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Kenzaburo Oe, Japanese Nobel literature laureate, dies at 88

Novelist, peace activist also known as campaigner for pacifist constitution

Kenzaburo Oe (Photo by Akiyoshi Inoue)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature who was also known as a campaigner for the pacifist Constitution and against nuclear power, has died of old age, publisher Kodansha Ltd. said Monday. He was 88.    

One of the most celebrated authors in Japan in the post-World War II era, Oe spearheaded a civic movement calling for eliminating nuclear plants in his late 70s in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster triggered by a massive earthquake and tsunami.    

"To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima's (atomic bombing) victims," Oe wrote in an article for U.S. magazine The New Yorker, dated 10 days after the triple disaster.    

According to Kodansha, Oe died in the early hours of March 3, and his family has already held a funeral led by his wife, Yukari. The publisher said a memorial service will be held later.    

Born in 1935 in the western prefecture of Ehime, Oe debuted as a writer in 1957 while studying French literature at the University of Tokyo.    

He was awarded Japan's prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature the following year at age 23 for "The Catch," a short story about the capture of a black American airman in a Japanese village during the war.    

In 1994, he became the second Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, after Yasunari Kawabata. "With poetic force (Oe) creates an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today," said the Swedish Academy in awarding the prize.    

In the same year, he also made headlines by rejecting an Order of Culture from the Japanese government, saying he would "never in my lifetime or after accept an award from any state." The decision, he said, was down to his being a "postwar democrat" -- a mindset he felt was not compatible with the national award.    

The author gained critical acclaim worldwide, with many of his novels, including "The Silent Cry," translated into several languages.    

In making its decision, the Nobel committee gave high praise to Oe's novel, which they said fundamentally "deals with people's relationships with each other in a confusing world, in which knowledge, passions, dreams, ambitions and attitudes merge into each other."    

Oe penned several works reflecting his personal experience as the father of composer Hikari Oe, who was born with disabilities. Among them is his novel "A Personal Matter," published in 1964, in which he depicts a man struggling to come to terms with the birth of a brain-damaged son in a failing marriage.    

Semi-autobiographical fiction was a mainstay of Oe's works, with his later novels, including 2000's "The Changeling," featuring an aging novelist as the protagonist, and his 2009 novel, "Death by Water," exploring the death of his father.    

He also wrote reportage on the horrors of the war and nuclear weapons, "Hiroshima Notes" in 1965 and "Okinawa Notes" in 1970.    

Oe and the late literary critic Shuichi Kato, among others, founded an anti-war civic group, "Article 9 Association," in 2004, urging the government to retain the war-renouncing article of the Constitution.    

After the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Oe became the co-organizer of a campaign that collected signatures from millions of people demanding an end to nuclear power plants and took part in anti-nuclear power demonstrations attended by tens of thousands of people.    

In his 70s, Oe said he intended to continue living as a novelist until he died and that the aim of his life's "late work is to write grotesque novels that defy the present time and society."    

Novelist Fuminori Nakamura, who in 2010 received the now-discontinued Oe Kenzaburo award, said his death was "truly a loss to the whole world."    

"He was a writer who wrote deeply on people's inner lives, and his work was hugely impressive," he said.

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