|Born||March 6, 1909|
|Died||December 25, 1988 (aged 79)|
|Genres||novels, literary criticism, short stories, non-fiction|
|Notable work(s)||Fires on the Plain (1951)|
Shōhei Ōoka (大岡 昇平 Ōoka Shōhei?, 6 March 1909 – 25 December 1988) was a Japanese novelist, literary critic, and translator of French literature who was active during the Shōwa period of Japan. Ōoka belongs to the group of postwar writers whose World War II experiences at home and abroad figure prominently in their works. Over his lifetime, he contributed short stories and critical essays to almost every literary magazine in Japan.
Ōoka was born in the Magome Ward of Tokyo. His parents were from Wakayama prefecture, and his father was a stock broker. He graduated from Kyoto Imperial University School of Literature. Raised to study literature from early childhood, he mastered French while in high school. His parents also hired the famed literary critic Kobayashi Hideo to be his tutor. Under Kobayashi's instruction, be became acquainted with poet Nakahara Chuya, the critic Kawakami Tetsutaro, and other literary figures.
After graduation, Ōoka became a journalist with the Kokumin Shimbun, a pro-government newspaper, but quit after one year to devote himself to the study and translate the works of the French writer, Stendhal, and other European writers into Japanese. To support himself, he found a job in 1938 with a Franco-Japanese company based in Kobe as a translator.
However, in 1944, he was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, given only three months of rudimentary training and sent to the front line at Mindoro Island in the Philippines, where he served as his battalion's communications man until his battalion was routed and numerous men killed. In January 1945, he was captured by the American forces in the Philippine defeat and sent to a prisoner of war camp on Leyte Island. Survival was very traumatic for Ōoka, who was troubled that he, a middle-aged and unworthy soldier, had survived when so many others had not. He returned to Japan at the end of the year.
It was not until his repatriation after the war's end that Ōoka began his career as a writer. On the recommendation of his mentor Hideo Kobayashi, he published an autobiographical short-story of his experiences as a prisoner of war entitled Furyoki ("Taken Captive: A Japanese POW's Story", 1948), in separate parts between 1948 and 1951. Its publication, along with winning the Yokomitsu Prize in 1949, encouraged him to take up writing as a career.
His next work, Musashino Fujin, ("A Wife in Musashino", 1950), is a psychological novel patterned after the works of Stendhal.
His best-known novel, Nobi (Fires on the Plain, 1951), was also well received by critics, and won the prestigious Yomiuri Prize in 1951. Considered one of the most important novels of the postwar period, and based loosely on his own wartime experiences in the Philippines, Nobi explores the meaning of human existence through the struggle for survival of men who are driven by starvation to cannibalism. It was subsequently made into a prize-winning film by Ichikawa Kon in 1959.
In 1958, Ōoka veered from his usual subjects and produced Kaei ("The Shade of Blossoms", 1958-1959), depicting an aging naive nightclub hostess’ struggle and ultimate demise from the destructive forces of desire and wealth in the decadent 1950s Ginza. The setting had changed but the recurring themes had not. His characters were still adrift and struggling for survival in an inhospitable jungle. Kaei won the Shichosha Prize in 1961.
Along with translations and fiction, Ōoka also devoted himself to writing the critical biographies of Nakahara Chuya (which won the Noma Prize) and Tominaga Taro. From 1953 to 1954, he was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Yale University. He was also a lecturer on French literature at Meiji University in Tokyo.
In the late 1960s, Ōoka revisited the subject of the Pacific War and the Japanese defeat in the Philippines to produce one of his last books, the detailed historical novel Reite senki ("A Record of the Battle of Leyte"). He compiled and researched an enormous amount of information for three years in order to produce it. As with all his writing, it looks at war critically from the perspective of a person who, despite ethical reservations, was forced to serve.
Ōoka died in 1988 at the age of 79. His grave is at the Tama Reien in the outskirts of Tokyo.
- Ooka, Shohei. Fires on the Plain. Tuttle Publishing (2001). ISBN 0804813795.
- Ooka, Shohei. Taken Captive: A Japanese POW's Story. Wiley (1996). ISBN 0471142859.
- Ooka, Shohei. The Shade of Blossoms. University of Michigan Press (1998). ISBN 0939512874
- Ooka, Shohei. A Wife in Musashino. Center for Japanese Studies University of Michigan (2004). ISBN 1929280289.
- Stahl, David C. The Burdens of Survival: Ooka Shohei's Writings on the Pacific War. University of Hawai'i Press (2003). ISBN 0-8248-2540-3.