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Left and right gang up on Japan's gentle man of letters

Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo reports on a row galvanising the bestseller list row that has hit the bestsellerbattle of war of words
"HE IS BASE. He is vulgar. He is ugly. He has no aesthetic sense. He is a glib, intellectual crook," declares Eiichi Tanizawa, former Honorary Professor at Kansai University. "We all know the word `opportunist'," writes the literary journalist, Katsuichi Honda, "and his life is a very good example of it. The life of an opportunist, coloured with meanness and arrogance."

Who is this disgraceful charlatan? It might be Ryutaro Hashimoto, Japan's oily Minister of Trade and Industry, who last week launched his campaign to become leader of the Liberal Democratic Party. It might even be Shoko Asahara, the quack doctor turned religious guru, who is charged with gassing 12 commuters on the Tokyo subway. But no. This egregious fake, who "looks down on all other Japanese, and insists that he is superior to everyone else" in the words of Professor Tanizawa, is none other than Kenzaburo Oe - the shy, gentlemanly novelist and essayist, who last year won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Japan's second ever.

Minced words are usually a way of life in Japan, but in the last couple of months the verbal daggers have been out for a man who, in the West, at least, is considered a paragon of oriental humanism and tolerance. This summer has seen the publication of two best-selling books, both of them examples of an increasingly popular pastime in Japanese intellectual circles: Oe-bashing.

Katsuichi Honda's The Life of Kenzaburo Oe is based on a series of long articles in Shukan Kinyobi, the radical weekly magazine which he edits. In six weeks, this methodical, balanced hatchet job of Oe's life and work has sold 20,000 copies. Tanizawa's book, Who Made Japan Like This?, is an altogether more emotional work. Since its publication on 16 July, it has enjoyed sales of 150,000 and has hovered close to the top of the bestseller charts.

Stripped of their blunt rhetoric, the two theses are remarkably similar: Oe, by their account, is a contradictory and hypocritical writer, who drifts wherever the intellectual wind blows him, and curries favour abroad by denigrating and insulting his mother country. But the most remarkable thing about the two books is the politics of their authors. Whereas Honda is a classic man of the left, a former reporter on the liberal Asahi newspaper and a Sixties radical, Tanizawa is an extreme nationalist and conservative. Occidental equivalents are hard to pin down, but it is rather as if Roger Scruton and Paul Foot became suddenly united in their loathing of Harold Pinter.

The Nobel laureate has always been an obvious target of right- wing criticism. Since his earliest books - the novel Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (about the brutal inhabitants of a remote village), and the essay collection Hiroshima Notes - Oe has pitilessly described the pressures and cruelties of Japanese society, particularly during wartime. His criticisms of the emperor system and Japan's military are a predictable cause of outrage to right-wingers like Tanizawa. But Who Made Japan Like This? makes a more serious accusation: that Oe tailors his remarks to suit his audience, and sounds off abroad in a way he would never get away with at home.

Tanizawa quotes a newspaper report of a speech the novelist gave in Washington: "Among Japanese conservatives, there are those who argue that the constitution was simply imposed upon us by the US, and that therefore we should improve it," said Oe. "My belief is that it was created by Americans who love democracy, and that we should all protect and treasure it." At this, Tanizawa reaches for his metaphorical sick-bag. "If Oe really believes this from the bottom of his heart, he should face the Japanese people and say so," he rages. "But within Japan, his courage deserts him. He uses hints and insinuations, and twisted sarcasm, in order to avoid being taken to task. When he faces a foreigner, though, his tongue loosens up. He denounces and accuses his own country in order to win the applause of other nations."

It is certainly true that like other Japanese intellectuals - the film makers Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima, for example - Oe is singled out for far greater attention abroad than within his own country. "There's a suspicion that, since he won the Nobel, there have been two Oes, the export model and the domestic version," says a young academic. "And he's such an institution now, that publishers are scared of offending him."

It is on this charge - of selling out to the Establishment he appears to scourge - that Katsuichi Honda's book focuses. During their youth, and the lively anti-American student movement of the Sixties, the two men were on the same side of the intellectual barricades. Oe's hero was Jean-Paul Sartre, and, like Honda, he spoke out against the Vietnam war and the US-Japan Security Treaty. But, as Honda points out, Sartre refused the Nobel Prize. Today, as Japan's senior literary intellectual, Oe writes regularly for the conservative journals whose views he once contested so vigorously.

"Oe co-operates openly with anti-Establishment groups and movements, in the form of donations and speaking engagements. But as a bestselling author, he also works for the stooges of the Establishment. He follows no logic. He tries to keep on warm terms with both sides," Honda writes.

Despite being squeezed between the dogmatic left and the nationalist right, Oe himself has remained calmly above the fray, secure in the knowledge that his latest novel, The Burning Green Tree, will outsell both his antagonists' books put together. And he has had a small revenge: the new book contains an ironic and unflattering portrait of a hyperactive Marxist journalist based, informed readers agree, on Katsuichi Honda himself.