Kazuo Ishiguro on Asian-British Writers

Aoki Tamotsu, trans. Wayne Pounds

In a very short time, novelist Kazuo Ishiguro has established himself as an important British writer. Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954.  His father, an oceanographer, took the family to England when he was five. After graduating in English literature from the University of Kent, he worked  in a relief  operation for African refugees, then enrolled  in the creative writing course at the graduate school of the University of East Anglia. In 1982 his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, won the Royal Society of Literature Prize. His next work, An Artist of the Floating  World, 1986, won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award. And in 1989 The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize, England’s highest literary award .

During a short visit to Japan in the fall of 1989, Ishiguro was interviewed in English by Aoki Tamotsu for the magazine Chuo koron, which published a Japanese translation. This retranslation, by Wayne Pounds, appears through the courtesy of Ishiguro and Chuokoronsha.



The first novel of yours I read was while I was in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I think that was 1983, and I remember that I read Rushdie’s Shame about the same time. At that time in Japan, nobody knew the name Kazuo Ishiguro, and your books were not available. Rushdie also was not known. I was involved in anthropological surveys in Asia, and in the bookstores of cities like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi, and Colombo, I noticed a group of new works by writers such as V.S. Naipaul , Shiva Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Ruth Jhabvala and Timothy Mo . All were born either in one of England’s former colonies or someplace else outside the British Isles. They were writing in English, frequently centering their work in London, and were receiving high critical praise. It was among this group of writers that I first came across your work . I would like to ask you whether you think these writers share a consciousness of themselves as a group, and whether perhaps you yourself had an interest in their activities when you began your literary career.

I think you’d find a tendency among these writers to deny that they belong to a group, wouldn’t you? It’s natural for a writer to resist being grouped. [laughter]


Especially after he becomes famous. [laughter] If that’s the case, then each of them is carrying on independently, there isn’t much interchange among them.

 That’s right.  Especially in my case since my background is Japanese, I don’t think you could call me a member  of such a group. In terms of cultural origin I’m not from a former British colony. It’s clear that between England and her former colonies there’s a very special, intense, difficult relationship. Several of Rushdie’s works have treated the kind of emotional confusion that results. But the relationship between England and Japan is nothing like that. Moreover, the style of my writing is nothing like Rushdie’s. For that matter, Timothy Mo and Rushdie are rather different too , and Naipaul and Rushdie are at  opposing ends of the scale politically. So I think you’d find a lot of resistance from these writers to the idea of putting them together as a group.

But these writers of the younger generation, like Rushdie and Mo, do have one thing in common: each has a distinctive, non-English cultural background. Their emergence reflects a new, international interest on the part of the  English reader — and of the English publishing world and mass communications. At the end of the seventies there was a feeling that English fiction had become very uninteresting. The criticism was repeatedly made that English authors were writing very provincial books. They wrote as if England were still the center of the world, as if they hadn’t noticed that her place was now rather marginal. In the England of the seventies a particular type of  novel,  treating the  marriage and work-problems of the middle class, had become the mainstream. Lots of people, especially younger readers had begun to feel that this kind of novel was of no use to anyone outside England, that it was not even interesting. And if it wasn’t of interest even to the French or the Germans, it was totally unrelated to people in the U.S. or Asia. No doubt more exciting works were also written, but, because they weren’t taken up by the mass media, they sunk into obscurity.

What happened in the first half of the eighties was that the editors of the five or six most powerful literary publishing companies began introducing writers of the younger generation, and very quickly these younger writers encouraged a more international novel. While this may appear to be a sudden development, in fact these writers had already been around a good while. It’s just that the spotlight hit them suddenly. And the time was right. Readers had begun to notice that English society was now com­ posed of a number of different peoples, and they developed an interest in cul­tural pluralism. Because a number of social problems arose from the presence of different cultures, the work of writers with multicultural backgrounds in a sense became topical.


There’s a reason I mentioned the particular grouping of writers at the start. When Timothy Mo received the Booker Prize, Hong Kong’s Asia Week gave it big play as a literary event centered on writers born in the former colonies. The article put Rushdie forward as a representative writer and quoted him on the ambitions of the new literature. Rumors of who might be the next recipient of the Booker Prize were discussed, and you were presented not be because you were raised as a leading candidate from this group. Such, at least, was the view of Hong Kong journalists, and from the outside it seemed reasonable enough.

If I may offer a correction, the writer who received the Booker Prize at that time [1981] was Rushdie for Midnight’s Children. Timothy Mo was a candidate, and he has received some other prizes, but he hasn’t yet actually received the Booker. But it’s true, as you say, these writers are often treated as a group. There are some five or six non-white writers whom English critics in particular see as a group . And the fact that English society, or at least the English literary world, has spotlighted this group of writers is clearly significant, because for a number of years these writers were ignored. The attention comes, you might say, from the liberal element within the system. It is an attempt to understand the Asians who live in England, and the idea is to achieve this in terms of literature. But I think this idea is mistaken, it’s a mistake to think that sufficient cultural informa­tion  can  be  gained     from  reading Rushdie, Mo, or a writer like myself. Let’s suppose someone wants to know about Japanese society because Toyota or Nissan  is  building  a plant — and of course this kind of interest in Japanese culture has been increasing for several years now. It would be a big mistake for this person to think he can understand Japanese society by reading my novels. I don’t believe novelists are reliable as sources of that kind of information. For reliable information, scholarly or jour­nalistic nonfiction is much more  useful. In principle, novelists write from impulse and they break the cultural mold.


The relationship of English literature to the internationalization of English society is an interesting problem. When I read the reviews of Anita Brookner [born in Eng­land in 1938 of Polish-Jewish parents; winner of the 1984 Booker prize for Hotel du Lac], it seems that readers felt strongly that it was foreign, a novel written by a foreigner.

Your first two novels are set  in  Japan and involve Japanese characters. It is commonly said that they are Japanese in some important way. But when I read them, I feel that they’re very English and not Japanese at all. In terms of technique, style, and character type, they follow the tradition of the English novel.

In terms of technique, I think of myself as a rather English novelist. Of course English critics usually insist on my Japanese background, and so for a long time it has been said that my novels are extremely Japanese. Even with my third novel [Remains of the Day], which is set entirely in England, some critics say that the style is very Japanese. But generally the critics who say this kind of thing know almost nothing about Japanese literature.


That’s the prejudice of the English reviewer, isn’t it? [laughter] In A Pale of View of Hills, the way Etsuko feels about things is almost without analog in contemporary Japanese literature. She feels more like a character from a novel by Evelyn Waugh or E. M. Forster.

That’s not surprising. After all, I don’t read Japanese, and the Japanese literature I have read even in translation is rather limited. My knowledge of literature is pretty much restricted to Western literature. It would be more surprising if my works did not follow Western traditions. Critics merely cling to the fact that my name is Japanese. This has been a big problem for me. A writer, by nature, tries to develop a style that is personal, his own, and I am no exception. I wanted to create an entire world that could be found only within my novel, and whether or no it resembled any world outside, I wanted to be able to recognize it as my own. But because I set my novel in a place called Japan, Western readers seem to have believed that everything that was strange or special in the novel was Japaneese—as if they were saying, “Aren’t the Japanese strange?” or “Isn’t Japanese society strange?” I wanted to write a novel that would be a little different from the realistic novel, but as long as I used Japan for a setting that was very difficult to do. Most Western readers are so ignorant about Japan that if I had written a Kafka-esque novel, they probably would have taken that to be a realistic and faithful depiction of Japan. Therefore I felt that my artistic achievements had not been understood.

As a rule, my attitude toward setting is technical, like that of a film director looking for a location . Actually, when I began this novel it was set in England—the 1970’s in the west of England. But after a while, although it was the same story, I decided to make the setting Nagasaki. I was not writing a novel about Japan or Japanese history. At  that  time, as a young person brought up in England in the 70’s and 80’s, I had a consciousness of a certain problem, a theme, and i felt free to choose what I thought was the most appropriate place for the setting. I didn’t necessarily feel the need for the strict accuracy expected of a historian, or even a journalist or writer of travel guides. I created a certain scene, and I could have called it Japan or any other name I chose.


In all your novels, whatever the setting, you seem to create a very universal human image, and I wonder if this may not be because you were raised in England, and actually know very little about Japan — you’re a writer who recognizes no national borders.

I guess that’s right. I feel that I’ve been forced into an international style of writing. That’s where my borderless stance comes from. In terms of feeling, in terms of art, I had no choice. it’s probably not a bad thing. At present I consciously writer for an international readership. I have no desire to write a book that would interest only English or only European readers. the English are very concerned with social class and with the class system. It’s not merely an intellectual obsession — for most people it’s an extremely emotional obsession. They were brought up by parents who were obsessed with the class system, and their place within it. For the most part, I think, the average English novelist—and I don’t mean a novelist like myself but the traditional novelist—can’t help but write about this cold silent war of the classes. I have always thought that my own position, however, is somewhat apart from this struggle. I received a very English education, but my parents were Japanese. In a sense, I didn’t belong to any class of English society. Therefore I have no emotional need to write about the subject. At the same time I knew my own roots were somehow in Japanese culture, so in my novels I had an emotional need to create my own personal Japan, the Japan of my imagination. Yet I could only write about what there is within people, whatever their culture, that is of international interest, aspects of life that people everywhere share in common.


In Rushdie’s novels, for instance, the characters repeatedly ask themselves who they are. The same is usually true in V.S. Naipul’s novels. That’s one of the principal attractions of their fiction, as well as one of their reasons for writing. As persons who have crossed cultural borders, they ask themselves questions of identity. But in your works to date we don’t find much of that sort of thing.

If I had an identity crisis, it would be the question whether I am Japanese or English. But that question hasn’t bothered me the way it has Naipal and Rushdie. After all, our cultural backgrounds are sufficiently different. As I said a moment ago, writers like Naipaul and Rushdie have a colonial relationship to England, and that relationship is a vexed one. That’s the first thing. Then a person of Rushdie’s background, that is someone from the Indian upper class, has been brought up to believe that good things – the good things  in  life – are English. When he actually comes to England, however, he feels that, as an Indian, he is rejected by English society. At the same time, of course, he is no longer accepted by Indian society either, or he himself may feel that he doesn’t belong. I don’t pretend to know how Rushdie feels, but this is a typical example of what people experience in this kind of situation .

I think my relationship to England is much simpler. I came when I was very young and grew up there. I didn’t go back and forth between Japan and England. And unlike the Indian who looks to England as an ancestral country, my parents were not the kind of people who kept their eyes fixed on Japan as the land of their origins.

Another important difference is that within English society there is a well­ defined Indian society, and a Pakistani society. I think that when a writer who happens to be from one of these nations comes to England, as a very practical problem he is forced to choose which society he belongs to. For example, Indian customs are very different from English customs and involve different responsibilities affecting marriage and the family. So Indians in England have to make very realistic choices about who will be their friends and who they will marry. The question of which society they belong to forces itself in them.

For Japanese in England these conditions don’t exist. Apart from a transient business community, there’s nothing in England that could be called a Japanese society. In addition, when I arrived in 1960, there were very few Japanese in England at all. Therefore, as I grew up, the problem of which society I belonged to  never arose.  I now accept the fact that I am a mixture, a cultural compound. It’s clear that the Western elements in me outnumber the Japanese, I am a cultural compound.

I think in the twenty-first century this will become the norm. As the world becomes more international and people move around from place to place, we will probably all become the products of plural backgrounds and plural cultures. So identity is not a problem for me as an individual. If someone were to ask me to write a book about my identity crisis, I think I’d have trouble writing even a short essay. It’s not a topic that especially concerns me. But I think for Rushdie and Naipaul it’s the central problem.


Ishiguro’s wife, Lorna: That’s because you’ve never experienced racial discrimination.

That’s right. Of course a kind of discrimination exists against the Japanese, but a very subtle kind. It’s related to the war and Japan’s colonialist role. I was brought up in the mainstream of English society, so I’ve never experienced dis­ crimination at any level. None at all.


Isnt this fact reflected in the style of your writing?

That’s the first time anyone has suggested that to me. Well, the reason I am able to accept English traditions is that I myself have been accepted by English society – in contrast to a writer like Rushdie, who from the first has had to aim at an inter­ national literature. That’s a very interesting point. If I felt a hostile relationship to England, it would be very difficult for me to respect English literature and allow myself to be influenced by it. You are quite right. I probably wouldn’t have been able to write a work like The Remains of the Day, which I really enjoyed writing. I was absorbed in a nostalgia for the mythological England of the past. And although I know that the myth is mistaken on some points, still, a part of me truly loves the idea of the English countryside and the England of the past. It holds an exotic attraction for me. In The Remains of the Day I wanted to create a very English world, and I threw myself into this work, immersing myself in the world of the butler, the country mansion, and the English village. I enjoyed it immensely.


One reason why I see this novel as very English is that it reflects the style of traditional English travel literature. I wonder if the trip the main character makes from Salisbury to Weymouth isn’t based on an actual trip you made.


Well, I’m pretty familiar with the route, but in writing the novel, rather than rely on my own knowledge, I bought some old travel books and used some of their language and the image of England which they generate. The books I found were written in the period before the set­ ting of the novel – before the war. Not many travel accounts were written in England during the fifties.


I sense the travel scenes in The  Remains of the Day can be read as a three-layered text . One level is that of the 1920s travel guide the butler uses, Mrs. Simons The Wonder of England, and the descriptions it gives. At another level, there is the actual experience of the landscape that the butler has as he travels through it with Mrs. Simons guidebook in the 1950s, the present of the novelThen finally there   is your own experience of the  journey, which is part of the basis of your writing. The Japanese reader of course tends to see only the butler’s descriptions as central to the novel, but the English reader must be intrigued by the subtle differences among these three levels of description.

I worried about how the book would be read not just in Japan but everywhere outside of England. A while back I was traveling in the States, where the book was being well received, but some people there took it for granted that the England of the novel was really England. I was concerned that they had missed the irony of the discrepancy you mention, the irony that arises when readers notice the author ‘s image of England is odd and wonder why. I’m afraid that in the U.S., Japan or Europe, the discrepancy isn’t noticed. But even if the reader assumes this is life in England, I don’t think it has all that much effect on the value of the book.


One problem for Japanese readers is that they know little of the role of the butler in English society, so I don’t think they can understand how he views the world. But part of the butlers character is easy to grasp and comes across very well the way he feels: his ups and downs, his feeling of failure, his hesitations, and at the end, his tranquillity or resignation. In that sense I think he’s a universal character. The more subtle effects in the novel, however, are tied to the butler’s social position within the class system.

 Certainly this is a problem incidental to writing for an international audience . For the English reader of today too, the idea of a butler is strange and exotic. The butler they know is a creature of myth derived from books and movies.


The main characters of your novels, including the butler in your last novel, don’t fit in with other people very well, which causes them suffering. They feel a gap between themselves and the world, or the times, or their environment, and seem about to drop out of the race; yet, in the end, they don’t lose out completely. What the reader feels is not exactly the author’s sympathy for these characters but his warmhearted gaze. Is this related to your own posture toward the world ?

I don’ t know whether my own world­ view has anything in common with these characters’ state of resignation. But I think you could say that I write driven by the shadow of a certain fear – the fear that when I reach their age I may find myself in the same condition. If I feel a certain sympathy for these characters, that’s the reason. You might even say that I write these books as a warning to myself. That is, I have a lot of pride in what I’m doing right now and a lot of confidence in my value judgments, but when I reach a later stage in my life, the things which seem so clear to me now may present a completely different appearance. When that happens, I won­ der what I’ll do. That’s what I ask myself. A person has to have a degree of self-respect in order to carry on, right? It’s not likely that he would be able to completely abandon his old values. It would be extremely difficult for him to admit he had been completely wrong, wouldn’t it?  So even if he is forced into a painful self-assessment, the result – as you’ve just said – is going to be inconclusive.


I wonder how you feel about the inter­nationalization of life in London and where it’s heading.

It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen. Most English people feel that their society is in turmoil, and probably the present racial tensions are going to get worse. The same situation may well develop in Japan. It seems that Asian immigrants have already become a big problem here.

There is no doubt, however, that English culture is becoming inter­nationalized. England is now a much smaller country than ever before, and this is forcing it to become a much more international country than ever before.

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Aoki Tamotsu, trans Wayne Pounds

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