Introduction and Synopsis
The Memory Police poses numerous questions about the nature of memory and loss—if someone loses a part of themselves, are they still the same person? Is forgetting inherently bad, and are we ought to resist it? Is anything ever truly forgotten? Acclaimed Japanese author Yōko Ogawa’s 1994 dystopian novel explores these questions through the story of an island where various objects ‘disappear’ frequently and inexplicably, both from the island and from people’s memories. Usually, the people on the island get by just fine after a disappearance, quickly adapting to life without hats, roses or ribbons. The effects of the disappearances soon become difficult to ignore, however, as people lose items that are central to their livelihoods, and eventually their own limbs and bodies. All of this is closely monitored by the Memory Police, an authoritarian governing body on the island that works to ensure the thorough eradication of forgotten objects. The novel draws inspiration from other works of literature and real-world events, such as George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 and the diary of Anne Frank.
The exact location of the island where the story is set is not stated, nor does it have a name. It seems to be totally disconnected from the rest of the world and nobody can escape it: by the beginning of the novel, boats have already disappeared. The unnamed narrator works as a novelist, and her editor, R, is one of the few people on the island who do not forget the supposedly disappeared objects, making him a target of the Memory Police. With the support of an old man (who is simply referred to as ‘the old man’ throughout the text, despite his close relationship with the narrator), the narrator keeps R safely concealed in a secret room in her house. The novel follows the lives of the narrator, R and the old man as the island gradually forgets itself.
“It’s all but impossible to remember the things we’ve lost on the island once they’re gone.”
Narrator, chapter 1, page 6
Although the forgotten objects in the story are frequently said to have ‘disappeared’, these objects do not simply vanish from existence instantaneously. Instead, there is a combination of supernatural and human forces that lead to the near-total removal of a particular kind of object from the island. First, on the morning of a disappearance, the inhabitants of the island wake up to a different feeling in the air, vaguely aware that something has been lost. As they go about their day, it soon becomes apparent which object has been forgotten when they try to interact with it and find that their memory of the object and its use has begun to fade away. By the command of the Memory Police, everyone must then dispose of all instances of that object in their homes and the surrounding environment, such as by burning them, throwing them into the river or releasing them into the air. Memories of the disappeared objects gradually fade until they are no longer recognisable to the majority of the people on the island.
There are multiple ways in which disappearances that characterise The Memory Police could be interpreted as reflections of the real world and real events. Perhaps they are simply an exaggeration of the natural process of memory forgetting, used to explore how people change and lose parts of themselves over time. They may be viewed as a commentary on the human ability to adapt to difficult and changing circumstances, and the fight to remain whole and safeguard our identity as the world falls apart. To an extent, they provide a political commentary: how is information manipulated for public consumption, and how do governing bodies treat those who challenge the status quo?
For the average person on the island, those whose memories slowly crumble throughout the story, the disappearances seem largely negligible. There appears to be very little motivation to keep objects once they are deemed forgotten: what’s the use of something that nobody can properly comprehend, with no emotional attachment to it? The disappearances are at most an inconvenience, such as when novels disappear, causing the narrator to seek new employment as a typist. Even when limbs begin to disappear, the islanders take on a new rhythm to their movements, resuming their daily lives without complaint. This speaks to the human tendency to ignore the effects of our daily actions on our future and society as a whole, with The Memory Police perhaps serving as a wake-up call for readers to avoid unwittingly contributing to the degradation of society through ignorance or lack of humanity.
The characters appear unwaveringly focused on the present day and their immediate surroundings. Focusing too strongly on the past and things which have disappeared is futile given how thoroughly disappeared objects are wiped from the islanders’ memories, and discussing such matters is likely to attract the attention of the Memory Police. Equally, theorising about the future seems unnecessarily worrisome—everyone has gotten by just fine after all the previous disappearances, so what reason is there to fear the disappearances yet to come? The island appears to be focused primarily on survival and adaptation to changing circumstances with little regard for cultural preservation, ultimately leading to a life devoid of meaning, “nothing but absences and holes” (Narrator, chapter 7, page 53).
The Memory Police and Surveillance
“They can’t be trusted. Once I’d outlived my usefulness, I’m sure they’d do anything they felt was necessary to ensure secrecy.”
Professor Inui, chapter 5, page 34
The Memory Police themselves operate in mysterious ways, scarcely understood by the people of the island. They are highly secretive about the purpose of their endeavours, but are clear in their intentions to rid the island of all traces of forgotten objects by any means necessary, causing them to be widely feared. A while after the disappearances began, it became apparent that some individuals continued to remember the supposedly disappeared objects, including the narrator’s mother, for which she is heavily implied to have been killed by the Memory Police. Because of the threat the Memory Police pose to these individuals, many go into hiding, residing in safe houses in the hope of evading discovery and an unknown (but presumably undesirable) fate.
Through the actions of the Memory Police, Ogawa explores the power of community surveillance and the punishment of non-conformity. The Memory Police are presented as emotionless and cruel; the narrator notes that each time she sees the Memory Police, they seem to “grow a bit more brutal” as the disappearances become more and more frequent and more people go into hiding. The constant threat of capture and punishment by the Memory Police leaves the characters to become cold towards each other, demonstrated when the narrator purchases vegetables from a woman who requests a hiding place, and the narrator must reject her request due to the danger that would be caused by hiding a second person while the Memory Police become increasingly strict. As the Memory Police made more frequent arrests, the people on the island “avoided going out any more than necessary”, showing the detrimental impacts of community surveillance and how it drives individuals into a state of distrust and permanent fear.
Memory, Loss and Storytelling
“It was impossible for me to simply discard them the way everyone else did. Touching them became a way of confirming that I was still whole…I’ll be happy if I can help delay or stop this decay in your hearts even in some small way.”
R, chapter 16, page 146
Although most of the island’s people appear unperturbed by the disappearances, those who are immune to the collective amnesia are deeply saddened upon seeing those around them gradually lose themselves. These individuals believe in the importance of storytelling and the preservation of humanity and culture, urging those around them to look inside themselves and strive to recall the objects they have forgotten. This is shown in the narrator’s mother’s efforts to preserve forgotten items by hiding them inside sculptures in the hope that they would one day be discovered, and R’s repeated attempts to make memories of forgotten objects resurface in the minds of the narrator and the old man. To the reader, the forgotten objects that R uses in an attempt to evoke trapped memories seem mundane: a harmonica, perfume and some Japanese candy, for example. This makes it feel all the more shocking when the narrator and the old man react to these objects with utter confusion, further reinforcing the message that we ought to strive to avoid the loss of our own memories and culture. Furthermore, R’s inability to properly connect with his wife and newborn child as a result of being isolated for his own safety highlights the traumatic experiences that result from the disappearances and the influence of the Memory Police.
“The swamp of my memory was shallow and still”
Narrator (chapter 24, page 230)
At various points in the novel, the narrator’s mind is compared to a swamp, still and unmoving, where any attempt to conjure memories of forgotten objects is compared to a stone falling endlessly deeper into the swamp. This metaphor makes the prospect of reviving the narrator’s lost memories seem entirely hopeless, emphasising the extremity of the disappearances and how entirely they wipe ideas and experiences from the characters’ minds. The characters also repeatedly discuss how the heart and soul are slowly weakened by the gradual loss of memories, emphasising how central memories and storytelling are to humanity and the detrimental impacts when they are lost.
- “Few people here have any need for novels” (chapter 3, page 15)
- “The conscious mind is embedded in a subconscious that’s ten times as powerful” (narrator, chapter 4, page 24)
- [the island will become] “nothing but absences and holes” (chapter 7, page 51)
Fate and the Supernatural
“The breeze seemed to discriminate, choosing only the rose petals to scatter.”
Narrator, chapter 6, page 49
While the Memory Police enforce the erasure of disappeared objects from the lives of the island’s inhabitants, the initial disappearance of an object from people’s recollection appears to happen naturally, and the island itself facilitates its physical departure. This is seen when roses disappear, and the narrator describes how the breeze selectively collects rose petals, guiding them into the river, which then carries them away to the ocean to be forgotten forever by the people on the island. This apparently supernatural influence is highlighted in the novel’s original Japanese title, 密やかな結晶, or “Secret Crystallisation”: a title that emphasises the island’s seemingly magical properties rather than the Memory Police and their authoritarianism.
It becomes even more apparent that the disappearances on the island are beyond human influence when calendars disappear, and the narrator describes how the weather remains stagnant, stuck in a seemingly endless harsh winter. The island, in addition to its people, seems to have forgotten the passing of time and struggles to continue its natural weather cycles. Snow accumulates on the landscape, a symbol of the continuous forgetting that plagues the people of the island, piling up until the memories hidden beneath are lost forever. The chill begins to have practical consequences for the people on the island as food becomes scarce and life becomes a struggle to make ends meet. It becomes apparent how life can be changed drastically, for the worse, in the wake of a simple disappearance.
“The disappearances are beyond our control. They have nothing to do with us. We’re all going to die anyway, someday, so what’s the difference? We simply have to leave things to fate.” (the old man, chapter 19, page 185)
The Narrator’s Novel
At various points throughout the novel, the reader has the opportunity to read the narrator’s own novel in development. The narrator’s novel provides insight into the state of the narrator’s emotions in response to the disappearances on the island as she explores similar themes in her own work. The novel tells the story of a typing student trapped in an abusive relationship with her teacher, who imprisons her in the church where he conducts classes, and takes away her voice. Like the people on the island, the protagonist of the narrator’s novel quickly adjusts to the loss of her voice after an initial moment of terror, and begins to willingly submit to her abuser. The story further reiterates the difficulty of rediscovering one’s former self after undergoing changes and losing a part of oneself, as the protagonist soon struggles to even imagine going back to life with a voice and rejoining the outside world after being trapped. The narrator’s novel may be interpreted as an expression of her internal dilemma between continuing to live without questioning the authority of the Memory Police, and resisting the gradual destruction of her soul by fighting to safeguard her memories.
When novels disappear, this marks a significant moment in the island’s progression towards a meaningless state of existence. R persuades the narrator to keep some of her novels hidden in the secret room, and when the narrator goes to burn the remainder of her books in public fires, a woman who retains her memories cries out against the erasure of novels and stories, suggesting that there are many other people like R who suffer upon witnessing the disappearances. The narrator manages to continue writing her novel despite its disappearance from her mind, suggesting that when an effort is made, almost anything that seems to have been entirely lost can be recovered.
The river, the incinerator, ash and flame
“As I watched the ashes, it occurred to me that the disappearances were perhaps not as important as the Memory Police wanted us to believe.”
Narrator, chapter 15, page 133
The river, the incinerator in the narrator’s garden and the ash and flame from burning objects serve as symbols of the destruction of forgotten objects, and therefore the loss of human identity. Throughout the course of the novel, we see various disappearances assisted by these items: rose petals swept away with the river current, books burned in piles around the island, the narrator burning several items in the incinerator, ash settling over the snow as a reminder of the irrecoverable loss.
- “I could see smoke and flames rising all over the island, being absorbed into the heavy, gray clouds that covered everything. The snow had turned filthy with soot. (Narrator, chapter 19, page 177)
“The outside world is in ruins, crushed under the weight of the snow, but you’ll manage. I know you’ll be able to melt the frozen world bit by bit, and I’m sure others who have been in hiding will come out to join you.”
Narrator, chapter 28, page 273
After the disappearance of calendars casts the island into a seemingly eternal winter, snow becomes a symbol of the loss of humanity on the island. The characters’ memories become increasingly hazy as the snow piles up, until finally the island is “crushed under the weight of the snow” (Narrator, chapter 28, page 273), a symbol of the trauma of forgetting and the difficulty of regaining missing parts of oneself once they are lost.