Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2016

Death by Water (2009), by Kenzaburo Oe, translated by Deborah Boliver Boehm

Death by WaterDeath by Water – perhaps the last novel by Nobel Laureate Kenzabure Oe – is a fascinating book.  A book to provoke both conversation and consternation, offering insights from the personal to the political.

The narrator Kogito Choko is an ageing author, reflecting on his life as a writer, and facing not only his own mortality but also the slow death of his books in the modern age.  As the parent of Akari, a disabled child, he must ensure this son’s care into the future as well.  While the women of this novel are demanding change in gender relations, it remains his responsibility to manage transition for the most vulnerable one in his family.

Kogito is surrounded by people who have overcome the stereotypical Japanese reserve in order to tell him bluntly what his failings are.  This character shares with the author the distinction of winning that big international prize i.e. the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his unabashed critics include his wife Chikashi, his younger sister Asa who invokes his dead mother’s criticisms as well, and an entire chorus of young people who want to use his books for their own purposes – but haven’t necessarily read them.  His family is empowered to say what they think because, to their dismay and embarrassment, he has mined their lives and their history for his books; and the young actors are empowered to transgress because they don’t share the psychological and behavioural boundaries of the past.  As Asa says, with envy for their outspokenness:

I’ve noticed young women nowadays don’t appear to have any regrets about anything, or any awareness of the possibility that their present actions might be sowing the seeds for future regrets.  That’s perfectly natural, of course, since they probably haven’t had time to do anything they regret.  They seem to feel  completely fine about everything: clean and true and pure of heart. (p.83)

There is a universality about these indignities of old age which even a Nobel Laureate cannot evade…

Mindful of his legacy and wary of writing a work not up to his previous standards, Kogito intends to write just one last book.  He feels that he is ready now to fulfil his long-held ambition of writing a book about his father, who drowned in a river in mysterious circumstances when Kogito was a boy of ten.  His sister Asa is ready now too, to provide him with long withheld materials that he needs: the contents of a red leather trunk that was retrieved from the river after his father’s body was found.  Asa takes ill-concealed pleasure in revealing a painful and humiliating history that accompanies this red leather trunk: there is no doubt that she is asserting control over his life in more ways than one, and is aided and abetted in this by his wife and daughter.  One incident after another demotes Kogito in importance.  There’s no veneration of the elderly for him!

Events conspire to alienate him from his family, physically and emotionally.  Since the novel is narrated from Kogito’s point-of-view, supplemented by epistolary sections and long declamatory speeches from the other characters, the reader must weigh the evidence: is Kogito a passive-aggressive egoist suppressing the arrogance he’s accused of? Is he an old chauvinist having trouble adjusting to the loss of privilege when more assertive women challenge the mores of a traditionally gendered society?   Or is he what he purports to be, a humbled recipient of all this unwelcome advice, an acquiescent man who just wants to drift into a quiet life in his old age?  What does it mean when – as token adviser to the creatives who develop a play based on his autobiographical books – he is relegated to the back seats, well away from the VIPS who attend the dress rehearsal?

For those of us with scanty knowledge of Japanese history and culture, the political issues that unravel in the course of the story are intriguing.   Most of us know that the Japanese conquest of southeast Asia was the product of an authoritarian militaristic government with a god-emperor on the throne.  Most of us know that during the post-war Occupation, the American victors of that war systematically demolished that culture and instilled democratic institutions and values in its place.  Some of us also know that Japanese ‘reticence’ about aspects of its wartime history and its role as a buffer between communist states and the west has led not only to suppression of embarrassing discussion about war crimes, but also to denial of compensation, for example, for the sexual enslavement of the ‘comfort women’.  Oe, through his alter-ego Kogito, explores the duality that apparently persists in the Japanese soul.

So when Unaiko wants to stage a dramatic episode from Japan’s past that involves rape, there is opposition from right-wing elements in the community.  Unaiko is a forthright young actor with a painful past of her own, and she believes that telling this story to a school audience is an important statement about the treatment of women and her country’s attitude to it:

The dramatic axis of my play will be the ordeals of Meisuke’s mother, the woman warrior, but I’m envisioning a larger story as well: a narrative that would illuminate Japan’s historical conduct with regard to rape and abortion through this new performance piece. (p.373).

The older nationalistic generation in her community is equally determined that she will not raise these awkward issues for the next generation – and they take quite remarkable steps to prevent it…

Oe also presents the way the personal is entwined with the political in Kogito’s quest to learn the truth about his father.  He was ten when his father drowned, and the boy was present at the scene.  He needs to believe that his father was a hero.  But in a country determined to absolve its past by adhering to new democratic and anti-militaristic values, is there a place for heroes who fought a losing war of brutal conquest?  In the West there is some ambivalence about the role of WW2 bomb squadrons and the ethics of the scientists who developed the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there is general agreement about the morality of fighting a war against aggressors, especially those who do not abide by the conventions of war (whatever that may mean).  But in Japan as in Germany, even a visit to a war graves cemetery is fraught with diplomatic complexities and Unaiko’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine is emblematic of the fraught response to right-wing nationalistic political views held by people like Unaiko’s aunt.  Kogito’s father might, or might not have been involved in an insurrection against the war-mongering god-emperor.  If this god-emperor loses his moral authority by leading his country to an immoral war, could such an insurrection perhaps be heroic? What about preventing such an insurrection?  Could that be heroic?  In our culture, military heroism has gone into overdrive in recent years, but although the story of Kogito’s father is resolved in bathos, Death by Water still asks the question: what kind of war heroes can or should be venerated in modern Japan?

In a previous post I noticed the parallels between Kogito’s authorial dilemmas and the methods by which Oe himself has resolved them:

… I needed to find a way to incorporate bits of history and folklore into the narrative, one by one, without fretting about realism or verisimilitude.  At the same time I was trying to layer brief vignettes throughout the story. (p. 114)

Somewhat to my dismay, I found myself confronted by a lack of familiarity with Japanese culture and history.  However what I found as I read on was that – perhaps with an eye on Western readers? – Oe explains much of what I needed to know anyway.  He manages this by having the creatives explain at length the reasoning and the context of various dramatic choices, and their sources.   Which worked fine for me, though I wondered if the length some of these explanations  might be tedious for those already ‘in the know’.

Occasionally the translation is clunky, and some of the Americanisms seem inept:

  • I ended up playing a small role in implementing the plan, an assist from fate or happenstance. (p. 386)
  • Unaiko, especially, looked completely shell-shocked and tuckered out. (p.249)

But generally the formality and wordiness of the dialogue seems to be part of the author’s expressed intention not to worry about realism or verisimilitude. Some readers may not like that much, but I thought it was consistent with the way the character of Kogito was portrayed, and it kept the focus firmly on the issues.

Visit Tony’s Reading List for another review (but beware, there are a couple of spoilers, though this is not a book to read for its plot), and Stu’s at Winston’s Dad where he discusses writer’s block after winning a major award, something I had overlooked entirely in my review.

See also a bunch of other reviews at The Complete Review.

Author: Kenzaburo Oe
Title: Death by Water
Translated from the Japanese by Deborah Boliver Boehm
Publisher: Atlantic Books, 2015, first published 2009
ISBN:9780857895455 (hbk, RRP $39.99)
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: Death by Water


  1. Do you think Kogito is signficant, as in Cogito ergo sum? Anyway, great review, I like the idea of lots of issues and not much plot. Perhaps as you read every Miles Franklin winner, I should aim to read one by every Nobel laureate.


    • Cogito? Could be, it’s tempting, but you’d need to ask someone who knows Japanese names. That’s the sort of detail that escapes me altogether.
      Every Nobel laureate? Even the poets?


    • I wouldn’t be surprised if that was intentional. The book makes explicit reference to other non-Japanese works – Edward Said, T S Eliot etc. There’s a bit where the narrator reflects on his own earller mistranslation of Eliot’s ‘These fragments I have shored up against my ruins’


      • Those details escape me now, but I still have the book and might well read it again one of these days.


  2. At the start of the book, I found the emphasis on dialogue a little tedious, but as the book progressed I got used to it, and I think it worked very well. It’s definitely a book that grows on you, with the central theme of a feminist look at Japanese history almost creeping up on the reader unexpectedly…


    • Is that a theme in his other books too?


      • No, at least not in the others I’ve read. Having said that, those were all fairly early works, so I’m not sure about his later stuff (very little of which has been translated into English…).


        • Well, I guess, that’s the measure of a great writer, that they keep doing something new….


  3. I felt this was so much about how his life may be viewed later on he is such an autobiographical writer


  4. I have an enormous passion for Japanese literature, and yet I found myself wrestling with this one. I liked it, overall, but it wasn’t an easy read for me by any means. Yet, it is unforgettable in its complexity and the beauty of his writing. I am especially touched by the father’s relationship with his son, Akari. That part was the most special part of the whole book, to me, with the thought about what do we leave our children…what have our parents left for us? Are we preparing the way to “go to the forest”? Lots of stuff to think about.

    (My review is here in case you’d like to add it to your list:


    • Thanks, I’ve added the link:)
      I agree, I found challenging to read too, but now at a distance of a couple of months I have good memories of reading this book. I think the interesting differences between the collected reviews here points to the richness and complexity of the work, which is for me the value of literary fiction.
      Sometimes the Nobel judges really do get it right!


  5. I love your take on the book, Lisa, and the comments thread is fascinating. It seems that it’s a book that can presents itself very differently to different readers. I’m tempted to read it again, but not yet. Maybe I should read some of his earlier ‘I’ books first.


    • I love it when well-read readers contribute to my understanding of a book like this. It was reading outside my comfort zone because I haven’t read much J-lit (and haven’t much liked what I have read) so there’s a lot for me to learn about an author like this.
      I think the reason I liked this one so much was because it was longer, and that enabled the author to cover a lot more ground. Most of what I’ve read by other authors has been more like novellas, perhaps because they’re shorter and cheaper to translate. (The exception to that is Murakami who I didn’t get on with at all. Just today, I sighted a couple of his on the TBR and pondered turfing them because I suspect that I will never want to read them).


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