I went to Kyoto this January, in the week immediately following New Year’s Day. I had no obvious reason to go—I’m Chinese-American and have no friends or family there—but I had spent the past year reading all of Haruki Murakami’s published works, in order from 1979 to 2015, and seeing his birthplace was like a kind of pilgrimage, or a neat bookend at least. Murakami was on my mind: the low hum of jazz drifting out of bars, girls smoking cigarettes and reading Alan Ginsberg in small coffee shops – I came looking for the world I’d found in his books. This now seems comically obvious, but at the time I was surprised to find that Kyoto was not exactly like this, that it was not Murakami’s Japan, where I felt I had been partially living for the past year. Instead, it was puzzlingly and thrillingly foreign, much more like a Lost in Translation experience than a Murakami one: I mostly ate Japanese food; I communicated with everyone through fragmented English and hand gestures; I couldn’t even smoke on public streets (it was illegal, apparently); I went to a lot of temples.
It took a trip to Japan for me to realise that these things are absent in Murakami’s writing, along with any other distinctively Japanese references. His version of Japan is formed from his lifelong love of Western, and particularly American, culture, resulting in characters that read like they walked out of a Don DeLillo novel. They eat McDonalds and crave Coca Colas while watching Steve McQueen movies. They drop references to Tolstoy while they listen to Stan Getz and The Beatles on vinyl.
His “Japanese-ness” (or lack thereof) has actually been the largest point of criticism for Murakami since his rise in international fame in the 1980s, particularly from the point of view of the Japanese literary establishment. Early in his career, Oe Kenzaburo, the 1994 Nobel laureate, said that Murakami “writes in Japanese, but his writing isn’t really Japanese . . . it can be read very naturally in New York.” The problem was his writing’s profusion of American names and music, but it was also the apolitical, individualistic nature that was more deep-rooted in his stories. Kenzaburo was right; most of Murakami’s early novels followed the same hardboiled detective storyline, in which a protagonist looks for something lost (for example, a sheep or a girl) and, in the process, unexpectedly undergoes an internal journey of processing an emotional loss, like the death of a friend or of a marriage. A journey, in other words, that focused on the individual identity, rather than on the collective Japanese identity.
There is an important moment in Murakami’s own story that captures when he became more of a “Japanese writer”, and it begins during the time following his publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987. Because of its success, Murakami was experiencing an uncomfortable amount of fame—a little too much recognition for his reclusive lifestyle—and decided to escape Japan, moving first to Europe and then of course to the United States. After an interview with Murakami, Ian Buruma explained in The New Yorker the author’s disappointing experience of living in America: “Listening to Jim Morrison in the United States is not the same as listening to him in Japan. The Western metaphors, having lost their mystery, became redundant.” In Japan, he tried to escape what he called the “conformism of Japanese society” by creating a “foreign country in [his] heart”, which was, as Buruma describes it, Murakami’s own “virtual America”. When he was actually in the States, he wanted to return home, to continue to write his novels of Western metaphors, but now with a new purpose: to write about Japan politically. So, in Wind Up, he uses his typical detective plot to unearth Japan’s collective memory of the war and uses the novel’s metaphysical realm to reimagine the occupation of Manchuria and the Nomonhan Incident. That year, 1994, the novel won Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Literary Award, chosen by no less than Kenzaburo himself.
And yet, the issue does not end with Kenzaburo’s approval and Murakami’s newfound political responsibility to Japan. The same discourse continues to dominate. When I read articles about Murakami, or the review blurbs on the backs of his books, people still emphasize his Westernization, how he represents “East meets West” or “the cool Japan”. But then, on the other side, Murakami’s critics point to this sort of praise as proof that he has sold out by writing for a Western audience, that this is what accounts for how widely-read his novels are.
I have heard and read plenty about this before, but it was not until I was walking around Kyoto that I also began to gravitate towards this issue of his un-Japaneseness. It seemed alarming and perhaps indicative of a problem within Western readership of praising only what appears familiar to us. But as legitimate as this concern is in contemporary fiction, the truth is that the more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that we read Murakami because he is easy or familiar. I cannot help but feel that this assumption unfairly simplifies the reasons behind his popularity and the deeply personal relationships his fans have with his fiction.
In The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami writes a description of its protagonist Toru Okada sitting at the bottom of a well, waiting to enter his dreams. Place is essential in Murakami, but not because of how it resembles Japan or how it resembles America. It is essential because he creates such a cerebral and strange world, so mystifying and surreal, that it is impossible to place in reality, even if it is Japan by name. Murakami’s Japan, filled with Jim Morrison songs and “Western metaphors”, operates a lot like Toru’s well. It is a place where Murakami can escape his immediate surroundings, Japanese politics and society, to see them more clearly. And his writing graciously does the same for his readers: it digs deep and provides a space separate from everyday life, a space to reconsider the collective or individual histories of loss that run beneath the surface.
We spend most of our lives comfortably above ground, at office desks, lectures, at meals three times a day. Reading Murakami disrupts that comfort; it is in his bizarre internal landscape that we ourselves also roam inwards. Whoever you are, a Japanese veteran or an American teenager, you will all be foreigners here. After all, for Murakami’s well to work, you have to be.
Photo Credit: Yiannis Theologos Michellis