Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2020, The Memory Police is an enthralling Orwellian novel about the terrors of state surveillance from one of Japan’s greatest writers

Whether you’re new to The Memory Police or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Publication date and time: Published


Hat, ribbon, bird, rose. To the people on the island, a disappeared thing no longer has any meaning. It can be burned in the garden, thrown in the river or handed over to the Memory Police. Soon enough, the island forgets it ever existed. When a novelist discovers her editor is in danger of being detained by the Memory Police, she desperately wants to save him. For some reason, he doesn’t forget, and it becomes increasingly difficult for him to hide his memories. Who knows what will vanish next?

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

The main characters


The novel’s protagonist, and narrator, is an unnamed female novelist who lives on an unnamed island. Like most that reside there, the narrator is subject to degeneration of memory and does not remember much about her life, with more and more slipping away daily. The narrator’s mother and father are both dead, and she remembers just snippets of their life together. The narrator attempts to rally against the Memory Police, but struggles as more fragments of her memory disappear.  


R is the narrator’s editor and one of the few people who still has the ability to remember. This puts him in grave danger - he is a threat to the Memory Police, and his life is at risk. The narrator hides R in a secret room, concealed within her house, where they also store objects which are at risk of being ‘disappeared’. 

Old man

The old man is a friend of the narrator. He lives on an old, derelict ferry boat, on which he used to work as a mechanic until the boats themselves were subject to the Memory Police and ‘disappeared’. The old man is also affected by loss of memory, yet agrees to help the narrator hide R, and constructs the room in the narrator’s house in which R takes refuge.

woman on jetty in mist

About the author and translator

Yoko Ogawa

Writer and novelist Yoko Ogawa has won every major Japanese literary award available.

Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, A Public Space, and Zoetrope. Her works include The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, The Housekeeper and the Professor, Hotel Iris and the story collection Revenge.

Stephen Snyder

Stephen Snyder is a translator and professor of Japanese Studies at Middlebury College, Vermont, USA.

He has translated works by Yoko Ogawa, Kenzaburo Oe, Ryu Murakami, and Miri Yu, among others. His translation of Natsuo Kirino’s Out was a finalist for the Edgar Award for best mystery novel in 2004, and his translation of Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011.

Yoko Ogawa and Stephen Snyder

What the critics said

Dylan Brown, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘It’s disappointing that the novel’s publication seemingly required an uptick in fascism and right-wing nationalism. The tint of opportunism notwithstanding, we’re fortunate to have more work by such a uniquely gifted and idiosyncratic writer who, despite a string of compelling translations and the moderate success stateside of The Housekeeper and the Professor, has yet to gain the wider readership she deserves in the English-speaking world. It’s all but certain that The Memory Police will change that.’

Madeleine Thein, The Guardian

The Memory Police is a masterpiece: a deep pool that can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination. It is a novel that makes us see differently, opening up its ideas in inconspicuous ways, knowing that all moments of understanding and grace are fleeting. It is political and human, it makes no promises. It is a rare work of patient and courageous vision.’

Jill Dobson, The Japan Society Review

‘Read as a political allegory, the novel is frustrating. It demands a more subtle approach. As a disturbing fable about the importance of memory, which forms us, and the tragedy of its loss, and how those who insist on remembering—or who are unable to forget—in the face of general amnesia become outcasts, the novel has a melancholy power. Admirers of Ogawa’s work will find much to like in this latest translation. More literal readers may simply find it baffling and bleak.’

Kirkus Reviews

‘Although, at the outset, the plot feels quite Orwellian, Ogawa employs a quiet, poetic prose to capture the diverse (and often unexpected) emotions of the people left behind rather than of those tormented and imprisoned by brutal authorities. Small acts of rebellion—as modest as a birthday party—do not come out of a commitment to a greater cause but instead originate from her characters’ kinship with one another. Technical details about the disappearances remain intentionally vague. The author instead stays close to her protagonist’s emotions and the disorientation she and her neighbors struggle with each day. Passages from the narrator’s developing novel also offer fascinating glimpses into the way the changing world affects her unconscious mind.’

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, NPR

‘If anything, the book clearly shows the contrast between two different types of writing. We are used to the American style of science fiction, while Ogawa is playing with another deck. Her intent is to analyze not only memory but the creative process — we read parts of a novel in progress which the protagonist is tackling — using very precise language. At times the result is something hauntingly sad, and at others it felt like my feet were being glued to the ground.’

Peter Rubin, WIRED

‘The book’s central conceit—an island where concepts intermittently disappear from society’s collective understanding—has proved irresistible to American critics, who hail the novel’s relevance in a time of pervasive doublespeak and gaslighting. Handy political parallels are just the beginning of its charms, though; the book’s most urgent allegory has little to do with propaganda. The world The Memory Police re-emerges into demands an entirely new reading, one where information isn’t distorted. It’s forgotten.’

Japanese wind chimes

What the International Booker Prize judges said

‘Originally published in the 1990s [in Japanese], this novel speaks directly to the amnesiac present: a world in which things disappear, then the memory of things themselves, in affectless prose that mirrors this erasure.’

What the author and translator said

Yoko Ogawa

‘For me, reading The Diary of a Young Girl was the reason I became an author. On the day the editor moves to the secret room, it’s raining heavily. This was the same for Anne Frank and her family. As everyone lowered their heads and hurried through the downpour, nobody challenged their rapid pace toward the hiding place. My scene was meant to pay homage to Anne.

‘In the story, the vanishings lead to despair, but as an author I found satisfaction in writing those scenes—for example, when the birds fly off into the distance or when the river is covered with fallen rose petals. These moments of disappearance came to me vividly, and the enjoyment of setting them down helped me keep writing to the end of the book.’

Read Yoko Ogawa’s full interview with

Stephen Snyder

The relevance – both to the world as it learned to live with ‘fake news’ and contested online ‘realities’ and, later, to our slowly eroding existence in the pandemic era – came from the genius of the text itself. The translation is very faithful, and it’s only by odd historical timing that its appearance in English coincided with a period when the insights of the novel resonated so hauntingly with readers experiencing a very new sort of reality.  

Read Stephen Snyder’s full interview here.

rose petals floating on a river

Questions and discussion points

The Memory Police was first published in Japan in 1994, before being translated into English in 2019. Discuss what the reception may have been like towards the novel in Japan at that time, versus when it was published for an Anglophone audience 25 years later. What elements of the novel do you think made it resonate with readers, across both decades and continents? 

The novel takes place on an unnamed island which is overseen by an oppressive government-run militia. What countries and communities, throughout history, do you see the author drawing inspiration from? 

The Memory Police has been described as a parable. The majority of the island’s residents are subject to a collective amnesia - they endure a process of forgetting things, including objects, people and processes. They then forget they have forgotten. What do you think the author intended these losses to represent, beyond the literal? 

The protagonist in The Memory Police, our narrator, is an author who is writing a novel. Within her writing is the character of a typist, a woman whose voice is vanishing while trapped by her lover in a building. How are the characters of the protagonist and the typist intertwined? 

After moving into the hiding place, the narrator and R become embroiled in a romantic relationship, despite R having a wife and child at home. In some ways, the relationship seems superfluous – the narrator and R were already friends, with a fruitful working relationship. Discuss your personal take on R and the narrator’s affair, and how you feel it served the overarching plot.

At points within the novel, various elements of the natural world are affected. When calendars disappear, the winter continues, and spring never emerges. Floral and fauna vanish. While fantastical in the novel, these elements could be read now as tangible concerns due to the ongoing effects of climate change. To what extent could the novel be read as a cli-fi novel?

The disappearances in the novel are enforced by the Memory Police, a sinister group of fascist officers who operate with impunity as part of a totalitarian regime. Yet the author offers little to no exposition on who the Memory Police actually are, such as whether they report to a higher, governmental power. Who do you believe them to be, and what do they represent?

‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.’ (Page 175). At this point in the novel, books become the next item subject to enforced disappearances. Discuss the meaning of this quote, and what the author may be referencing, beyond the content of the novel.  

Birds feature heavily throughout The Memory Police as a recurring motif. What do they symbolise, and what connections does the narrator lose as a result of their disappearance? 

‘It’s true, I know, that there are more gaps in the island than there used to be. When I was a child, the whole place seemed…how can I put this?…a lot fuller, a lot more real. But as things got thinner, more full of holes, our hearts got thinner, too, diluted somehow. I suppose that kept things in balance. And even when that balance begins to collapse, something remains. Which is why you shouldn’t worry.’ (Page 54). As the novel progresses, the inhabitants of the island lose more and more. Yet they do not grieve or commemorate. Discuss their journey, physically, psychologically and emotionally - what changes do you see in them by the end of the novel, and why?

Yoko Ogawa drew on her fascination with Anne Frank, which inspired the hiding place for R, the author’s editor. Many critics and readers have also compared both the content and tone to Orwell’s work and that of Franz Kafka. Where do you see these influences intersecting within the novel?

The author refuses to offer any explanations for the laws that define the island and avoids providing answers for the reader. The ending itself is abstract and ambiguous. How did you interpret the conclusion of The Memory Police, and how did the author’s writing style throughout serve your reading experience?

feathers falling

If you enjoyed this book, why not try…

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust 

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro 

The Trial by Frank Kafka 

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Buy the book

We benefit financially from any purchases you make when using the ‘Buy the book’ links.