgrimage, only by making a confession as to how he
was fascinated by such inaccessible Japanese poems that baffle any attempt fully
to understand them, was he able to talk about 'Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself',
that is, about the world in which he lived and the literature which he created.
It is noteworthy, furthermore, that Kawabata concluded his lecture as follows:
My works have been described as works of emptiness, but it is not to be taken
for the nihilism of the West. The spiritual foundation would seem to be quite
different. Dogen entitled his poem about the seasons 'Innate Reality',
and even as he sang of the beauty of the seasons he was deeply immersed in Zen.
(Translation by Edward Seidensticker)
Here also I detect a brave and straightforward self-assertion. On the one hand
Kawabata identifies himself as belonging essentially to the tradition of Zen
philosophy and aesthetic sensibilities pervading the classical literature of
the Orient. Yet on the other he goes out of his way to differentiate emptiness
as an attribute of his works from the nihilism of the West. By doing so he was
whole-heartedly addressing the coming generations of mankind with whom Alfred
Nobel entrusted his hope and faith.
To tell you the truth, rather than with Kawabata my compatriot who stood here
twenty-six years ago, I feel more spiritual affinity with the Irish poet William
Butler Yeats, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature seventy one years
ago when he was at about the same age as me. Of course I would not presume to
rank myself with the poetic genius Yeats. I am merely a humble follower living
in a country far removed from his. As William Blake, whose work Yeats revalued
and restored to the high place it holds in this century, once wrote: 'Across
Europe & Asia to China & Japan like lightnings'.
During the last few years I have been engaged in writing a trilogy which I wish
to be the culmination of my literary activities. So far the first two parts
have been published and I have recently finished writing the third and final
part. It is entitled in Japanese A Flaming Green Tree. I am indebted
for this title to a stanza from Yeats's poem Vacillation:
Is half all glittering flame and half all green
Abounding foliage moistened with the dew . . .
(Vacillation 11 - 13)
In fact my trilogy is so soaked in the overflowing influence of Yeats's poems
as a whole. On the occasion of Yeat's winning the Nobel Prize the Irish Senate
proposed a motion to congratulate him, which contained the following sentences:
the recognition which the nation has gained, as a prominent contributor to the
world's culture, through his success."
. . . a race that hitherto had not been accepted into the comity of nations.
. . . Our civilization will be assesed on the name of Senator Yeats.
. . . there will always be the danger that there may be a stampeding of people
who are sufficiently removed from insanity in enthusiasm for destruction.
(The Nobel Prize: Congratulations to Senator Yeats)
Yeats is the writer in whose wake I would like to follow. I would like to do so
for the sake of another nation that has now been 'accepted into the comity of
nations' but rather on account of the technology in electrical engineering and
its manufacture of automobiles. Also I would like to do so as a citizen of such
a nation which was stamped into 'insanity in enthusiasm of destruction' both on
its own soil and on that of the neighbouring nations.
As someone living in the present would such as this one and sharing bitter memories
of the past imprinted on my mind, I cannot utter in unison with Kawabata the phrase
'Japan, the Beautiful and Myself'. A moment ago I touched upon the 'vagueness'
of the title and content of Kawabata's lecture. 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'.
My observation is that after one hundred and twenty years of modernisation since
the opening of the country, present-day Japan is split between two opposite poles
of ambiguity. I too am living as a writer with this polarisation imprinted on
me like a deep scar.
This ambiguity which is so powerful and penetrating that it splits both the state
and its people is evident in various ways. The modernisation of Japan has been
orientated toward learning from and imitating the West. Yet Japan is situated
in Asia and has firmly maintained its traditional culture. The ambiguous orientation
of Japan drove the country into the position of an invader in Asia. On the other
hand, the culture of modern Japan, which implied being thoroughly open to the
West or at least that impeded understanding by the West. What was more, Japan
was driven into isolation from other Asian countries, not only politically but
also socially and culturally.
In the history of modern Japan literature the writers most sincere and aware of
their mission were those 'post-war writers' who came onto the literary scene immediately
after the last War, deeply wounded by the catastrophe yet full of hope for a rebirth.
They tried with great pains to make up for the inhuman atrocities committed by
Japanese military forces in Asian countries, as well as to bridge the profound
gaps that existed not only between the developed countries of the West and Japan
but also between African and Latin American countries and Japan. Only by doing
so did they think that they could seek with some humility reconcialiation with
the rest of the world. It has always been my aspiration to cling to the very end
of the line of that literary tradition inherited from those writers.
The contemporary state of Japan and its people in their post - modern phase cannot
but be ambivalent. Right in the middle of the history of Japan's modernisation
came the Second World War, a war which was brought about by the very aberration
of the modernisation itself. The defeat in this War fifty years ago occasioned
an opportunity for Japan and the Japanese as the very agent of the War to attempt
a rebirth out of the great misery and sufferings that were depicted by the 'Post-war
School' of Japanese writers. The moral props for Japanese aspiring to such a rebirth
were the idea of democracy and their determination never to wage a war again.
Paradoxically, the people and state of Japan living on such moral props were not
innocent but had been stained by their own past history of invading other Asian
countries. Those moral props mattered also to the deceased victims of the nuclear
weapons that were used for the first time in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and for the
survivors and their off-spring affected by radioactivity (including tens of thousands
of those whose mother tongue is Korean).
In the recent years there have been criticisms levelled against Japan suggesting
that she should offer more military forces to the United Nations forces and thereby play a more active
role in the keeping and restoration of peace in various parts of the world. Our
heart sinks whenever we hear these criticisms. 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.
It is not difficult for me as a writer to imagine what would be the outcome of
The pre-war Japanese Constitution that posited an absolute power transcending
the principle of democracy had sustained some support from the populace. Even
though we now have the half-century-old new Constitution, there is a popular sentiment
of support for the old one that lives on in reality in some quarters. If Japan
were to institutionalise a principle other than the one to which we have adhered
for the last fifty years, the determination we made in the post-war ruins of our
collapsed effort at modernisation - that determination of ours to establish the
concept of universal humanity would come to nothing. This is the spectre that
rises before me, speaking as an ordinary individual.
What I call Japan's 'ambiguity' in my lecture is a kind of chronic disease that
has been prevalent throughout the modern age. Japan's economic prosperity is not
free from it either, accompanied as it is by all kinds of potential dangers in
the light of the structure of world economy and environmental conservation. The
'ambiguity' in this respect seems to be accelerating. It may be more obvious to
the critical eyes of the world at large than to us within the country. 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. What kind of identity as a
Japanese should I seek? W.H. Auden once defined the novelist as follows:
. . ., among the dust
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.
(The Novelist, 11-14)
This is what has become my 'habit of life' (in Flannery O'Connor's words) through
being a writer as my profession.
To define a desirable Japanese identity I would like to pick out the word 'decent'
which is among the adjectives that George Orwell often used, along with words
like 'humane', 'sane' and 'comely', for the character types that he favoured.
This deceptively simple epithet may starkly set off and contrast with the word
'ambiguous' used for my identification in 'Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself'.
There is a wide and ironical discrepancy between what the Japanese seem like when
viewed from outside and what they wish to look like.
I hope Orwell would not raise an objection if I used the word 'decent' as a synonym
of 'humanist' or 'humaniste' in French, because both words share in common qualities
such as tolerance and humanity. Among our ancestors were some pioneers who made
painstaking efforts to build up the Japanese identity as 'decent' or 'humanist'.
One such person was the late Professor Kazuo Watanabe, a scholar of French Renaissance
literature and thought. Surrounded by the insane ardour of patriotism on the eve
and in the middle of the Second World War, Watanabe had a lonely dream of grafting
the humanist view of man on to the traditional Japanese sense of beauty and sensitivity
to Nature, which fortunately had not been entirely eradicated. I must hasten to
add that Professor Watanabe had a conception of beauty and Nature different from
that conceived of by Kawabata in his 'Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. '
The way Japan had tried to build up a modern state modelled on the West was cataclysmic.
In ways different from, yet partly corresponding to, that process Japanese intellectuals
had tried to bridge the gap between the West and their own country at its deepest
level. It must have been a laborious task or travail but it was also one
that brimmed with joy. Professor Watanabe's study of François Rabelais
was thus one of the most distinguished and rewarding scholarly achievements of
the Japanese intellectual world.
Watanabe studied in Paris before the Second World War. When he told his academic
supervisor about his ambition to translate Rabelais into Japanese, the eminent
elderly French scholar answered the aspiring young Japanese student with the phrase:
"L'entreprise inouie de la traduction de l'intraduisible Rabelais" (the unprecedented
enterprise of translating into Japanese untranslatable Rabelais). Another French
scholar answered with blunt astonishment: "Belle entreprise Pantagruélique"
(an admirably Pantagruel-like enterprise). In spite of all this not only did Watanabe
accomplish his great enterprise in a poverty- stricken environment during the
War and the American Occupation, but he also did his best to transplant into the
confused and disorientated Japan of that time the life and thought of those French
humanists who were the forerunners, contemporaries and followers of François
In both my life and writing I have been a pupil of Professor Watanabe's. I was
influenced by him in two crucial ways. One was in my method of writing novels.
I learnt concretely from his translation of Rabelais what Mikhail Bakhtin formulated
as 'the image system of grotesque realism or the culture of popular laughter';
the importance of material and physical principles; the correspondence between
the cosmic, social and physical elements; the overlapping of death and passions
for rebirth; and the laughter that subverts hierarchical relationships.
The image system made it possible to seek literary methods of attaining the universal
for someone like me born and brought up in a peripheral, marginal, off-centre
region of the peripheral, marginal, off-centre country, Japan. Starting from such
a background I do not represent Asia as a new economic power but an Asia impregnated
with ever-lasting poverty and a mixedup fertility. By sharing old, familiar yet
living metaphors I align myself with writers like Kim Ji-ha of Korea, Chon I and
Mu Jen, both of China. For me the brotherhood of world literature consists in
such relationships in concrete terms. I once took part in a hunger strike for
the political freedom of a gifted Korean poet. I am now deeply worried about the
destiny of those gifted Chinese novelists who have been deprived of their freedom
since the Tienanmen Square incident.
Another way in which Professor Watanabe has influenced me is in his idea of humanism.
I take it to be the quintessence of Europe as a living totality. It is an idea
which is also perceptible in Milan Kundera's definition of the spirit of the novel.
Based on his accurate reading of historical sources Watanabe wrote critical biographies,
with Rabelais at their centre, of people from Erasmus to Sébastien Castellion,
and of women connected with Henri IV from Queen Marguerite to Gabrielle Destré.
By doing so Watanabe intended to teach the Japanese about humanism, about the
importance of tolerance, about man's vulnerability to his preconceptions or machines
of his own making. His sincerity led him to quote the remark by the Danish philologist
Kristoffer Nyrop: "Those who do not protest against war are accomplices of war."
In his attempt to transplant into Japan humanism as the very basis of Western
thought Watanabe was bravely venturing on both "I'entreprise inouie" and the "belle
As someone influenced by Watanabe's humanism I wish my task as a novelist to enable
both those who express themselves with words and their readers to recover from
their own sufferings and the sufferings of their time, and to cure their souls
of the wounds. I have said I am split between the opposite poles of ambiguity
characteristic of the Japanese. I have been making efforts to be cured of and
restored from those pains and wounds by means of literature. I have made my efforts
also to pray for the cure and recovery off my fellow Japanese.
If you will allow me to mention him again, 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 nocere - 'hurt',
that is, 'not to hurt'. Hikari's music was in this sense a natural effusion of
the composer's own innocence.
As Hikari went on to compose more works, I could not but hear in his music also
'the voice of a cying and dark soul'. Mentally handicapped as he was, his strenuous
effort furnished his act of composing or his 'habit of life' with the growth of
compositional techniques and a deepening of his conception. That in turn enabled
him to discover in the depth of his heart a mass of dark sorrow which he had hitherto
been unable to identify with words.
'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
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
Prix Nobel 1994.
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