Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954, and at age 5 he moved with his parents to London, where he has lived ever since. In 1986, his second novel, “An Artist of the Floating World,” was nominated for Britain’s leading award for fiction, the Booker Prize. Three years later, his next and arguably best-known novel, “The Remains of the Day,” won the Booker and was subsequently turned into an Oscar-winning film.
The author is currently visiting Japan to participate in an international literary forum organized annually by Hayakawa Shobo, which this year published three of Ishiguro’s works translated into Japanese, including his latest, last year’s “When We Were Orphans,” another Booker nominee.
In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, Ishiguro talks about fiction, feelings and the influences of his Japanese origins and his upbringing in postwar Britain.
It has been 12 years since your last visit. What changes have you noticed?
When I was here last, in 1989, it was the height of the boom and . . . most people around the globe predicted Japan would be by far the most powerful economic force by the time we got to the 21st century. When I used to visit the United States, Americans would be obsessed by the idea that the Japanese would leave them behind . . .
In a way, this enormous respect that was paid to the Japanese economic prowess has receded. [Now] I see a much more mature, sympathetic attitude toward Japan in Britain. It creeps in in a natural way now — Japanese food is very fashionable, computer games, manga culture, all the kids watch Japanese cartoons on TV, like “Pokemon” . . .
I think there used to be a tendency to talk about Japan as if it were one big company that masterminded everything from motorbikes to Walkmans, and that it was all part of a clever, ruthless drive to conquer the world. Japanese culture, I think, has been accepted much more since the economic thing has receded.
Also, the kind of Japanese people that are seen particularly in places like London these days look a bit different. You see a lot more independent tourists with orange hair, as opposed to large groups that used to present a rather comical face of Japan to a lot of British people. Japanese movies have become very popular too . . .
Like those tourists, place settings in your books have also moved around. The first two were set in Japan. Then “The Remains of the Day” took us to Britain, “The Unconsoled” (1995) to continental Europe and “When We Were Orphans” to China.
It was very important that my writing career started with books set in Japan. It’s only later on that I realized this, but when I first began to write fiction I think I was trying to get down on paper a kind of private Japan that I had developed in my head while growing up in England.
I didn’t visit Japan at all since I left here in 1960 at the age of 5. So I got to my 20s having a relationship with a place called Japan . . . that was made up entirely of memories and images I had accumulated from books, magazines, comics and movies. It was a very strange Japan of memory and speculation. Nevertheless, it was a very precious place to me, and I think that when I realized that this Japan probably didn’t actually exist anywhere other than in my head, I think I very much wanted to preserve this Japan on paper before it faded away from my head altogether.
When I finished my second book, I realized that this was the motivation. I was puzzled by my lack of interest in the Japan of that time, when I was writing in the ’80s — I didn’t want to come here and do research for those novels. In fact, in some ways I felt I was in competition with the real Japan and I wanted to keep it out.
In your latest book, the detective, Christopher, like many of your protaganists, seems to be faced with an identity issue. Is there something of you in there somewhere? Did you ever come to an ID crossroads?
No, I don’t think I have ever reached a crisis point in that respect. Living in Britain, a lot of the people I see who do have such conflicts about identity or race are those who belong to a smaller community within the larger mainstream community.
I live in a Jewish community of London, and there are some Jewish families there who I can see that, particularly for some of the younger people, there is a real tension regarding “Do you belong to this small network that has a very strong sense of its own values precisely because it is a minority community . . . or to the wider, mainstream community?”
I somehow escaped all of that, because when I came to England I was the only Japanese boy — there were virtually no Japanese people in England for the first five or six years of our time there. From an early age . . . I have always been conscious of not being quite like anyone else.
Has this influenced your writing?
It has probably had an influence on the fact that I became a writer. I’ve probably had an exaggerated sense of uniqueness regarding my experience . . . but growing up in Britain in the 1960s, I felt I was the only person who had these kind of international roots. If I’d grown up in Japan, I doubt I would ever have become a writer.
Did you ever feel any major divide arising from your move to England at an early age, and the generation gap between yourself and your parents who grew up amid prewar militarism?
My parents were young during World War II — my mother just a teenager. Those of their generation tended to be pro-American, anti-Soviet Russia and very antiwar. I remember there was a marked difference in the way my parents talked about the war and the way my English friends’ parents talked about it. A lot of the [English] children’s comics had war stories, and children played war games and there were many popular movies about the war. This gung-ho attitude to war was very different to the way it was talked about by my parents.
They witnessed the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and the stories I heard about the war were always from the point of view of the civilian: the hardships; friends being killed in air raids; the atomic bomb. But, I didn’t sense any tension between the hippy antiwar values that I grew up with as a young man and my parents’ generation.
So, to what extent are your Japanese roots important to you?
It was always the plan that my family would return to Nagasaki after a couple of years; that I would grow up in Japan, not England. So, I was always encouraged to think of England as an interesting place we were visiting, but Japan as the place I would ultimately live. There was even an attempt to keep up the Japanese side of my education. I remember that every month a parcel would arrive full of magazines — children’s [educational] magazines and other kinds of Japanese books.
Japanese movies became a very important way for me to have some sort of relationship with Japan — particularly when I got older. The movies of a director like [Yasujiro] Ozu became very important because they provided a more adult insight into the culture. When I saw those movies made in the 1950s, they reminded me very much of the kind of lifestyle our family had in Kyushu before we left for Britain. They also had a fairly profound impact on me artistically, and I liked a lot of the artistic values of that kind of storytelling — the very quiet surface with very strong emotions underneath.
That would seem to describe your stories well. You also deal a lot with nostalgia and memory.
I continue to find memory a fascinating device. It’s a filter through which we all see ourselves — we tell stories about who we are and what we’ve done in the past and who we have become. And because memory is vague and hazy and open to manipulation, it’s very easy to deceive oneself about one’s life. There is cowardice and heroism in trying to face up to that and bring the past into focus. Maybe . . . because of my history, there is a part of me that has an irrational fondness for the textures of memory and recreating them.
Nostalgia is also always an attractive device. But in England, nostalgia generally gets a pretty bad press. It’s overwhelmingly associated with a sloppy emotion about Britain’s historical past. But I’m interested in a much purer nostalgia. We all have in us a memory of a time when the world seemed much more innocent and kinder and protected. I think it’s important for us to maintain that memory of us being naive and innocent and believing the world was nicer. In some ways, nostalgia is the emotional equivalent of idealism.
There seems to be a voice present in your work that is somewhat critical of your characters’ nostalgia, or their slightly selective memory.
I don’t try and pass any judgment on characters. I think it’s very natural for people to hide from the less pleasant truths about oneself — it’s a protection we all need. I might appear to be rather critical of characters, but usually towards the end I start to have a respect for people when they, even if only partially, come to accept themselves and they stop hiding from things.
You seem to be particularly hard on Stevens, the butler and central character in “The Remains of the Day.” Do you have a problem with English butlers?
That book was not an historical study of English butlers; it was a metaphor. Metaphorically, most people are butlers — in two senses. First, in a political sense; most of us are not presidents of countries, or people who walk in a corridor of power. Even those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, we live quite close to power, we feel like we can almost touch political leaders. On the other hand, we are far from where the big decisions are made; decisions that affect our small lives as well as what happens in the bigger world.
Also, most of us just do jobs; we don’t find ourselves in a position where we can change the world single-handed. We feel our job is to do our thing well, and someone upstairs will decide how best to use it.
So, politically and morally we are forced to live like butlers. (Steven) is a man who takes enormous pride, often exaggerated and grandiose pride, in his ability to do his butler things very well, and starts to tell himself that he is in some way contributing to some grand process by doing this. But he’ll leave the big decisions to his master. His job is just to do that little thing well, someone else will decide how his contribution is used.
Secondly, in the emotional sense, there is a part of us that wishes to hide behind a kind of professional role, or wishes to hide from that scary territory of emotional commitment and love. We fear making ourselves vulnerable. We like to hide behind some sort of act — which is what the English butler is supposed to do; he is supposed to keep his emotions hidden. It seemed to me that, in this sense, the English butler was someone more universal.
Most of my characters are metaphorical characters. In my latest book, my protagonist is a detective — perhaps in some sense we are all detectives (laughs) trying to find out what happened in our childhood, where we are coming from, where the broken things in our lives came from that we’re still trying to fix.
I have often wondered how writers feel about adaptations of their works for the screen. How did you feel about the production of “The Remains of the Day”?
It was almost entirely a happy experience . . . It was very flattering to see such a distinguished array of people working on the movie, such as Mike Nichols, James Ivory, Harold Pinter . . . Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and Edward Fox.
But, I always advise people [that] if someone is making a movie of their book, not to consider adapting it themselves. Sometimes it works fine, but I think it is a very dangerous thing to have to unravel it all and do it all again so it will work for another medium. You also feel that the characters in a book are in some ways your own children. It is a very strange emotional experience to hear executives sitting around a table discussing whether a particular character should be changed or dropped or his role adapted. So I think this is why a lot of authors have a natural dislike of adaptations.
I understand that “When We Were Orphans” is also to be adapted. It appears to be more obviously suited to the screen than your other works.
I’m surprised you say that. I always try to write books that would be difficult to adapt into movies. I have a strong sense that . . . if I’m offering an experience to a reader, I have to be able to say to that reader, “You can only get this experience by reading this book.” I think this is very important — after all, it’s much easier and less time-consuming to switch on the TV or watch a video. In that sense, I have never wanted my books to be easy to adapt for film.
How do you feel about touring?
I actually quite enjoy it. What troubles me is the accumulation because it takes away the time when one should be writing. I think this has become a feature of the writer’s life over the past 10 to 15 years. Many writers I know spend roughly one year out of every three traveling and doing promotions, which might mean one out of every three books they might have written remains unwritten . . . [laughs]
Finally, do you have any sentimental feelings about speaking in front of a Japanese audience at the upcoming forum?
For me it’s quite an important moment, because when I last came here in 1989 it wasn’t to do with my books, but as part of a program to introduce people from the West to Japanese culture. So this is the first opportunity in Japan to talk about my work in a literary context . . . and to what extent having a Japanese background has influenced my work. I am also very curious to get a sense of how the audience sees me. I probably come over as a rather strange creature that people probably don’t know how to respond to, as Western or as Japanese.
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