As in all of Ishiguro's work, characters must balance the pulls of obligation, duty, and the established ways of doing things — represented in the novel as typical Japanese virtues — against the desire for individual freedom and happiness. The traditional Japanese ideals are represented most strongly perhaps by Etsuko's first father-in-law, Ogata-San, who does not like the way Japan is changing under the American occupation. "We may have lost the war." he once says, "but that's no reason to ape the ways of the enemy." Other Japanese have accepted the view that the war was evil but have converted their energies to capitalism and company in the same way they once single-mindedly served empire. Sachiko, a female neighbor of Etsuko, and her willful daughter Mariko, represent a rejection of old and new Japanese values, and present an alternative which may have ultimately prompted Etsuko to leave her Japanese husband and come to England.
The novel considers the role and power of memory in our lives, "Memory," Etsuko says, "can be an unreliable thing," and she admits that the recollections which make up the novel may be colored by the circumstances under which they are called to the surface. Etsuko does not dwell on the most highly-charged events of her life, her leaving Japan and her daughter's recent suicide, but instead recalls the story of Sachiko and Mariko and without perhaps her realizing it, their story begins to merge with hers, shedding light on the events of Etsuko's life as well.