Murakami Haruki's Canon

By Mori, Masaki | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Murakami Haruki's Canon


Mori, Masaki, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


Three Criteria

In 2006, Jay Rubin published Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, a new English translation of short stories by Akutagawa Ryunosuke [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1892-1927). The Japanese novelist Murakami Haruki [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (b. 1949), some of whose works have also been translated by Rubin, contributed an introduction titled "Akutagawa Ryunosuke: Downfall of the Chosen." (1) Before commenting on the Akutagawa pieces included in Rubin's book, Murakami considers which writers qualify as the ten most important "Japanese national writers" since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, with Akutagawa considered an unquestionable inclusion. Murakami, whom some consider a pop writer of inconsequential merit despite recent rumors that he is a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, evidently takes seriously the question of literary canonization. This fact is itself worth noting.

Murakami enumerates three criteria for inclusion in his list. First, a top national writer must have written "works of the first rank that vividly reflect the mentality" of contemporary Japan. Second, his or her "character or life" must have induced "widespread respect or strong sympathy." Third, such a writer must have written works of extensive popular appeal, especially pieces that are "easy enough" for young people to read and memorize, and that may be included "in the nation's primary and middle-school textbooks" (xix-xx). With these criteria in mind, he mentions certain prominent writers of prose fiction from the last hundred and fifty years, including Natsume Soseki [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1867-1916), Mori Ogai [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1862-1922), Shimazaki Toson [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1872-1943), Shiga Naoya [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1883-1971), Tanizaki Jun'ichiro [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1886-1965), and Kawabata Yasunari [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1899-1972), in addition to Akutagawa. He mentions two more writers of lesser qualification--Dazai Osamu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1909-48) and Mishima Yukio [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1925-70)--and he concludes that he is unable to decide on "a good candidate for tenth place" (xxxvi).

This list roughly coincides with and consciously endorses a common perception of modern Japanese literature. For instance, Murakami places Natsume Soseki atop his list, reflecting the latter's enormous popularity. Although he does not argue for the impartiality of his selections, Murakami apparently aims at it when he candidly admits his personal lack of appreciation for Kawabata and indifference to Shiga and Shimazaki. While he at least recognizes Kawabata's novelistic achievements, he acknowledges that he has not read deeply in Shiga and Shimazaki and that their work has made little impression on him. In spite of this indifference, he includes these three writers as a gesture of fair-mindedness and respect for the cultural consensus.

Critiquing Certain Criteria

When closely examined, however, the list raises questions. The first criterion is natural and inevitable, but the second and third are less straightforward, depending on historical and cultural contexts. The second criterion particularly illustrates the problem. Murakami's first seven writers named were influential not only as writers, but also as cultural figures far into the second half of the twentieth century. Soseki aside, however, it is questionable whether these writers were in a position to play this kind of public role. Kawabata, Shiga, and Shimazaki, for example, led lives that were largely private. In this respect, Dazai and Mishima, the two authors whom Murakami tentatively mentions, fare better, partly due to the fact that they died more recently, but mainly because of their relatively sensational lives and deaths, namely, the dissolute helplessness of the former and a nationalistic defiance of the latter, for which they still enjoy sympathy or respect among certain constituencies. …

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