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  • Drahtseilakte: Der junge Kenzaburō Ōe by Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit and Christoph Held
  • Asa-Bettina Wuthenow
Drahtseilakte: Der junge Kenzaburō Ōe. By Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit and Christoph Held. Munich: Iudicium Verlag, 2015. 293pages. Softcover €32.00.

This German-language volume on the early works of the Nobel Prize–winning author Ōe Kenzaburō (b. 1935), coauthored by Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit and Christoph Held, is a rare pearl among the latest publications on Japanese literature. The book provides a vast quantity of precious and little-known information about Ōe and the works he wrote in the years after World War II, up to the early 1960s. Its title, which translates roughly as Tightrope Walking: The Young Kenzaburō Ōe, reflects Ōe’s literary experiments of those years. Ōe himself has referred to those efforts as a sort of “tightrope walking,” where, as related in the book, he felt in constant danger of falling and breaking his neck (p. 11). The publication is divided into two numbered parts, followed by the landmark reprinting and translation of Ōe’s 1961 story Seiji shōnen shisu (A Political Boy Is Now Dead).

Part 1, written by Held, deals with three early narratives by Ōe published in 1958—Shiiku (The Catch), Miru mae ni tobe! (Jump Before Looking!), and Memushiri ko uchi (Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids). These works all focus on the problem of lost identity seen after World War II, a period of intellectual and moral crisis in which the Japanese mind, mired in ambivalence and insecurity, yearned in vain for ethical and [End Page 138] ideological certainty. As Hijiya-Kirschnereit states in the book’s foreword, these texts mirror the historical situation that gave birth to them while also critically reflecting the reasons for and consequences of the prevailing crisis, and they seek strategies for coping with feelings of growing absurdity and the loss of identity. Held concedes that ambivalence in postwar Japan concerning values did not provoke the “crisis of the subject,” but at the same time notes that it made possible the development of critical subjectivity. Thus, ambivalence becomes the motor of a new kind of littérature engagée.

The second part of the book, written by Hijiya-Kirschnereit, focuses on Seiji shōnen shisu. Published for the first time in the February 1961 edition of the literary monthly Bungakukai, this is the story of a seventeen-year-old right-wing fanatic, who in the name of the emperor, whom he reveres, assassinates a left-wing politician holding a speech. The protagonist and his action are modeled on the real-life Asanuma Incident (Asanuma jiken) of 12 October 1960, when a seventeen-year-old right-wing extremist fatally stabbed Asanuma Inejirō, leader of the Japan Socialist Party, with a Japanese wakizashi (short sword) while the politician was speaking in a televised debate in Tokyo. Asanuma, who was known for his fervent advocacy of socialism and his support for the Chinese Communist Party, was considered a persona non grata by Japan’s nationalists, and his violent death was shown in graphic detail on national television, causing public shock and widespread outrage. When Ōe published his fictionalized version, this as well caused public outrage. A number of social groups criticized his presentation of the incident, and right-wing radicals threatened Ōe as well as the editor of Bungakukai magazine. One reason for the reaction was undoubtedly offense taken at Ōe’s description of his young protagonist as a person whose ardent fervor for the revered emperor and political action on the emperor’s behalf are linked to sexual arousal and erotic satisfaction. Another reason might have been Ōe’s critical stance toward the authorities, the Japanese police, and the criminal justice system, and what he saw as hidden sympathies harbored by these establishment figures for right-wing nationalists—a stance apparent in his depiction of the courteous and obliging treatment showered on the young assassin in his story.

Because of the threats they received from nationalists, the editor published a lukewarm apologia, and Ōe withdrew his text from circulation. The February 1961 issue of Bungakukai either disappeared from archives and libraries or was left with the pages bearing Ōe’s text...


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