Monday 9 October 2017

Nobel Prize Winner Kazuo Ishiguro: Japanese or not Japanese?

Various articles from the Yomiuri Shimbun about Ishiguro's Nobel Prize - plus the cover of his most famous book, The Remains of the Day, in Japanese
Media reports on Ishiguro's Nobel Prize (©Yomiuri Shimbun)
The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro is making big headlines over here at the moment (right). Ishiguro is a Japan-born novelist who moved to Britain when he was five-years old. Interestingly, although he is typically described as a "British" novelist, he didn't get British citizenship until he was in his late twenties. "I couldn't speak Japanese very well, passport regulations were changing, I felt British and my future was in Britain," he explains in a 2005 interview in the Guardian, "...but I still think I'm regarded as one of their own in Japan." Certainly, there is a genuine fondness for the author and even a self-celebratory element to the reporting. Yet I wonder if there is not also a sense of loss and something else - regret, frustration - when his success is reported? He's clearly classified as non-Japanese: in the media he is usually described as a Japan-born British writer (nihon-shusshin ei-sakka =日本出身・英作家)or an English-man of Japanese descent (nikkei eikokujin =日系英国人). Moreover, the use of katakana (カズオ・イシグロ) to write his name rather than kanji (石黒 一雄) in Western first name/last name order highlights his foreignness, his Otherness.

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Ishiguro's treatment reveals a number of interesting points about the construction of Japanese identity. In the first place, because Japan does not recognise dual nationality (nijū-kokuseki =二重国籍) claiming non-Japanese citizenship demands the loss of one's Japanese nationality (by the letter of the law at least). Labels that reflect dual identities, such as Korean-Japanese for example, are not in common use - one is either 100% Japanese or one is not Japanese at all. Yasunori Fukuoka, in a discussion of the ethnic identity of Korean residents in Japan (left), identified three elements which he suggested together define "Japanese-ness": (1) Nationality, (2) blood (race/Ethnicity), and (3) Culture/language. In this model, described by Sugimoto as the N=E=C equation, race is equated with language and culture and the three dimensions are synonymous and form a "set." I use the analogy of a clover-leaf with the three leaves being an integral part of the whole leaf: lack of any one of these individual leaves implies one is not "properly" Japanese. For example, Ishiguro lacks citizenship, but has Japanese "blood," and partial cultural literacy;  Masayoshi Son, in contrast, has full Japanese citizenship and total lingua-cultural competence, but is of Korean descent. Both are "incomplete" Japanese in this model and as such can be a source of discomfort (iwakan =違和感) for some people here. Of course, Fukuoka/Sugimoto's model is rather old and there are many signs in contemporary Japan that this model is breaking down - something I discuss at length in chapter 3 of Language and Citizenship in Japan. See also this recent post on another famous figure re-defining notions of "Japaneseness", US Open winner Naomi Osaka.

In some ways, I am almost a mirror-image of Ishiguro: I have lived longer in Japan than Britain and in many ways feel more comfortable and at home here than I do in the country where I was born. But on the other hand, to paraphrase Ishiguro upon winning the prize, Britain always exists in my mind and a large part of my way of looking at the world, my approach, is British. It is too bad I will never be accepted as a "full" Japanese simply because of the way I look (the lack of Japanese blood); identities are never single things and Japanese identity - in contrast to British identity - remains rather inflexible and inclusive.