The Cool, Cynical Voice of Young Japan : In Haruki Murakami's Fiction, There Are No Kimonos, No Bonsai Trees, Just a Disdain for Japanese Tradition and an Obsession With American Pop Culture

Journalist Lewis Beale, a frequent contributor to The Times, lives in Washington, D.C.

ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH. Haruki Murakami had owned and operated a small Tokyo jazz bar throughout most of the 1970s, and by the end of the decade, he was tired of it--tired of making corned beef sandwiches and mixed drinks, tired of putting John Coltrane records on the turntable, tired of the six-day weeks and 12-hour days. * Murakami was 30 years old and going nowhere. He was a college graduate with a degree in drama and film, but he was wasting his education as he mopped floors every night. He wanted to write. But he didn't know if he had anything to say. Then came his Moment of Truth. * It was opening day of the 1979 Japanese baseball season, and Murakami had a rare day off. He decided to relax at the ballpark, where he lounged in the outfield lawn seats, drank Kirin Beer and tried to forget his troubles. * Seen retrospectively, the day seems filled with obvious symbolism. The home team, the Yakult Swallows, was a perennial also-ran in its division. The Swallows' leadoff batter, Dave Hilton, was an American who had failed to distinguish himself in the States or Japan. And Murakami was at a zero point in his life. The karmic convergence was clear: the Swallows, Hilton and Murakami were stuck at that "Twilight Zone" junction known as Deadendsville. * Then something happened--what Murakami in his good but limited English now refers to as "a blessing." Dave Hilton smacked a double to start the new season, and Haruki Murakami, like one of those frozen mammoths in a grade-B science fiction movie, seemed to thaw and awaken from a deep, decade-long sleep. He watched Hilton round first base, "and at that time, I wanted to write something." * It was a Zen thing, the achievement of a certain state of spiritual enlightenment known as satori. There was no particular reason why a light switched on inside Murakami's soul. No real connection between the crack of the bat and the opening of his literary floodgates. But the frustrated bar owner went to a stationery shop, purchased pen and paper, and began to write that very day. * "It's funny," he says these days, speaking in a voice filled with awe, as if he recognizes the religious nature of the experience. "That team won the championship that year. And Dave Hilton hit over .310." * In his typically self-effacing way, Murakami leaves the most important part of his story unspoken: that he went on to become one of the most famous, most controversial and biggest-selling authors in Japan.

Murakami's books have sold 6 million copies in his native land, where he has become the foremost representative of a new style of Japanese writing: hip, cynical, highly stylized, set somewhere at the juncture of cyberpunk, postmodernism and hard-boiled detective fiction.

There are no kimonos, bonsai plants or tatami mats in Murakami's novels. His work--and that of the several dozen baby boomer authors who have followed his lead--is shot through with a reverence for Western culture, particularly American pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s. Except for references to place names and certain foods, Murakami's protagonists might as well be living in Santa Monica: They drink Chivas Regal, eat at McDonald's, listen to the Doors and Charlie Parker, watch John Ford movies, wear Levi's, pepper their conversations with American slang, have casual sexual affairs and read Dostoyevsky or Hemingway. Products of an affluent, educated culture, they exhibit a curiously American style of ennui and are always bemoaning their shallow, materialistic lives.

Murakami is, in many ways, like the main characters of his books: A baby boomer who grew up in war-ravaged Japan, he matured in an era when American culture was revered as a symbol of freedom, wealth and power. Anti-materialistic and cynical, his political consciousness was forged in the crucible of a 1960s radical student movement that was more militant than any seen in the United States. Obsessively private, he grew up rebelling against his traditional Japanese family and is currently estranged from his parents. Famous and wealthy, he has lived abroad for most of the last five years because he cannot stand the attention he attracts in his native land.

He currently resides in Princeton, N.J., where he is a visiting fellow in Princeton University's Department of East Asian Studies. But no matter where he lives, Murakami is the eternal outsider--caught between cultures, generations and values.

HARUKI MURAKAMI IS READY FOR ACTION. HIS FINGERS ARE ITCHY, his brain on fire. He has a need that must be fulfilled--an overwhelming desire to riffle through the CD bins at Tower Records in New York, lovingly read liner notes and purchase untold numbers of jazz, classical and pop albums with any credit card that comes to hand.

"There are no good record stores in Princeton," Murakami says plaintively. "Is Tower really open this late?"

Luckily for him, it is. It's 10:30 in the evening, and Murakami and Yoko, his wife of 20 years, have just caught Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note. Murakami is a jazz buff from way back--he saw Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1963 and can still reel off the lineup that played that night--so he was eager to see another jazz legend in the sweaty confines of a classic New York watering hole.

Murakami drove up from Princeton that morning to fulfill some publicity obligations for the release of "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," the second of his six novels to appear in English. He had lunch with the staff of Kodansha International, his American publisher, signed some books, did an interview and sat for publicity photographs. Now, after a quick sushi dinner at his mid-town hotel, he has changed into a light sports jacket and T-shirt with a spangled fish design.

"What I like about America is I'm really free here," Murakami says. "I'm free to do anything; I'm not a celebrity here. Nobody cares."

Wriggling through the wall-to-wall crowd of the packed nightspot as they head toward their seats, Murakami and his wife seem at home: not awed by this inner sanctum of hipdom, not put off by the raucous babble of New York cool.

In fact, watching Gillespie and combo charge through a tight, energetic set, Murakami blends easily into the adoring crowd. His round, open face is unlined, his hair barely touched with flecks of gray. He looks 10 years younger than 42, with a compact, wiry body toned by years of aerobic exercise. Bobbing his head rhythmically as he sips Chivas Regal, laughing at Gillespie's jokes and clapping at every instrumental solo, Murakami seems to be a charter member of a global club. Jazzdom International. Lovers of American Cool, Anonymous.

Now, flush with the music and the evening, he and Yoko are out on the pavement and heading east on 4th Street, where the red-and-yellow Tower Records sign beckons like a hipster's mecca. For the next 45 minutes, they browse carefully through the jazz, classical and pop sections, then emerge with 10 CDs--an all-over-the-map selection that includes Mozart, Thelonius Monk and the wild rock of the B-52s.

Murakami's surface life--the casual clothes, the disposable income, the studied hipness--is deceiving. He and Yoko are not soulless yuppies who care only for creature comforts and good times. His quiet, almost hesitant demeanor suggests that, somewhere in the past, he was burned badly by life. This has created an edge of dispassion, of world-weariness, in his manner. An attitude that is reflected in his books.

"What have I got to feel threatened about? Next to nothing," says the unnamed protagonist of "A Wild Sheep Chase," Murakami's first novel to appear in English. The narrator, owner of a small translating and advertising firm, is being threatened by a shadowy right-wing politician.

"I broke up with my wife, I plan to quit my job today, my apartment is rented, and I have no furnishings worth worrying about . . . I've made no name for myself, have no social credibility, no sex appeal, no talent . . . In a word . . . I'm an utterly mediocre person. What have I got to lose? If you can think of anything, clue me in, why don't you?"

Sentiments like these resonate deeply for an under-35 generation of affluent Japanese known as shinjinrui, literally translated as "new human beings," the equivalent of our yuppies. World War II is something they have only read about in history books, and the works of Japanese authors from earlier eras, such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki, seem to reek of formalism and the dying gasps of an irrelevant, overly straitjacketed culture.

Because of this, the shinjinrui have latched onto Murakami's trendy nihilism, pop use of language and hipper-than-thou plots. He is their wise older brother, and they have made him a superstar. Murakami's influence is so great, in fact, that his translations of American writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver and John Irving have sold well simply because his name is attached to them.

Alfred Birnbaum, a Tokyo-based American who has translated Murakami's novels into English, sees the shinjinrui as bored, disaffected and greedy, the product of a culture that has lost its moorings. "The older generation of Japanese felt they had to sacrifice for the coming generations for economic success," he says. "Now the generation that received the sacrifices can't appreciate what their parents went through. They have a feeling that things could be better, that the machinations of society have robbed them of something."

"The Japan when I was a child was poor, and everybody worked hard and was optimistic that things were getting better," Murakami says. "But they are not. When they (the shinjinrui ) were teen-agers, Japan was rich, and they are not sure things are getting better. They are worried that something wrong could happen."

Murakami may be a favorite of the shinjinrui ("I don't think anyone over 35 buys his books," Birnbaum says), but superstardom has had its downside. A stubborn individualist in a group-oriented society, he has lived outside the country four out of the last five years because the demands on his time make it impossible for him to work in Japan. He has been trashed by many Japanese writers and critics, who think his books are trendy, shallow junk, catering to a mass audience of staggering puerility.

This is not how the diminutive, soft-spoken author's novels have been received in America. "A Wild Sheep Chase," a raucous, entertaining metaphysical pop thriller about the search for a sheep with supernatural powers, was published here in 1989 to ecstatic reviews: "Immensely readable," said the Los Angeles Times; "a bold new advance in a new category of international fiction," added the New York Times; "enormously pleasurable," gushed the Chicago Tribune.

But generally good reviews have not exactly made Murakami a hot item in America's bookstores. Kodansha printed only 25,000 copies of "A Wild Sheep Chase," and a paperback edition released in late 1990 by Plume Books has sold 11,000 copies to date.

"Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," first published in the United States in September, has captured similar notices. A weird amalgam of science fiction, detective novel and fantasy, it features two stories that appear different but that interwine at the end--a tale of industrial espionage in a sci-fi-like world where information is the primary currency, and a fantasy about a strange town surrounded by a wall. The Washington Post said "Murakami is a world-class writer who has both eyes open and takes big risks." But The Times' Richard Eder claimed that although Murakami at his best is "wry, absurd and desolate," he nonetheless "lacks the innocent energy that keeps a complicated plot moving." Murakami's books--filled with characters awash in postmodern ennui--reflect his disaffection from his own age group. Yet no matter how much a younger generation may relate to his works, his world-weariness is not the same as theirs. Like the characters in the movie "The Big Chill," Haruki Murakami was disenchanted by the failure of political movements of the 1960s.

ESTRANGEMENT AND alienation are dominant themes in Murakami's life and work. Estrangement from family, politics and culture, and alienation from the collective thinking of a slavishly homogeneous society. In Japan, where the nail that sticks out is hammered down, Haruki Murakami refuses to bow to pressure.

Murakami was born in 1949 in Ashiya, a suburb of the port city of Kobe. In his traditional household, his father, who taught Japanese literature at the local high school, "dominated the family. I was in a weak position compared to him. He was too strong for me."

Murakami's parents were not overly strict, and he was loved. But he felt smothered, growing up as a lonely and introspective boy, a reader and music buff with few friends.

"The 'cool' point of view in his books comes from the sort of loner figure of his character," says Hosea Hirata, an associate professor of modern Japanese literature at Princeton who knows Murakami fairly well. "It comes from how he grew up, how he kept his distance from what was surrounding him."

Kobe was then, and still is, a major commercial port. Young Haruki liked the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city and especially enjoyed riding around the harbor in a tourist boat, thrilled by the large tankers and freighters he saw moored there. He gawked at the seamen who walked down Kobe's streets, went to school with the sons and daughters of Korean and Chinese sailors and haunted used-book stores for paperbacks discarded by foreign voyagers.

In Murakami's youth, Japanese society was digging out from under the ashes of World War II. It was a time of optimism and economic growth, an era when the culture of the American conquerors, particularly films, TV and pop music, became an important force in Japanese life. American pop culture was ubiquitous. It was different, and it was subversive. Where Japanese tradition celebrated the masses, America praised the individual. Japanese were accustomed to refined formality; America laid on an extravagant sense of style. Trash, kitsch, pop, junk--America had it, Japan lapped it up.

"I am of the generation of Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and 'Peter Gunn,' " says Murakami. "I was especially impressed when I saw American TV shows like 'Father Knows Best.' That lifestyle was so rich. They had big TVs and everything. It was like heaven. We were impressed with American culture because of what we saw on TV."

Murakami was also impressed with foreign writers. In what seems a deliberate act of rebellion against his father, he avoided Japanese literature (he claims he has not read a Japanese novel since he was 16) and began reading Russian and French novelists--Dostoyevsky, Stendhal, Balzac--in translation. In his early teens, after studying English for four years, he began buying American books at used-book stores. "By reading American novels, I could escape into a different world, out of my loneliness," he has said. "It was like visiting Mars."

But there was more to it than that. Murakami devoured hard-boiled detective novelists such as Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, whose lone-wolf heroes and exciting adventures pierced to the core of his soul. "They are so individual," he says. "They are doing it their own way, working in a way they like. I love that." He also fell in love with the doomed romanticism of F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly "The Great Gatsby," whose opening page Murakami claims to have read "more than a hundred times."

Dreamy, rebellious and solitary, Murakami eventually matriculated at Tokyo's prestigious Waseda University, where he majored in film and drama. Japanese universities in the late 1960s were undergoing the same kind of hurricane-like turbulence that swirled around schools in the United States, France and Mexico. A highly organized Marxist student movement raised the banner of protest over a number of school-related issues, as well as what was viewed as Japanese and American imperialism, particularly the war in Vietnam.

"Do you remember the time, 1968?" Murakami asks earnestly, as he remembers the era. "It was a kind of a turning point. We felt if we could do right in this time, there would come a good time. A kind of utopia."

The years 1968-69 were especially tense. More than 150 universities went on strike, thousands of students were arrested, and pitched battles between police and protesters involving staves, Molotov cocktails and iron bars were not uncommon. Waseda was not in the middle of the storm, but the school was barricaded and the students went on strike, closing the institution for five months. Murakami was not a student activist--"I don't like organizations and groups, and that's why I didn't join," he says--but like most of Waseda's students, he sympathized with the movement's goals.

"I think I was seeking for something in my own way," he says, "but I couldn't find it. I was just 18 or 19, a boy, and I knew nothing. I just felt something new was coming, and I was excited."

Looking outward and inward at the same time, Murakami was assessing the role of Japanese society and his part in it. He was also coming to some harsh conclusions about family life. "Japan was a male-dominated country," he says. "I didn't like that. I and my wife are equal partners, working together. My parents loved me, and I had a happy childhood, but when I became 18 or 19, I was not happy with it. Maybe my father was too strong. So I found the way I am happy with."

The destruction of the student movement came as a blow to Murakami and his generation. In October, 1969, police were called out to end the strike at Waseda, and even though the episode ended without violence, it was a watershed moment.

"I think Murakami's hard-boiled style came because of the failure of this movement," Birnbaum says. "The late '60s was a very romantic, quixotic sort of period, and the fact that it did fail, people either got burnt, or they chilled off." Murakami became disillusioned by the whole thing.

"I used to be so optimistic about the future," Murakami says. "I could trust something. But I was chilled off for about 10 years in the '70s. In the '70s, I just worked . . . that's all I did."

So the next decade went by in a blur. Murakami and fellow student Yoko Takahashi married while they were still at Waseda, but money pressures forced Haruki to attend school part-time while working at a series of menial jobs. It took him seven years to earn his degree.

In 1974, the Murakamis opened Peter-Cat, a small jazz bar located in a Tokyo suburb near an American military base. The bar had a small stage where local jazz groups often played, and it catered to students and American soldiers. Murakami mixed drinks and made sandwiches, Yoko occasionally worked as a waitress. Three years later, the business moved to a small street in downtown Tokyo.

Two years after that, Murakami had his Moment of Truth in the outfield.

"It was already dark out. I slipped some change, my cigarettes, and a lighter into my pocket, put on my tennis shoes, and stepped outside. At my neighborhood dive, I drank a beer while listening to the latest Brothers Johnson record. I ate my chicken cutlet while listening to a Bill Withers record. I had some coffee while listening to Maynard Ferguson's 'Star Wars.' After all that, I felt as if I'd hardly eaten anything."

--From "A Wild Sheep Chase" Japanese readers reacted to Murakami's work as if he had created a new language. Depending on age and point of view, readers found his books either thrilling or horrifying. Murakami was adept at deadpan wit, outrageous style and plots that borrowed freely from all sorts of modern artistic movements--absurdism, surrealism, detective noir, techno-pop and world-weary postwar cynicism. Take, for example, "Second Bakery Attack," recently published in Playboy. A husband and wife wake up in the early hours of morning with hunger pangs, only to find that their refrigerator contains nothing edible. This reminds the husband of a time when he and a friend, hungry and broke, attacked a bakery for bread. The wife suggests they attack another bakery, but they can't find one open. So they barge into an all-night McDonald's and, waving a shotgun in the face of the counter girl, demand 30 Big Macs to go.

"Let me just give you the money," pleads the manager. "I'll give you more than you need. You can go buy food somewhere else. This is going to mess up my books."

Talk about messing up something. This is not the kind of writing most Japanese think of when they consider their literary tradition. That tradition, best exemplified by Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972), involved lyrical, impressionistic novels and melancholy subject matter ("Snow Country," about the affair between an aging geisha and a Tokyo businessman, is his best-known work in the West). It influenced several generations of writers and critics and is exactly what Murakami and his peers revolted against.

"Japanese readers appreciate sensitivity, rather than power," Murakami says. "So it gets refined and refined; it's kind of bonsai. Japanese critics and writers think that is great work. I don't think so, but it's Japan's tradition."

Murakami was not alone in his break with the past. The 1980s saw an explosion of work from a postwar generation weaned on American pop images. Products of an omnipresent and omnivorous media culture, these writers not only broke boundaries in terms of subject matter--sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and just plain weirdness--but reshaped Japanese syntax. Many incorporated Western terms into their writing, while others adopted the style of the advertising copywriter, employing short, choppy phrases that added punch to their work.

The thematic concerns of this new literati can often be discerned from the titles of their stories, a number of which are available in English in two anthologies: "Monkey Brain Sushi" (Kodansha) and "New Japanese Voices" (Atlantic Monthly Press). Amy Yamada's "Kneel Down and Lick My Feet" tells of a woman's experiences working in an S&M; parlor; in Eri Makino's "Sproing!" Elvis reaches out from a videotape to liberate a housewife from drudgery, and in Sei Takekawa's "On a Moonless Night," a woman is impregnated by a giant bee.

Weird? Hip? Postmod? No doubt. But most observers of the new Japanese literature, Murakami included, tend to agree the writing isn't all that good. It's trendy and shallow, a fast-food snack not designed for a long shelf life.

"They may be timely, but there's very little that's timeless," Birnbaum says. "I don't think there's anybody writing today who'll be read in 20 years." Birnbaum includes Murakami in this category.

Hosea Hirata disagrees. " Some will survive, some won't," he says. "My intuitive sense is that Murakami's work will survive. I think he has captured the spirit of a generation, and at the same time he articulates, in a very culturally understandable way, a unique culture that is growing in Tokyo."

CALL IT, IF YOU MUST, JAPANARAMA, a home away from home for Japanese nationals.

Its real name is Yaohan Plaza, an all-Japanese shopping center in Edgewater, N.J. Yaohan is tucked into an out-of-the-way corner of a lightly trafficked road running along the edge of the Hudson River, the towers of Manhattan visible in the background. A nondescript-looking shopping plaza featuring a number of gift, sporting goods and clothing stores, Yaohan boasts the largest Japanese supermarket on the East Coast--a market so big that it includes a food court, bakery, sushi bar, all-Japanese video store, pharmacy, travel agency and a big-screen TV running live feeds from Japanese television.

Murakami and Yoko have stopped at Yaohan on their way home to Princeton following an overnight stay in New York. They are here to stock up on native comestibles, to cruise the aisles and bring home the kinds of delicacies they can't find anywhere else. Here, some taro root. There, shelves and shelves of ramen and soba noodles. On this aisle, refrigerated cases featuring such exotica as smoked eel.

Despite a peripatetic life, Murakami remains in many ways quintessentially Japanese. He prefers his native food to any other cuisine and seeks it out wherever he can. He also maintains a rigidly workaholic schedule: rising at 6 a.m., writing for several hours, running or swimming every day, translating in the afternoon.

Success has been a mixed blessing for Murakami. It has made him rich and given him the freedom to live in other countries, but its demands have been a major imposition. Haruki and Yoko have spent recent years in Greece, Italy and now the United States. He refuses all TV appearances, turns down most magazine interviews and rarely accepts glitzy dinner invitations.

"I like ordinary life; I don't like some flashy life," he says. "I don't want a Porsche; I don't want a Mercedes. I don't like expensive restaurants. I'm just one of those ordinary people."

Murakami is not just blowing smoke when he says this, for success has not changed his material life to any significant degree. He and Yoko, a willowy, sweet-faced woman who has published her own book of photo essays based on their time in Greece, live in Princeton University-owned faculty housing whose style could best be described as World War II temporary. The house is small and boxy, a white clapboard two-bedroom that the Murakamis have filled with a minimum of personal effects: records and CDs, books, videos (Murakami's latest passion is "Twin Peaks," taped off Japanese TV by a friend), a stereo, TV and home computer.

The walls of the entry and living room in the house are nearly bare except for a few newspaper clippings and brochures Murakami has tacked up--one is an article on "how to take a smart approach to marathons" (Murakami has run in seven marathons); another is a listing of pool times at the local YWCA. In keeping with this relative austerity, Murakami drives a late-model Volkswagen sedan, and he and Yoko dress as if they did all their shopping at The Gap or The Limited--youthful, stylish, reasonably priced.

Success has also not affected Murakami's relationship with his wife. They do not have children, but they do have the kind of symbiotic closeness usually associated with identical twins. They go everywhere and do everything together, have the same tastes and interact on an almost extrasensory level: Yoko will often break into the middle of a conversation to finish a thought for her husband because, he says fondly, "she knows better than me what I think."

"Yoko is a very maternal person," Hirata observes, "and the dependency that Haruki exhibits on her is quite amazing; it's very much like a child dependent on his mother, kind of a Lennon and Yoko, but not that exhibitionistic. I think Haruki learns a great deal from her, and I think she is reflected in his female characters, in ways of thinking, phrases, things you wouldn't expect to hear from a modern Japanese woman."

A solid marriage is important to Murakami, since his relationship with his parents has gone steadily downhill over the years. He began distancing himself from them when he got married--"I was tired of being an only child," is his explanation--and things got worse when he became famous.

"Our points of view are so different," he says. "I don't like to be famous. I like to be alone. They didn't understand how I feel. Somebody interviewed them, and they talked about my personal things. I didn't like that."

Murakami finds the subject painful. He hems and haws discussing the relationship and fills the conversation with long pauses during which he searches for the right word to describe how he feels. He is obviously uncomfortable talking about it, worried that others might misinterpret his feelings or place too much emphasis on the estranged relationship. But he has not seen his parents in two years and says, "I don't miss them. We had some quarrels. It's a personal thing."

And something from which he will never escape. Murakami is enjoying his life in America, the anonymity of it, the respect for individualism. He likes being in an academic atmosphere where people "meet each other and drink beer and talk about literature and things like that."

He does worry about crime, almost unknown in Japan, and is concerned that America is a little too powerful for its own good. A modern Japanese infused with a strong anti-war philosophy, he was especially upset when he arrived in the United States in February, just in time to hear President Bush say "God Bless America" during the Gulf War.

"How about the Iraqis?" he asks. "They have their own God, and that God blesses them. So there will be a war between God and God. When they put God into their side, it scares me."

Overall, Murakami remains fond of American culture, so much so that he and Yoko would like to stick around for awhile. The Murakamis plan to stay at Princeton until next year, then hope to move onto another Ivy League school, possibly Harvard.

Haruki is spending his time completing a translation of all Raymond Carver's short stories, and he occasionally pops into a classroom where he will lecture and discuss contemporary Japanese literature. He also enjoys talking about literary favorites, writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges, who have "power in their writing and their imagination." He gushes over American authors Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, John Irving and Tim O'Brien and has translated Irving's "Setting Free the Bears" and O'Brien's "The Nuclear Age" into Japanese.

Murakami now spends a good deal of his time busily pecking away at his seventh novel. He does not like to talk about a work in progress, claiming it will jinx the final product. But the few cryptic comments Murakami is willing to make indicate that he finally may have moved beyond hip Angst and '60s nostalgia. As he approaches middle age, he may be ready to move onto more personal concerns.

"I wanted to write about the family," he says. "I am now writing about what it is to be an only child. It was lonely. But it was very interesting."

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