A recent publication A
Healing Family by Kenzaburo and Yukari Oe is a quiet best seller in
Japan. Kenzaburo Oe is a Nobel Prize winner in literature and Yukari is
his wife. A Healing Family is a collection of essays on their life
with Hikari, mentally handicapped because of brain damage, by Oe with
Yukari’s paintings of Hikari.
One of the basic tones of
the book is the utter pain, agony and groaning of Hikari, their first
child born. Oe’s despair is reflected in his novel A Personal Matter.
He himself gives the essence of the story.
A Personal Matter
is the story of a young man whose first child is born with a cranial
deformity. The work describes what might be called a rite of passage,
as the young father struggles to accept the infant as a member of his
The young father reflects
Oe’s despair to a great extent. He hoped the baby would die. Considering
all factors, he thought it would be the best solution. He was so much for
the idea of his baby’s death that he couldn’t wait for it to happen
and tried to find a doctor to help the baby die because of the misery to
be expected. He was also tempted to run away from the baby, after
divorcing his wife, to Africa with his former girl friend. He was utterly
egocentric, shaken to the bottom of his heart. However, he finally
overcame his confusion, pain, temptation and irresponsibility. Oe states
briefly the young father’s final position.
In the end the young
man experiences a kind of epiphany, realizing that abandoning the
child to die was tantamount to destroying himself.2
The actual turning point
for Oe to live with and for his baby came from his meeting and dialogue
with Dr Fumio Shigeto, the head of the hospital for the victims of the
Hiroshima atomic bomb. Dr Shigeto himself was a victim of the atomic bomb.
He was wounded by Pika Don, the murderous light of the bomb on 6 August
1945. But as a medical doctor, he worked day and night without returning
to his home for the first two weeks. Since then he has been a living
witness to the reality of the Hiroshima disaster: Heaven burnt red and
Dr Shigeto told Oe about a
young doctor working with him soon after the disaster. He was overwhelmed
by the futility of medical works for the dying victims. He wanted to
consult Dr Shigeto. But he could not wait for the occasion of thinking
together with Dr Shigeto. He committed suicide, hanging himself with the
rope tied to the support of the ceiling. Dr Shigeto regretted that he
could not spare his time for that young doctor because of the crying need
of the victims. He wanted to tell the young doctor before his final
decision, ‘Yes, helpless and powerless, but the patients are waiting for
us. Let’s just get on with it.’
Oe’s response to the
meeting with Dr Shigeto is reflected in the young father’s decision:
He sheds his
romanticism, parts with the girl friend who is bound for Africa, and
accepts the child, deciding in favour of a life-saving operation. His
decision is for reality: to build a family of reality, to live
Oe himself affirms this.
The baby with the
deformity was in reality my son, the fact of whose birth has
overshadowed my life and writing.4
Now, the question is, what
did he learn by ‘his decision for reality: to build a family on reality,
to live reality’? This question is regarding Oe’s understanding of
reality. As stated above, his eyes were opened to reality in his dialogue
with Dr Shigeto, a witness to Hiroshima, inexpressible, unbearable and
unbelievable. Therefore, it is not surprising that his understanding of
reality is intimately related to the victims of the Hiroshima tragedy.
Over the years, I have
often written on the theme of living with his (Hikari’s) mental
handicap, and this same theme also informs my writing on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. I have tried to define the meaning that the experience of
these two cities has for people in Japan and elsewhere, and I have
been involved in activities associated with what I have written of
this subject; but my fundamental perspective has always been that of
the parent of a handicapped child. This is the experience that
influences everything I write and everything I do.5
Yet, in spite of the
inseparable relation between Hikari and Hiroshima, the former is
fundamental and illuminates Oe’s understanding of the latter.
Thus, for example, my
realization that life with a mentally handicapped child has the power
to heal the wounds that family members inflict on one another led me
to the more recent insight that the victims and survivors of the
atomic bombs have the same sort of power to heal all of us who live in
this nuclear age.6
Accordingly, Hikari in the
family and the victims of the atomic bombs in society have a precious and
unique position for forming a healing family.
This thought seems
almost self-evident when one sees the survivors of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, by now frail and elderly, speaking up and taking an active
part in the movement to abolish all nuclear weapons.7
The healing power of the
suffering such as that of Hikari and of the victims of the atomic bombs
are vital in restoring the normal order, authentic and humane, of the
family and society. This is self-evident to Oe. The following statement
They (the victims and
survivors of the atomic bombs) are to me, the embodiment of a prayer
for the healing of our society, indeed the planet as a whole.8
Hikari is so mentally
handicapped that he can hardly communicate in words, but when he speaks,
he conveys something unforgettable though enigmatic. I will introduce two
Some time ago, the
whole family made a trip back to the village in the woods of Shikoku
where I was born. While we were there, Hikari spent a lot of time with
his grandmother, to whom he grew very attached. On the flight home,
however, I noticed that my daughter seemed upset about something, and
it eventually came out that Hikari was to blame. Apparently his rather
boisterous farewell to his grandmother had been: ‘Cheer up and have
a good death!’ ‘Right you are,’ she answered, ‘I will, but it’s
sad to have to say good-bye. . . .’
The point of this
story, though, is that some time after our visit she fell seriously
ill; fortunately she recovered, but she told my sister, who nursed
her, that while she was sick the thing that had most encouraged her to
go on fighting it, oddly enough, was Hikari’s farewell to her. She
remembered just how he had shouted ‘Cheer up and have a good death!’
Hikari seems to be an
extraordinarily sensitive person. I observed this on the TV screen and on
the video. Oe writes on this very vividly. The occasion was Hikari’s
first visit to the Atomic Bomb Peace Museum in Hiroshima.
As we were about to
enter a room featuring a model of the city immediately after the
blast, Hikari seemed terrified, more so than I had ever seen him
before. In the end I almost had to push him inside. After the tour, we
sat down by a window in the hallway, both feeling drained, but after a
while I pressed him for his impressions of what he’d just seen. ‘It
was all awful,’ he said quite forcefully without looking up, the
answer half a groan and half an indictment.10
Afterwards he composed some
music. Its title was ‘Hiroshima Requiem’. Hikari’s way to music was
open at the age of five as Oe reflects on it.
As I have often written
elsewhere, for the first four or five years of my son’s life he
never once uttered a coherent word, until one day he said ‘That’s
a water rail,’ which was something he had heard repeated on a record
of a hundred different bird calls we had given him. This first step on
the narrow road to communication led almost immediately to music.11
I noticed that he was
particularly responsive to birdsong, and rushed out to buy a record of
a hundred bird calls which I played for him with almost manic
frequency. This craze of mine was rewarded one day in the woods
surrounding our summer cottage when Hikari, who was five at the time,
in a voice that exactly mimicked the announcer on my record, suddenly
identified a bird: ‘That’s a water rail,’ he said in the solemn
tones of the voice-over — a short sentence that was, in fact, his
very first intelligible use of language to communicate with us.12
Hikari’s music reveals
his extraordinary sensitivity. Oe’s response to Hikari’s music touches
on this sensitivity. The following is an extract from Oe’s short talk at
the beginning of Hikari’s concert.
The person whose works
you will be hearing today is someone who has never cried; someone also
who may never have had a dream. . . . You will find, however, that
among the works included on his second CD is one called ‘Dream’, a
title he gave it himself.
The voice you hear in
this work for violin and piano is one we hadn’t heard before: a
voice I would describe as that of ‘a wailing soul’. . . . Where
does this unhappy voice come from? From deep inside him . . . that
much one knows for sure . . . and it can in fact be heard throughout
his new collection. . . . Hikari has no verbal means of describing
this experience, but it is safe to say that his exploration brought
him into contact with a solid core of sorrow that had collected in his
heart, and by cutting through it he released this other sound, the
voice of ‘a wailing soul’.13
Reaching out in that
darkness, ‘a solid core of sorrow that had collected in his heart’,
Hikari expresses the voice of ‘a wailing soul’. This has a healing
power, not only for Hikari himself but also for others who are sensitive
to the darkness of life with his son Hikari. It is a mystery of art.
music, particularly his ‘Dream’ and ‘Nocturnal Capriccio’,
reveals another truth as well: that in the very act of expressing
himself there is a healing power, a power to mend the heart. This
power, moreover, isn’t limited to him alone but extends to those
receptive to what he has to express. And this is the miracle of art.
For in the music or literature we create, though we come to know
despair — that dark night of the soul through which we have to pass
— we find that by actually giving it expression we can be healed and
know the joy of recovering: and as these linked experiences of pain
and recovery are added to one another, layer upon layer, not only is
the artist’s work enriched but its benefits are shared with
The mystery of art is very
much spiritual, being healed through expressing despair, the dark night of
the soul, being transformed through healing and sharing the joy of
recovery with others.
Oe sees prayers in Hikari’s
intensive concentration on music. In this regard, Simone Weil enlightened
Oe’s understanding very much.
Hikari may not be much
good with words, but where music is concerned he has a carefully
cultivated ability to concentrate, one that his mother and his
teachers have helped him develop but which he himself has also honed
by listening to recordings and the radio during almost every waking
hour for more than twenty years. The French philosopher Simone Weil
has written about this sort of concentration, asking what it is that
could link such apparently disparate experiences as ‘study’ and
‘the love of god’, and concluding that ‘the key is in the fact
that prayer is a matter of concentration. Prayer is the directing of
all the attention of which the soul is capable toward god’. And when
I see my son giving all his powers of attention to his music, I am
convinced that Weil was right.15
Thus, in this context,
music is prayer for Hikari.
Finally, music for Hikari
is care for others and response to it. Oe is very much enlightened by
Simone Weil in this aspect, too.
In the same passage,
she writes of one of the legends concerning the Holy Grail: it seems
that a certain knight, coming upon the gravely wounded king who was
the guardian of the Grail, greeted him with the question ‘In what
way are you suffering?’, and in that very choice of words revealed
himself as worthy of being the next bearer of the sacred vessel. In
the same way I feel the people who have most helped Hikari have
approached him with the same enquiry. Among them, for example, are the
performers in the concert you’re about to hear, each of whom,
moreover, has that same ability to concentrate on his or her own
discipline. And I feel that you in the audience, too, who have gone to
the trouble of coming here, are asking him as well, ‘In what way are
you suffering?’ And for each of you, my hope is that his music will
serve as an answer.16
‘In what way are you
suffering?’ This is again from Simone Weil. Hikari’s music itself is
also this legendary question. Thus, music reveals the cosmos and humanity
as a healing family.
A healing family is
sensitive to the voice from deep within our hearts, which is healing power
restoring the family and society of joy, prayers and cares. The suffering
such as the handicapped, the sick, the victims of violence are the life of
the family and of society. Cosmos and humanity is a healing family. Hikari
and Oe’s family and the prayers of the surviving victims of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki are the witnesses of a healing family. The mystery of art
reveals this reality.
There is still a bearer of
the legendary question, in the world of darkness, ‘In what way are you
The perspective and
experience of the culture of peace cannot be conceived of without a
1. Kenzaburo Oe, Japan,
the Ambiguous, and Myself, New York; Kodansha International, 1995,
pp.27-28 (hereafter referred to as Japan).
2. Japan, p. 28.
3. Ibid., pp. 28-29.
4. Ibid., pp. 33-34.
5. Ibid., p. 34.
8. Ibid., p. 35.
9. Kenzaburo Oe, A
Healing Family, illustrated by Yukari Oe, translated by Stephen
Snyder, New York: Kodansha International, 1996, pp. 87-88 (hereafter
referred to as A Healing Family).
11. Ibid., p.111.
12. Ibid., p.10.
15. Ibid., p.142.
16. Ibid., pp.142-43