The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize

By Amanda LewisOctober 18, 2013

The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The trouble is, I don’t have a damn thing to do with anything fifty thousand years ago—or fifty thousand years from now, either. Nothing. Zip. What’s important is now. Who knows when the world is gonna end? Who can think about the future? The only thing that matters is whether I can get my stomach full right now and get it up right now.

— after the quake

BRITISH ODDSMAKERS Ladbrokes gave 64-year-old Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami a 3-1 chance of winning the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. Last year, they had it at 8-1. He didn’t get it this year, losing to Alice Munro, but he has a good shot in 2014 or 2015. If he wins, he’ll be the third Japanese writer to receive the prize, but he is nothing like the two men who came before him.

The first — Yasunari Kawabata, in 1968 — was cited by the Nobel Committee “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind." The second — Kenzaburō Ōe, in 1994 — once wrote that, “The role of literature, insofar as man is obviously a historical being, is to create a model of a contemporary age which encompasses past and future, a model of the people living in that age as well.”

Murakami, however, does not write to capture “the essence of the Japanese mind,” and his characters are not meant to be “a model” of any era or group.

“I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories,” he said when accepting the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, rejecting the conventional notion of Japan as not only racially homogenous but also somehow intellectually and emotionally the same from mind to mind, from prefecture to prefecture.

In fact, from his debut in 1979 until the early 1990s, Murakami wrote bestselling Japanese novels that were almost aggressively un-Japanese. And the Tokyo literati, particularly Ōe, hated him. Hated that his magical tales dripped with brand names and references to American pop culture. Hated that he wrote his first novel out in English before rewriting it in his native language. Hated that he never wrote about war.

Then, in 1989, Murakami turned 40. Within five years, he had expanded the scope of his writing to address historical memory, current events, and Japanese cultural identity. In a subtle rebuke of the unfeeling reports of the news media and the directly political work of writers like Ōe, Murakami uses ordinary Japanese people to tell peripheral historical narratives — the stories of those only tangentially related to a tragedy or event of great public significance.

By showing again and again that the personal takes literary precedence over the political, Murakami responds to his critics, identifies the origins of his former apathy, and suggests that reducing any population to an “essence” or a “model” is not only foolish but dangerous. 

All while leaving the essential style and substance of his earlier fiction intact.

As a result, he propelled himself into the upper echelons of global novelists, picking up a string of international prizes that could one day culminate in the Nobel. Or, like Tolstoy, Borges and Joyce, Murakami will join the ranks of snubbed geniuses, forever listed as an example of the Swedes’ short-sightedness.


Murakami likes to tell the story of how he became a novelist. It’s a polished anecdote he’s told in countless interviews: he’s 29, sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game at Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, when an American batter hits a double and he realizes he can write a novel.

In the fall of 1994, in a series of essays for the Japanese magazine Marco Polo, Murakami again looked for a neat moment to express his recent change of heart. He had just visited a remarkably preserved battlefield in Nomonhan, Mongolia where nearly 20,000 Japanese troops lost their lives in a poorly planned 1939 confrontation with the Soviets. In the middle of the night, at the military guest quarters where he was staying nearby, he awoke to a violent shaking and felt a presence in the dark, perhaps originating from the mortar shell he’d taken as a souvenir. When he turned on the light, the shaking stopped, but he was left with a profound fear.

Murakami eventually decided the shaking had been coming from inside him, not from any exterior force. The implication is that he’d thought the darkness and violence associated with World War II was something alien to his own experience, but in reality “these were parts of me that had always been there, I suspect: they had been waiting all this time for me to find them.”

Of course, by the time this incident took place, in June of 1994, Murakami had already written the first two books of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the novel that would go on to receive the Yomiuri Literary Prize for 1995, chosen by a committee led by none other than Kenzaburō Ōe. (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, like most of Murakami’s work, was serialized in Japan but published as one volume elsewhere.) The novel grapples with how memories of the war affected Japanese too young to have experienced it themselves. It was research for the third book that had brought him to Mongolia in the first place, and so he must have made up his mind to get serious well before this “revelation.”

Murakami’s indifference to political debate had solidified at the end of the Japanese student movements of the 1960s, which grew violent and shut down classes at his alma mater, Waseda University in Tokyo, for five months in 1969. Norwegian Wood, the 1986 novel that sold millions of copies in Japan and made Murakami a megastar, portrays these movements as vapid and the students who participated in them as hypocritical.

At the end of the 1980s, Murakami’s fame ballooned and made staying in Japan unbearable. He was relieved to take a post in 1991 as writer in residence at Princeton University, where he could remain relatively anonymous. However, coming to live in the country that birthed rock and roll showed Murakami what wave after wave of immigrants has learned: the United States always seems a lot cooler from across an ocean.

In addition, Murakami’s friend and fellow novelist Kenji Nakagami died unexpectedly in 1993. Facing his own mortality, he told one of his translators, Harvard professor Jay Rubin, that “as a ‘top runner’ (toppu-rannā) among Japanese writers, he would have to clarify his political stance and also decide for himself what his work was about.”

Then, in early 1995, as Murakami was finishing the third book of Wind-Up, two unexpected acts of destruction roiled his home country: in January, an earthquake reaching 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city of Kobe, killing nearly 7,000 people and costing 10 trillion yen in damages, including the destruction of Murakami’s parents home; and in March, the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin, a poison gas, onto the subway system in Tokyo, killing 12 and injuring thousands.

As he later told The New York Times, Murakami was disturbed by how both events “were rendered banal, or as he put it, ‘consumed in a sea of media coverage.’” He described reading a woman’s published letter to the editor of a magazine about her experience reading about the sarin attack: “I felt sorry, truly sorry, although I knew that for the couple involved my sympathy was irrelevant. And yet, what else could I do? Like most people, I’m sure, I simply turned the page with a sigh.”

Perhaps Tōru Okada, the protagonist of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, describes most precisely the peculiar situation of learning about something upsetting that has happened to someone you never knew and which will have no direct effect on your own life:

I felt sorry for the thirty-seven-year-old truck driver who had died in the accident. No one wants to die in agony of ruptured internal organs in a blizzard in Asahikawa. But I was not acquainted with the truck driver, and he did not know me. And so my sympathy for him had nothing personal about it. I could feel only a generalized kind of sympathy for a fellow human being who had met with a sudden, violent death. That generalized emotion might be very real for me and at the same time not real at all.

The violent events of 1995 inspired Murakami to consider the origins and consequences of this “generalized kind of sympathy.” He returned to Japan, determined to pivot his work toward serious themes and to transform the faceless masses of “Japanese people” that he had felt so alienated from into individuals with lives and stories that he and his readers could care about.

He decided to interview as many gas attack survivors as he could find as well as members and former members of the cult itself. After a year of in-depth conversations with more than 60 ordinary Japanese, he published Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. As he explains in the introduction, he wrote the book to create a more coherent narrative of the attack, so that readers could better understand the drama in personal terms.

In the process, he realized that the discomfort he felt around office ladies and salarymen, his own disregard for the individual yearning for meaning beneath button-down shirts and polite set phrases, connected him to the cult members, to the toxic nationalism of the Japanese imperial state, and to the belief in “the essence of the Japanese mind.”                                           

“Japan is a mono-racial country,” he said in a 1996 New Yorker profile written by Ian Buruma. “There is this feeling of togetherness, of sharing a landscape, or the imperial system, or, indeed, the love of listening to insects. This can be a dangerous, irrational force, but I feel part of it. I used to hate it, but now I want to find out what is important to me about Japan.” Later in the piece, he tells Buruma, “Violence [is] the key to Japan.”

In other words, Murakami began to explore how putting the needs of the group before the needs of the individual — often assumed to be an elemental tenet of Japanese society — leads to a disregard for the sacredness of human life.

In 1Q84, Murakami creates a direct connection between violence and seeing people as elements of groups rather than as individuals. The assassin Aomame devours news reports and loves history — so much so that she reads a book about the South Manchurian Railway Company of the 1930s in a bar. Murakami connects these passions with her ability to kill perpetrators of domestic violence without remorse. 

When Aomame goes to the home of a man who raped her best friend and “smash[es] everything in the apartment that was smashable,” Murakami writes, “The room looked very much like the recent news photos she had seen of the streets of Beirut after the shelling,” as though she had been inspired by the photos, or at the very least felt they gave her permission to do something similar. And after flippantly considering killing a man she has just slept with — “True, he was tremendously boring, which really got on her nerves, but that was not a crime deserving death. Probably.” — Aomame turns on the news and learns indifferently about the “bloody war” between Iran and Iraq, where draft dodgers were being hung from telephone poles.

“The Japanese media had bombarded us with so many in-depth profiles of the Aum cult perpetrators,” Murakami writes in Underground. “[T]he ‘victim’ — was almost an afterthought. ‘Bystander A’ was glimpsed only in passing. Very rarely was any ‘lesser’ narrative presented in a way that commanded attention. [W]hat we need, it seems to me, are words coming from another direction, new words for a new narrative. Another narrative to purify this narrative.”

It is these “lesser” or peripheral historical narratives that Murakami focuses on, asserting that every story counts, that one story alone could not be representative of the whole country.

None of the short stories in after the quake, for example, take place in Kobe or during the earthquake itself. Instead, Murakami explores how news of the disaster subtly affects the lives of people all across Japan. Nearly all of the characters are indifferent to the media’s coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake, and few react directly with sympathy for the victims. It is only a four-year-old girl who “saw too many news reports on the earthquake” and begins to have “hysterical fits.” Because she is so young, she has yet to develop the feelings of apathy towards violence on the news experienced by the adults around her.

However, many of the characters seem to respond indirectly to the earthquake. In "ufo in kushiro," for example, Komura’s wife leaves him directly after it happens, though they do not live in Kobe and she knows no one who lives there.

Wherever possible, in all of his work, Murakami integrates the private with the public, emphasizing that people tend to concern themselves with personal matters before thinking of themselves in the grand, historical scheme of things. Personal events often coincide with historical events, blurring the character’s perception of both.

The most graphic scene in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — perhaps the most graphic scene in all of Murakami’s work — is not a bloody battle filled with thousands of dead and wounded soldiers but a one-on-one, private experience, in which Mongolians skin a Japanese soldier alive. Murakami portrays the Mongolian “soldiers” as caught up in the conflict between the Soviets and the Japanese, not as an extension of a larger political force with imperial or nationalist motivations. Even the Mongolians’ weapons seem to remove any association with a greater organization: “Rather than government issue, the knife seemed to be the man’s personal property.”


In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Tōru Okada reads a story written by a character nicknamed Cinnamon that describes wartime events he had heard about from his mother, Nutmeg. Nutmeg is earlier described as having told him stories about “events she had witnessed with her own eyes, as well as events that she had never witnessed.”

After reading Cinnamon’s story, Tōru questions whether it really mattered which parts had actually occurred and which hadn’t. “[Cinnamon] inherited from his mother’s stories ... the assumption that fact may be not truth, and truth may not be factual. The question of which parts of a story were factual and which parts were not was probably not a very important one for Cinnamon.”

According to Rubin, at Murakami’s office in Tokyo, you can “find the name Cinnamon on his mailbox, and a variation on the name is part of the office e-mail address.”

Perhaps Murakami’s greatest feat in transitioning to more serious themes from the gleeful apolitical nature of his early work is that his later fiction does not feel drastically different. All of his stories assert that reality and time are bendy and subjective; that consciousness has unseen depths and imagination untold power; and that people are lonely.

But after 1993, Murakami applies the idea of memory as a constructed narrative to historical memory and to history itself. Just as he critiques the media’s description of current events, Murakami calls into question history’s presumed superiority over literature in rendering past and present events.

Unlike the feelings of dislocation and disbelief experienced by Murakami’s characters during actual traumatic moments, many characters feel the fictional stories they’ve read or been told seem more real than reality. Human beings are constantly searching for meaning, for a coherent narrative to bind together the information they are given. History and news can provide this narrative, but fiction, according to Murakami, does it better. Why? Because fiction honors the dignity of an individual consciousness, while history and news group people together, creating the illusion that a hundred, a thousand or a million lives can be analyzed as one.

When I was living with a Japanese family in Hokkaido in 2006, my host mother looked up one day from a TV news report about a woman who had drowned her baby in a bathtub and asked me how mothers in America kill their children. Foreigners in Japan often find themselves having these conversations: In Japan we do it this one, established way. How do you do it in your country? Sometimes, this makes sense. In America, public school students don’t wear uniforms. In Japan, they do.

I would often find holes in these seemingly universal pronouncements about “how we do things.” In Japan, only babies drink milk, an older woman told me once. Weeks later, I noticed a colleague sipping the stuff during a morning meeting.

Japan likes to believe itself to be unified in spirit and behavior, impervious to foreign influence. And to a certain extent, it is. But in the 21st century, no island is an island. If Murakami ever does win the Nobel, Japan will rally in celebration behind him, all past grievances forgotten, and his vision of the country — teeming with idiosyncratic individuals who know the chorus to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” better than the details of how to perform a tea ceremony — will enter the canon.

And somewhere, Yasunari Kawabata, whose Nobel lecture discussed Zen, cherry blossoms, flower arrangement, and calligraphy, will be rolling in his grave.


Amanda Lewis is a writer living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Amanda Lewis is a writer living in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to the LA Weekly. Follow her on Twitter at @msamandalewis.


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