Zen, the atom bomb and two types of Japanese ambiguity

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The Independent Online
Tokyo - Last Wednesday, Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese novelist who won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, delivered his acceptance speech at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm. It was where, 25 years before, Yasunari Kawabata, the only other Japan ese writer to have become a Nobel laureate, had given his speech. interestingly, both writers used the occasion to talk mostly about Japan and its culture, rather than their own works.

The pictures they offer - one full of melancholy and nostalgia, the other riven with self-doubt for the future, are strangely complementary, forming a Janus head of tortured self-image, a questioning of identity. Japan proclaims itself unique and homogenous to outsiders, a cosy family symbolically descended from one sun goddess. But here are two eminent novelists unable to extract themselves from an "ambiguity" according to Oe, "which is so powerful and penetrating that it splits the state and people."

Kawabata, born in 1899, grew up as Japan was rapidly developing its economy by detailed study of the West - and hard work. Initially, Japan was admirably successful, but industrial prowess veered into military adventurism, and the first great Asian miracle of the 20th century ended in ruins. After the war was lost, Kawabata said he could only write "elegies". It was as if Japan had played with a dangerous toy by adopting Western technology, and had been badly hurt.

Although Kawabata's first subject in university had been English literature, and he had read European novelists, his Nobel address, titled: "Japan the Beautiful and Myself", made no reference to Western influences on Japanese art. Instead he sought refuge in Japanese history, quoting 12th century Zen poets, to illustrate the"deep quiet of the Japanese spirit". The defining moment in his speech was a Zen monk praying by moonlight Truth, said the author being honoured for his writing, lies" in the discarding of words."

Oe was less elusive. Born in 1935, his childhood was dominated by memories of the war. His defining moment was not meditationunder a moon, but the dropping of the atomic bomb. His concerns are more down to earth: his life has been particularly marked by the birth of a handicapped son, who has difficulty speaking but is a gifted musician. His books do not drift along on vague emotional undercurrents, but deal with concrete human dilemmas.

Oe spoke sternly of what he called "the monstrous development of technology and transport" dominating Japan's output. But he also spoke in a positive tone of Japan's relations with Asia and of his concerns for fellow writers in China deprived of their freedom.

Much has changed in Japan in the quarter of a century between Kawabata's and Oe's speech. Per capita,the Japanese are now the richest people in the world. Tokyo and the other big cities are becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, one tenth of the population travels overseas every year for holiday or business, and the flood of foreign words into vernacular Japanese sometimes makes the language sound like a pidgin English dialect.

But underneath this "opening" to the world, Japan is still a very inward-looking country: in many ways it is the most truly"foreign" of all countries in the world. Oe called his speech:"Japan, the Ambiguous and Myself". As a token of the trend towards internationalisation, Oe spoke in English, while Kawabata spoke in Japanese. But the"ambiguity" he attributed to Japan makes the country no easier to grasp than the seeming contradictions of Kawabata's Zen anecdotes. "The modernisation of Japan has been oriented toward learning from and imitating the West," said Mr Oe. " Yet Japan is situated in Asia and has firmly maintained its traditional culture."

"Nor is the ambiguity as simple as being torn between East and West: earlier this century it fuelled Japan's invasion of Asia, and even today, Tokyo is unsure of its position in Asia, particularly in regard to China. Oe referred to " anxiety about the ominous consequence emerging out of the present prosperity".

The height of Japanese beauty, said Kawabata, was a long spray of wisteria shown off by a 10th century poet," suggesting softness, gentleness, reticence." Oe preferred to talk about humanism:" the importance of tolerance, man's vulnerability to his preconceptions or machines of his own making." Kawabata committed suicide three years after receiving the Nobel Prize at the age of 73. Oe, at 59, has said he will write no more novels. Lonesome, troubled voices against the background of Japan's deafening economic whirring.