Module B: Artist of the Floating World

Table of Contents
Page numbers reference this version of the text, which is freely available through the Internet Archive.


  • Artist of the Floating World was written by Kazuo Ishiguro in 1986.
  • The novel is set in post WW2 Japan, with heavy influences by Thatcher’s policies in the late 20th century.
  • The novel is considered to be a post-modernist work.


  • During World War 2, Japan followed a strict social hierarchy which placed the military class at the top, and merchants and farmers at the bottom.
The social hierarchy of Meiji-Era Japan.
The social hierarchy of Meiji-Era Japan.
  • Massive increase in Japanese nationalism post-WW1, as many felt that the European powers had excluded them from participating as equals in negotiations.

  • Backlash against Western ideals of capitalism, as this was seen as an infection of Japanese ideals.

  • Bushido code for the military (“death before dishonor”).

  • Resignation from the League of Nations as a consequence of the Invasion of Manchuria at the start of the war.

  • The combination of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the scale of death in the Japanese military, and the occupation of Japan by the United States from 1945 to 1952 led to major reforms in parts of Japanese society.

  • This included the abolition of the Japanese military (the constitution of Japan bans the country from ever having a military).

  • A massive “post-war economic miracle” (read: American venture capital money) led to a spike in capitalism, rapid industrialisation, and Japan becoming the 3rd largest economy in the world by GDP (as of 2022).

  • Globally, Westernised countries experiences a massive rise in Capitalism and Consumerism as a result of McCarthyism and the Red Scare.

  • There was also a growing distrust in government institutions, as a result of the Watergate Scandal, the Vietnam War, and the Middle Eastern Oil Crisis (read: decolonisation).

  • There was also an increase in the support of de-nuclearisation of the Soviet Union and the USA as a result of the Cuban Missile Crisis → Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was ratified in the 1970s.

Revisionism in Japan

This video is a really good explanation of Historical Revisionism as a cultural norm in modern-day Japan.

  • Ishiguro was strongly nostalgic for the principles of Meiji-era Japan.
  • As such, his personal lens of the world was inherently conflicted between his personal beliefs and the modern-day principle that Supporting Genocide is Bad.

Philosophical Principles of the Text

  • Nihilism - There is no inherent meaning to life, only the meaning we give it through our own actions.
  • Existentialism - Individuals are always able to choose a course of action, and even not choosing is a choice.
  • Existential Angst - The feeling that life is meaningless

The Protagonist - Masuji Ono

  • Elderly artist and grandfather.
  • Throughout the novel, his focus is on his youngest daughter’s marriage.
  • Ono was involved with the creation of wartime propaganda posters in WW2.
  • This has resulted in a loss of respect towards him and his family in the modern world.
  • Ono’s decisions as an artist ultimately reflect on his daughter’s identity - representing the impact of our actions on the people around us
  • Ono is also a representation of wider Japanese society post-war - the anxiety of the future of the nation during occupation, the denial and revision of war crimes, and the internal crises that faced Japan during the Red Scare.

Revisionism as a component of the novel

  • Ono’s diegesis (the telling of his stories) is compared with his actions and reactions (mimesis – showing) and they clash, which lead us to believe he has misread situations.

  • Structural similarities leading to thematic development – guilt – forces a parallel analysis and synthesis.

  • Ishiguro uses analogies between characters to force us to particular conclusions.

  • Diary entries – subjective and personal which means we must employ objectivity

  • Detective Form – are people who they say they are? Was Ono a criminal or a victim?

  • We are in a constant state of revision because of the way values change across time – postmodern instability and uncertainty

The Post-Modern Philosophical Framework

  • Merger of High and Low Culture - Pop Eye vs Ukiyo-e
  • Feminism - Historically, the daughter would have no say in her marriage arrangements
  • Colonialism - changes in the power structures of Japan, alienation of those who were once in power
  • Subjectivity - the idea that there is no “true” lens of history
  • Distrust in the establishment

Textual Integrity

At its core, Floating World conveys the post-modern principle that absolute truth does not exist, using the unreliable narrator’s evasions and digressions, as well as a multitude of perspectives, to demonstrate seemingly conflicting and yet equally correct views.

Want a cheat sheet for this text? We’ve got one here.

Revision of Identity

  • Ono engages in a reconstruction of his identity as a core point of the text.
  • Language is connotative of status. Ono is characterized as a suitable buyer but his suitability becomes fragile in a post-bomb world.
  • The house is symbolic of a man’s status and reputation. Starting with this information sets up the way in which surface features often define our identity.

Unreliable Narration

  • Self-contradiction throughout the text:
    • Page 19 “I have never… been very aware of my own social standing” despite starting the text discussing being chosen for the house).
    • Page 73 “never follow the crowd blindly” despite his involvement in propaganda presentations by the Japanese government.

War Wounds

  • The part of the house most damaged was the “extravagant corridor”, which can be considered an allegory for his damaged pride.
  • Additionally, the fact that the house is still under repair symbolises his own emotional state and need for repair.

Revision of Cultural Narratives

  • From the perspective of the Japanese, symbols of strength are no longer linked to cultural warriers who are associeated with the symbols of militarism.
  • The Hero narrative encourages affiliation with role models.
    • While Ono grew up with samurai and ninja being the idealised characters of Japanese society, Ichiro has grown up with Popeye and Lone Ranger.
    • This causes a disconnect between them, as the character of Ono’s childhood are often the villains in modern Japanese stories.

Female Identity in Post War Japan

  • A woman’s identity in post-war Japan is still subject to the traditional ties of patriarchy – she is only as good as the reputation of her family, referencing her floating identity, tethered only from one masculine figure to the next.
  • Ono’s cultural attitudes appear archaic to the modern audience, but this forms a conversation reflecting the tension of post-war Japan, where Western ideas of gender equality were being introduced.
  • The clear disconnect between Ono and Setsuko’s ideals presents the shifting stance of the Japanese public regarding women’s rights.

Revision of Relationships

  • Asian cultures typically have an expected level of reverence and deference to parents and grandparents.
  • Combined with the patriarchal nature of Japanese society, this should place Ono as effectively the head of the family.
  • However, as dialogue between Noriko and Setsuko portrays, there is a sense of belittlement towards Ono as opposed to the expected reverence. In other words, the younger generations percieve their elders as a burden rather than an authority.

Father’s very different, now. There’s no need to be afraid of him any more. He’s much more gentle and domesticated.

- Noriko to Setsuko

Further Reading

Context and Philosophy

Critical Analyses

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