[So I asked a friend and frightfully brilliant writer and reader Jake Waalk to write a post on Murakami. I cannot read him in Japanese, and while I have some opinions of his work (none charitable), they are all based on flawed translations. I don’t really know his work not the contexts in which it should be read. Since Nobel season is coming up, however, I am anticipating the same, mildly exasperating hyperbole about his work. I do not even remotely have the competence to argue this point, however. Jake Waalk does. This essay is not about Murakami’s work as it is about the way we read and praise Murakami in the West. Please enjoy this essay.]
So I had the honor of being asked to write a piece on Haruki Murakami, perhaps given the lead up to the Nobel Prize for Literature and the continued buzz around his name. Murakami’s fans are numerous in the West, as evidenced by the huge sections of his books in U.S. bookstores, an almost unheard of saturation of a translated author in the famously insular American literary scene. Japanese literature particular has always been a fringe even in the small malnourished country that is translation in United States. The tendencies in the Japanese literary culture towards ambiguousness and moral ambivalence have also meant that traditionally, Japan has been an exceptionally poor fit for the aggressively idealistic American culture. While I speak mainly with experience over the United States, Murakami’s fans have increased in Europe as well, and as such the task has fallen on me too offer up a little context on the author from, to help out my friend, mediocre poet and blogger shigekuni. The purpose in writing this brief essay is not so much to deconstruct or breakdown Murakami’s literary merit—something I am not well enough versed in his work to do anyway—but is rather to address certain issues surrounding the author’s popularity and to address his place in contemporary Japanese literature.
I start then, with a parable, albeit an imperfect one, but I ask readers please go along with me for a minute. I will use an American example: imagine going abroad and visiting bookstores, talking to readers, and the only thing anyone ever talks about is Dave Eggers. At all the bookstores Eggers’ books fill up entire shelves in translation, with only one or two other books by an American author at all, one lesser Faulkner and maybe a late Hemingway, crammed beside everything Dave Eggers’ has ever written. Eggers remains virtually the only living American author anyone in this imaginary place has ever read and will talk about. I have just outlined the experience of Japanese people with Haruki Murakami. None of this was to disparage Dave Eggers, a solid writer who has done much to invigorate the American literary scene and support the genre of the short story writer. I chose Eggers name because he is a relatively well-known middling author in the realm of living writers in that country, though one with a solid cult following and perhaps more recognized by the group of readers that also read Murakami.
The parable works, because regardless of how surprising his Western fans may find this, Haruki Murakami is a middling author in Japan, one with a mixed relationship to the country’s literary establishment, which has more often than not passed him up for major awards and rarely ranks him at the top echelon of living writers. Murakami’s Japanese critics make many claims against him; his writing is boring and simplistic in its use much kanji (Chinese characters) or that he fails to use kanji with the level of cleverness and wordplay expected of an author skilled in the use of the Japanese language as a literary tool. Murakami also comes under criticism for his political apathy, his lack of much of a moral vision one way or another, and many perceive his surreal or playful themes to be childish or the products of a shallow worldview (though it cannot be said that Murakami has no defenders in the Japanese literary community, they are just definitively in the minority). Ostensibly, the hope of the parable was to highlight a certain oddness, and even condescension present in Murakami’s popularity abroad, especially since almost no Murakami reader I have ever spoken to has read anything else of Japan’s vibrant and extraordinarily diverse modern literary heritage, from Natsume Soseki to Junichiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, Kawabata Yasunari, Kenzaburo Oe, and Kobo Abe to name just a few older writers, all dead save the Nobel Prize laureate Oe (yes, for all the complaining about Murakami not having won, there is currently a living Japanese laureate whom virtually no one in the U.S. has read). And it’s not a matter of translation; all of the above authors have been well-translated into English, just good luck finding them in a bookstore, though you will find a good half-dozen Murakami books.
Modern Japanese literature is another topic—and one where I think context is most needed and most lacking among Western readers. For example, Haruki Murakami is, in my opinion, not even the best living Japanese writer named Murakami, an honor which goes to Ryu Murakami, an author about the same age, who has won virtually all of Japan’s most prestigious prizes: The Akutagawa Prize, the Yomiuri Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, the Naoki Prize, two Noma awards—Ryu Murakami is both a popular writer and critically acclaimed, with several of his key works like the fantastic Coin-Locker Babies in English and yet little-known and little-read. Ryu Murakami has written about a range of contemporary issues in Japan from compensated dating, to hikikomori (shut-ins) and his work is imbued with a gritty violence and social critique of Japanese society, with an entire body of work seemingly centered around very relevant cultural issues (he’s also something of a celebrity and like Haruki has deep ties and interests in music as well as literature).
Ryu Murakami aside, contemporary Japanese literature has many other immensely talented and respected authors, including many prominent female writers. There is Yuko Tsushima, the daughter of the famous author Osamu Dazai (who committed suicide with his lover in 1948). Tsushima’s novel Laughing Wolf is available in English and offers a very unique take to a young girl’s empowerment through her elopement with the older boy she develops an interest in. The novel, which cannot be reviewed here, makes skillful literary use of The Jungle Book to create a strange relationship between young girl and older boy, that of brother and sister. It is a relationship based on a rejection of ties to the broader world of humans, forged by an affinity and connection with death: the suicide of the girl’s father, which the boy witnessed as a small homeless child. The novel is phenomenal, and Tsushima has been a consistent literary presence for decades, yet is almost untranslated into English. There is Ogawa Yoko whom I have not read, but who has won most of the Japan’s most prestigious literary awards and is often talked up as one Japan’s premier authors, by no less than Kenzaburo Oe for example. Another that I have actually read is Kaori Ekuni, a bestseller with some serious critical gravitas, whose Twinkle, Twinkle was a light, but funny and interesting love triangle between a woman who didn’t want an actual marriage, a gay doctor needing an out for his family and work, and his long-time lover. There is even the bubbly and decidedly more lightweight Banana Yoshimoto. Other names that have come in inquiring about leading Japanese authors beyond my reading are Toshiyuki Horie, and several Japanese people I have spoken to think Yasutaka Tsutsui might be the most important living sci-fi author in the world right now. Another author completely unavailable in English but quite influential in Japan is Noboru Tsujihara [note: after I posted Jake’s essay, @maorthofer corrected this on Twitter: “Tsujihara not untranslated @thamesriverwpc did Jasmine in 2012″], and the not quite-so-undertranslated Genichiro Takahashi has published many influential works and developed a strong literary reputation.
The list-making serves a very important purpose, as part of the reason I have been asked to write this essay is to explain my experiences with Japanese people and talking about Haruki Murakami, and to bring in any other anecdotal experiences I’ve already since I started living in Japan (to teach English through the JET program). I don’t particularly like anecdotes, so I am going to rush through them without lingering on anything for too long. When I did a presentation (in Japanese) for JAPN102, I chose to do it on literature and explicitly left out Haruki Murakami. When the class started discussing it, the Japanese teacher (a fortyish, well-educated woman from Tokyo), stood up and with her typical laconic bluntness said that Haruki Murakami wasn’t very important, and that I had specifically chosen (Soseki, Yasunari, Mishima, and Oe), others very important to Japanese literature and read by most Japanese in high school literature classes. When it came time to apply to JET, I mentioned some of the same authors again and highlighted my larger interest in Japanese literature and its culture as a reason for wanting to work and study further in Japan. For the JET program, the second stage entails a three person interview with the [American] program coordinator at what Consulate-General you apply for, a JET alumni, and a Consulate-General employee who is Japanese.
The Japanese Consulate-General official on my committee brought up my list and mentioned that most American’s only talk about Haruki Murakami and asked me why I thought he had not won the Nobel Prize. I gave an honest answer that Murakami did seem to embody the sort of politics and zeitgeist the committee often prefers in its picks, and I noted that he also lacks the profile in his home country that most Prize winners generally have. The answer noticeably impressed the official (and by noticeably I mean he complimented me on it), and I ended up getting the spot. In Japan, one of our prefectural supervisors turned out to have studied literature in college and we ended up talking about writers. He was ecstatic that I had heard of Kenzaburo Oe, and his English grew excited and a little fragmented as he tried to talk about a complicated subject such as Oe, saying “What he does, is genius. He is a genius. Very difficult to read, even for Japanese.” He seemed to have little interest in Haruki Murakami, and at point said Murakami wasn’t a particularly important writer. My school principal and district superintendent were also impressed that I liked Oe, who engenders a lot of respect even from some political conservatives. Both talked about books with me as best as I could manage with my limited Japanese, without ever mentioning Haruki Murakami.
Anecdotal evidence is just that, subjective and underwhelming and I would never try to position it as a powerful argument by itself, which is why I have also tried to contextualize Haruki Murakami first. However, I must also say that there has been a remarkably consistent response to Haruki Murakami by Japanese people across most of my experiences, particularly among those well-educated and having had experience traveling or living abroad. Hence my parable about Dave Eggers, with which I hoped to offer American readers a way of identifying with the sentiment of these Japanese, to offer a way to understand that sense of disconnect, oddity, and perplexion that most Japanese greet Haruki Murakami’s broad popularity in the West while almost all other Japanese writers languish unread and unknown.
This is a problem that Haruki Murakami himself recognizes, and he has been involved in projects to introduce Americans to other Japanese writers, but there is undeniably something about him as a writer that, despite a huge popular following in Japan (if only more literary and profound authors solid out million round printings in a few weeks in the United States, where almost no one seems to read outside the endless formulaic drudgery of writers like James Patterson and book club novels) has usually left him on the outside of intellectual and critical respect in Japan. Murakami himself said it in an interview, “I’m kind of an ugly duckling. Always the duckling, never the swan.” Murakami divides, and his type of very simple style with clear and minimalist sentences defies the standards of Japanese literature, where inventiveness, word play, and complexity aren’t just valued, they are considered the evidence of linguistic competence and a writer’s style. Murakami can come off as calomel to many readers and critics in Japan, and as I cannot personally weigh in on that matter with any depth, I will only reiterate that given how Japanese works as a language, this is a fair criticism.
Murakami is not, as John Wray laughably describes him in an interview for The Paris Review, “arguably the most experimental Japanese novelist to have been translated into English.” To Wray I say, read Kobo Abe, several times a serious contender for the Nobel Prize, who wrote truly bizarre, surrealistic fiction like The Woman in the Dunes or Kangaroo Notebook. Read Kenzaburo Oe, who is, in his own fashion, incredibly unique and experimental in the complex ways he twists and contorts Japanese, and his characters, who eventually morph into all-grown-up post-atomic bomb Huck Finns. The hagiography of Murakami by well-read critics who nonetheless know next to nothing about Japanese criticism is a pet-peeve of mine, and yet a recurrent theme for Murakami. The issue is that a reader can think that “the meaning of those symbols remains hermetic to the last” (Wray) or could take the position that they are nice emotive symbols used by a creative mind, but without having any meaning at all, being purely a sort of flash, glib manipulation sans a mature ideology or social commentary behind them (I am paraphrasing a central line of criticism of Murakami in Japan). And I suspect the reason for his popularity has to do more with Wray’s very next comment, highlighting Murakami’s numerous Western pop culture influences. Haruki Murakami, rather than breaking the rule of American literature’s insularity, merely proves it, because it seems that an essential part of his appeal lies in the unique appropriations of and applications of Western pop culture that make his work accessible and which follow certain in vogue stylistic conventions. All the while Murakami admittedly reads little of Japanese literature, and has a huge disconnect from the country’s extremely rich literary heritage—a disconnect which in Oe’s work is violent, deeply personal, and a matter of schism and betrayal while remaining ever present, just bubbling beneath the page just as his Nobel lecture inverted and built off Kawabata’s Nobel lecture. In Murakami this disconnect is merely a sign of disinterest.
I am not however making a final critical judgment of Murakami himself. I have only read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and I was modestly impressed by it. My critical judgment is of Murakami’s popularity in the West, and I am more interested in indicting certain aspects of the American literary community that inflate Murakami into the greatest and most unique bit of literature to ever come out of Japan while lacking appropriate knowledge and background to make that kind of value judgment. The endless times I say I love Japanese literature and am then asked about Murakami have come to annoy even me, and while I won’t use a meaningless strawman word like hipster, I can identify a big source of Murakami’s popularity is in white, educated, urban demographics, particularly younger people—what might be called the yuppie community. My indictment is more a matter of how vapid the culture of this community—one of the best educated and most culturally invested, often in admirable ways, areas of American society. For all its pretensions towards originality, novelty, and multiculturalism this community has an incredibly narrow and often discriminatory sense of aesthetics. Murakami’s popularity seems to speak to how this group gravitates to translated authors with similar styles and references to the American authors they read, and a rather self-serving appropriation rather than an open-minded exploration of global cultures and new perspectives.
Even so I can’t help but cautiously hope Haruki Murakami’s popularity in the West does good things. That even in small ways it internationalizes; leads people to other Japanese writers; that its use of surrealism and genre components helps break down rigid barriers on what constitutes “literature” and that it does help blur the line between popular fiction and the literary (a division already often blurred in Japan). Bob Duggan has one of the most balanced responses to Murakami, calling him the “Thelonious Monk of Fiction” and Nathaniel Rich has written one of the few, thorough critical responses to Murakami in America, published in The Atlantic, outlining the numerous lines of tropes, clichés, and simplistic themes repeated throughout Murakami’s novels and takes aim even Murakami’s skill with language and his “ultimately inconsequential” plots and “robotic” dialogue, though Rich like me, still takes something interesting from Murakami, and like Nathaniel Rich I will say there are some interesting aspects to Murakami’s writing even with the spotty skill—mainly a sense that Murakami is a formulaic genre fiction writer writing alone in a unique personal genre of his own invention.
In Japan, Murakami remains a second-string literary figure—something he thinks would be unchanged by a Nobel Prize—but his fan base is avid, and his writings, replete with aimless loneliness, alienation and desire, speak to a broad experience of complicated and stressful postmodernity in Japan (as do numerous other authors, some like Ryu Murakami doing it better and with greater creativity and linguistic competence than Haruki Murakami). As such there really is no middle ground; you are either a fan, hate him, or utterly ambivalent. From personal experience, I would say ambivalence is most common. There are other more worthy candidates from Japan for the Nobel Prize for Literature (the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa for instance), but Murakami remains a perennial favorite, perhaps buoyed by the often liberal English translations and the sense that he represents a novel style of writing. I feel that Haruki Murakami is a lightweight contender, and would have the least gravitas of any winner since the baffling selection of Orhan Pamuk in 2006, and many of his Western fans would do good to explore a world of Japanese literature that is so much deeper, stranger, and more complex than Haruki Murakami.
Jake Waalk is currently living in Shinano, Nagano, where Kobayashi Issa was born and died. You can reach Jake via email (jawaalk[at]gmail.com) or in the comment section of this post. I suppose you can also hunt him down on facebook. He’s an excellent human being and a brilliant reader. ISBN.