Exclusive Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro

The 2017 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Kazuo Ishiguro, spoke with NHK in the Swedish capital of Stockholm on Friday. He says pursuing the truth through literature and journalism is important in this era of fake news.

Q: With your ceremony two days ahead, can you tell us how you feel about the prize and, possibly, your experiences in Stockholm?

Kazuo Ishiguro: Well, obviously, it's a fantastic honour to get this prize. There are many prizes in the world, and there are great prizes, and some prizes are just promotional things for your breakfast cereal, or something like this. So, when you get a prize, I think, you know, you think about what does the prize stand for in the minds of people? And I think this is why the Nobel Prize is considered to be perhaps the greatest prize in the world. It's an idea that people have all around the world. Whatever it is in reality, what's important is what it symbolizes for people. I think what it symbolizes is something very important, particularly at this time, when the world is divided, it's uncertain, and there's a lot of tension in the world. I think the Nobel Prize is a truly international prize, and it emphasizes what human beings do together to try and push civilisation and knowledge onwards. I think it symbolizes, for most people, the idea of people striving together to do something good, rather than dividing into factions, and bitterly fighting each other, and arguing with each other, for resources. So, for this reason, it means an enormous amount to me, that I can join the scientists, and the economists, and the doctors to symbolize this thing in the world, particularly at this moment. This is a very tense moment, I think, in the current situation in the world.

Q: Among all the other fields in which Nobel Prizes are presented, what contribution do you think literature can make that human beings can rally behind?

Ishiguro: Well, I think the important thing about the literature is that it emphasizes the human experience, and the emotions, that we need to decide what we do with the knowledge that we discover. And, of course, this is at the heart of the Nobel story because, as almost everybody knows, it was started by Alfred Nobel because he invented dynamite, and then there was immediately this question, how do you use dynamite? What do you use if for? It can be used for terrible destruction, or it could be used for great progress. And so, immediately, in the idea of the Nobel Prize, there is the understanding that, of course, it's very important to further knowledge, make scientific discoveries, and so on, but there is another very important dimension to this-we have to decide how we use these discoveries. And I think you can only do that if there is some understanding between different cultures and people about emotions, human experience-how does it feel to go through changes? How does it feel to be on the receiving end of the great advances of technology? As you move into the Industrial Revolution, as you move into the information generation, what does it feel like? So, for me, literature is very much about human feelings, and sharing human feelings, hopefully across the barriers and the walls that we have created.

Q: So it’s all about trying to understand the other viewpoint, so we can, maybe, accommodate each other, and make compromise, if necessary? Or come up with some common denominators?

Ishiguro: Yes, exactly. But it's not just about understanding people who seem to have very different values from us, I think it helps us to understand ourselves as well, in our own camp. Because, I think, it's very easy for each of us in our countries, or even in our little factions, to become very energetic in thinking we have the right way of doing things, and we don't stop to examine ourselves, and what our assumptions are based on. So I think literature is very important for these reasons. And I have to say literature doesn't have to be very earnest and solemn, and highbrow. You know, often, what we are talking about can often happen through humour and entertainment. So I believe in all these storytelling forms-you know, cinema; in Japan you have manga. You know, all these art forms. Television, I think, the theatre. It’s a way that we exchange our feelings about how it feels to be living in this world. And I think it helps us to look at ourselves, and examine ourselves, and it helps us to understand people across these barriers. So I think it's a very important part of the human enterprise.

Q: So you endorse the choice of Bob Dylan last year.

Ishiguro: Of course! Yes. Bob Dylan has always been a hero of mine. In many way, I think that’s the first time that I became interested in using words-in a very controlled way-was when I was thirteen years old, and I heard my very first Bob Dylan albums. It's not one of the very famous ones, it was called ‘John Wesley Harding’. But I was thrilled when he won the Nobel Prize last year, and I'm hoping that what it is…I’m hoping that he was given the prize not just for his words, but that it was a broadening of the idea of what literature was. Because I think there are some very important works created by people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and many others. There is an art form that has grown up in the last several decades which I think is a very important art form. And I think it deserves to stand alongside fiction, poetry, drama. It's got a large performance aspect to it, but it's, without doubt, some form of literature as well. And, so, I think recognising Dylan as a Nobel Laureate in Literature, I think, is also a recognition of the importance of the actual whole art form that he represents. Song-writing, and performing, it's become a very important thing for my generation, or the generations younger than me. And I think it's great that the Swedish Academy recognise that.

Q: Before moving on to your work, this is a question that I can’t avoid, with us being Japanese. Can you maybe share with us your thoughts on the Nobel Peace Prize, which has been awarded to ICAN, who have been leading the campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons?

Ishiguro: I was very moved. I think that that was a very important and correct decision to recognise ICAN. You may know that I was born in Nagasaki, and my mother was there when the atomic bomb fell. So I grew up, in a way, under the shadow of the memory of Nagasaki. But, also, after I came to the West, I grew up during the era of the Cold War, and at several points it became very, very tense. Myself, and many of my friends, we seriously entertained the idea that there would be a nuclear war, and what would we do? And it's always seemed to me strange and, to some extent alarming, that the end of the Cold War, after Nineteen Eighty Nine, everybody assumed that the nuclear weapons had disappeared, along with the tension between the Soviet Union and the West. And, of course, the weapons are as dangerous as ever and, actually, they are moving around in less-controlled hands, I would say. And we live in a time of great horrors and shocking terrorism. And I think it's becoming a very dangerous situation. And, of course, the people in Japan will be very keenly aware of this, because of what's happened recently in North Korea. I think it's more important than ever, now, that we become worried again about nuclear weapons. I think it's a tremendous decision to award the Peace Prize to ICAN. It's a wakeup call, I think, for the whole world.

Q: Going back to your novel. It’s a really fundamental question, but can you expand on why you write? And why do you choose those characters-those facing upheaval, or some kind of destiny which is out of their hands? Why did you choose this theme of remembrance and forgetting, on both a personal level, and at a national level? What motivates you to do that?

Ishiguro: I think, early in my career, I wanted to write about individuals who looked back over their lives and realised that the very things that they were most proud of, their great achievements, were actually things that they should be ashamed of, and they didn't realise because they didn't have a perspective on how their contribution, their work, was being used in the wider community. And I think that that was a theme of mine because I come from the generation just after the Second World War, and because of my Japanese back ground. But because of, also, the experience of many people in Europe who, of course, fought under Hitler or, indeed, who collaborated with Hitler in all the countries that were occupied in Europe. I think the older generation-just older than me-always lived with this guilt, or are searching all the time, ‘did I do something wrong? I didn't realise at the time’. And, so, I think that was a very natural theme for me. As I’ve got older, I think I’ve wanted to apply that same question about people remembering their pasts, and wondering, ‘is it best just to forget the past? Or do I have to confront it?’ I’ve applied that question to countries-how does a nation decide what is best to forget about the dark past? Sometimes, a country has to forget in order to move forward, in order to stay together, in order to stop the community fracturing into civil war, or into factions. And we can see, all over the world, situations where countries are in constant civil war, or in cycles of violence, because they can't forget what happened. So, sometimes, forgetting is necessary, but, on the other hand, can you really build a stable, democratic society, when you haven’t addressed great horrors and injustices that have occurred. So I think this one of the…it seems to me countries have the same question that individuals do, who have come through difficult periods. You know, when is it better to forget? And when do you have to remember? So, these themes have really preoccupied me from the start till the present.

Q: Do you think Japan has been good at forgetting and remembering? The balance? I know there’s no formula, or straightforward answer that everybody can agree on, but is there a ‘buried giant’ in Japanese society?

Ishiguro: Yes, I think there is a buried giant in every society. Or, every society that I know at all well, I think there are big buried giants. And I think we're seeing at the moment in America, the buried giant of race, and it's tearing that country apart, because it’s remained buried. Britain, where I live, has its buried giants. Japan has, of course...many people accuse Japan of burying the memories of the Second World War. This is easier, perhaps, for Japan to identify its victims because of two nuclear bombings. And, so, this has caused tension between Japan and the neighbours, in South-East Asia and China. But, on the other hand, I think, this is why I say it’s a very delicate question because Japan has been very successful-it’s a shining example of how a country can move from a militaristic, Fascistic society to the model of being a modern, liberal democracy. Today, I think the world is a very uncertain place; I think Europe is going through a very uncertain time. Japan remains very stable. It's a very solid democracy in a very uncertain time. Would it have been possible for Japan to do this without actually pushing away a lot of the dark memories of what happened, and the atrocities that Japan committed, immediately after the Second World War? Perhaps not. I think, you know, how you build a good society, as Japan has become, perhaps that depends on forcibly forgetting things, even if it seems that justice has not always been addressed. And I think this question applies to many, many countries around the world. Yes, Japan has forgotten many things, but Japan has succeeded in becoming a great liberal democracy in the free world, and I think that's a considerable achievement.

Q: If it’s buried, and since then we’ve moved on, should we have the courage to address it now? Or is it just something that we should let go, and move on, because this generation’s forgetting about the war, and are more concerned about themselves? Some way we’re getting more inward-looking. What’s the way forward?

Ishiguro: It's not for me, as somebody from the outside, to say, but I think it's the same kind of advice you would give to a friend, or an individual who is, say, struggling about childhood memories, or something like this. I think you come back to this question: is some damage being done to your society? Is there some harm that is being done to your relationships with your neighbours, because of burying things? If there is some damage, if there is something seriously growing that might get worse because some questions are not being looked at, then perhaps it's worth asking-are we strong enough now to look at the past? And because the past is more distant, is it easier to look at the past? And I think many other countries have done this, and countries have issued apologies-official apologies-for things that happened generations earlier. But it's not for me to make any suggestions about Japan, but I’m making a general point here, because how one treats the past often has a lot to do with what happens now, and what happens in the future.

Q: Going back to your writing-I think you are trying to emphasise that you should not be bound by genres, or the divisions that somebody has put into story-writing. But why do you move on? Are you trying to re-invent yourself through sticking to one theme about remembrance while, at the same time, testing different forms of expression? Haruki Murakami has suggested that you seem to be painting a picture with little pieces which will eventually come together, when we’ll see the bigger picture. Do you agree?

Ishiguro: Yes. Well, I think many writers, and Haruki san's work is very much like this, I think. I think you can…everything he does, I think, is part of a greater work. And this is one of the things that makes Haruki Murakami one of the great writers of our generation. I think I, too…I appreciate what Haruki san says because he understands, as a fellow writer, the continuity that runs through a lot of writing. Readers often notice what is on the outside, the surface, and so people might say 'oh, it's changed a lot'. But, of course, the story, the emotions inside the story, are often consistent, and one is a progression from another. I don't consciously go around trying out different genres. What often happens is that I always start off with an idea which is quite abstract, and it doesn't have a natural setting in time or genre, or even geographically. And so I often find myself location-hunting, if you like, once I get the idea-where is the best place to put this idea? Shall I put it in this century? In this country? Should I put it in some fantasy world in the future? And, so, I never really think about the genre. I’m just trying my very best to get this story to work. I'm rather like one of these early people who try to invent flying machines. And I'm just putting anything I can get to make the machine fly up in the air. I might steal my next-door neighbour's bicycle. But I don't really care what it looks like, I just want it to fly.

Q: Your first inspiration where does that come from? Is it inspired by a past experience as a social worker or the fact you are British Japanese? Where does the source of inspiration come from?

Ishiguro: I think everything that happens to me helps shape how I might write a book, but always for me, the start of an idea is usually something that can be expressed quite simply in two or three sentences. I keep a notebook and I have kept a notebook since 1979, not the same one but actually, it is rather depressing, I have only ever had two, they are quite small so it shows how few ideas I actually have. Sometimes I have ideas that would be great ideas for stories, but I think that should be for somebody else and it is just not for me. But Sometimes I recognise an idea and think ‘Oh, that's in my territory’. That is ‘Haruki-san would say’ part of my canvas, so then I will write it down and I will think about it. I always start from an idea that can be expressed very simply but it has to be an idea that when I look at it in just 2 or 3 sentences, simple sentences, it should be full of tension, emotion, and potential. It should be pregnant ‘if you like’ with a big story and then I think yes, that could be a whole novel. But it is very unusual for me to find these ideas and that is why I haven't written many books in my life.

Q: One person has told me the fact that you devote about 10 years in a book. How do you overcome your loneliness? Your father had been a scientist and must have been quite a meticulous person looking into detail, do you have those genes carried on to you?

Ishiguro: I think watching my father, the way he worked was a very good model for me, because for my father, work was not something he went to an office to do and then did it for the salary and came back and relaxed. He never stopped. When he watched television, he would do so with a kind of improvised desk. He would put a board across the arms of his chair, and his graph paper and all his things were there in case he had ideas while he was watching a thriller on the television. It was something he passionately did and so this was a very good model for me. Although I understand very little about science, I don't have a scientific mind but that approach to work is not something you necessarily have to separate from your life. It was a kind of vocation, so I think that was a very good model for me. I should say, it is nonsense that I spent 10 years of my life writing a novel. It sounds very admirable that somebody should be so dedicated that they spend 10 years- I have never spent 10 years writing a novel. It is because I do other things, and probably the longest between books is 5 years for me. It is not loneliness that is the problem. These days writers are required to become very public figures, and so part of the reason I have such long gaps between my books is that often I publish a book and then I spend about 2 years going around the world talking about it, taking part in conferences or getting involved with movie adaptations. Some of which really get made, many that don't. I spent a lot of my time like a kind of businessman, going into meeting about casting or film funding, or theatre adaptations. In many ways the problem is the opposite, I have to fight for space to write a book. I think this is increasingly a problem ‘if you like to call it a problem’ for writers in the modern age. I don't think writers of previous generations experienced it to such an extent but writers, particularly novelists because they work alone, there is no one to support them, to say it is important that he or she is left alone. There is always someone phoning to say, please do this, please do that. My wife is very good at pushing people away and telling me ‘you mustn't do that, go upstairs and do some writing’.

Q: You touched on your parent's upbringing. How has that affected your writing and the way you see things as you were brought up by typical Japanese parents in a British 70s and 80s setting?

Ishiguro: I think the way I was brought up by my parents is quite crucial to my becoming a writer at all. Not just the way I write but to the fact I became a writer at all because my parent's plan was to return to Japan after one or two years. I was five years old, went from Nagasaki to England and every year we were planning to go back so we didn't really become immigrants. We were visitors, so my parents always looked at the western people, the British people as a kind of natives in a strange land. I was always taught to respect the customs of these natives but I wasn't expected necessarily to adopt them. Even very small things like how you behave towards adults. Particularly in those days, a Japanese boy could get away with almost anything. By English standards it would be called misbehaviour. Japanese boys can be very open and headstrong, but in England, it was the opposite at that time, children had to be very quiet. So immediately in my small world there was a huge difference between how I was expected to behave in our home, speaking Japanese and how I had to behave outside. I always understood there were two completely different social norms and that's how I grew up. Always slightly seeing the British at a distance. Looking at things not as absolute right and wrong in this society but as the customs and traditions of this country. Also, because of my Japanese background at home, I was always deeply fascinated by Japanese things, particularly Japanese films. Even today I have a special relationship with the Japanese movies that were made in 1950s because they bring back these early childhood memories. In some ways, because my parents left Japan in 1960, their version of Japan that I inherited is a Japan that you would perhaps not know. Things changed so much. When I see the movies of directors like Ozu or Naruse, I feel it is something very close to the life I had at home in England through my parents. That's my parents' life, I always think. And so I always have had a deep relationship with Japanese cinema of the 1950s and early 60s.

Q: Are there any phrases or items that you particularly like about Japan?

Ishiguro: As I say, Japanese films have always been a big touchstone for me, but I've always loved the manga style of storytelling. But, once again, I think it's because as a child, when I was still in Nagasaki, because I was a child, I was reading everything in manga form. And when I moved to England that became something that I very much identified with Japanese culture, because there was no equivalent in England. So when manga books were sent to me I understood that this was a peculiarly Japanese thing. And I think it remains a peculiarly Japanese form. Now manga has become so influential that I think in the American comics industry, everybody is picking up things from manga technique. It's a much more sophisticated storytelling technique than the traditional American superhero comic. So I think, even today, I still love that form of storytelling, and this is one of the things I'm wanting to do. I want to try and work on some sort of graphic novel because this will take me back to some childhood passion that I have. But of course, now, everybody in the West has fallen in love with so many Japanese cultural things that it's almost like the way French culture was in Britain when I first came to Britain. It's quite difficult to even remember what is Japanese and what isn't. My daughter's generation grew up on Pikachu and Pokemon, and all the video games and everybody in London likes to eat sushi at lunchtime. It's not high-quality sushi what you might be used to, but rather than grab a sandwich, people buy sushi. On the back of newspapers there's Sudoku. You have to now stop to think what has come from Japan? And this is a huge change from when I first arrived as a child in England, when everything Japanese was very exotic. And then there was the era when Japan was very much identified as a kind of economic miracle country-all these gadgets and wonderful devices came from Japan. But, now, I would say how Japan is perceived in the West is almost as a cultural force. I feel very proud of Japan for that. In my lifetime, living in the West, I've gone from somebody who came from the enemy country in the Second World War, to the country from where television, cameras, and cars come from, to a country where Haruki Murakami and a certain kind of artistic ascetic beauty, and a whole kind of popular culture of anime and games-Nintendo, and all these things come from. I'm very proud of that progress. Even clothes design, it's everywhere. And I think that's something that Japan should be proud of.

Q: On the surface we are getting more cosmopolitan but don't you think it is an irony what we are witnessing on a community or state level, something that goes against this is happening over a recent couple of years? I understand your position on Brexit and Europe but can you expand and explain why this is happening?

Ishiguro: To some extent, it is a backlash. You can rather roughly use this term, popularism. This is a phenomenon we have seen a lot, certainly in the Western world, but interestingly not so much in Japan or indeed in East Asia. That part of the world seems to be free of this phenomenon, but it has swept through Europe and America. To some extent, I think it is a reaction against globalisation, the speed at which globalisation has gone. And it's easy to say, for those of us who are lucky to live in very comfortable and sophisticated parts of these countries, to say these are backward people who are frightened of change and progress and they are inward looking. But I think there is a very good case to say that we have neglected the feelings and interests of huge numbers of people. And it is partly because I think after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism, this idea that capitalism could just be let loose like a wild monster with no restraint. The kind of neo-liberal idea of economics and the free market ruling everything. I think it has created enormous divisions between the successful in a rich country and people who are left behind. And I think a lot of people identify why they are being left behind with this internationalisation, this globalisation of industry and work. I think it has left us very vulnerable to some extent, to politicians or people from the outside of the main political establishments to say that we are being let down by the usual political hierarchy, ‘follow me and we'll protest and put things back’. But I think the great danger comes when somebody from the outside and uses a group of people as scapegoats and often this is the problem. In many ways I think it is right that somebody should say that many people have been left behind in society but trouble comes when, in order to control the electorate and get the political support, the easiest thing to do is to choose a group that is a scapegoat, usually a minority group in a society or people who are trying to get into the society. This is a technique that was used in the 1930s by Fascists, we have to be very careful of this. And society is dividing and I find it depressing that countries that seemed to be stable for a long time are now dividing into different factions as in Spain.

Q: How do you feel about politicians intentionally using words like ‘us' and ‘them', or using 'alternative' or 'fake' information? And in the long term do you think this will change the way people remember the past? Technology and facebook posts illustrate what you want yourself to be seen as and not really what you are and so we are at a crossroad and things are drastically changing.

Ishiguro: I think this is why it is very important. You asked the question before, ‘why is literature important?’. I think literature is important to try and maintain standards and truth, emotional truth. But I think the work that you do, journalism-good journalism is absolutely crucial at this time. We have always had fake news, the Twentieth Century was all about political propaganda. It was the great era of political controlled propaganda but now we seem to have a different kind of fake news and we are not so sophisticated about how to resist it. We, as a society became very alert about government propaganda or political propaganda, of the sort that for say, Hitler or Stalin had put out and now we are very resistant to it, but we are not so resistant to this new fake news. And one of the things perhaps we have to be careful about, is that we stopped caring about what is true or false. It is not just that we are afraid to contradict a very powerful person who tells one version of the truth, but I think there is an idea going around that that doesn't matter, what matters is what emotions come out of that statement. So, if you feel that some incident that was supposed to have happened yesterday expresses my anger or my sentimentality about something, then let's pretend that it happened. And that is a very dangerous thing to do, and I think that is something quite new. That people don't really care if something really happened or didn't happen, as long as its fictional value is useful for some argument. I think what you do, journalism is very important, and I think it is important for all of us as a society to become as aware and alert about the manipulation of truth and news as people had to do in generations before in the era of government propaganda in the middle of 20th century when we had the Second World War, Fascism and Communism and we have to become sophisticated to understand how fake news works now.

Q: I understand that your new book is trying to address the issue of technology emerging and how it impacts our daily lives. Is it something that would answer the very difficult questions you have been posed with now? Or is it something totally different?

Ishiguro: I haven't finished my book so I don't know myself exactly what it would actually say. In many ways, I am still preoccupied with my usual themes. Partly because I have been meeting and talking to people who know a lot more about the breakthroughs in science and technology. I think there is this feeling that we are on the brink of enormous changes in society because of what has become possible. I'm not sure if there has been a sufficient discussion or debate in society at large about what would happen if things like artificial intelligence becomes normal, and indeed for me, the even more interesting question is what happens when we can actually control genes to the point where we can create, if you like, ‘super babies'. I think there are great benefits to this in that you can remove genetic illnesses. So this is a great breakthrough in terms of stopping suffering before it even starts. So all these genetic diseases could be stopped through gene editing. But of course it is like cosmetic surgery which was originally created for burn victims, accident victims, but now rich people do it to look more beautiful. I think the same thing will happen. We will be able to create babies that are more intelligent or more athletic. And then we will have a kind of apartheid in society, where some people are officially superior to others, and what will we do then with our ideas of meritocracy? So I think we haven't had any discussion in society as a whole, about how we organize our societies when things change in this enormous way. Instead, if you like, popular culture has made us wonder what will happen if zombies attacked our capital cities. So I think the world over, we are well prepared for a zombie attack but I don't think we are actually very prepared for what is really already on top of us.