Photo: カズキヒロ on Pakutaso

Haruki Murakami – Japan’s Nobel Laureate in Waiting

It is said that everyone has at least one novel in them. At some time in our lives most of us will contemplate this, at least for a short time. I hope that I can someday realize that ambition, but it remains to be seen if I will ever find the time, energy and motivation to do so.

In the meantime, I shall do my best to keep my inane ramblings to the thousand word or so segments that you read here at Taiken Japan. 

Photo by Galoren.com on Wikimedia Commons.

A large part of one’s personal development in the writing craft, and indeed a notion that all too many of us neglect in practice, is to nurture and develop an appreciation for the writing of others. 

It’s important to read and learn from the work of your forerunners if you ever do genuinely aspire to create your own novel someday. 

For me, one of my “literary heroes” in this regard is Haruki Murakami. However, such is the humility of this genius, Murakami does not let such notions get to him. In fact he actually seems quite uncomfortable with the whole thing. He remarked on recent speculation once again linking him with a Nobel award: “No, I don’t want prizes, such things suggest you are finished!”

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Despite being a man of comparatively fortunate upbringing, Murakami has always retained the common touch.

Born in Kyoto in 1949 to parents who both worked as literature teachers, it is fair to say that Murakami was steeped in the art of the written word from the very beginning. 

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As a product of the new found sense of pride and optimism that came with the “baby boom” of the post-World War II years, Murakami was far less resistant to the perceived “corrupting” influence of Western culture and media on Japanese society of that time than many of his predecessors. Growing up, he fostered a love for many of the great European and American writers of the times. To this day he cites a wide range of writers from Charles Dickens to Kurt Vonnegut as influential to his work. 

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It is his embrace and in some cases emulation of Western writing that set him apart from other noted Japanese authors of the 20th century like the tragic nationalist Yukio Mishima. 

However, Murakami wasn’t always a writer, indeed he didn’t even pen his first novel until he was 29. Although his writings often bleed into the realm of the surreal and the bizarre, there are some quite evident real life parallels in his work. 

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In his international breakthrough novel “Norwegian Wood”, which was released in 1987, the story focuses on the angst and experiences of Toru Watanabe, a student in 1960s Tokyo, who divides his time between studying and working in a record store. 

In a real life parallel, Murakami was a student at Tokyo’s Waseda University and his first job as an adult was indeed working in a record store. 

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It was while studying drama at Waseda that Murakami met his eventual wife, Yoko. When they graduated, the couple opened a coffee house and jazz bar, called The Peter Cat, in Tokyo’s trendy Kokubunji district. This also mirrors the main character in another of his novels: South of the Border, West of the Sun. Even after his success, they continued to run the bar until 1981.

It was at a baseball game, of all places, that Murakami first gained the inspiration to pen a novel. To him, the idea of writing a novel was not some long held dream or ambition, rather it was a spur of the moment kind of thing. 

Reflecting back on that time he said: “Before that, I didn’t write anything. I was just one of those ordinary people, running a jazz club and I hadn’t created anything at all.”

Photo by Kakidai on Wikimedia Commons.

Sitting, watching that baseball game in the Jingu Stadium, that fateful evening, it was, as the oft-quoted story goes, an American of all people who gave Murakami his inspiration. 

The game between the Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp was hardly one for the sporting annals. Yet, when Dave Hilton, an American batter stepped up to the plate and hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could be a novelist. He started working on his first book that very night. 

That first foray into writing which would become the hit novel “Hear the Wind Sing” won first prize in a literary contest upon its submission. However, as Murakami could only write in short fits and spurts after working in his bar, it took 10 months to complete. 

Spurred on by this first success, a year later Murakami published a sequel: Pinball, 1973.

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However, Murakami’s unease at what he considers the “immaturity and flimsiness” of those first two works, meant that an official English translation of these early stories didn’t reach the market until 2015. 

Perhaps the man does have an ego after all.

However, it was his desire to shun the limelight his work had brought upon him that compelled him to leave Japan in the late 1980s. After traveling around Europe for a time, he eventually settled in the US where he continued to write. 

Photo by Masahiko OHKUBO on Flickr

When the twin tragedies of the Kobe Earthquake and the Tokyo Subway Gas Attacks hit Japan in the mid-90s, this deeply affected Murakami, and paved the way for a massive change in the direction of his work. Whilst most of his novels to that point had been very personal in nature they then became much more about dealing with collective trauma and anxiety. This led him to publish his work of non-fiction, Underground, which dealt with first-hand accounts from survivors of the Tokyo attacks. 

In acknowledging this change in his writing tack, Murakami himself commented: “My earlier works came from an individual darkness, whilst now, I deal with the darkness found in society and history.”

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

A staunch pacifist, Murakami has, in recent times spoken out about issues such as Japan’s possible remilitarization, prejudice in society and also in acknowledging past war atrocities fully. 

In doing so, Murakami has cemented his place not only as one of my personal writing role models, but also as an embodiment of all that I believe is good about modern Japan.

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