Kenzaburo Oe “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself”

Kenzaburo Oe, “Japan, the Ambiguous, and Myself,” Gallimard, 1995.  BOOK REVIEW

Kenzaburo Oe Nobel Prize LiteratureThis book contains the speech by Kenzaburo Oe given on the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature 1994 and other essays that ask important questions of Japan and Japanese artists.

For the purpose of artists working together to incite Japan’s imagination on a new Japan, see the About section of this website.

What follows in this blog entry are thoughts and questions for Japanese artists and citizens that stem from Kenzaburo Oe’s book “Japan the Ambiguous, and Myself,” and from thinking about a new philosophy in face of crisis with Dr. Paul Briot.  All opinions are errors are mine.

The questions in this review concern the soul of Japan as defined by Murasaki shikibu (and not Japanese nationalists), the “ambiguity” of that soul and Japan’s capacity to use the March 11th disaster for fundamental change.

Reflection & Question 1:  Can we use March 11th to envision a Japan with the comprehension, sensitivity and imagination of Murasaki shikibu?

If I understand correctly Kenzaburo Oe’s book, “Japan, the ambiguous, and myself,”  in 1945 Japan did not utilize the crisis to define itself it a large humanist sense—in the same manner that the noted woman writer Murasaki shikibu, the author of “The Tale of Genji,” might have inspired us to do so by her work.

The soul of Japan, a term originally used by Murasaki shikibu, was instead utilized by Japanese nationalists during WWII as a vulgar slogan of war, and forgot its initial vast definition formulated by this great lady of Japanese literature.  Comprehension, sensitivity and imagination have not yet taken root in our world still today.  Is it not the moment now, one year after the March 11th crisis to accomplish what we Japanese did not know how to do in 1945?

Reflection & Question 2 :  If knowledge is critical to create a new Japan, is there a knowledge which stands above technology, efficiency or even the great classics of Chinese writings?

Kenzaburo Oe Nobel Prize LiteratureIn Kenzaburo Oe’s book , « Japan, the ambiguous, and myself, » he explains that without « knowledge,” the Japanese soul could not function.  He mentions that the Japanese have throughout history at times inspired themselves with a Chinese knowledge, and at times from a knowledge emanating from the West.  They have nevertheless not come any closer to their own soul as a result.

I agree, however, I wonder if the Japanese direction remains ambiguous in part, because we Japanese have not yet understood the definition of knowledge itself?

Is there not a knowledge that is above technology, above efficiency or even the great classics of Chinese writings?  I cannot help but wonder if the definition we are looking for is not simply a comprehension or knowledge of ourselves and the meaning of life.  A basic knowledge:  that the Japanese and all human beings share a common humanity and a recognition that we Japanese must act with full understanding of this knowledge.

Reflection and Question 3:   What is the nature of a “Japanese soul”?

Murasaki shikibuMurasaki shikibu spoke of a Japanese soul to designate a Japanese specificity or something common to the Japanese.  In effect, although nations can be considered fictions or constructions of man and history, they each have their own energy or creativity; an imagination inspired by a collection of individuals.  Each nation has its own specificity, which needs not be eliminated nor made to resemble all other people nor all other nations.  In this sense our specificity if kept both noble and tolerant is a strength to inspire and share freely with others.

Kenzaburo Oe in this book says this well when he says that the understanding of a Japanese soul as defined by Murasaki shikibu has nothing fanatic or intolerant.  Rather it is both “gentle and human”; it comes from certitude of men capable of doubting.”  But we Japanese went astray.  During World War II those who tried to define a Japanese specificity contented themselves with the definition of a traditional culture whose center was the emperor.  No one could question such a sun, embodied by the emperor, and defined by the militarists themselves.

I cannot help but wonder if there was not a time in Japanese history where the sun itself was above even the Emperor?  The Emperor and most Japanese, agreeing that the sun is humanist, would encourage each of us to question a tolerant sun in full freedom.

And if the sun encourages us to question itself, if it embodies full freedom, who is anyone to speak for the sun or for each other?  I believe that Japan today is ready for a tolerant and humanist sun; its own “Hikari” a light capable both of inspiring, doubting and transforming.

Japan Heart of Sun

To envision a humanist sun, I would like here to quote and encourage artists to discuss and interpret artistic propositions by Paul Briot found in Le rayonnant…un art vers l’Infini…?   Here are two beautiful ones, there are of course many possible others.


A field of sunflowers, moving sculptures.  The flowers converse, look after one another, bow in all directions.  Eyelids of suns.  Us.

–Paul Briot, 2004, Editions Caractères, Collections : Cahiers & Cahiers


Noble suns move forward masked.  At rare intervals, their veils part, announcing radical changes.  Time, the intermittent revolutionary.

–Paul Briot, 2004, Editions Caractères, Collections : Cahiers & Cahiers

Reflection et Question 4 :  Will the healing power of art transform Japan from within?

In Kenzaburo Oe’s book, he states that he believes in the curious power of the healing of art.  His writing is art, an art that inspires.  In the letter Dr. Paul Briot and I have written entitled Letter to Japanese friends, we too think that art heals and transforms.  That is that art can share an experience which words cannot.   I have put on this site artistic propositions to encourage artists to interpret them and propose their own, ones that can be shared freely with all the Japanese.

My question to artists is how can artists inspire more comprehension, compassion, liberation, and realization through their art?  Can we the Japanese, with as strong tradition of inner art, create a radiant art that inspires and transforms as Dr. Paul Briot suggests?   In Kenzaburo Oe’s future novel, will such an imagination succeed in having us go out once again to see the stars?   When will we go out and experience this together?

Reflection and Question 5 :  Is there such a thing as a moral sun?

Natsume Soseki Kenzaburo Oe mentions Natsume Soseki’ book « And Then » written in 1909.  He tells us how Daisuke, the main character, evokes the difficulty of finding an equilibrium between a “vital desire” (such as the endless desire for the consumption of goods) and a “moral desire.”

In the novel, Daisuke believed that Japan could first grow by responding to its vital desire, an economy equivalent to that of the West, and only in this manner afterwards acquire a moral desire.  After 1945 this was the path taken by Japan, but today after the “accident” of Fukushima Kenzaburo Oe seems to suggest by his activism and words that we are indeed asking ourselves the same questions as 1945.

I think that we Japanese can exit from an ambiguous Japan and create a new one, and in so doing, come nearer to our own soul as described by Murasaki-shikibu.  For this to occur, one path may be for artists and citizens to experience this moral force through transformative art that lifts us far above March 11th.

How will Japanese artists help define the nature of a Japanese soul, as possibly intended by the great work of Murasaki shikibu?  How will the Japanese people experience such art and use this crisis to transform their country from within and inspire us all?

End Note

I read the book in French but comment and quote here in English.  All errors are mine.  I am not yet able to read the original texts in Japanese.  As such I remain limited, I ask to be corrected and quoted only in English to avoid any misunderstandings. Japanese themselves, with a knowledge far beyond mine, can engage in a more profound discussion.  Indeed, I have much to learn from many.