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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Japan's Kafka.

Emily Parker of OpinionJournal introduces Mr. Haruki Murakami, the noted Japanese novelist. Mr. Murakami serves his nation and people as a kind of conscience, which is the writer's second-highest calling. He is also entertaining, which is the highest.

Haruki Murakami has won international acclaim with his tales of talking cats and monsters that lurk below ground. The Japanese novelist claims that these strange, dark things have no place in his personal life. "When I'm not writing they are gone, totally," he assures me. "I don't even dream."

Mr. Murakami seems pleasantly detached from the obsessive worlds of his novels, where protagonists teeter on the edge, narrowly avoiding some abyss below. "Good writers always look into the darkness," he says, but some "go mad" in the process. Not so for Mr. Murakami, who peers into the underworld but always returns to flat land.

Mr. Murakami's surrealist fiction has made him not just a celebrity in Japan, but also the country's most prominent literary export today. His novels are a hit in Asia, America and beyond: "Kafka on the Shore" was apparently a best-seller in Russia. While enormously popular among readers in his home country, he is not necessarily the sweetheart of critics in the Japanese literary establishment. "They didn't appreciate my obsessions," Mr. Murakami explains, sounding amused.

There are other reasons why some in Japan would be wary of Mr. Murakami. The writer ventures where many Japanese fear to tread: exploring the nation's notorious World War II misadventures (WTF??? Laurel and Hardy had misadventures, Emily. Japan had atrocities. - F.G.) in Asia, a taboo subject in Japan and a continuous thorn in relations with neighboring China and South Korea. Mr. Murakami's widely acclaimed "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," published in the U.S. in 1997, contains long, gruesome interpretations of the past.

In his book "Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche," Mr. Murakami describes preparing to write "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle": "I did in-depth research into the so-called 1939 Nomonhan Incident, an aggressive incursion by Japanese forces into Mongolia. The more I delved into the records, the more aghast I became at the recklessness, the sheer lunacy of the Imperial Army's system of command. How had this pointless tragedy gone so wantonly overlooked in the course of history?" Nothing was learned from these mistakes, Mr. Murakami laments. "Two years later, Japan entered World War II, and the same insanity and tragedy that happened at Nomonhan was repeated all over again on a massive scale."

Yet while the historical sections of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" riveted the attention of readers overseas, Mr. Murakami tells me that in Japan they got almost no reaction at all. The historical passages were even critically dismissed as "kazari," or decoration.
This all fits into a larger, peculiar pattern of historical amnesia, which is easily caricatured or misunderstood. Japan is undoubtedly a free country, and China's strident complaints about whitewashed Japanese history textbooks can sound tiresome, considering Beijing's own state-sponsored censorship and carefully tailored historical accounts. Japan's problem isn't censorship per se. According to Mr. Murakami, all the information is there, it's just not being taught. Educators don't want to take responsibility for opening up a Pandora's Box.
"Teachers are afraid of criticism from the parents or administration," he says. Mr. Murakami describes his own experience in high school. The problem was not omissions in the textbook. Instead, history was abruptly cut off around 1925, when class time was up for the year. At which point the teacher told the class: Please read the remainder on your own. Mr. Murakami says that such high-school experiences were not at all uncommon.

Japan is often criticized by China and Korea for shirking responsibility for its wartime behavior, in particular the brutal Nanking Massacre. Mr. Murakami draws a sharp contrast between Japanese and German postwar repentance, offering his own explanation: "In Germany, the Nazi Party was elected more or less . . . but in Japan, the emperor system was not a democratic system. So German people think they are kind of responsible . . . but we Japanese don't think we are responsible for the war, because the system was evil and wrong."

Of course, one could argue that a war that ended some 60 years ago has nothing to do with Mr. Murakami's readers, many of whom are in their 20s and 30s. So why does history matter so much to this writer? "If we don't learn from the past, we might repeat it in the future . . . many people are remaking the facts," he says. Furthermore, Japan's avoidance of history only exacerbates the yawning gulf that separates it from its neighbors. "Koreans and Chinese are still accusing us: You did evil things during the wartime. So those facts are still alive and kicking in them. They are very conscious about history. But we are not. There is a big difference between us and them."

Perhaps most important, today's Japan may be particularly ripe for revisionism. Mr. Murakami is keenly aware that his country is in flux. The former Japanese paradigm of state-directed economic growth lasted through the 1980s, before crashing to the ground with the bursting of the asset bubble. The nation has finally finished picking up the pieces, but what the new Japan will look like is unnervingly unclear. "In every aspect of Japanese life there are two currents," Mr. Murakami explains. One path is to go global, the other is to retreat into nationalism.

"In the old days," Mr. Murakami points out, "things were much easier. We work hard and we will get richer--that was all. But things are not so simple anymore . . . Many people are afraid. They are worrying about their future. And some politicians are taking advantage of this general fear or instability. At such times, strong attitudes and simple logic tend to attract people. Especially when North Korea has nuclear bombs and China seems to be most aggressive. That is the soil on which nationalists and agitators grow. Or, more often, dangerous opportunists."

Even as he chooses to spend much of his time in Honolulu, Mr. Murakami appears to reveal the punctilious ways of his homeland. (He reminded me to take off my shoes before entering his home, an airy Hawaiian residence that offers a breath of quiet and anonymity for the celebrity writer. Then he promptly sat down at a light wood table--in formal repose--and looked at me expectantly, waiting for the interview to begin.) And as if to confirm this impression, the Kyoto-born Mr. Murakami says that, in some ways, he is 100% Japanese. "The difference," he says, "is that I'm kind of individualist."

In truth, he is a cultural hybrid. He has spent time living in the U.S., and in our conversation he jumps back and forth between English and Japanese. His own books are dotted with Western cultural references, and he has translated several American classics into his native language, such as the work of J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He claims to be somewhat of a black sheep in his home country, in part due to his distaste for drinking parties or social conversation. How about Karaoke? "I hate it," he says in Japanese. "If I enter a store and there is a Karaoke machine there, I leave immediately."

Mr. Murakami decided early on to challenge Japanese group-think. "I made up my mind, I would go on my own," he says. "The value of the family was so heavy and solid in those days, the 1960s and early 1970s, you were supposed to find a job in a big company . . . because the economy of Japan was getting stronger and stronger, and the people were getting richer and richer . . . if you miss the bus, miss the train, you'd be left behind. So everyone says, let's get on the train, let's get on the bus and go faster and get rich . . . I just didn't like that kind of lifestyle. I love to read books, to listen to music." So instead of working for a big company, after graduating from Waseda University--a private university in Tokyo--Mr. Murakami and his wife Yoko opened up a jazz club in Japan. Did people think he was crazy? "Of course," he says, laughing.

Mr. Murakami then proceeded to seduce fans world-wide with his fictional creations, in which ordinary Japanese people may encounter fish raining from the sky. Mr. Murakami claims to have inherited nothing from Japanese literature. "I don't know if I'm a good writer or not," he says. "But I'm original."

Mr. Murakami has also assumed the role of cultural ambassador. "I think I'm very popular in China," he says. "I lived in Massachusetts for one year. Many Chinese, Korean students came to me to talk. They were very enthusiastic about my books. They came to me while I was walking on the street . . . it's strange but they were carrying my book in their bag in many cases. I'm very happy because we have a very dark, tragic past, but still they were reading my books very enthusiastically."

It would be a mistake to write off Mr. Murakami's fiction as little more than whimsical fables. Although his books--with the exception of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"--don't usually address history directly, his work is often fixated on the dark undercurrents and disturbing memories that flow beneath the smooth façade of daily Japanese life. In "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World," monster-infested labyrinths snake below the office buildings of Tokyo. The protagonist in "Kafka on the Shore" is uneasily semiconscious of a murder he may have committed in the past.

"Murakami has always written about half-remembered things that lurk in the mind until they unexpectedly jump out and grab us," writes Jay Rubin, Mr. Murakami's long-time translator, in "Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words." "In 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,' Murakami's most ambitious novel, what leaps out at his narrator from the depths of his individual memory is Japan's dark and violent recent past."

Themes of history and memory clearly run through Mr. Murakami's books. Yet he seems loath to analyze his own work for political messages or historical lessons, saying that he just wants to "write a story." But if Mr. Murakami feels so strongly about facing the past, and so concerned about the future of his nation, why doesn't he address these issues more explicitly in his writing, using his prose to shake Japan out of its historical amnesia? The novelist answers that sending overt political messages is simply not the job of a fiction writer.

That's not to say that Mr. Murakami's colorful prose doesn't address serious issues. It just does so in an indirect way--which, in Mr. Murakami's view, may be even more effective. "If you say, 'I'm very sad, my dog died,' it's a message--a statement. Nobody sympathizes with you," he explains. "In that case, you have to change your statement into another kind of story. When you're sad, when you lost your dog, you should not write about your dog. You should write about another thing. If you write about the dog, it's an essay, not fiction."

Mr. Murakami's refusal to expound on Japanese history in his novels helps to explain their universal appeal. Uncomfortable tales of dark memories or subterranean beasts clearly strike a chord in readers far and wide. "I'm writing about the Japanese character, in Japanese, mostly in Japanese society, but what I'm doing is universal," Mr. Murakami explains. "The languages are different, the mentalities are different, but I think the darkness is the same."

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First of all, the word is SEX, not GENDER. If you are ever tempted to use the word GENDER, don't. The word is SEX! SEX! SEX! SEX! For example: "My sex is male." is correct. "My gender is male." means nothing. Look it up. What kind of sick neo-Puritan nonsense is this? Idiot left-fascists, get your blood-soaked paws off the English language. Hence I am choosing "male" under protest.

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