Kazuo Ishiguro and the Problem of “Japaneseness”

The Remains of the Day is a really, really good book. In fact, it’s an excellent book. This is not a review of The Remains of the Day, however. It is instead a meditation on the thorny problem of whether the work of Kazuo Ishiguro can be considered “Japanese” literature.

The essence of this problem is “Japaneseness.” What is it, who has it, and who doesn’t? Since I am an American, it’s useful for me to consider the related problem of “Americanness.” How does one become culturally American? Is such a feat accomplished by matriculating into high school, taking classes, going to football games on Friday nights, agonizing over whom to invite to the prom, and listening to My Chemical Romance while studying for the SAT? If so, what happens when experiences of high school are radically different? I am referring not merely to disparities in experience according to one’s rank in the imaginary jock/geek hierarchy, but rather to the diversity of the experiences of a student in a small rural school in the South, and a student in a rich private school in New York, and a student in a large suburban school in the Midwest, and a student in school with a large immigrant population in southern Arizona. There are many different types of Americanness, as any young hipster from Seattle or old Republican from Mississippi could tell you. For me personally, moving from Atlanta to Philadelphia was like moving to a different country.

Although Japan is smaller than America in terms of both population and land area, there is an enormous diversity of Japaneseness. Younger Japanese do not grow up in the same world as their parents, who in turn did not grow up in the same world as their parents. The rural/urban divide is fairly pronounced, as is the divide between geographical locations (such as between Tōhoku and Kantō, or between Tokyo and Osaka). There are also a number of ethnic minorities in Japan, such as the burakumin, the Okinawans, and any number of resident Koreans, Chinese, and Filipinos. The people living on the Japanese archipelago speak many markedly different dialects of Japanese, and different groups of people were taught and believe in different versions of Japanese history. We group all of these people together and call them “Japanese,” but the nation of Japan is an imagined community just like any other, and the degrees to which individuals opt into (or opt out of) this community can vary significantly.

Even though there is really no such thing as “Japaneseness,” I believe there should be a place in a college curriculum for courses like “Introduction to Japanese Civilization.” In order to teach such a class, a professor has to make up a story, and it is often useful for that story to be told teleologically (chronologically from “beginning” to “end”) instead of thematically. Even though the professor knows that he or she is simplifying and omitting and thereby telling a story that isn’t necessarily true, it’s still important to have a story to tell. An outline of Japan colored with rough brushstrokes is better than an outline of Japan left blank, after all. A constructed story is useful not only as a teaching device but also as a cultural bridge; it is in many ways worthwhile to tell students just beginning to learn about Japan the same story that many Japanese tell themselves.

Therefore, when we talk about “Japanese” literature, we need to decide what counts as “Japanese.” This is more difficult than it initially seems. For example, take T.S. Eliot, who was born and raised in America but spent his adult life in Britain and considered himself British. Is Eliot an American poet, or is he a British poet? My high school textbook couldn’t decide. Vladimir Nabokov is another good example. Although he grew up in Russia and in many ways consciously retained his Russian heritage (by translating his own works from and into Russian, for example), he lived in America (and Berlin, and Switzerland) and wrote in English. Is Nabokov American or Russian or something else altogether? The blurb on the back of the Vintage editions of his books skillfully evades the matter. An even trickier example is Tawada Yōko, who lives in Germany and writes poems and stories in both German and Japanese about being a Japanese person in Germany. Two major contemporary Japanese writers, Ōe Kenzaburō and Murakami Haruki, not only speak other languages besides Japanese but also frequently spend long stretches of time living outside Japan.

Assigning “Japaneseness” to any one person is therefore difficult; but, in the end, it is convenient to be able to draw a line somewhere, even if that line is in the faintest of pencil. In terms of literature, I think it’s reasonable to categorize anything written in the Japanese language(s) as Japanese literature. But what about texts not written in Japanese? Specifically, can we call the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, who grew up in England and writes in English about being English in England, Japanese literature?

I would like to argue that this doesn’t make a great deal of sense. First of all, assuming that someone is Japanese simply because of his name comes dangerously close to racism. If “racism” is too loaded a term, then perhaps “culturalism” might be better. Is there some ineffable quality about someone of Japanese descent that makes him irrevocably “Japanese”? If nothing else, to point to someone who has grown up in the same cultural background and call him different because of his name or the color of his skin or his parents’ country of origin is problematic, to say the least.

Second, including Ishiguro in a canon of modern Japanese authors feels somewhat ethnocentric to me. The Japanese themselves consider Ishiguro to be a foreign writer – his novels are translated into Japanese, and his name is written in katakana like the names of other foreign authors. Ishiguro’s relationship with Japan is complicated, but he himself has said in so many words that he doesn’t consider himself to be a Japanese writer. To ignore the claims of the author and the Japanese literary establishment and to insist that novels written by a British citizen in English about Britain are Japanese literature seems misguided at best and pigheaded at worst, as if the Japanese themselves cannot produce or canonize their own literary works. One might as well call Muriel Bradbury’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog a classic of Japanese literature simply because it features a Japanese character and a few amateurish haiku.

I started thinking about Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Japaneseness” when I was sent a list of 20 Essential Works of Japanese Literature from Bachelor’s Degree Online. I have many problems with this list (including, most obviously, the fact that The Woman in the Dunes was written by Abe Kōbō and not Teshigahara Hiroshi, who directed the film version), but the inclusion of a male writer who isn’t even “Japanese” at the expense of many fantastic female writers was like a kick in the gut, especially considering that the ratio of modern male authors to modern female authors is thirteen to one. Even if one wanted to make a case for a literature of diaspora, wouldn’t Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World be a better choice than The Remains of the Day?

In the end, though, who is to say what is Japanese and what isn’t? What I have stated is merely my opinion, and my opinion is that perhaps it makes more practical sense to keep Ishiguro on the list of The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945 instead of forcibly transplanting him onto a list that begins with the Kōkin Wakashū.