Why Haruki Murakami is so Very Japanese

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by Jakob Ryce / 5th June, 2018

Haruki Murakami belongs to a new generation of contemporary authors who speak to the eclectic, progressive spirit of Japan, often communicating his theories through popular magazines and resisting traditional literary labels, such as ‘jun bungaku, pure literature, opting instead for the Anglicism fuikkushon, fiction’ (Stretcher 1998). And this indifference with the Japanese literary establishment has sparked debate if this is Murakami’s rejection ‘of literature as “art” in the contemporary period’ (Stretcher 1998).

Murakami’s writing style lives in the present and is uncluttered by hyperbolic descriptions; a minimalist who embraces the Japanese concept of Kanso – avoiding accentuation to allow room for simplicity. Comparatively, his writing often features English expressions, which are translated back into Japanese. ‘Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing is not really Japanese. If you translate it into American English, it can be read very naturally in New York’ (Stretcher 1998).

Nonetheless, the ‘internationality’ and transparency of his writing style has created broad appeal. David Mitchell calls Murakami ‘the world’s best-known living Japanese novelist’ (Mitchell 2005). A fair statement, when considering his novels have been translated into over 50 languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide, making him one of Japan’s most recognisable postmodern writers.

However, for all his Western influences, there are elements of fantasy, magical realism and Japanese mythology at work. This essay will examine the Japanese themes and influences in Kafka on the Shore, and how Shintoism acts as an important cultural anchor in Murakami’s novel.

Loners, Ghosts & Transformations

In Murakami’s stories, his first-person protagonists often experience the mundane—however, they tend to observe life with a minimalist, hyper-aware worldview. His character’s feel closer to reality (and are more relatable) than the stereotypical Hollywood heroes of Western culture. Furthermore, they are often loners who are dealing with some form of loss, or suffering from a loss of identity. A.T Lai postulates this may be ‘caused by an absence of “idealism” and any source of self-fulfilment, is further severed by a loss of connection with the past, including the nation’s cultural past’ (Lai 2007).

In Kafka on the Shore, Kafka Tamura’s motivation to run away from home – to find his sister and mother, and shake an Oedipal curse – is also a desire to transform, as he explains to Oshima: ‘I don’t like the container I’m stuck in. Never have. I hate it’ (Murakami 2006, p. 286).

Recurring themes of transformation are woven throughout the story, as are interrelated conditions – such as depression spawned from abuse, and a desire to reclaim lost innocence. ‘A lot of things were stolen from my childhood … and now I have to get them back’ (Murakami 2006, p. 343).

Furthermore, there is a fragmentation occurring within particular characters – a disassociation of self – as they come to terms with their own existential struggles and often violent natures. For instance, Nakata speaks in the third person as if he inhabits a body without a fixed character, it’s ‘as if his soul had fled but never returned’ (Wirth 2018). Hence, how Shintoism, as a sense of emptiness, is used here – not by rejecting it, but by assimilating it. ‘The body shapes the formless self in new ways, but when the body is traumatised, it can congeal into the wound of an unchanging self’ (Wirth 2018).

Likewise, the transformation can be negative. Kafka’s father (who is never explicitly seen) re-invents himself as the cat-killer and calls himself ‘Johnnie Walker,’ and by doing this he ‘transforms himself into a commercial icon, a symbol of globalisation’ (Lai 2007). And probably the most overt use of transformation is that of Oshima, a transgender who confesses: ‘I’m not crazy about the container I’m in, that’s for sure’ (Murakami 2006, p. 267). The word ‘container’ is repeated throughout – as a detachment of the body from the self.

In addition to transformation, there is also the theme of abduction surrounding the UFO incident in the rice bowl, 1944. All the children wake with no memory of the event and are unchanged, all but Nakata, being … ‘dumb ever since. Nakata can’t write or read a book …’ (Murakami 2006, p. 49).

J.M Wirth believes this has a historical connection to Japanese ghost stories, rather than aliens. ‘In addition to the ghosts of the dead, the shiryō, there is a history, going back at least to the early 11th century and Genji Monogatari, of ikiryō, living ghosts’ (Wirth 2018). This theory can be reinterpreted in Kafka’s eventual Shugendō journey into the forest of ghosts, as ‘Murakami allows us to distinguish the traumatised hollow character from the healing emptiness of the self’ (Wirth 2018).

Shintoism and Guides

Murakami’s work is said to have more comparisons to Raymond Carver and Jack Kerouac than his Japanese predecessors, and C. W Barr even believes his characters are devoid of traditional roots. ‘Mr. Murakami’s characters, culturally at least, are citizens of the world. They may be Japanese, but … these characters remove themselves from Japan, in spirit if not in body’ (Barr 2009).

While Murakami’s western influences are certainly apparent, I believe they are at their root, postmodern aesthetics (repurposing names like Johnny Walker, music of the Archduke Trio, etc) and his murder mysteries unfold more like Lynchian dreamworlds … ‘even when he clearly appropriates the hard-boiled detective framework. The postmodern landscape that Murakami creates is rich with questionable realities, and rests upon the superimposition of a fantasy world onto a more mimetic one’ (Stretcher 1998).

Throughout Kafka on the Shore, there is a deeply consistent flow of Japanese beliefs, practices and mythology, that derive from Shintoism. And not surprisingly, Murakami’s father was the son of a Buddhist priest and both his parents taught Japanese literature. ‘Murakami has often spoken of the theme of two dimensions, or realities, in his work: a normal, beautifully evoked everyday world, and a weirder supernatural realm’ (Poole 2014, para. 7).

However, the supernatural elements in Murakami’s works seem to serve the extraordinary in ordinary people, offering readers a personal perspective. ‘Shinto does not strictly divide the world between material and spiritual, nor between this world and an alternative perfect realm, but instead emphasises that intuitive spirituality facilitates the fusion and equilibrium of all realms’ (Wright, Clode 2005).

The communication with animals and spirit guides also connect back to early Shinto roots. However ‘Murakami uses animals as an emblem of selfhood, human-animal hybrids as manifestations of the fragmented self’ (Lai 2007). This supernatural alliance is well illustrated in ‘the boy named Crow’ who is really Kafka’s metaphysical alter-ego. ‘Crow’ acts as a guide in his journey, providing rationale during critical moments in the story. ‘This storm isn’t something that blew in from far away … this storm is you. Something inside you’ (Murakami 2006, p. 3).

The theme of self-knowledge is integral to characters within stories of Shintoism, both in Murakami’s novels and the films of anime director, Hayao Miyazaki, where young (often strong female) characters are guided by forest spirits, such as in My Neighbour Totoro (1988) where we see the altruistic relationship between two young girls and a furry woodland kami (Totoro) who offers guidance and a tangible experience with nature, while their mother is ill. ‘Shinto is deeply connected to the Japanese landscape. Awe-inspiring aspects of the natural world are seen to possess kami, or gods’ (Wright, Clode 2005).

Cats also play an important role in Japanese culture and are known to bring good luck. Niigata Prefecture is a mythical cat-like creature from Japanese folktales, and there are a number of shrines and temples dedicated to cats throughout the country (Japan Today 2014, para. 6).

Moreover, cats are featured throughout anime as supernatural, Shinto inspired, guides (The Cat Returns 2002, Kiki’s Delivery Service 1989) further annealing the ‘hybrid Japanese modern myth’ (Wright, Clode 2005).

In the novel, Nakata has the extraordinary ability to talk to cats – and just as Otsuka acts as his guide, he acts as their finder and protector. ‘He’d stabbed Johnny Walker – the cat killer – to death … he could still feel the knife in his hands. It wasn’t a dream’ (Murakami 2006, p. 176).

In closing, Haruki Murakami derives many influences from Western culture, philosophy and literature, but is not bound by them, and while he may not openly admit it, his writing is deeply rooted in Japanese mythology and Shintoism. His stories include portals to other realms, animal and human metamorphosis, which Lai describes as ‘becoming-animal’ (Lai 2007), and his characters must often overcome ‘spiritual’ conquests.

Nevertheless, I don’t believe Murakami consciously sets out to create a mythos. ‘I don’t think I worried about whether existing types of works would go on existing, so long as I could write what I wanted, how I wanted’ (Stretcher 1998).

Murakami openly admits that Kafka on the Shore contains riddles and no solutions (Wirth 2018). Is Mrs Saeki really Kafka’s mother? Is Sakura really his sister? It’s a novel full of mythic motifs and symbolism that requires the reader’s own interpretation, and the author seems to thrive on both tantalising and bewildering his audience. ‘If a certain kind of secret stays secret, it’s a very sound curiosity. I think readers need it’ (Poole 2014, para. 2).

Perhaps Murakami’s global popularity can be attributed to the fact that he has found a symmetry between Western and Eastern literary traditions, and more importantly, his characters wrestle with the human condition; the Murakami paradigm of sex, violence, loss and the nature of self – all concocted in the mind of a writer who ‘enables us to see that this edge—precariously practiced, always risky—is the source of mindful self-awareness’ (Wirth 2018).

Finally, if Kafka on the Shore can teach us anything, it is the importance of the transformation of self, for ‘when nothing can change, imagination is impossible—there will be no new forms’ (Wirth 2018).

References

Murakami, Haruki, 2014, Kafka on the Shore, Vintage/Random House, London, United Kingdom

Strecher, M. (1998). Beyond “Pure” Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki. The Journal of Asian Studies,57(2), 354-378. doi:10.2307/2658828

Barr, C. W. (1997, Jul 09). An author’s midlife search for self and nation haruki murakami, japan’s most famous expatriate novelist, comes home.The Christian Science Monitor Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/405626011?accountid=14205

Takagi, C. (2010). Third space wonderland and the end of the modern: representation of Tokyo in the works of Murakami Haruki. Southeast Review of Asian Studies, 32, 193+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/apps/doc/A293544446/AONE?u=swinburne1&sid=AONE&xid=b840164c

Lai, A. T. (2007). Memory, hybridity, and creative alliance in haruki murakami’s fiction.Mosaic : A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 40(1), 163-179. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.swin.edu.au/docview/205370469?accountid=14205

Wirth, J. M. (2018). The Self without Character: Melville’s The Confidence-Man and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore: Humanities, 01 March 2018, Vol.7(1), p.25. Retrieved from https://doaj.org/article/6f4a5604ff6048269735c866f559cbd0

Wright, L, Clode, J, 2005, ‘The Animated Worlds of Hayao Miyazaki: Filmic Representations of Shinto’, Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, no. 143, pp. 46-51

My Neighbour Totoro, 1988, animated film, Studio Ghibli, Tokyo, Japan

Web:

Steven Poole, 2014, Haruki Murakami: ‘I’m an outcast of the Japanese literary world’, The Guardian, 13th September 2014, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/13/haruki-murakami-interview-colorless-tsukur-tazaki-and-his-years-of-pilgrimage>.

David Mitchell, 2005, Kill me or the cat gets it, The Guardian, 8th January 2005, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jan/08/fiction.harukimurakami>.

Casey Baseel, 2014, 9 places where cat lovers in Japan can step up their devotion to worship, Japan Today, 3rd February 2014, <http://www.japantoday.com/category/arts-culture/view/9-places-where-cat-lovers-in-japan-can-step-up-their-devotion-to-worship>.

Writer, student, wayfarer of a digital age. I write stories, essays and articles. https://medium.com/@jakobryce | @JakobRyce

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