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As I See It: Nobel laureate Ishiguro underscores the importance of peace

Nobel Prize in Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro responds to reporters' questions at the Swedish Academy on Dec. 6, 2017, the day before he gave a commemorative lecture at the same venue. (Mainichi)

When Kazuo Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature, gave his stately acceptance speech during a ceremony at the Stockholm City Hall shortly after 10:50 p.m. on Dec. 10 last year, a hush fell over some 1,300 smartly dressed invitees. Following the banquet for laureates with King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden and other important figures, the recipients of prizes in the natural sciences had peppered their speeches with jokes and stepped down from the lectern with genial expressions. But the 63-year-old Ishiguro, a British author of Japanese lineage, was different.

Taking the microphone with a nervous expression, Ishiguro recalled the time in Nagasaki, when he was about 5 years old, that his mother had told him about the "Nobel Sho," using the Japanese name for the prestigious prize. The prize, she told him, was to promote "heiwa" -- meaning peace or harmony. Just 14 years earlier, his mother had experienced the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Soon afterward, Ishiguro moved with his family to Britain, and now he can hardly speak any Japanese, but he still included the Japanese words for "Nobel Prize" and "peace" in his speech. He also told the audience that when he called his mother about the news he referred to the prize in Japanese "instinctively."

I was moved by Ishiguro's words. He has the smiling, splendid deportment of an English gentleman, but at the banquet and the preceding prize ceremony, he displayed an expression of deep thought. The atomic bombs burned people to death and even today continue to cause survivors pain from the aftereffects. Ishiguro's mother had placed trust in humanity through the Nobel Prize even though she had gone through the atomic bombing. For Ishiguro, growing up and winning this prize must have carried far more weight than mere personal honor.

I cannot help but say that Ishiguro may have gone into the banquet thinking he had to share this story. Ishiguro began writing in his mid-20s with a desire to preserve his faint, fading memories of Nagasaki, and they became indivisibly linked with "heiwa," or peace. Coincidentally, the same day in neighboring Norway, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

In a news conference on Dec. 6, soon after he arrived in Stockholm, Ishiguro stated that he would be content if his work could somehow help reverse the negative mood across the globe. And immediately after the announcement of his winning the prize, he stated that he hoped he could contribute to world peace. While Ishiguro probably harbored reservations about heightened anti-foreign rhetoric across the world with the rise of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has spread discrimination, and Britain deciding to depart the European Union, it is also a fact that it's difficult for a novel packed with shrill proclamations to be read across generations. What then of Ishiguro's works, which have been published in over 40 countries? Their essence lies in storyteller who cannot be trusted.

Humans naturally alter memories which do not serve their interests. Ishiguro says that it is precisely when people are talking seriously about important issues that others can't trust them. One of the author's representative works is his 1989 novel "The Remains of the Day." The protagonist is a butler who has worked for an aristocratic household in Britain. The butler talks with confidence about his job, but then the truth blurs as his own snobbishness comes to light, with the understanding that he blindly served a cruel Nazi sympathizer, made no effort to be at his father's bedside when he died, and threw away his chances to build a happy family. It is a cruel realization.

The appeal of Ishiguro's novels stems from the "rule" that one must not take what the protagonist says at face value. If the butler had gone on to directly express remorse for what he had done, we would see it as no more than flowery words from a perfect saint. But the reality of humanity lies in people sifting through and glamorizing their own memories and repeatedly rationalizing what they have done in an attempt to retain their own dignity. This is what draws one into the world of the story.

Last autumn, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as a "national crisis," and went on to a resounding victory in the House of Representatives election. However, a far greater "national crisis" is the fact that Japan happens to be one of the world's most earthquake-prone countries, and yet its coastlines are lined with nuclear power plants, which, from the point of view of the country firing missiles, are perfect targets. On top of this, the government has teamed up with the business world to try to export its nuclear power technology. Not only is this risky in terms of future profits, but it could forces an adverse legacy of misgovernment upon the general public.

Ishiguro's belief, he says, is that novels represent a method to convey truth, not facts. Truth is a principal of human behavior, and the truth is that people lie to themselves yet more than to others. The Japanese government has stressed that nuclear power plants are safe and aims to reactivate the nation's idled plants, while at the same time underscoring a "national crisis." This is reminiscent of the wartime Empire of Japan, which was brought to ruin by continuing to search for external "national crises" when letting off steam domestically, and furthermore believed that it could solve things through military might.

To change the current situation in Japan, we have to continue to report the facts regarding the danger of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the suffering of those who have had to evacuate. Of course, this includes reproaching ourselves. But nonfiction work alone is insufficient. In society today, why do statesmen close their eyes to the future, and why do many citizens allow this to happen? To learn such principles in an entertainment format, we need works of fiction like Ishiguro's novels.

At work and school, or even in the home, the majority of us have to follow those with power or money. The butler in "The Remains of the Day" is a reflection of us. But this butler gradually, courageously opens his eyes to face the truth, and in the end sheds tears of regret. Ishiguro expresses his limitless trust in humanity through his work, just like the trust his mother had.

The night in Stockholm underscored the weight of the "peace" that has continued to drive Ishiguro, now a Nobel laureate. (By Makoto Tsuruya, Cultural News Department)

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