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International Symposium marking the 10th anniversary of the establishment of CRN
Children in Societies with a Declining Birthrate- The Case of East Asian Countries -
10:00 -16:30 Saturday, February 3, 2007
Venue : U Thant Conference Hall, UN House, United Nations University (Shibuya-ku, Tokyo)
Organizer : Child Research Net (CRN)
Joint Organizers : Benesse Institute for the Child Sciences, Parenting, and Aging Benesse Corporation
With the support of Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Chinese Embassy, Korean Embassy, the Japanese Society of Child Science, the Japanese Society of Baby Science
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Children: A Model of the Human Future
Kenzaburo Oe


I am grateful for this opportunity to take part in the International Symposium marking the 10th anniversary of Child Research Net, or CRN.

I also feel the strong direction of CRN from the fact that this symposium is being held at the U Thant Conference Hall of United Nations University. In fact, this is my second occasion to speak here. The first time was in 1995, at the international symposium titled “Dialogue between Sciences and CultureEjointly organized by the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris and UNU in Tokyo. I will talk about my memories of the experts I met there. But before doing so, I would like to say something. The symposium’s main topic is clearly linked with one of the three basic policies of Child Science, CRN’s interdisplinary study of children, that is, to bring together the biological perspective of natural sciences and the cultural perspective of the humanities and social sciences. This dialogue between science and culture, as I see it, aims at nothing but transcending and bridging the barriers between the humanities and sciences. I have thought about my talk today from time to time over the past six months and this half year has been very important for me. I have been reminded of the most important events of my childhood. Japan was defeated in World War II in 1945 when I was ten years old. Two years later, democracy and the war-renouncing constitution were realized and the Fundamental Law of Education was implemented. I have recognized the profound significance of these events and the lasting implications for my entire life, in particular, because the Fundamental Law of Education was revised in late last year by the government’s ruling party. This means that despite of our movements and actions to preserve the law, we were defeated, which is an unexpectedly bitter experience for an old man like me.

So right after the revision of the Fundamental Law of Education was approved in the Diet, partly to encourage myself, I appealed to educational professionals and young parents to keep the former law that was slated to disappear. I proposed in the newspaper that we put a small leaflet of the existing law in our chest pockets, but there was no response. It then seemed understandable to me that we cling to what is disappearing; we grow despondent by crises as we age and lack the energy to produce active alternatives.

But I imagine young people will try to create forward-looking plans even though it will entail great hardship.

Now I really feel that I am getting old. In today’s symposium we have the experts not only from Japan but also China and South Korea. I am looking forward to their discussion but I am older than any of the other participants. For instance, I am five years older than Dr. Yu Wei from China, who is an authority on electronics. The only person older than me is Dr. Noboru Kobayashi, but I know he is very active in his activities related to CRN. I heard this from my daughter-in-law, the wife of my second son, who had a baby two years ago. She was born and raised in Japan but she studied animal immunology at the University of California, Davis. Back in Japan now and raising a child, she is encouraged by the Internet information and wisdom offered by CRN, which is accessible in English. I also recall being very moved by one of Dr. Kobayashi’s books that impressed upon me the importance of language communication between a toddler who just started to talk and his mother, who listened to the chatter and responded in correct Japanese. It suggested to me ways of thinking about how a novelist should deal with language.

I hope that you will understand my deep interest in today’s symposium.

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Being an old man and getting old means losing someone you love and respect year after year. I have been feeling this way in particular for these couple of years. Especially now that I am getting old, I feel that I am continuously left with words full of forward-looking determination by those who pass away first. And because I am getting older and thinking and feeling that my own death is not far away, I am in the habit of listening well to the words left by others who are passing away before me.

Last summer Kazuko Tsurumi, who made a great contribution as a comparative sociologist, passed away. Her great last work was published under the title of “Farewell Note EGetting Started after Death.E(Fujiwara Shoten). In her book she refers to a very important encounter in the international symposium I mentioned earlier, “Dialogue between Sciences and Culture.E That was an encounter with one of the keynote speakers, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a French oceanographer who explored the ocean depths in a submarine. (I was also one of the keynote speakers and listened to Mr. Cousteau’s lecture and Ms. Tsurumi’s comments.)

According to Ms. Tsurumi’s book, Cousteau noted that since World War II the number of marine species has been decreasing and warned that a decline in species not only in the ocean but also on land, would result in the destruction of the earth.

She continues to say that what is important is that Cousteau thought the same could be said about civilization. Civilization will be destroyed if there are fewer kinds of them. Cousteau argued that the coexistence of diverse life increases the possibility of survival, for living things and civilizations alike. He started a campaign to incorporate the Declaration of Rights for the Future Generation into the United Nations Charter, responsibilities the current generation owes to the future generation. Cousteau died in 1997 and the Declaration was adopted by the U.N in the same year. This is what Tsurumi talked about.

Tsurumi concluded the last lecture she gave by sharing a lifelong idea: the mandala as a way to explore the way that different lives can live together differently. She closed her speech with two requests, “I like to leave these words before I leave this world. Please protect Article 9 of the Constitution of Japan. And think about the wisdom within a mandala.E/p>

The close rapport between Cousteau and Tsurumi and their call for action seems to be the achievement of their efforts to transcend and bridge barriers between the humanities and the sciences. Cousteau referred to our responsibilities for the future generation, or the children yet unborn, and Tsurumi left a message for children before she died. I like to keep this deeply in mind.

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There is another thinker and his words that I like recall in relation to responsibility to the future generation mentioned by Cousteau. I am glad to say that this person, Noam Chomsky, is still alive and highly active. As a great scholar who fundamentally changed the linguistics in the 20th century, he continues to criticize the United States, particularly its diplomacy and politics that attempt to erase differences in the world’s politics, economy and cultures. The idea that uniformity destroys the world and civilization is shared by Cousteau and by Tsurumi in her idea of the mandala. Chomsky and I sat next to each other at the award ceremony for honorary doctorates at Harvard University. He told me of his early childhood that he was very upset to read the news of an atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, went into the woods by himself and spent the whole night. This episode made me respect him even more.

I like to quote one of his letters written in 2001, when the idea of neoclassic markets in the United States greatly influenced our country and entrepreneurs in Roppongi Hills were going to be the heroes of the time.

The quotation is hard to understand just by listening, but please let me introduce it to you. “What are the neoclassical markets we are taught to revere? Ideally, they are institutional structures in which the participants are "rational wealth maximizers," whose interests are valued, and compensated, in proportion to their "votes": what they bring to the market, wealth or labor, primarily. In principle, the interests of those with no "votes" are valued at zero in a well-functioning ideal market. E/p>

In his analysis Chomsky describes how the future generation will be looked at under the current economic system. This point is very important.

“Our grandchildren, for example, who do not enter the market as wealth maximizers and have no way to express their needs within the system. So it is only proper and rational to maximize wealth in the short term, completely disregarding the consequences for future generationsE In other words, the children in the future cannot participate in the current market and market economy since they have not been born yet. People who are enjoying economic prosperity right now do not think at all about the children in the future. The environmental destruction and pollution they are producing now will be a source of suffering for future generations.

Chomsky, just like Cousteau, continues to call for a fundamental reflection of the wrongdoings of our generation for the sake of our children in the future. However, such a call has not yet become the wisdom of human beings anywhere, in the United States, Europe or Japan. We must continue to ask ourselves, just like Cousteau and Chomsky, why this is not a crime against our children or future generations. (Asahi Bunko, “Writing against Violence ECorrespondence with Kenzaburo Oe)

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I would like to talk about another long-time friend I adored very much who has passed away. I would like to talk about what I learned from the way he lived in his later years, his way of thinking and the way he died. His name is Edward W. Said, a literary and cultural critic. Many of you will know his book “Orientalism,Ecriticizing the distorted image of the culture, society and people of the Orient by people in the Western world. Some of you may also have read “Culture and ImperialismEin which he critically described the world dominated by the United States from the cultural viewpoint. When this book was published in early 1990s, I got to know Mr. Said in a symposium at a university in the U.S. and I learned a lot from him as a friend until his death. In his last book, “On Late Style,EI wrote an introductory comment on the back cover since we had been discussing the special characteristics of artistsElate works. The correspondence I mentioned earlier also includes the letters exchanged between us.

What I want to talk about today is the documentary film that was made after he died four years ago by Japanese film producers depicting his family, friends and many other people talking about their memories which greatly impressed me. The only image of Mr. Said himself is from an 8-mm film made in his early childhood.

When the film was released in Japan, we held a lecture meeting with Mrs. Said in attendance and I made a speech. We also published a book with all the original interviews included. I would like to quote from Said’s book, “Out of Place.E(Misuzu Shobo)

It goes without saying that Said had done all he could in his speeches and writings for the Palestinians who have been deprived of their land, assets, nation and everything. He himself was a Palestinian of U.S. nationality. He did not give up this effort even after the long battle with leukemia. However, the political situations in Palestine were becoming even worse; with Israel invoking the strong power of the state, some Palestinians even carried out a suicide bombing. But people close to Said repeatedly testify in the film that he never lost hope while preparing to die despite of bleak circumstances.

In the words of one person in the film, “It is very hard to remain optimistic while involved in the Palestinian issues. I think his optimism came from his power of will. At a certain point he knew there was not any hope anywhere. EThere were no alternatives to Arafat. There were no other ways. But he did not need them to keep his hope alive. Not because he could see other options, but because he strongly felt the need to believe that things would get better. People cannot continue to do such things and things should change some day.E/p>

I learn from, and am encouraged by, his way to live in his later years, that is, his optimism of the will. His daughter Najira sent an e-mail to his friends around the world to let them know about her father’s death. From that I got to know to whom Said had sent his message, the importance of optimism of the will during his later life.

“My father cried loudly in his bed when he was dying. He was sad because he lost the power to express his ideas and could not work for his fellow Palestine countrymen Ee told me to fight EI am surprised that I can express myself while I am shedding tears.E/p>

I think Said had sent his message to his daughter, children in Palestine and around the world. I have led half of my life as an intellectual hoping that the Japanese, people of the only nation in the world to be bombed with atomic weapons, will change the current situation of nuclear proliferation around the world. And now I realize this hope won’t come true within my own lifetime.

As I get older and see off those who are passing away, I occasionally think about my death realistically and note that I am getting the optimism of the will. Just as Said said, people should not be able to continue to do such things and things should change some day. I am very eager to convey this message to our children.

I believe that Cousteau, Kazuko Tsurumi, Said, and Chomsky, who is still alive, and I, looking at the end of our own lives, tried and try to communicate with the future generation.

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Four years ago I wrote The Children of 200 Years, the only fantasy novel for children that I have written. The children in a family travel through time by themselves in a time machine. They live in the present, the end of the 20th century. First they travel back about one hundred and fifty years just before the Meiji Restoration. In the latter half of the novel, they go forward, about fifty years from the present. The period spans two hundred years. The idea of the novel is to let the children have the real experience of the two hundred years that spanning Japanese modernization.

We have built our present-day society through hard work and diligence. Convenient, affluent, and basically democratic, it is one that I think we should value. At the same time, I also have to think about what we Japanese have done in the past 150 years in Asia, the wrongdoing and tragedy we have caused. These are historical facts that are no doubt indelibly etched in their memories of the Chinese and Korean participants of this symposium today. I also know that there is a steady and tenacious effort by Japanese atomic bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (who are very old now), to abolish nuclear weapons. But I am also aware, as I said before, that Japan, Asia and the rest of the world are facing the threat of nuclear weapons.

In my novel I wanted to read and review the two hundred years linking Asia and the world with the children traveling through the past and the future, using my imagination.

Three characters travel through time in my novel. Maki, the eldest boy is mentally handicapped. His younger sister Akari always wants to do things for him. The independent younger brother, Saku, keeps a distance from his elder brother and sister. Once a problem occurs, however, he solves with his own kind of wisdom.

Why did I make the character of Maki, the central figure in this novel, a boy who is mentally handicapped? It is simply because in my family, our life has centered around our first son, Hikari, who is mentally impaired. Maki’s behavior and words are based on the real life of Hikari. This novel is a fantasy based on a modern history in Japan in which the children travel back and forth for two hundred years from the past to the future. Maki’s character and that of Akari and Saku, who help him express himself and do what he wishes while respecting his will, are based on the concrete observations of my own family. I wrote this novel as a weekly serialization for a newspaper, something I rarely do. I asked my wife and daughter to review the manuscript in detail to see if it was factual. I discovered in the process that there is a one-sided distortion in the way a father interprets the words of his children.

Hikari was born when I was twenty-eight and my wife was twenty-seven. When he was born, there was a big hump on his back of the head; it almost looked as if there were two heads. The doctor explained that his skull was defective and the hump was protecting his head so that the contents did not come out. A surgical operation was conducted to cut it off and the defect was covered with a plastic plate. That enabled him to grow up safely.

I wrote about the influence of the birth of such a baby on a young father in my novel, A Personal Experience. But our life story with Hikari really started after I wrote this novel. I think the story consists of two parts, looking back over more than forty years of our living together.

In Chapter One, Hikari was our only child. My wife did everything that she could and I cooperated with her. When Hikari was born, the doctor said he might not have vision or hearing. It turned out that he could see later, but we were not sure whether he could hear or not. Eventually we learned that he could hear and I discovered that he was sensitive to the songs of wild birds. Using phonograms of wild birds, our oral communication started and then communication through music composed by human beings, although it took a great deal of time. Hikari learned to write down music by ear and started to compose. I wrote novels and essays based on this process. While he was the only child, Hikari’s growth was supported by our engagement, my wife’s and mine, in our relationship with him.

That obviously changed when Hikari had a younger sister and a younger brother. Hikari’s younger sister was born when he was four years old. Since there was an unexpected hardship in the first childbirth, I pay due gratitude and respect to my wife for her courage in deciding to deliver our second baby and her efforts to bring up our children. Once she said that she felt as if she were raising three infants since Hikari continued to remain an infant. But she says that my daughter started to take care of Hikari when she was only three years old. I strongly felt that children have the will to be independent and help others who are less strong. Hikari was no exception; when he started to go to the school for the handicapped, we could see that in his attempts to help others more severely handicapped.

Hikari started composing, and his music CDs were widely accepted, but his verbal communication ability remained fairly limited. Compared with his younger sister and brother, Hikari’s linguistic ability remained that of a three-year-old child.

Things changed when his sister got married and left home. Her daily telephone calls to Hikari, developed his willingness and ability to converse, albeit slowly. Hikari would not express himself verbally for a long time partly because he concentrated more on expression through music rather than language. His linguistic ability, however, showed steady improvement through his conversation practice with his sister over the phone.

As he continued to spend most of his time in listening to classical music on CDs and FM radio, the time came when Hikari no longer showed any interest in composition. That lasted for three years and my wife never suggested that Hikari compose during that period. Meanwhile the conversation practice with his sister greatly improved Hikari’s linguistic ability.

Hikari had been taking music theory lessons from his teacher in piano and composition. While he was not composing music, he concentrated more carefully on his lessons. It seems that theoretical music terms are much easier for him to understand than the ambiguous language of daily communication, but I and my wife could clearly see that the conversation with his sister was effective in communicating with his music teacher.

Three years passed and when Hikari began composing again, his music was not only correct from the perspective of music theory but also deeper as a result of his thought having been processed through verbal communication.

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The Children of 200 Years, a novel for children, is set in the summer. The experiences of the siblings who range from eleven to sixteen are based on my own experience with my mentally handicapped son. I think the experiences during this summertime are equivalent to the ones in a half of my whole life.

The three children live together independently in the woods where their father was born and raised. While their parents are staying on a university campus in a foreign university, the children have various exciting experiences. The father is a professor and is aware that he suffers from melancholia, or mild depression as we call it today, which his family calls the pinchi. He is there hoping to overcome this condition and his wife attends to him. Summer and autumn pass, and he comes back to realize that his three children have grown through their experience and also feels his psychological recovery. Then he quotes a part of Paul Valery’s lecture for junior high school students for his youngest son. (Chuko Bunko)

“Fonction (function) in French is translated into shokuno in written Japanese. But you children don’t use such a word, do you? I myself prefer shigoto or hataraki (work) E Our important shigoto is to create a future. It is our hataraki to breathe, take nutrition and move around to create a future. We seem to be living now, but we live in the future which is incorporated into now. The past has meaning because we, who are living now, also have one foot in the future. And so our memories and even our regrets have meaning.

I was in the pinchi because I did not find the future in my current situation; I simply recalled and reflected on the past on this side of a closed door. So while the now in my life grows smaller, I like to see the future thereE

This quotation from Valery’s lecture has something in common with the message of Kazuko Tsurumi, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Norm Chomsky and Edward W. Said. Just like the father based on my own experiences in The Children of 200 Years was encouraged by Valery, whenever I encounter hardship in this world, I recall the words of Kazuko Tsurumi and Edward W. Said when they were facing death, appealing to people in the future with courage and cheerfulness. They must have imagined the faces of real children as an ideal model of the future.

The CRN staff also shares the same view, as they engage in Child Science with steady dedication and a wide perspective. I am looking forward to the discussion of today’s international symposium. Thank you very much.

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