The Memory Police

by

Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Yoko Ogawa

Yōko Ogawa was born in Okayama, Japan and studied writing at Waseda University in Shinjuku, Tokyo. She worked as a medical engineering secretary until she married her husband and quit her job—a common practice for women in her generation. Ogawa wrote while home alone when her husband was at work. She published her first novel, The Breaking of the Butterfly, in 1988, a debut that would go on to win the Kaien Literary Prize. In 1990, Ogawa won the Akutagawa Prize for her book Pregnancy Diaries, which she wrote while taking care of her young son. Since her first publication, Ogawa has written over 50 works of fiction and nonfiction.  Internationally, her work has been recognized with the Shirley Jackson Award and the American Book Award, and the English translation of The Memory Police was a finalist for the International Booker Prize in 2020. Ogawa cites authors such as Haruki Murakami, Marguerite Duras, and Paul Auster as influences in her writing. Ogawa has said that no matter where life takes her, she always wants “to have a life of writing.”
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Historical Context of The Memory Police

As mentioned above, The Diary of Anne Frank was a large influence on Ogawa while she wrote The Memory Police, suggesting that the atrocities of World War II—and specifically the Holocaust—impacted Ogawa’s writing. Ogawa has visited the Anne Frank annex in Amsterdam and even wrote two other books explicitly about Frank. When The Memory Police was published in 1994, it was nearly the 50th anniversary of World War II. However, Ogawa also uses sci-fi (or magical realism) to make a broader statement about not just bad actors in charge but the groupthink and emotional numbness that can occur among civilians in times of war or social strife.

Other Books Related to The Memory Police

The Memory Police has been compared to the English author George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. Although Ogawa’s novel strikes a much different (softer and more melancholic) tone than Orwell’s, the parallels between the all-seeing Big Brother in 1984 and the Memory Police’s shadowy surveillance in Ogawa’s novel are evident. Also related to The Memory Police are the works of Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author who Ogawa cites as an influence in her writing. Kafka on the Shore, for example shares themes of memory, fate, and isolation with The Memory Police, as well as dream-like narration. Lastly, Ogawa has said that The Diary of Anne Frank directly influenced her writing The Memory Police. Written between 1942 and 1944 while Frank was concealed in an attic hiding from the Nazis, The Diary of Anne Frank inspired Ogawa to explore what happens to people when confined in impossibly small spaces. Though not an exact allegory of Nazi-occupied Europe, The Memory Police echoes The Dairy of Anne Frank by confining characters to secret rooms, hiding from a lethal state force that hunts people down and prevents collective uprising through violence and surveillance.
Key Facts about The Memory Police
  • Full Title: The Memory Police
  • When Written: 1994 (translated into English 2019)
  • Where Written: Ōsaka, Japan
  • When Published: 1994
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Dystopian, Science-Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Setting: An unnamed island (likely in Japan)
  • Climax: The unnamed narrator disappears, and R leaves the hidden room.
  • Antagonist: The Memory Police
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Memory Police

Eavesdropper. Ogawa doesn’t like being categorized as a strictly feminist writer, even though much of her writing centers on women. Rather, she says that when she is writing, she simply thinks of herself as an “eavesdropper” and that, to create a character, she just “peeks into their world and takes notes.”

Translation Trouble. The Japanese title of The Memory Police loosely translates to “secret” or “crystallization.” In this sense, the original title had less emphasis on the Memory Police themselves and more of a focus on the mysterious forces underpinning the disappearances on the island—supernatural, all-consuming forces that even the Memory Police cannot control.