Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Trouble in the Pagoda

Kawabata Yasunari (1968)
Click here for acceptance speech.

Oe Kenzaburo (1994)
Click here for acceptance speech.

Both of these Japanese gentlemen won the Nobel Prize for Literature. These are the ONLY two Japanese writers to have won the prize in its century long history, spaced about a quarter century apart, and both of them made carefully-crafted speeches which attempted to explain their rather isolated country, and their individual literary influences, to a benevolent but essentially disengaged (Western) audience.

This is interesting. It is particularly fascinating to note that the speeches are totally different in the world of feeling they portray.

Oe seems to be questioning Kawabata, or more accurately, Kawabata’s depiction of a Japanese sensibility based upon a centuries old Zen aesthetic. This was obviously not in accordance with Oe's more acerbic observations of modern Japan.

Kawabata was 69 when he received the prize in 1968. His formative years had been spent among artists and writers in the cosmopolitan Tokyo of the 1920s when Japan was going through its own version of the Jazz Age and was much more open to European artistic influences than it was to become in the narrowly nationalistic 1930s. Oe tells us he was about the same age as Yeats when he received his prize which would place him as a child of this feverish and misguided decade; indeed, he opens his speech with his memories of being a young boy sheltering in the woods of Shikoku during the final years of the Pacific War.

Both men's lives overlapped during different periods of one of the most traumatic centuries in Japanese history -- 1865 to 1965 -- and both turned their backs on what they perceived to be the insecurity and vulgarity of the wider society that surrounded them. Kawabata sought solace in a medieval Japan of poetry-writing monks and it is significant that he points out in his speech that his novel “Thousand Cranes” was an attack on modern practices, an ‘expression of doubt about and warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen’. Oe sought kindred spirits at home (Professor Kazuo Watanabe) and abroad (William Butler Yeats) and of course drew great inspirational strength from his handicapped son Hikari.

Both Kawabata and Oe felt unease about Japanese society and the position of the artist within it. In spite of the explicit condemnation contained in his speech Kawabata did, in the end, commit suicide. Artistic freedom is far stronger than consistency and Kawabata made use of his options; a surprising number of first-rank Japanese writers have done the same -- Akutugawa, Dazai, Mishima. Oe lives on but as an increasingly isolated and (presumably) more alienated figure.

Many contemporary Japanese have never heard of Oe Kenzaburo (my students, for example), much less read his works, even though Oe like Kawabata before him -- a generation-and-a-half apart -- are the only two Japanese writers to have won the supreme accolade of international literary recognition. Oe seems to politely disown Kawabata's interpretation of the uniqueness of Japanese sensibility; he feels that Kawabata is retreating to a world of the moon and cherry blossoms which serves as a false shield against the expression of elite male (samurai) aggression, just as much a feature of the enclosed society of medieval Japan as it was in the militaristic 1930s. Oe has his own demons to face, among them a horror of the useless and destructive War he remembers from his youth, and a sharp distaste for the rampant materialism that provided a new outlet for the male elite (samurai in business suits) in the first and second generations following the Defeat of 1945.

Oe dislikes and distrusts modern Japan which he feels is becoming a neon and plastic culture, superficial, with no depth of human understanding, and dangerously out of touch with its spiritual past. His enemies are the smooth and persuasive nationalist politicians who are playing (again) on the political gullibility of a confused and diffuse and disorganized electorate. The wildly popular Governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro,-- scion of a wealthy family, ex-bestselling novelist with a movie-star brother, media darling, purveyor of a provocative and plausible line of populist rhetoric -- personifies everything about the intellectual seduction of New Japan that Oe despises.