Buffer zones

Oe Kenzaburo's marginal creatures

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared in
Japan Quarterly, 36(1), January-March 1989, pages 32-34

See also Unexpected muteness

Rendering unto both Caesar and God is part of the human condition (Matt. 22:2 1). No sentient being can go through life without encountering conflicts of interest between social and spiritual masters, but most people are able to calm the voices of censure and guilt by balancing these contentious elements vying for their loyalty. Some can salute two flags with absolutely no sense of disloyalty because they genuinely love both, or neither. Others suffer dilemmas when the rulers and deities that rival for their loyalty prove hopelessly incompatible.

Vulnerability to tugs of duty and conscience depends entirely on what kind of personality develops in the course of an individual's physical and mental growth. Some societies provide intellectual and interpersonal experiences that better prepare comparatively more individuals to both recognize and deal with the kinds of dilemmas that are apt to arise in people who straddle social borders. But all societies need people who are able to intermediate with those from other societies.

Japan is no different from other countries in its need for people who wittingly or incidentally help it to communicate or interface with the rest of the world. Japanese history is full of accounts of the successes and failures of emigrants and returnees, sojourners and immigrants, native and normative translators and interpreters, diplomats and traders, commoners and aristocrats, missionaries, soldiers, prostitutes, pirates, criminals, journalists, scholars and students-all of whom have done something, for better or worse, to bridge Japan with the rest of the world. Even during the isolationist Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Japan's osmotic membranes were alive with "marginal" people who helped transport culture to and from Japan.

Modem Japan makes extensive use of the kind of people that Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen called "buffers" in a recent article, "The Japan Problem" (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1986/87). Van Wolferen wrote, "Because it is impossible to extricate the [Japanese] state from the socioeconomic system [in Japan], monumental communication problems arise when foreign businessmen or government representatives at the higher levels attempt to negotiate with what they think are their Japanese counterparts."

In van Wolferen's view, the communication problem is exacerbated by the political use of cosmopolitan Japanese to smooth relations with resident foreign diplomats and businessmen. These human lubricants constitute "an intermediary community of English-speaking, 'internationalized' Japanese who absorb the shocks that an unpredictable outside world might deliver to their institutions." The "super buffers" get sent overseas to appease Japan's critics, and to "create the impression" that Japan is willing to cater to their wishes.

Though Japan's most conspicuous buffers seem to be well-adjusted people, some multilingual and multicultural Japanese show symptoms of the "marginal man" syndrome. A marginal man is a person with a dilemma or in a state of mental conflict arising from being in, or between, two or more groups. The term has been a part of the social science lexicon for more than 60 years, but the phenomenon it labels is as old as life.

Homer's aphorism that "God always pairs off Me with like" was a Noachian forerunner of the "birds of a feather" admonition that people are better off in the company of their own kind. All societies have warned members who would cross boundaries of race, caste, class, faith and politics that water and oil don't mix.

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling" is a parable about the identity crisis of a waterfowl that thinks itself a duck and suffers rejection by the other ducks until it discovers that it is a swan and belongs with other swans. The ugly duckling was not presented with the choice (or compelled) to change groups until it had grown up. If it had grown up emulating the other-ducks, then learning how to get along with swans would have required considerable adjustment, adaptation and accommodation--from an acquisition of swan language and behavior to a modification or suppression of its acquired duckness.

A more current example of facing and resolving marginality, or mental conflict, is revealed in a 1988 Japanese movie Bakayaroo! The film is divided into four vignettes, and the main character in each is a marginal person in the broadest sense of the term. There is a lower-class woman who tries to please a man with upper-class pretensions; an office woman who is torn between a protective father and an expecting lover; a humble taxi driver who must humor an assortment of customers who live in different worlds; and a Japanese businessman who tries to learn English and the social tricks he is told he will need to party with foreigners. When the businessman's sense of injured pride, both private and national, reaches its limit, he screams at a foreign executive to speak Japanese in Japan, and the executive, in Japanese, calls him "the kind of Japanese I've always wanted to meet."

Marginality is associated with individuals who live on the peripheries of different groups. Large, socially complex countries like Japan offer the individual many opportunities to be marginal-be one young or old, an ethnic majority or minority, someone with or without a medical or social handicap, an artist or an entrepreneur. People who live on the edges of one or more worlds are of special interest to writers, who themselves are usually marginal creatures.

Oe Kenzaburo is no exception. An astute observer of marginal worlds, he has all the traits of a liminal citizen in a changing Japan. Born in 1935 and raised in a Shikoku village, he was 10 years shy of being in the just-prewar-bred generation of novelists such as Abe Kobo (b. 1924) and Mishima Yukio (1925-1970). Oe was also 10 years ahead of being a postwar baby boomer, and so he got the heavier half of his precollege education during the occupation years. He studied French literature at University of Tokyo from 1954 to 1959.

It is no wonder that many of Oe's short stories, novels and essays deal with the human relics of the war. Many of his central characters live on the fringes of society. His stories and essays feature a menagerie of outsiders from mongrel dogs and whales to cadavers, cripples and all manner of aliens. Oe's own experiences as the father of a brain-damaged, autistic boy moved him to write Kojinteki na taiken (A Personal Matter), his most widely translated novel.

A progressive intellectual who criticizes the emperor system and extols Hiroshima, Okinawa and Vietnam as reasons to pursue peace, (Oe has used fiction to explore the emotional impact of World War II on all kinds of marginal people in Japan. His earliest stories seem to draw their vigor straight from his rural hamlet and urban campus, in prewar, wartime and postwar backgrounds. "Shiiku" (The Catch, translated by John Bester, Japan Quarterly January-March 1959), about how a village deals with a black American pilot whose plane has crashed, earned him the Akutagawa Prize for the first half of 1958.

In "Miru Mae ni Tobe" (Leap Before You Look), a short story inspired by W. H. Auden's poem of the same title, Oe's buffers are a politically impotent student and a prostitute. In "Fui no Oshi" (Unexpected Muteness), the borderline syndrome afflicts the Japanese interpreter, who is supposed to mediate between Japan and the outside world but is compromised by his own personality defects when he tries to ease a group of foreign soldiers through a mountain village.

"Fui no Oshi, "which was originally published in the September 1958 issue of the monthly magazine Shincho, is timeless. Based in the early postwar period, the story was published in the late 1950s, translated into Korean in 1964 and into German in 1975. Today, with Japan's increasing presence in world economics and politics, the importance of marginal people, and buffers, is once again on the rise. Oe's tale of an interpreter provides a subtle message about the precariousness of communication.

William Wetherall has a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, where he first translated Oe Kenzaburo's anthology, Leap Before You Look, including the story "Unexpected Muteness," which follows this introductory essay. One of his short stories, "The River," has appeared in Asiaweek.