Kōbō Abe (March 7, 1924 – January 22, 1993), was a Japanese writer, playwright, photographer and inventor. Abe has been often compared to Franz Kafka and Alberto Moravia for his surreal, often nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society and his modernist sensibilities.
Abe was born in Kita, Tokyo, Japan and grew up in Mukden (now Shenyang) in Manchuria. Abe's family was in Tokyo at the time due to his father's year of medical research in Tokyo. 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 that 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. 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.
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. He returned to Manchuria around the end of World War II. Specifically, Abe left the Tokyo University Medical school in October 1944, returning to his father's clinic in Mukden. 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. Abe had married in 1945 to Machi Yamada, an art student who led a career as artist and stage director, and the couple saw successes within their fields in similar time frames. Initially, however, they had lived in old barracks within a bombed out area of the city center. Abe sold pickles and charcoal on the street to pay their bills. As the post-war period progressed, Abe's stance as an intellectual pacifist led to him joining the Japanese Communist Party, with whom he worked to organize laborers in poor parts of Tokyo.
His experiences in Manchuria were also deeply influential on his writing, imprinting terrors and fever dreams which, now, are 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. The trash of the marsh was a truth of life, as too the crows, yet Abe's recollections of them tie them distinctly. Further experiences with the swamp centered around it's use as a staking ground for condemned criminals wit [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.
He was first published as a poet in 1947 with Mumei-shishū (Poems of an unknown poet), which he paid for himself, 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. 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 he won widespread international acclaim.
In the 1960s, he collaborated with Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara in the film adaptations of, The Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes, The Face of Another, and, The Ruined Map. In 1973, he founded an acting studio in Tokyo, where he trained performers and directed plays. He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1977.
Among the honors bestowed upon him 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 stated that Abe deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he himself had won (Abe was nominated multiple times)