[BOOKS] Haruki Murakami: A Rebel in Japan Eyes Status in America
- A Rebel in Japan Eyes Status in America
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
Published: June 14, 2005
TOKYO, June 12 - If he has not achieved that status already, Haruki
Murakami is on course to becoming the most widely read Japanese
writer outside Japan, past or present.
His novels (including "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle") have long been
popular in China and South Korea, as well as Germany and the Baltic
states. "Kafka on the Shore," his most recent novel, published in
English by Alfred A. Knopf, made some best-seller lists in the United
States earlier this year. That, and a film adaptation of his short
story, "Tony Takitani," which is to open on July 29 in the United
States, may give him the popular visibility in America he has long
coveted. (In Japan, paperback copies of "Kafka" are still prominently
displayed in bookstores, next to his more recent novel, "After
Still, for all his success, Mr. Murakami, 55, speaks with a bitter
edge toward the Japanese literary establishment, which has kept him
at bay as much as he has distanced himself from it.
"I don't consider myself part of the establishment," he said. "I
don't deal with the Japanese literary circle or society at all. I
live totally separate from them and still rebel against that world."
Indeed in Japan, the traditional literary critics regard his novels
as un-Japanese and look askance at their Western influences, ranging
from the writing style to the American cultural references. (In the
United States his work is taught in colleges and has been reviewed by
John Updike in The New Yorker.)
During a recent interview at his office, a barefoot Mr. Murakami,
wearing jeans and an orange shirt, spoke on a variety of subjects,
from his place in contemporary literature to his writing habits. He
appeared at ease, since he was preparing to take one of his periodic
breaks, both from his writing and from Japan. He will spend the next
year at Harvard as a writer in residence.
"Kafka on the Shore" tells two alternating and ultimately converging
stories. Mr. Murakami said he had become bored writing about urban
dwellers in their 20's and 30's, and so in "Kafka" he decided to
create two different types: a 15-year-old boy named Kafka Tamura, who
runs away from home to rural western Japan; and a mentally defective
man in his 60's, Satoru Nakata, who has the ability to talk to cats.
The novel has Mr. Murakami's signature surrealism, as fish rain from
the sky, and characters named Johnnie Walker, a cat killer, and
Colonel Sanders, a pimp, play critical roles.
Like his other novels this one is filled with references to American
culture, but Mr. Murakami said he regarded Coca-Cola and Colonel
Sanders, for instance, as worldwide references. "References such as
Colonel Sanders or Johnnie Walker are in a way Western and everybody
tends to fix their eyes on that," he said. "But as for the essence of
a story, my stories have strong Japanese or Oriental elements. I
think the structure of my stories is different from so-called Western
His storytelling, he said, "does not develop logically from A to B to
C to D, but I don't intentionally break up or reverse episodes the
way postmodernists do. For me, it is a natural development, but it is
Mr. Murakami's attachment to American literature is longstanding. As
a high school student in Kobe, in western Japan, he read, in the
original, Kurt Vonnegut, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote and
Raymond Chandler. Like many Japanese of his generation, he became
passionate about jazz and rock.
"American culture," he said, "became ingrained in my body." By
contrast, he never read Japanese novels until he was an adult. "I
didn't read them when I was young because they were boring," he said.
In Japanese, Mr. Murakami speaks in declarative, sometimes blunt,
sentences that convey exactly what he means. He eschews the
expressions that most Japanese use to soften their speech and that
tend to make the language vague.
His writing is infused with the same directness, which makes it easy
to translate into English, but which many critics here say lack the
richness of traditional literary Japanese. And there are readers here
who say that his writing reads as if it had been translated from
English into their own language.
Mr. Murakami - who translated English-language novels into Japanese
before he wrote them, and two years ago offered a new Japanese
translation of "The Catcher in the Rye" - said he has chosen to write
in a "neutral" Japanese, explaining:
"There was a notion in Japan that novelists write in a certain style.
I totally ignored it and created a new style. Therefore, in Japan,
there was resistance. I was much criticized."
When "Kafka" was published in Japan in 2002, it was popularly
acclaimed. But some of this country's top literary critics dismissed
it as an example of the impoverishment of Japanese literature, with
language devoid of depth and richness.
Among readers, however, his novels are wildly successful, allowing
him to write fiction full time - something he said he had never
He wrote "Kafka" in six months, starting, as he usually does, without
a plan. He spent one year revising it. He follows a strict regimen.
Going to bed around 9 p.m. - he never dreams, he said - he wakes up
without an alarm clock around 4 a.m. He immediately turns on his
Macintosh and writes until 11 a.m., producing every day 4,000
characters, or the equivalent of two to three pages in English.
He said that his wife has told him that his personality changes when
he is writing his first draft, and that he becomes difficult,
nontalkative, tense and forgetful.
"I write the same amount every day without any day off," he said. "I
absolutely never look back and go forward. I hear Hemingway was like
Unlike Hemingway, Mr. Murakami leads a healthy lifestyle. In the
afternoons, to build up his stamina to keep writing, he works out for
one or two hours. Whenever he is in Tokyo, he also visits old-record
stores, especially ones in the youth mecca of Shibuya, which appears
to be the unnamed setting of "After Dark," published last fall to
relatively little attention here.
A short novel, which has yet to be translated into English, "After
Dark" centers on the stories of several characters over the course of
one night as seen, neutrally and coldly, through a camera eye. The
novel could be easily adapted into film, unlike Mr. Murakami's other
novels. He has resisted selling his novels to filmmakers, though he
said he would hand them over unconditionally to Woody Allen or David
He may now be enjoying the big break in the United States that he has
worked for since spending two years in the country in the early
"I went to New York myself, found an agent myself, found a publisher
myself, found an editor myself," Mr. Murakami said. "No Japanese
novelist has ever done such things. But I thought I had to do that."
He added: "I wanted to test my ability overseas, not being satisfied
with being a famous novelist in Japan."