literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration and relishing the New Japan.
The novelist tells Roland Kelts his story.
Courtesy of Cinnamon Inc.
When I meet Haruki Murakami for the
first time, he pops up at the top of a staircase in his Aoyama studio with neither warning
nor explanation, like an apparition in one of his books. I have just struggled through a
mass of dense summer heat, trudging in my suit-and-tie past the boutiques and cafes,
longing for a reprieve. Murakami is wearing a pair of canvas shorts and an open-necked
polo shirt. Soft breezes and a wall of jazz LPs surround him, and he eyes me with calm
precision, sizing me up before either of us speaks. Come in, he finally says.
I've been swimming."
In person and in print,
Murakami has become famous for this kind of unflappable cool, for a fashionable life of
travel and designer-label tastes-in jazz, cars and clothes-and for novels and stories that
feature a hip awareness of Western cultural icons and contemporary lingo, conveyed in a
voice that feels laid-back and effortless. When his novels first appeared in English,
Murakamis incorporation of a Western style into slickly modern Japanese settings was
mostly deemed weird, especially to those accustomed to more solemn traditional Japanese
literature. Novels like "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Dance, Dance, Dance"
run the voice of Raymond Chandler through an electrified (and electrifying) aesthetic
blender, mixing hard-boiled mystery with postmodern menace, and combining absurdism with
intimacy. In 1992, once-au courant American novelist Jay MacInerney, to whom Murakami was
then being compared, conducted an interview with him. His motto might be No
big deal, MacInerney wrote of Murakamis everyman narrators, comparing
the jaded equanimity of the authors tone to that of another American
writer Murakami has translated: Raymond Carver.
I made up my mind
then that I wouldnt follow any movement, any ideology, any ism. They all
disappointed me. I felt betrayed.
But the man I met and have come to know in subsequent meetings in Tokyo and New York is
warm, candid and intense-and full of contradictions. Japans most widely read and
highly regarded international author looks a good 15 years younger than a man in his early
50s should, even among generally long-living, well-preserved Japanese. His face is
broad, smooth and, at first, unnervingly impassive. His eyes are darkly still, owlish
beneath thick brows. He speaks with a deep baritone, resonant with care and
thoughtfulness, and he massages his voice with frequent mugs of tea. In that seductive,
even comforting voice, he claims that hes not a very good talker in any
language, though his English is mellifluous and exacting. He is a major novelist who
is also a serious runner, having completed marathons in New York, Boston and Sapporo. And
while the author of nine novels, 30 books of stories, essays and translations became
famous for being cool, he uses hot, passionate language to declare that he's no longer
interested in all that. He'd rather write a great novel.
Things are in
Haruki Murakami is the most famous Japanese writer of his generation, and he is
probably the most important writer in Japan today. In his native land he has sold millions
of books, eight of which have appeared in English, most recently "Underground,"
a series of interviews and musings about the Aum Shinrikyo poisonings of 1995, and
"Sputnik Sweetheart," a novel of misunderstood love. His writing is translated
into 16 languages; South Koreans recently incorporated the term Murakamiesque
into their lexicon. He is an international man of letters, and he is also a celebrity,
albeit a very private one, in a country where most successful authors appear on television
chat shows and in magazine gossip columns. Numerous Japanese friends had told me, with a
certain hush of awe, that he was impossible to interview. Hes like a
recluse, one of them said. I dont even know if hes living in
Born in Kyoto in 1949, and raised in a suburb of Kobe, Murakamis personal history
initially reads like a dossier of his nations faceless post-war generation. By all
accounts, the young Murakami was unremarkable: he did okay in school, though he
wasnt much interested in it-I didnt study in high school, but I really
didnt study in college. He enjoyed baseball and jazz, but didnt excel as
a participant at either one.
He did spend a lot of time alone, which isnt so unusual for an only child, but is
distinctive in a culture that tends to place group needs and social engagement above
individual desires. Like many a loner, he took to reading. Not the Japanese Classics his
parents tried to foist on him, but the Western writers he found in Kobes used
bookstores. The high expatriate population in Kobe ensures that such shops are filled with
Western novels, and Murakami overdosed on the Americans.
I wanted to write something international, he says now. And I loved that
style when I was a kid, that voice. I still do.
He came to Tokyo, he says, "because I just wanted to get away from Kansai. Just like
I eventually wanted to get away from Japan." At Waseda University, a haven for
Japanese literati, Murakami encountered the Great Russian novelists, of whom Dostoevsky
remains a major influence. But he also encountered a sense of insecurity he says has
stayed with him, ever since the Tokyo student protests suddenly collapsed at the end of
the 60s. Murakami was a part of the revolts-I battled some police-even
if he felt little solidarity with his fellow protesters. But by the early 70s, he
says, it was completely finished, and I suddenly felt that nothing was secure. I
couldnt trust anything at all.
Im not an
outsider anymore, because... Im kind of responsible to society. I suddenly feel I
should do something. Underground changed me.
peers quickly and obediently joined the large corporations that ruled Japan during its
rise as an economic superpower, becoming the diligent salarymen and office ladies of world
renown. But the author went his own way, opening a jazz club with his wife instead, and
turning to writing shortly after seeing a baseball game, in which an American hit a double
under deep blue Tokyo skies.
Yet the severed connection with his former classmates was clearly transforming. I
made up my mind then that I wouldnt follow any movement, any ideology, any ism. They
all disappointed me. I felt betrayed. He grows unusually agitated when discussing
those years, his voice going tense and his hand slapping his thigh for emphasis. Its
not hard to perceive the permanent outsider position he staked out-as a cool,
dispassionate observer on the fringes of society-partly as a defensive posture. Short
scenes of collapsed student idealism appear periodically throughout his novels, as though
he cant let go of the hurt. The narrator of 1987s "Norwegian Wood"
(published in English in '99), which sold two million copies in Japan and made Murakami a
literary superstar, is dismissive of the radicals, painting them in comic shades as a
bunch of fools and nerds. In 1992s "South of the Border, West of the Sun,"
the portrait is revealingly terse:
The next thing I knew, the season of politics was over... the gigantic shock waves
that convulsed society for a time were swallowed up by a colorless, mundane workaday
Things are in chaos, he says now, easing back and squinting over the Aoyama
rooftops outside his window. I understood that then, but its especially true
today. Theres no solid center, not just in Japan, but everywhere. So many people are
feeling insecure these days, but for me, since I was 20 years old, thats what
Ive been feeling all along.
In 1995, two tragedies struck Japan in short order. January saw Murakamis hometown
of Kobe rent asunder by a massive earthquake, and in March his adopted hometown of Tokyo
suffered a mass subway poisoning, perpetrated by members of a homegrown religious cult.
Murakami was living in Massachusetts at the time, where he was completing his most
ambitious novel to date-1997's "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." The novel won
Murakami the Yomiuri Literary Award, which was bestowed upon him by Nobel Laureate
Kenzaburo Oe, formerly one of his harshest critics.
The earthquake and the poisoning drove Murakami back home to Tokyo, after years living and
working in Europe and America. He compares his decision to one made by his hero, the
self-exiled F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1929, when news of the Great Depression hit and the
American novelist suddenly left Paris for New York. "I suddenly knew I had to go
home," he says forcefully today. "I don't know why, I just knew."
But the events changed more than the author-they changed Japan. Murakami is fatalistic
about the timing: "The war ended in '45. We had 50 years of prosperity and peace,
exactly 50. Now, everything is shifting. The Aum attack was like a critical punctuation
mark. We lost our confidence then, almost for the first time, and we changed
sociopsychologically. That was the point."
The Japan that awaited Murakami was deep into the economic malaise that persists
(alarmingly) today. But more telling to the author was the social transformation-an
evolution in culture that ultimately liberated him as an artist. He describes himself
today as someone reborn, convinced that "in this new decade, it's my time. I'm going
to do something very big. I've been an outsider in the past, but sometime after 1995, I
looked around and didn't find any force to fight against. Tokyo looked just like a bombed
out area, completely leveled, like the Tokyo of 1945, but it was the literary world 50
years later. At first I felt confused. There was no establishment anymore, and I finally
It was the newly liberated Murakami, he says, who began collecting interviews for
"Underground," who wanted to know his readers and find new ways of reaching
them. The process emboldened him
Ive been writing novels for 20 years, but I havent been very
ambitious, he says, setting down his tea mug and rubbing his chin. He refuses to
read any of his earlier novels-Im totally dissatisfied with my earlier work; I
was unhappy, like a lost boy-and he shifts uncomfortably when I bring up various
scenes from them, frequently saying that he has no idea what a given book or story might
Both "Underground" and "Sputnik Sweetheart" reveal a novelist reaching
outwards-delving into a culture undergoing a transformation more profound than any new
economic policy. The hip writer of yesteryear is intensely absorbed in the drama of the
moment. "We are now experiencing drastic change-actually a rearrangement of society
itself, Murakami told me recently. "Koizumi was right when he said that we
would have to endure pain, but he is the first politician who is honest enough to tell
that to the people. At least now we recognize that we are in the midst of a sheer change,
that the pain is inevitable, and that we are not innocent victims. That is big
His forthcoming collection, "After The Quake," which will be published in
English in 2002, finds Murakami addressing the Kobe earthquake in a series of short
stories that combine his earlier gift for absurdity and ironic wit with his newfound
social engagement. And the novel he is working on now-"a big book" he describes
as "Holden Caulfield in the world of Dostoevsky's The
Possessed"-promises to raise the author's profile even further.
Murakami is on a roll these days, and his enthusiasm for change in Japan and in his work
is infectious. "As a writer," he concedes, "I am experiencing the same
change and rearrangement. Society changes-the narrative changes. They are inseparable.
Though I am not interested in actual politics, I know that I cannot escape from it, nor
can I be indifferent to it. If you are a serious novelist, you have to be political in
your own way. That is a fact."
When I propose that his image might be changing, too, Murakami is agreeably eloquent:
Im not an outsider anymore, because... Im kind of responsible to
society. I suddenly feel I should do something. Underground changed me.
As a novelist? Yes, he replies, drawing out the s into a hiss of
consent. As a novelist, and as a man.