IN Japan, a country obsessively curious about what outsiders think of it, news that novelist Kenzaburo Oe had won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Literature is being treated as cause for national self-congratulation. Mr. Oe is the second Japanese writer to win the award. Yasunari Kawabata received the prize in 1968.
Although respected, Oe has never been hugely fashionable here. Only now that foreign judges have awarded him the richest literature prize available have Japanese rushed to find out about the talent in their midst. Early Friday morning, Oe's publishers found their telephones ringing off the hook. Distributors and retailers have been holding emergency meetings to consider how they are going to keep up supplies until reprints of Oe's novels roll off the presses. And book shops have cleared shelves to create new Kenzaburo Oe displays.
In announcing the prize, the Swedish Academy described Oe as ``something of an enfant terrible,'' but he is not a newcomer.
He was born 59 years ago to a samurai family on the island of Shikoku, and won his first literary prize at the age of 23 for ``Shiiku'' (``The Catch''), a story about a village boy's experiences with an American pilot shot down during World War II. The war, or more specifically the end of it with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been the inspiration for much of Oe's writing and for the antinuclear campaigning for which he is also admired.
At Tokyo University and in his early days as a writer, Oe joined other left-wing intellectuals in opposing the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty. Throughout his career, Oe has condemned Japan's military buildup and has called for the use of ``imagination'' to prevent nuclear war.
``Japan's capitulation after the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945, when the Emperor - a divine personage - descended to the people and spoke in a human voice (on radio), was a shocking experience for the young Oe,'' the Swedish Academy said Friday. ``The humiliation took a firm grip on him and has colored much of his work. He himself describes his writing as a way of exorcising demons.''
The focus of Oe's work shifted in 1963 when his son Hikari was born mentally handicapped. The trauma produced one of his best-known novels, ``A Personal Matter,'' which chronicles a father's anguished route toward accepting his child's disability.
Having written more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories, essays, and articles, Oe recently announced that the ``Flaming Green Trees,'' a just-completed trilogy, will be his last major work of fiction. ``I have already written extensively on themes I have long cared for,'' he said.
But it is not solely that Oe feels spent as an artistic force; rather, he feels he has passed the baton on to his son. Just two weeks before the elder Oe received his telephone call from Stockholm, he had attended Hikari's first concert as a publicly-acclaimed musical composer. His son's birth was perhaps the strongest inspiration for novels bleak in their outlook, which showed man at war with nature and with himself. Now with Hikari a success, his father seems to have found peace.
Kenzaburo Oe recently pledged: ``I will never be a member of the Academy of Arts, and I will never receive any medals. I have no intention of becoming an establishment writer.'' Perhaps it is fitting that Oe has received the literary establishment's highest prize just when he has decided to put down his pen.