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Roll Over Basho: Who Japan Is Reading, and Why

A Dialogue Between Jay McInerney and Haruki Murakami
The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 1992

Japanese writers are very aware of what we're doing on this side of the Pacific and very well informed about American fiction, about American culture," says the novelist Jay McInerney. "Yet we're terribly ignorant in this country of Japanese fiction, Japanese culture. It is, I think, far more accessible than we might imagine."

In an effort to correct this cultural trade imbalance, PEN, the writers' organization, brought Mr. McInerney together in New York with Haruki Murakami, a best-selling novelist in Japan, who is a visiting fellow in East Asian studies at Princeton University. Following are excerpts of the conversation between Mr. McInerney, whose novel Ransom is set in Japan, and Mr. Murakami, two of whose novels (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and A Wild Sheep Chase ) are available in English translations. Mr. McInerney and Mr. Murakami later expanded their observations for the Book Review.

Jay McInerney: I happened to pass the marquee of the play "Why I Hate Hamlet," which put me on a train of associations having to do with the anxiety of influence and patricide. And it made me think of the invitation we sent out that stated that Haruki Murakami was heir to Yukio Mishima. It's a notion that I've seen advanced before in American reviews and articles about Murakami's work, a notion that nicely represents, to put the mildest spin that I can on it, a relative innocence about recent developments in Japanese fiction.

Haruki Murakami resembles Mishima mainly by virtue of being Japanese, and after that the affinities get pretty tenuous. Mishima was on e of literature's great romantics, a tragedian with a heroic sensibility, an intellectual, an esthete, a man steeped in Western letters who toward the end of his life became a militant Japanese nationalist.

Even when he's writing about relatively fantastic subjects, like spirit possession in sheep, Haruki Murakami's sensibility is that, I think, of a skeptical realist. His narrator is inevitably Everyman, contemporary Tokyo edition, a kind of thirtyish urban male in a low-key, white-collar job, like advertising or public relations, a somewhat passive fellow who doesn't expect much out of life and who takes what comes to him with jaded equanimity.

His motto might be "No big deal" -- Like most Japanese, the typical Murakami protagonist believes himself to be a man of the middle, a product of, to quote from Mr. Murakami's novel Norwegian Wood, "a regular workaday family, not especially rich, not especially poor. A real run-of-the-mill house, small yard, Toyota Corolla."

Remarkable things do tend to befall these antiheroes of Mr. Murakami's fiction. Their girlfriends committee suicide. Their friends turn into sheep. Their favorite elephants disappear into think air. But they will be damned if they're going to make a big deal out of it.

Like the narrators of Raymond Carver's short stories -- and I should mention that Murakami is Raymond Carver's translator in Japan -- they are unremarkable men, less driven by the ethic to succeed and less enmeshed in the powerful webs of family and business and community than most Japanese. And in this, I suspect, may lie some of the tremendous power of Murakami's novels for Japanese readers. If I'm not mistaken, Norwegian Wood has sold in the neighborhood of four million copies in Japan.

Haruki Murakami: Actually, two million copies is the correct figure. Since readers in Japan dislike thick books, what would be sold in America as one volume is divided into two volumes when sold in Japan. So if you think of Part One and Part Two as one volume, then only two million copies have been sold. The reason Japanese readers dislike thick books is that they're heavy and hard to read on commuter trains. Also in Japan it generally takes three years for a book to come out in paperback after it is released in hard cover, so many people end up having to read the hard-cover edition. Well, even two million is an astounding number, at least to me.

McInerney: So I take it back. Actually Mr. Murakami is really not that popular, but I'm going to proceed as if he were.

Mr. Murakami's protagonists stand just a little apart and aside in a society that commands full participation of its members. Unlike the student radicals so visible on Japanese campuses, they don't want to destroy the system; they don't want to turn it upside down, they just want to drift along on the fringe of society. This refusal to join the group must be tremendously appealing to the contemporary Japanese reader. Which is not to say that his work is not the same way appealing to us all, but it clearly represents a break from the subject matter of Murakami's immediate predecessors, from, for instance, the bored esthetes of Yasunari Kawabata, the stiff aristocrats of Junichiro Tanizaki or the tortured young men of Mishima.

When you began your career as a writer, did you feel that you were in conscious revolt against older Japanese writers like Mishima? Certainly we're all familiar with the anxiety of influence and the notion of patricide among younger writers; the father must be slain in order to clear the ground for the son. Murakami:In Japan, the three main writers of the generation preceding mine are Mishima, Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe. Among them I would have to say I like Abe best and Mishima least. I've hardly read Mishima at all so I don't think there is a resemblance between me and Mishima.

I am not all that conscious of rebelling against this preceding generation of writers or against writers like Kawabata and Tanizaki. If anything, I think it would be more accurate to say that what I have been doing is unrelated to these writers. I mean, until I began writing novels at the age of 29, I had never read Japanese with any real interest.

In the 1960's, when I was a teen-ager in Kobe, I found that I didn't like Japanese novelists much, so I made up mind not to read them. Since both my parents were teachers of Japanese literature you could say I was a rebel in that sense.

American culture was so vibrant back then, and I was very influenced by its music, television shows, cars, clothes, everything. That doesn't mean that the Japanese worshipped America, it means that we just love that culture. It was so shiny and bright that sometimes it seemed like a fantasy world. We loved that fantasy world. In those days, only America could afford such fantasies, I was 13 or 14, an only child. Alone in my room, I would listen to American jazz and rock-and-roll, watch American television shows and read American novels.

Kobe is a big port city with many used book shops, and I could find American paperbacks very cheaply and very easily. It was like opening a treasure chest. I mostly read hard-boiled detective stories or science fiction -- Raymond Chandler or Ed McBain or Mickey Spillaine. Later I found Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote. They were all so different from Japanese writers. They provided a small window in the wall of my room through which I could look out onto a foreign landscape, a fantasy world.

I think my experience must be like that of the Argentine writer Manuel Puig, who was brought up in an atmosphere of adulation for Hollywood movies and who then went on to write novels. When I read his novels I can see that he has felt the same things I have. McInerney: I think that there are general characteristics that define a younger generation of Japanese writers. I'm thinking of the writer who were born after the war, really. And I'm thinking of their international frame of reference. I feel an affinity with their writing that I also feel for writers from other countries, like Martin Amis in England, like Andrea De Carlo in Italy. It seems to me that we have a fairly common frame of reference, this reservoir of international pop culture -- Lionel Trilling would say low culture -- that for better or worse seems to be providing touchstones for Italian and Swedish and Japanese and American writers.

It seems to me that you're quite un-self-conscious about Western culture, high culture and low culture, in a way that your predecessors are not. In Tanizaki, for instance, you can hear the bass drums in the background whenever someone is wearing Western clothes. It's fraught with ominous implications of cultural pollution and miscegenation. But in your work, and in the work of other writers of your generation -- for instance, Banana Yoshimoto (I think just the name should be suggestive for those of you who don't her work), as well as, say Kyoji Kobayashi or Ryu Murakami -- a reference to, say, Rossini or the Beatles is really just background. You all seem to draw to some extent on the lingua franca of world pop culture, as well as European high culture -- perhaps even more conspicuously than younger American writers. I think there's still a certain self-consciousness that serious American writers face in deciding how topical to be about movies, television, rock-and-roll, influences that pervade our entire culture but that still seem a little anomalous to those who see themselves as the guardians of high culture.

I don't see this self-consciousness in the younger generation of Japanese writers who stud their fiction with references to Western culture. I wonder if this is in part due, paradoxically, to the island sense of isolation and difference that the Japanese have always felt. I sense a poignant urge to roll over Buson and Basho, two of Japan's greatest poets, and to crash through the cultural gap that separates Japanese to some extent from the rest of the world with the weapons that are most ready to hand. It seems that Madison Avenue and Hollywood and rock-and-roll have provided a kind of reservoir of cultural reference, which provides Japanese writers with a way to assert the scope of their concerns, to assert their presence on the international scene.

In "Norwegian Wood," for instance, I find besides the Beatles -- the title, of course -- references to Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Salinger and Chandler and half a dozen other Western writers, and I found one Japanese cultural reference in the whole book, which was Osamu Dazai, something of a rebel himself.

Murakami: Yes, that's quite true. And in that sense there probably is a non-nationality about it, but it's not as though I am after a sense of non-nationality. I that were really what I was after, I think maybe I would have set my novels in America. It would be easy if I were really to have them take place in New York or San Francisco. You might call it the Japanese nature that remains only after you have thrown out, one after another, all those parts that are altogether too "Japanese." That is what I really want to express.

I think my novels will tend more and more in that direction from now on, in that sense, but in a very different sense from Mishima. I am after something Japanese. Why? Because, after all, I am a Japanese author writing fiction in Japanese. Since I have come to America, I am often asked whether my next novel will be set in America. I don't think it will. I think I will be living in America for some time to come, but while living in America, I would like to write about Japanese society from the outside. I think that is what will increasingly define my identity as a writer. By the way, do you know there is no equivalent in Japanese for the English word "identity"? That's why when we want to talk about identity, we have to use the English word.

When I was a teen-ager, I thought how great it would be if only I could write novels in English. I had the feeling that I would be able to express my emotions so much more directly than if I wrote in Japanese. But with my limited proficiency in English, that was impossible. It took a very long time before I could somehow write a novel in Japanese. That is why I wasn't able to write a novel until I was 29. Because I had to create, all on my own, a new Japanese language for my novels. I couldn't just borrow an already existing language. In that sense, I'm an original

Raymond Chandler was my hero in the 1960's. I read The Long Goodbye a dozen times. I was impressed by the way that his protagonists live by themselves and are very independent. They're lonely, but they're looking for a decent life.

As you know, Japan is such a group-conscious society that to be independent is very hard. For instance, when I looked for an apartment in Tokyo, the real-estate people didn't trust me because as a writer I was self-employed and didn't belong to any company. Many people, especially young people, would like to be more independent and on their own. But it is very difficult and they suffer form feelings of isolation. I think that is one reason why young reader support my work.

McInerney: It seems to me that of your work that I've read, A Wild Sheep Chase is a little bit different from your other books and yet your protagonist always has certain characteristics that I find to be similar to those of the classic Raymond Chandler hero. He's a skeptic, he's a cynic, he lives somewhat outside of society. But he wouldn't consciously call himself an outlaw. Was Wild Sheep Chase a conscious departure for you? This is a book, by the way, in which a man goes looking for a sheep, a very mysterious sheep. The sheep is the missing party that informs the plot of the book.

Murakami: Somebody called it "The Big Sheep." I don't think that book was unusual., From the stylistic level I have certainly borrowed a lot from Chandler. It's been 10 years since I wrote that book and I'd say I've changed a lot since then. But as a vehicle for the story I wanted to tell that style was necessary at that time. I must say it is a difficult thing to transpose Chandler's style into Japanese. To begin with, the cultural ideas informing Japanese and English are entirely different. But that is exactly what I was trying to do, to renew the ideas, while transposing the language.

My contemporaries and I are trying to create a new kind of Japanese language. If you want to talk about something new, you have to make up a new kind of language.

Tanizaki has written that Japanese language is completely different from English or other Western languages, that it is special and in some ways superior to Western languages. He says that kind of beauty should be preserved very carefully, so he's kind of a nationalist. Tanizaki is a very brilliant novelist and a great man, but I don't agree with him, because there is no superiority of one language to other languages. It's just not true.

McInerney: But certainly Tanizaki's remark about the superiority of the Japanese language is not so unusual. The Japanese cultural debate is fairly obsessed with the notion of the uniqueness of Japan. Whether pro or con, a great deal of learned thought and discussion in Japan goes into the question of whether the Japanese bloodline is incomprehensible/superior/unique. It's by no means a minority. I think, of people in Japan who feel that there is something special about the Japanese character that simply doesn't compute among other people, that does not cross the translation barrier. And this feeling is often informed by a kind of cultural imperialism in the sense that Japan is a special place. One of the characteristics of your work and that of some of your contemporaries is a kind of rejection of this notion.

Murakami: Many Japanese think their language is so unique that foreigners cannot grip its essence, its beauty or its subtlety. And if some foreigner claims that he has grasped that essence, nobody believes him. One reason they think that way is because Japan is a very homogenous country that has not been occupied by other countries except for a brief period after World War II. Its culture was not threatened by other cultures. So the Japanese language has been isolated. It has been isolated for maybe 2,000 years. That's why Japanese are so certain about its uniqueness, its nature, its structure, its function.

I think what some young Japanese writers are doing is trying to break, to destroy, that stubbornness, to rebel against that certainty.

I lived on a Greek island for a couple of years and although it was a very small island, everyone I talked to said, "I drive a Nissan. It's a very good car." After a week I was tired of that, but I realized that Nissan, Casio, Seiko, Honda or Sony were the only Japanese words they knew, the only Japanese things they knew. They knew nothing about Japanese culture, Japanese literature, Japanese music or anything like that. So I thought we have to do something to break through the isolation the Japanese have cherished for so long.

I think what young Japanese writers are doing is trying to reconstruct our language. We appreciate the beauty, the subtlety of the language Mishima used, but those days are gone. We should do something new. And what we are doing as contemporary writers is trying to break through the barrier of isolation so that we can talk to the rest of the world in our words again.

There should be a midway place where we could go to exchange information with people from other cultures. People have to have pride and that pride comes from being able to express yourself freely to other people. The Japanese people have achieved material success all over the world, but they are not speaking to other people culturally, and as a result, they don't get back that feeling of pride in themselves. They have been wondering if there has been something wrong. Now they are starting to look back at themselves.

The Japanese Government and different organizations are very active in having programs of cultural exchange of introducing Kabuki and No to the rest of the world. But Kabuki and No, even though they are very excellent forms of art and tradition, belong to the past and are not really talking to the contemporary Japanese. I myself find No and Kabuki very boring sometimes, ordinary Japanese people find them very boring, and I don't blame Westerns for finding them boring.

McInerney: In Japan when you want to learn traditional discipline, whether it's karate or flower arranging or painting for that matter, you are expected to start at the very bottom and gradually work your way up. When I tried to apprentice myself to a karate teacher, he had me sweep the parking lot for two weeks before he would allow me to exercise with the rest of the class. A friend of mine who studied cabinetry in Japan had to spend six weeks learning how to sharpen chisels before he was allowed to touch any wood.

I imagine that in Japanese literature there would be a certain resentment against your popularity and your refusal to acknowledge certain traditions in Japanese literature. What do older and more traditional Japanese critics think of your work?

Murakami: It's simple. They don't like me.

There is a kind of generational struggle in Japanese letters. Yes, the old gatekeepers. They are just like leaders of the Communist Party in Eastern Europe. The Japanese literary world has a very strong sense of hierarchy and you have to go from the bottom gradually up. And once you are on the top, you are the judge of other writers. You read each other's works and then give each other awards. But the ones on top don't really care what they young, upcoming writers are doing. When I made my debut as a novelist, they said that Japanese literature was on the decline. It's not on the decline, it's just changing. Many people don't like the change. The older writers live in a very closed world. They don't really know what's going on.


Jean-Christophe Castelli

"Tokyo Prose."

"Harper's Bazaar," March 1993

Elizabeth Devereaux

"PW Interviews Haruki Murakami."

"Publisher's Weekly." September 21, 1991

Sarah Wright

"Dancing as Fast as He Can."

Boston Magazine, January 1994.

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