Reading Ōe Kenzaburō's a political youth dies in the 21st century

Brett de Bary (Cornell University)
Modern Literature
Torre A, Piso -1, Auditório 001
Start time:
31 August, 2017 at 9:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

Upon publication of the first translation of Õe Kenzaburō's 1961 A Political Youth Dies (Seiji Shōnen Shisu) and its long-suppressed original (Hijiya-Kirschnereit/Held, 2015), the panel assesses implications of Õe's depiction of ultra-nationalism and the Shōwa Emperor for postwar Japan and today.

Long abstract:

The panel brings together distinguished scholars of Japanese intellectual history and literature on the occasion of a signal event: the 2015 publication of the first translation of Ōe Kenzaburō's 1961 A Political Youth Dies (Seiji Shōnen Shisu) and its long-suppressed original Japanese text. Ōe's fiction depicts the 17-year old perpetrator of the assassination of Socialist Party Chairman Asanuma Inejirō in the wake of the 1960 renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, an assassination sensationalized by being broadcast in its entirety on national television. A striking feature of this text is Ōe's decision to present its narration from the perspective of the protagonist, a young terrorist. On the one hand, the reprisals Ōe immediately faced for this portrait of an "ultra-nationalist," and his reluctance to allow the work to be reprinted, constitute an understudied chapter of Japanese postwar cultural history. At the same time, seeming ambivalences in the text's depiction of the seductive power of ultra-nationalism pose critical challenges that remain to be taken up today. What construction of politics and sexuality informs Ōe's risky decision to represent the subjectivity of the terrorist (and by extension his sexuality), and how might this be related to the figure of the emperor in this text? How might attention to this novella re-orient our understanding of Ōe's oeuvre, leading to a new understanding of the centrality of the Shōwa Emperor (and Rescript Ending the War) in its historical schemata? How might signs of American mass culture (television, popular music) in the text call attention to an often-disavowed complicity between "right-wing" and "democratic" ideologies under the Cold War order in Japan? Finally, what bearing does the text's depiction of what it calls "ultra-nationalism" have for our understanding of forms of fascist politics existing in Japan, then and now? In the spirit of Walter Benjamin's invocation of the "memory that flashes up in a moment of danger" --- and his understanding of translation as transformative for both the original and its "after-life" --- we ask how the present moment casts a new light on A Political Youth Dies, and what perspectives this long buried text offers on the Japanese and, global, political moment today.