If you want to know Japan, you need to know Murakami. Haruki Murakami is the most widely read international Japanese author today.
He writes about the essence of being human, but always within a distinctly Japanese framework. If you have ever dreamed of heading to Japan, or you are already there and but wanting to get deeper, Murakami is the answer. He offers a missing bridge between east and the west. Even though less than 150 years ago Japan was closed to all outside contact, it has since opened its doors to the rest of the world, as well as rapidly (but moderately) assimilated itself into western culture. Murakami embraced this shift from his youth, immersing himself in classic American mystery novels and contemporary jazz. While this may seem like a minor detail, this immersion into western culture is partially what makes Murakami’s writing so easily accessible to the foreign reader.
Murakami was born in 1949 in Kyoto, Japan. As a rebellious child with a love of American music and books, Murakami got married and opened a jazz club at age 21. He never intended to become a writer. He “accidentally” fell into it years later, which he describes as a result of routine escape into his dreamworld. To date, Murakami’s work has been translated into 42 languages and appeared on best-selling lists across the world. This is unusual considering that Japanese fiction isn’t traditionally popular in the West. According to one of Murakami’s English translators, Harvard professor Jay Rubin, “You don’t go to Murakami for views of society but of the human brain.” Murakami has been recorded stating that he does not intend to capture “the essence of the Japanese mind”, and that he rejects the oversimplified, generic view that Japan is homogenous in both intellect and emotion.
I first picked up Murakami when traveling, a ratty paperback I found at a hostel. It happened to be one of his earlier, more surreal novels, titled “Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World.” Since then Murakami has delved into more commercially-appealing fiction (less surrealism, more suspense) in books such as “Norwegian Wood”. But regardless of older or newer, certain themes stay true in his writing. Murakami’s english-translator Philip Gabriel (who worked on the later and best known trilogy IQ84) says Murakami’s unique perspective makes him the quintessential modern writer for our truly globalized world. I feel the below quotes from an assortment of Murakami’s novels partially capture the core of his writing.
“Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.” Kafka on the Shore
Murakami characters are usually engaged in an ongoing meditation of their self, regardless of circumstance. This unwavering focus on the internal psyche is refreshingly unexpected, especially for fiction which depends heavily on the mystery storyline and suspense-filled events. Not something you would find in the average blockbuster.
Engaging with the Present
“The trouble is, I don’t have a damn thing to do with anything fifty thousand years ago—or fifty thousand years from now, either. Nothing. Zip. What’s important is now. Who knows when the world is gonna end? Who can think about the future? The only thing that matters is whether I can get my stomach full right now and get it up right now.” After the Quake
No matter what is happening on the outside, Murakami characters have high awareness of living in the present. This in turn lends itself to a simple yet overarching value system- depth of relationships and quality of life are themes that his characters seek out. Whether this means following an intriguing woman or going down a wormhole, the out-of-the-ordinary events that follow come from a desire to truly live.
Experiences over Things
“Spend your money on the things money can buy. Spend your time on the things money can’t buy.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Most of Murakami’s characters either have nothing, live simply, or leave everything in their soul-searching. The things they pine for but can’t have are always immaterial… the lost love, soul friendships from youth, or even mental sanity. Even his seemingly nonchalant observations seem to draw out the irony of material items we attach to, whether it is walking out of the house with only one clean shoe or the irrelevance of a favored item reappearing after the whole world has fallen to pieces.