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The Cosmos and Humanity as a Healing Family


Minoru Kasai

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 family.1

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 bodies melted.

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 reality.3

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 affirms this:

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 cases.

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!’ to her.9

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.

Hikari’s recent 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 others.14

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 suffering?’

The perspective and experience of the culture of peace cannot be conceived of without a healing family.


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.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

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).

10. Ibid., pp.136-37.

11. Ibid., p.111.

12. Ibid., p.10.

13. Ibid., pp.139-41.

14. Ibid., pp.141-42.

15. Ibid., p.142.

16. Ibid., pp.142-43


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