Kōbō Abe

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Kōbō Abe
Kobo Abe novelist.jpg
Native name
安部 公房
BornAbe Kimifusa (安部 公房)
(1924-03-07)March 7, 1924 [1]
Kita, Tokyo, Japan
DiedJanuary 22, 1993(1993-01-22) (aged 68)
Tokyo, Japan
Genre Absurdist fiction, surrealism
Literary movement Modernism

Kōbō Abe (安部 公房, Abe Kōbō), pen name of Kimifusa Abe (安部 公房, Abe Kimifusa, March 7, 1924 – January 22, 1993), was a Japanese writer, playwright, musician, photographer and inventor. Abe has been often compared to Franz Kafka and Alberto Moravia for his modernist sensibilities and his surreal, often nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society. [2] [3]



Abe was born on March 7, 1924 [1] [4] in Kita, Tokyo, Japan and grew up in Mukden (now Shenyang) in Manchuria. [1] Abe's family was in Tokyo at the time due to his father's year of medical research in Tokyo. [5] His mother had been raised in Hokkaido, while he experienced childhood in Manchuria. This triplicate assignment of origin was influential to Abe, who told Nancy Shields in a 1978 interview, "I am essentially a man without a hometown. This may be what lies behind the 'hometown phobia' that runs in the depth of my feelings. All things that are valued for their stability offend me." [5] As a child, Abe was interested in insect-collecting, mathematics, and reading. His favorite authors were Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Edgar Allan Poe. [1]

Abe prepares gyoza Abe Kobo cooks jiaozi.JPG
Abe prepares gyōza

Abe returned to Japan briefly in April 1940 to study at Seijo High School, but a lung condition forced his return to Mukden, where he read Jaspers, Heidegger, Dostoyevsky, and Edmund Husserl. Abe began his studies at Tokyo Imperial University in 1943 to study medicine, partially out of respect for his father, but also because "[t]hose students who specialized in medicine were exempted from becoming soldiers. My friends who chose the humanities were killed in the war." [5] He returned to Manchuria around the end of World War II. [1] Specifically, Abe left the Tokyo University Medical School in October 1944, returning to his father's clinic in Mukden. [5] That winter, his father died of eruptive typhus. Returning to Tokyo with his father's ashes, Abe reentered the medical school. Abe started writing novellas and short stories during his last year in university. He graduated in 1948 with a medical degree, joking once that he was allowed to graduate only on the condition that he would not practice. [5]

In 1945 Abe married Machi Yamada, an artist and stage director, and the couple saw successes within their fields in similar time frames. [5] Initially, they lived in an old barracks within a bombed-out area of the city center. Abe sold pickles and charcoal on the street to pay their bills. The couple joined a number of artistic study groups, such as Yoru no Kai (Group of the Night or The Night Society) and Nihon Bungaku Gakko (Japanese Literary School)'.

As the postwar period progressed, Abe's stance as an intellectual pacifist led to his joining the Japanese Communist Party, with which he worked to organize laborers in poor parts of Tokyo. Soon after receiving the Akutagawa Prize in 1951, Abe began to feel the constraints of the Communist Party's rules and regulations alongside doubts about what meaningful artistic works could be created in the genre of "socialist realism." [5] By 1956, Abe began writing in solidarity with the Polish workers who were protesting against their Communist government, drawing the Communist Party's ire. The criticism reaffirmed his stance: "The Communist Party put pressure on me to change the content of the article and apologize. But I refused. I said I would never change my opinion on the matter. This was my first break with the Party." [5] :35 [lower-alpha 1] The next year, Abe traveled to Eastern Europe for the 20th Convention of the Soviet Communist Party. He saw little of interest there, but the arts gave him some solace. He visited Kafka's house in Prague, read Rilke and Karel Čapek, reflected on his idol Lu Xun, and was moved by a Mayakovsky play in Brno. [5]

The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 disgusted Abe. He attempted to leave the Communist Party, but resignations from the party were not accepted at the time. In 1960, he participated in the Anpo Protests against revision of the US-Japan Security Treaty as part of the pan-ideological Young Japan Society. [7] He later wrote a play about the protests, The Day the Stones Speak, which was staged several times in Japan and China in 1960 and 1961. [8] In the summer of 1961, Abe joined a group of other authors in criticizing the cultural policies of the Communist Party. He was forcibly expelled from the party the following year. [9] His political activity came to an end in 1967 in the form of a statement published by himself, his wife, Yasunari Kawabata, and Kenzaburō Ōe, protesting the treatment of writers, artists, and intellectuals in Communist China. [5]

His experiences in Manchuria were also deeply influential on his writing, imprinting terrors and fever dreams that became surrealist hallmarks of his works. In his recollections of Mukden, these markers are evident: "The fact is, it may not have been trash in the center of the marsh at all; it may have been crows. I do have a memory of thousands of crows flying up from the swamp at dusk, as if the surface of the swamp were being lifted up into the air." [5] The trash of the marsh was a truth of life, as were the crows, yet Abe's recollections of them tie them distinctively. Further experiences with the swamp centered around its use as a staking ground for condemned criminals with "[their] heads—now food for crows—appearing suddenly out of the darkness and disappearing again, terrified and attracted to us." These ideas are present in much of Abe's work.


Abe was first published as a poet in 1947 with Mumei-shishū ("Poems of an unknown poet"), which he paid for himself, [1] and as a novelist the following year with Owarishi michi no shirube ni ("The Road Sign at the End of the Street"), which established his reputation. [1] When he received the Akutagawa Prize in 1951, his ability to continue publishing was confirmed. [5] Though he did much work as an avant-garde novelist and playwright, it was not until the publication of The Woman in the Dunes in 1962 that Abe won widespread international acclaim.[ citation needed ]

In the 1960s, he collaborated with Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara on the film adaptations of The Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another, and The Man Without a Map . Woman in the Dunes received widespread critical acclaim and was released only four months after Abe was expelled from the Japanese Communist Party.

In 1971, he founded the Abe Studio, an acting studio in Tokyo. [5] Until the end of the decade, he trained performers and directed plays. The decision to found the studio came two years after he first directed his own work in 1969, a production of The Man Who Turned Into A Stick. The production's sets were designed by Abe's wife, and Hisashi Igawa starred. Abe had become dissatisfied with ability of the theatre to materialize the abstract, reducing it to a passive medium. Until 1979, he wrote, directed, and produced 14 plays at the Abe Studio. He also published two novels, Box Man (1973) and Secret Rendezvous (1977), alongside a series of essays, musical scores, and photographic exhibits. [5] The Seibu Theater, an avant-garde theater in the new department store Parco, was allegedly established in 1973 specifically for Abe, though many other artists were given the chance to use it. The Abe Studio production of The Glasses of Love Are Rose Colored (1973) opened there. Later, the entirety of the Seibu Museum was used to present one of Abe's photographic works, An Exhibition of Images: I. [5]

The Abe Studio provided a foil for much of the contemporary scene in Japanese theater, contrasting with the Haiyuza's conventional productions, opting to focus on dramatic, as opposed to physical, expression. It was a safe space for young performers, whom Abe would often recruit from the Toho Gakuen College in Chofu City, on the outskirts of Tokyo, where he taught. The average age of the performers in the studio was about 27 throughout the decade, as members left and fresh faces were brought in. Abe "deftly" handled issues arising from difference in stage experience. [5]

In 1977 Abe was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. [10]


Among the honors Abe received were the Akutagawa Prize in 1951 for The Crime of S. Karuma, the Yomiuri Prize in 1962 for The Woman in the Dunes, and the Tanizaki Prize in 1967 for the play Friends. Kenzaburō Ōe credited Abe and other modern Japanese authors for "[creating] the way to the Nobel Prize", which he himself won. [11] [12] Abe was mentioned multiple times as a possible recipient, but his early death precluded that possibility. [5]



YearJapanese TitleEnglish TitleTranslations availableNotes
Owarishi michi no shirube ni
At the Guidepost at the End of the Road
Kiga doumei
Starving Unions
Kemono tachi wa kokyou wo mezasu
Beasts Head for Home Richard F. Calichman
Dai yon kan pyouki
Inter Ice Age 4 E. Dale Saunders [1]
Ishi no me
Stony Eyes
Suna no onna
The Woman in the Dunes E. Dale SaundersAdapted into an international film [1]
Tanin no kao
The Face of Another E. Dale Saunders [1]
Enomoto Takeaki
Takeaki EnomotoCommissioned conversion to a play by theatrical company Kumo and directed by Hiroshi Akutagawa

Mixed reviews: Keene preferred the novel to the play, while Oe considered it "genuinely new." [5]

Ningen sokkuri
The Double of Human Being
Moetsukita chizu
The Ruined Map E. Dale Saunders [1]
Hako otoko
The Box ManE. Dale Saunders [1]
Secret Rendezvous Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1979 [1]
Hakobune sakura maru
The Ark Sakura Juliet Winters Carpenter, 1988 [1]
Kangaruu noto
Kangaroo Notebook Maryellen Toman Mori
Tobu otoko
The Flying ManIncomplete

Collected short stories

YearJapanese TitleEnglish TitleTranslations availableNotes
The Deaf GirlAndrew HorvatCollected in Four Stories by Kobo Abe
DendrocacaliaJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Yume no toubou
The Dream Escape
Akai mayu
The Red CocoonLane DunlopCollected in A Late chrysanthemum: Twenty-One Stories from the Japanese
The FloodLane DunlopCollected in A Late chrysanthemum: Twenty-One Stories from the Japanese
Mahou no chouku
The Magic ChalkAlison KibrickCollected in The Showa Anthology: Modern Japanese Short Stories
Kabe―S・Karuma shi no hanzai
The Wall ― The Crime of S. KarmaJuliet Winters CarpenterExcerpt collected in Beyond the Curve
IntrudersJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Shijin no Shougai
The Life of a PoetJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Ueta hihu
The Starving Skin
Noa no hakobune
Noah's ArkJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Suichu toshi
The underwater city
The DogAndrew HorvatCollected in Four Stories by Kobo Abe
Henkei no kiroku
Record of a TransformationJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
The StickLane DunlopCollected in A Late chrysanthemum: Twenty-One Stories from the Japanese
R62 gou no hatumei
Inventions by No. R62
BeguiledJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Yume no heishi
The Dream SoldierFirst translation, 1973 by Andrew Horvat
Second translation, 1991 by Juliet Winters Carpenter
First translation collected in Four Stories by Kobo Abe
Second translation collected in Beyond the Curve
Namari no tamago
The Egg of Pb
The Special EnvoyJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
The BetJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Mukankei na shi
An Irrelevant DeathJuliet Winters CarpenterCollected in Beyond the Curve
Kabu no mukou
Beyond the CurveJuliet Winters CarpenterFirst collection published in English [1]
Toki no gake
The Cliff of TimeAndrew HorvatCollected in Four Stories by Kobo Abe


YearJapanese TitleEnglish TitleTranslations availableNotes
Jikan no gake
The Cliff of Time Donald KeeneCollected in The Man Who Turned Into A Stick: Three Related Plays
SuitcaseDonald KeeneCollected in The Man Who Turned Into A Stick: Three Related Plays
Dorei gari
Slave Hunting
Kaisoku sen
The Speedy Ship
1957 [13] 棒になった男
Bou ni natta otoko
The Man Who Turned Into A Stick Donald KeeneCollected in The Man Who Turned Into A Stick: Three Related Plays

The 1969 production was the first time Abe directed his own work. His wife designed the set. [5]

Yuurei wa koko ni iru
The Ghost Is Here Donald Keene Collected in Three Plays by Kōbō Abe

Award-winning production by Koreya Senda Well received in East Germany [5]

Omae nimo tsumi ga aru
You, Too, Are GuiltyTed T. TakayaCollected in Modern Japanese Drama: An Anthology
FriendsDonald KeenePerformed in English in Honolulu [1]
Akutagawa Award winner 1967

Adapted into a film in 1988, directed by Masahito Naruse [5]

Enomoto Takeaki
Takeaki EnomotoAlt. translation: Enomoto Buyo [5]

Directed by the son of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, "father of the Japanese short story" [5]

Mihitsu no koi
Involuntary HomicideDonald KeeneCollected in Three Plays by Kōbō Abe
Gaido bukku
Guide Book
Ai no megane wa iro garasu
Loving Glasses Are Colored Ones
Midori iro no sutokkingu
Green StockingsDonald KeeneCollected in Three Plays by Kōbō Abe
Uē (Shin dorei gari)
Ue (Slave Hunting, New Version), The Animal HunterJames R. Brandon
Annai nin
The Guide Man, GUIDE BOOK II
Suichu toshi
The Underwater City, GUIDE BOOK III
S・Karuma shi no hanzai
The Crime of S. Karuma
Kozou wa shinda
An Elephant Calf Is Dead


YearJapanese TitleEnglish TitleTranslations availableNotes
1944詩と詩人 (意識と無意識)
Shi to shijin [Ishiki to muishiki]
Poetry and Poets (Consciousness and the Unconscious)Richard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Bungaku ni okeru riron to jissen
Theory and Practice in LiteratureRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Mōjū no kokoro ni keisanki no te wo: Bungaku to ha nanika
The Hand of a Calculator with the Heart of a Beast: What Is Literature?Richard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Amerika hakken
Discovering AmericaRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Eizō ha gengo no kabe wo hakai suru ka
Does the Visual Image Destroy the Walls of Language?Richard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Geijutsu no kakumei: Geijutsu undō no riron
Artistic Revolution: Theory of the Art MovementRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Gendai ni okeru kyōiku no kanōsei: Ningen sonzai no honshitsu ni furete
Possibilities for Education Today: On the Essence of Human ExistenceRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Rinjin wo koeru mono
Beyond the NeighborRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Miritarī rukku
The Military LookRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Itan no pasupōto
Passport of HeresyRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Uchi naru henkyō
The Frontier WithinRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Zoku: Uchi naru henkyō
The Frontier Within, Part IIRichard F. CalichmanCollected in The Frontier Within: Essays by Abe Kōbō
Warau tsuki
The Laughing Moon


YearJapanese TitleEnglish TitleTranslations availableNotes
Mumei shishu
Poems of an Unknown Poet
Hito sarai

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "Abe Kobo". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-ak Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, Illinois: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. pp.  23–24. ISBN   978-1-59339-837-8.
  2. New York Times.
  3. Timothy Iles, Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre, EPAP, 2000.
  4. "Abe, Kobo". Who Was Who in America, 1993–1996, vol. 11 . New Providence, N.J.: Marquis Who's Who. 1996. p.  1. ISBN   0837902258.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 Shields, Nancy (1996). Fake Fish: The Theater of Kobo Abe. Weatherhill: New York & Tokyo. ISBN   978-0834803541.
  6. Schnellbächer, T. (2004). Abe Kōbō, Literary Strategist: The Evolution of His Agenda and Rhetoric in the Context of Postwar Japanese Avant-garde and Communist Artists' Movements. Iaponia insula. Iudicium. p. 423–427. ISBN   978-3-89129-822-0.
  7. Kapur, Nick, 1980-. Japan at the crossroads : conflict and compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, Massachusetts. p. 177. ISBN   978-0-674-98850-7. OCLC   1041937833.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. Kapur, Nick, 1980-. Japan at the crossroads : conflict and compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, Massachusetts. p. 179. ISBN   978-0-674-98850-7. OCLC   1041937833.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. Kapur, Nick, 1980-. Japan at the crossroads : conflict and compromise after Anpo. Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp. 213–14. ISBN   978-0-674-98850-7. OCLC   1041937833.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter A" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved March 18, 2011.
  11. Sterngold, James (October 14, 1994). "Nobel in Literature Goes to Kenzaburo Oe of Japan". The New York Times.
  12. Streitfeld, David (October 14, 1994). "Japanese Writer Oe Wins Nobel". The Washington Post.
  13. Hochman, Stanley (1984). McGraw-Hill encyclopedia of world drama: an international reference work in 5 vol, Volume 1. VNR AG. p. 2. ISBN   0-07-079169-4.
  1. Though see the different analysis in Schnellbächer, who states that Abe's "evaluation of the insurrections in Poland and Hungary is curiously helpless, in both cases mirroring the official communist reading" [6]