Fictions of the Human in Postwar Japan

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Around 1945: Literature, Citizenship, Rights


The people shall not be prevented from enjoying any of the fundamental human rights. These fundamental human rights guaranteed to the people by this Constitution shall be conferred upon the people of this and future generations as eternal and inviolate rights.
(Constitution of Japan, Article 11)

What have Kazuo Ishiguro's first two novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986), and Shirley Hazzard's final novel, The Great Fire (2003), to do with human rights and literature? Neither through genre nor through theme do these fictions of post-Second World War Japan announce their relevance to the burgeoning interdisciplinary discourse around narrative and rights. On the one hand, to the extent that they respectively approximate the conventions of the assimilation parable, the marriage plot, and the romance, A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, and The Great Fire work well outside of the genre categories on which much human rights and literature criticism has been predicated (for example, poetry of witness, testimonio, Bildungsroman). On the other hand, although Ishiguro's and Hazzard's novels imagine how artists, scholars, journalists, lawyers, and scientists conceived of the human or of human beings per se in occupied Japan, they rarely speak directly to, much less advocate for, human rights. In legal terms, too, these novels would seem to lie outside of the purview of human rights and literature. The acts and events that they evoke -- the United States' atomic bombings of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and of Nagasaki three days later, and the nominally Allied Occupation of Japan -- did not violate international law. The bombings were acts of war committed before the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949). The nearly seven-year Occupation was a condition of peace. American officials moreover justified both the bombings and the Occupation in large part by reference to humanitarianism, fundamental human rights, and democratic freedoms. Why, then, do these atmospheric fictions of occupied Japan bear on the field for human rights and literature? What might it mean for the field to turn its gaze to such unusual subjects?


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