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Coming of Age During War

How do your childhood experiences shape your identity? For Japanese author and Nobel Laureate Oe Kenzaburo, World War II remains one of these memories and became a seminal part of his identity as an author. Oe was born in January 1935 in a small rural village in what is now Ehime prefecture on the island of Shikoku. He was the third son in a family of seven.

When World War II ended in August 1945, he writes of this moment as an “unbridgeable break” with the past. Not only did Oe’s father die during the war in the Pacific, but his nation’s surrender shattered his youthful innocence. He recalls his ethics teacher asking him one day at school before Japan’s surrender, “What would you do if the emperor asked you to die?” “I would die sir, I would cut open my belly and die,” Oe recalls dutifully replying.1

Years later in an essay titled “Growing Up During the Occupation” Oe Kenzaburo wrote of his coming of age at this moment in time and the dramatic impact the war had on his entire life:

When the war ended I was only ten years old, a grade-school boy in a mountain village, and I couldn’t understand what the Emperor was saying over the radio when he announced that we had surrendered. The grownups sat in front of the radio and cried. I watched them from the garden, which was bathed in strong summer sunlight. The room where the grownups sat crying was dark.

Soon I got bored and went out to play. As all the adults were inside, listening to the radio, there were only children on the village road. We gathered here and there in small groups and talked.

Not one of us knew exactly what had happened. We were most intrigued by the strange and somewhat disappointing fact that the Emperor had spoken in a human voice no different than any ordinary adult’s. None of us understood what he had been saying, but we had certainly heard his voice. One of my friends was even able to imitate it very cleverly. We surrounded him, a boy in grimy shorts who spoke in the Emperor’s voice, and we howled with laughter....

My present image of the Emperor bears no resemblance to the awe-inspiring figure I imagined when I was an indiscriminating schoolboy. I feel no particular affection for the Emperor himself or for the Imperial Household. My mother, on the other hand, if she were given the opportunity, would hurry to the great square in front of the palace to do reverence to the Emperor as though he were a god, and seems keenly interested in all the doings of the Imperial Household.

But this attitude is not unique with my mother: at least half of the Japanese people demonstrate a keen interest in the Imperial Court. The feel of deep esteem for the Emperor himself also seems to be general all over Japan....

I remember seeing a picture of some grade-school children parading and flag-waving in celebration of the Crown Prince’s betrothal. This crowd of young cheering faces was rather a shock for me.

What made those children parade the streets with banners in their hands? Was it the influence of their parents and teachers? Was it the Emperor worship that remains embedded in some recess ofthe Japanese consciousness? Or was it merely an innocent love of fun and parades?

As long as every Japanese is able to formulate for himself whatever image of the Emperor he pleases, the word symbol will denote something wholesome. But what if the power of journalism created that parade and set those voices cheering by forcing on the children some specific image of the Emperor?

Those grade-school boys and girls were wreathed in smiles, but when we were children, we passed before the Imperial portrait with frightened faces and bowed heads.2

Cover of January 1922 Japanese issue of Shonen Kurabu (Boy’s Club) showing a boy throwing a grenade.

Elementary school students in Tokyo, 1944 bayoneting bales of hay. During 1930s and 1940s, Japan's education system became a tool for inculcating unquestioning loyalty to the state.

Citations

  • 1 : John Rodden, “The Translator as Team Player: John Nathan,” in Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), 145.
  • 2 : Oe Kenzaburo, “Growing Up During the Occupation,” in of Japanese Tradition, ed. Wm. Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur L. Tiedemann, 2nd edition, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 1074-75.

Connection Questions

  1. What role does Ōe Kenzaburō suggest the emperor played in the lives of children of Ōe’s generation? What changed that? How did this experience shape the way people relate to the emperor today?
  2. Ōe writes that as a child he would have died for the emperor if so commanded. Where do leaders get their power? Have you ever looked up to a leader? How did they influence the choices you made?
  3. In the excerpt, how does Ōe describe the relationship between the emperor and the Japanese people? What does he suggest has changed since his youth? What has not changed?
  4. In many nations, symbols can be used to represent a nation’s beliefs or values. In Ōe Kenzaburō’s reflection, he emphasizes the importance of Japanese symbols at the end of the war. Reflect upon symbols in your nation or community. Why are these symbols important to your nation or community? What do they express?

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