Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

On the Side of the Egg: What Does Haruki Murakami Mean to the Japanese?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

On the Side of the Egg: What Does Haruki Murakami Mean to the Japanese?

Article excerpt

"If you cross those mountains," Mariko Matsuda says, "you enter a different reality." We are standing with our backs to Japan's Inland Sea and are looking at distant peaks. "An inland sea represents an inner world. Closed in. Oppressive. But beyond those mountains lies the Pacific. The vast, open view." For Matsuda, the mountain ridges between Takamatsu and Kochi to the south are a symbolic as well as a physical divide--between a Japan of stifling social conventions and the more individualistic world outside. They are also, she says, the "geographical embodiment" of the work of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

And that is why I have ventured to this anonymous seaside town. I want to find out what Murakami's work means to the Japanese, and to discover if his millions of readers in the west are missing something.

I meet another Murakami fan, Miki Suzuki, on the top floor of a Tokyo hotel. Murakami's style is unique in Japan, she says--short sentences, simple words. "With Murakami the story is complex, not the language. He forces you to think, to speculate. A lot of writers make you reach for a dictionary, but fail to challenge you on the level of substance."

Suzuki studied in France. As an import manager in the fashion world, she has to communicate with westerners every day. The Japanese, she says, are inflexible, afraid to make mistakes. Westerners are more relaxed and individualistic. For her, the main appeal of Murakami's work lies in the western influence. "For a long time, Murakami lived abroad," she says. "It shaped his personality and changed his lifestyle. He's a link between cultures."

The Tokyo bookseller Steve Kott agrees, and says that this is what makes Murakami one of the first truly post-national authors. The lanky American is the proprietor of Good Day Books in Shibuya, the neighbourhood that was the main location of After Dark (2004) and of a murder scene in Murakami's new novel, 1Q84. The main reason for the writer's popularity at home, Kott thinks, is the way Japanese society has started to catch up with the fictional world evoked in the novels. "He writes about roofless people, mostly freelancers, sometimes unemployed, with few friends and loose family ties. Un-Japanese individuals. Traditionally, this was a country where loyalty to an employer was absolute. The last couple of years, this has changed dramatically. Only now do the lives of his characters resemble those of a significant chunk of the populace."

Roland Nozomu Kelts, who teaches at the University of Tokyo, sees Murakami as a chronicler of metropolitan experience (most people in Japan live in big cities or conurbations). "He writes about the loneliness and the disassociation of the megalopolis, but not from a distance. He writes without irony - quite refreshing for western readers, I think- and really feels for his characters. It makes his work warm and cold at the same time."

Kelts, the son of a Japanese mother and American father, divides his time between New York and Tokyo, knows Murakami personally and wrote about his work in his own Japan america (2006), a study of the global influence of Japanese pop culture. "The characters in his early novels are outsiders," he says. "They are pulled into the plot more or less by chance."

This is the experience of many Japanese, who see themselves as being at the mercy of shadowy powers. As Kelts explains, "I have friends that beg me to get the word out that Japan is not a democracy. The country is run by small cliques, nepotism is rife and elections are tainted by clientelism. …

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