Japan's most popular novelist has finally woken up to events in his own country. But can this ageing adolescent really grow up?by Murray Sayle / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Japan was very much in the news in early 1995 and, for once, not because of its economy. On 17th January, an earthquake struck the port city of Kobe, devastating working-class districts and killing 5,000 people. Two months later, the followers of semi-crazed Buddhist guru Shoko Asahara attacked the Tokyo subway with homemade nerve gas, killing 12 people and injuring 1,000. Japan had seen nothing like it since Hiroshima.
None of this disturbed the routine of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most successful writer, who returned from a spell in America in September. Brought up in Kobe, it did not occur to him to inspect the damage. A resident of Tokyo, he rarely used the subway. Neither the Kobe nor Tokyo horrors had any immediate impact on his imaginary world, or the six-mile jog, daily swim, solitary dinner and early bed that were his contact with the real one. Well past 40, Murakami was stuck in a golden groove, turning out stories of boy meets girl meets monster, while time carried Japan further and further away from the mood of his youth and Murakami’s stock of material.
Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949, the only child of two lecturers in Japanese literature. As a form of rebellion, he says, he refused to read the Japanese classics and, to this day, seems to know little of them. Instead, when his parents moved to Kobe, he discovered secondhand bookshops stacked with American paperbacks in English. He mostly read detective writers like Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, later moving on to F Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote. “They provided a small window in the wall of my room through which I could look out onto a foreign landscape, a fantasy world,” he recalls. Murakami was a teenager in the 1960s, a member of the first generation to remember nothing of Japan’s long war and the hungrier years of recovery. By the time he was 25, in 1974, he was running a Tokyo coffee and jazz bar called Peter Cat, and like a good host listening to his customers, mostly a bit younger than himself. The last cause in which Japanese youth showed even a flicker of interest-“Crush the US-Japan Security Treaty” (actually anti-Vietnam)-ran out of steam with the treaty’s renewal in 1970. Unemployment close to zero, hunger not even a memory, Japan’s good times had arrived and Chandler’s world of jazz, wise-cracking babes and…