Minutes after Japan-born Briton Kazuo Ishiguro was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Japanese people took to Twitter to ask: “Who (the heck) is Kazuo Ishiguro?”
For those who had never heard of the author of The Remains Of The Day (1989) and other award-winning novels, the name that flashed across smartphones and TV screens on Thursday, Oct 5, was puzzling – it was undoubtedly Japanese-sounding, but written in the local script reserved for foreign names and words.
Far from the superstar status that his erstwhile compatriot – and perpetual Nobel favourite – Haruki Murakami enjoys, Ishiguro is not a household name in Japan.
But by Friday morning, the nation was celebrating the 62-year-old British transplant, who writes exclusively in English, as one of its own, seizing on his own declaration of an emotional and cultural connection to Japan, which he left at age five.
“I’ve always said throughout my career that although I’ve grown up in this country (Britain) … that a large part of my way of looking at the world, my artistic approach, is Japanese, because I was brought up by Japanese parents, speaking in Japanese,” Ishiguro said on Thursday.
At his London press conference (AFP photo above), Ishiguro also said that winning the prize was a “magnificent honour” and “flabbergastingly flattering”.
Japanese newspapers carried his Nobel win as front-page news, describing him as a Nagasaki native who had obtained British citizenship as an adult.
“On behalf of the government, I would like to express our happiness that an ethnic Japanese … has received the Nobel Prize for Literature,” Japan’s chief government spokesman said.
The Sankei daily boasted: “(Ishiguro) follows Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe as the third Japanese-born writer” to win the prize.
Many Japanese are familiar with Ishiguro’s 2005 dystopian novel Never Let Me Go through its dramatisation in a local TV series last year, though the fact that Ishiguro wrote the work was less known.
In the last 16 years, Hayakawa Publishing, which holds exclusive rights to translate Ishiguro’s works into Japanese, sold less than a million of his eight titles. That has changed, literally overnight.
“Since last night, we’ve received orders for 200,000 copies,” Hiroyuki Chida at Hayakawa Publishing said. “That’s unthinkable in this day and age.”
Another spokesperson from Hayakawa, Akira Yamaguchi, added, “His books are widely read around the world because there is a fundamental theme lying deep beneath his diverse ways of writing”.
Ishiguro was a typical British gentleman, he said, who also had what he saw as typically Japanese traits, such as thoughtfulness for others.
The mayor of Nagasaki, a city of nearly 500,000 people on the main southern island of Kyushu, took the opportunity to highlight Ishiguro’s birthplace.
“In his debut work, A Pale View Of Hills (1982), he portrays life in Nagasaki after the atomic bombing,” Mayor Tomihisa Taue said.
“I am proud of the great writer having Nagasaki in the back of his mind and making it a vital part of his work.”Ishiguro was born in the port city in 1954, nine years after it was razed by the US atomic bombing at the end of World War II. Around 74,000 people were killed in the attack.
When his father began research at Britain’s National Institute of Oceanography, the five-year-old Ishiguro moved to the country with his parents in 1960.
Maybe Ishiguro will visit his hometown again someday, Taue added.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” says 91-year-old Teruko Tanaka, who taught Ishiguro at a kindergarten in the city, the Kyodo News agency reported.
Tanaka met Ishiguro when he visited the city after becoming a writer, and he later sent her an autographed copy of one of his novels.
“I didn’t think he’d win the prize while I’m alive,” Tanaka said.
Amid all the excitement about the Nagasaki native, though, many Japanese had hoped for a Nobel win for Murakami, an author even closer to home. Murakami, a Japanese citizen, is friends with Ishiguro, and has been a favourite for the Nobel Prize in literature for many years.
About 200 Murakami fans who had gathered in Tokyo specifically for the Nobel announcement fell silent on Thursday night when they watched the Swedish academy’s live feed online. But they soon started to applaud Ishiguro’s win, according to the daily Mainichi newspaper.
The Hatonomori Shrine in Tokyo’s Sendagaya district is a near-sacred place for avid fans of Murakami because he started to work as a writer there while running a jazz bar with his wife.
The same sense of anticlimax was felt hundreds of kilometres away in Kobe High School, Murakami’s alma mater. Dozens of people, including some of his old schoolmates, gather there each year to celebrate a Murakami victory, the Nikkan newspaper reported.
This year’s decision by the Nobel committee elicited only a disappointed sigh, the paper said – for the 13th straight year. – Agencies
Selected Ishiguro bibliography
A Pale View Of Hills (Faber & Faber, 1982)
An Artist Of The Floating World (Faber & Faber, 1986)
The Remains Of The Day (Faber & Faber, 1989; made into a movie in 1993, directed by James Ivory with a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala)
The Unconsoled (Faber & Faber, 1995)
When We Were Orphans (Faber & Faber, 2000)
Never Let Me Go (Faber & Faber, 2005; made into a movie in 2010, directed by Mark Romanek with a screenplay by Alex Garland)
Nocturnes: Five Stories Of Music And Nightfall (Faber & Faber, 2009)
The Buried Giant (Faber & Faber, 2015)