A Japanese writer in the periferia: Kenzaburō Ōe in Mexico

Mina-san, here is a brief report of my research on Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe during his trip to Mexico in 1976. Special thanks to my senpais, (Manuel Cisneros Castro) and Jordan Smith, and to everyone at Centro de Estudios de Asia y África – Colmex for the help and documents provided. My deepest gratitude also to The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research for its most generous contribution and for its genuine interest in developing the cultural links between Japan and Latin America.

A Japanese writer in the periferia

Kenzaburō Ōe traveled to Mexico in 1976 to give a course on Postwar Japanese literature at El Colegio de México, a most prestigious university in Mexico City which had recently opened one of the first research centers on Asian Studies in Latin America [1]. Aside from financial support by the Japan Foundation, the Mexican university accorded a payment of 1.206 US dollar for Ōe’s collaboration and lectures [Fig.1]. During his six-month stay, the Japanese met fellow literary figures such as Octavio Paz and Gabriel García Márquez, but also renowned scholars on Asian topics, such as Flora Botton Beja and Óscar Montes (who later translated him into Spanish) [Fig.2]. Ōe had also the chance of studying Latin American culture, the history of Aztec and Mayan ancient civilizations, the spreading of Christianity, and artistic movements that followed the Mexican Revolution, in particular, muralismo.

Ōe’s relationship with Mexico has been studied thoroughly by Ritsumeikan professor Manuel Cisneros Castro, perhaps the most well-versed researcher on the topic. From the Japanese side, authors like Jun Etō and Ozaki Mariko have analyzed and made reference to Ōe’s trip, though not in an exhaustive way. Ōe’s connections with Latin America were also studied within the English-speaking academia in works by Yasuko Claremont and Jordan Smith, among others. In my case, my research seeks to complement this ongoing tradition, while inserting Ōe in a wider framework that encloses the whole of the literary relationships between Japan and Latin America. This is, in fact, the ultimate goal of my doctoral dissertation, Another-Other. Images of Latin America in Japanese Literature.

 Ōe was born in the then-rural town of Ōse in Ehime and lost his father during the Pacific War. When he was 18 years old, he traveled to Tokyo to study French literature at Tokyo University under the mentorship of Kazuo Watanabe. A few years later, he was already writing fiction influenced by novels with political content. In 1960, the same year he married, Ōe traveled to China and met Mao Zedong. In 1961, he traveled to Europe and met Jean-Paul Sartre. Throughout the next decades, he continued along a path of political activism, not only through his literature but also by involving himself with pacifist and anti-nuclear campaigns and demonstrations.

 It was during the years of Ōe’s youth that Latin American studies were spreading around the world, mainly for the growing interest in the economic potential of the region and for its fresh cultural phenomena like the so-called Latin American literary boom, but also due to political events: specifically, the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The rise of a communist government in Cuba, together with its established counterparts in the USSR and China, was put into practice by Japanese scholars who advocated for anti-American nationalism and leftist factionalism, ideologies that sparked local activism like the Red Purge Protests during the 1950s and the ANPO and Anti-Vietnam Protests of the 60s and 70s. It was within this context of political upheaval that Ōe became a well-known writer and it is within this climate that his relationship with Latin America is better understood.

 During his stay in Mexico City, Ōe did leisurely walk around Mexico City and its most famous spots [Fig.3]. However, as he manifested in interviews and essays, he spent most of his time in his apartment, reading about Latin American history, politics and literature. Still, he also enjoyed the city’s nightlife, giving rise to an intense fascination with popular and low-class cultures. It was in a Mexican cantina that Ōe met writer Juan Rulfo while drinking tequila, it was in a bar downtown that he got into a fight and then kicked out of the place, and it was in a strip club that he got to show that also Japanese men could dance. Ōe has emphatically described these encounters, not only in interview and essays, but directly to his colleagues in Mexico, the United States, and Japan, many of who were interviewed for the current research.

After his trip to Mexico, Ōe wrote several works that depicted his stay, turning away from narrations centered on fictionalized accounts of the birth of his brain-damaged son.  Ōe’s Post-Mexican fiction depicting the Latin American country and its culture include the novel Dojidai gēmu (The Game of Contemporaneity, 1979), the stories ‘’Ame no ki’ no kubitsuri otoko’ (Man hanged from a Rain Tree, 1982) and ‘Mehiko no ōnukeana’ (1984), the epistolary novel Natsukashī toshi e no tegami: Mekishiko no dorīmutaimu (Letters to the Years of Nostalgia: Dreamtime in Mexico, 1987), and the novel Jinsei no shinseki (Life’s Parents, translated into English as An Echo of Heaven, 1989). In all of these, a trip to Mexico and the encounter with a new culture are the excuse that motivates the characters to reflect upon the Self and one’s own history and country.

Ultimately, this is the legacy that Ōe leaves us: that of a Japanese man-of-letters writing from the periferia, from the periphery. The self-understanding of his own economical and privileged situation as a Japanese didn’t stop him, however, from learning from Mexican and Latin American cultures, advocating for greater dialogue and exchange between regions. It is a path that contemporary writers such as Keiji Suga and Hoshino Tomoyuki have taken, one that will likely be developed in our necessarily global 21st Century.


OE 1


Letter of Omar Martínez Legorreta, director of the Center of Asian and North African Studies (CEAAN), confirming Kenzaburō Ōe’s invitation


OE 2


Kenzaburō Ōe with Flora Botton Beja and Octavio Paz in 1994 at El Colegio de México


OE 3


Kenzaburō Ōe at Mexico City’s El Zócalo, next to the archeological site Templo Mayor (main temple of the Mexica peoples)





Cisneros Casto, Manuel. “La influencia de México en la literatura de Ōe Kenzaburō” [The Influence of Mexico in the Literature of Kenzaburō Ōe]. In Press.

Claremont, Yasuko. The Novels of Ōe Kenzaburō. New York: Routledge. 2011.

Etō, Jun; Ōe, Kenzaburō 江藤淳; 大江健三郎. Etō jun and ōe kenzaburō: sengo nihon no seiji to bungaku 江藤淳と大江健三郎 : 戦後日本の政治と文学 [Etō Jun and Ōe Kenzaburō: Japanese Postwar Politics and Literature]. Tōkyō 東京: Chikuma Shobo筑摩書房. 2018.

Ōe Kenzaburō; Ozaki Mariko 大江健三郎; 尾崎真理子. Ōe kenzaburō sakka jishin wo kataru 大江健三郎作家自身を語る [Ōe Kenzaburō, the writer by himself]. Tokyo 東京: Shinchōsha 新潮社. 2013.

Smith, Jordan A.Y. “Eclipsing Mexico: Translationscapes of Ōe Kenzaburō”. In The Routledge Companion to World Literature and World History. May Hawas (ed.). New York: Routledge, 2018.


[1] The Section of Oriental Studies (in Spanish, Sección de Estudios Orientales or SEO) of the Center of International Studies was founded in 1964 and transformed into an independent center in 1968, renamed Center of Oriental Studies (in Spanish, Centro de Estudios Orientales, CEO). In 1974, following the impact of Edward Said’s theories, the center was renamed to Center of North African and Asian Studies (in Spanish, Centro de Estudios de Asia y África del Norte, CEAAN), only to be changed again in 1980 to simple Center of African and Asian Studies (CEAA).

[i] The documents and photographs presented in the current article were kindly lent to me by El Colegio de México’s faculty and staff during my field research of October 2019. I have to give special thanks to professors Flora Botton Beja, Satomi Miura, Amaury García Rodríguez and Guillermo Quartucci for their constant help and support.


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