April 24, 2014

Japanese reading public morphs to love anything that comes from Haruki Murakami’s pen


Haruki Murakami, holding a prize received for some thoughts he jotted down about the right way to insert batteries into a Sony WM-FS191 Sports Walkman. Photo from Corbis.

Haruki Murakami, holding a prize received for some thoughts he jotted down about the right way to insert batteries into a Sony WM-FS191 Sports Walkman. Photo from Corbis.

Haruki Murakami’s new book, Onna no Inai Otokotachi [provisionally translated as “Men Without Women”], hit Japanese bookstores last week, providing, once again, proof of an unusual natural phenomenon: the ability of the Japanese reading public to morph to embrace with equal fervor anything that Murakami writes. I can’t pretend to understand the physics of this, but it’s clearly observable and as miraculous as sun showers or the immune system or the ability of lost dogs to find their way home over long distances.

On Friday, fans packed the Kinokuniya bookstore in Tokyo for the midnight release, and there were firecrackers and other promotional hoopla: a group of Murakami fans participated in a “Biblio Battle” beforehand, competitively discussing Murakami’s work for a chance to buy the first copy of Onna no Inai Otokotachi. The book is a collection of six short stories, five of which have appeared before in the magazines Bungei Shunju and Monkey; the title story is entirely new, and may be a response to Ernest Hemingway’s 1927 story collection of the same title.

News reports on the launch demonstrated that the receptivity of Japanese readers to absolutely anything penned by Murakami, whether or not they have read it somewhere else already, is still in full effect. For instance, web designer Yoichi Shindo, interviewed for the South China Morning Post just after buying a copy, pivoted neatly to encompass in his admiration both Murakami’s long and short works: “Murakami is definitely best known for his [long] novels but reading short stories is a different kind of pleasure… I have been waiting a long time to read his.”

Did you see that? Different kinds of pleasure! The shortness of the story offset by the length of time Shindo waited for it! All possible criticisms are elegantly deflected, before you even know what’s hit you. High-level freaky shit there.

Or take Masato Hayakawa, who Louis Templado encountered in his report on the launch for the Asahi Shimbun. Hayakawa missed the last train home in order to be first in line to buy the book and was quoted saying “Now, I’ve got something to read in the taxi.” Flawless conversion from being out late on a Friday night and newly short an unspecified number of yen for both the book and the lonely taxi ride home, to earthly bliss! Not only does Hayakawa now have the most anticipated book of the season, but he or she also has the prospect of an uninterrupted ride in which to read it, as the taxi, a vessel almost ideally designed for a focused and yet dynamic reading experience, wends its way through Tokyo in the early morning hours. Win! Win win! 600 golden coins for you, Hayakawa!

And this is nothing new. Compare, for instance, the interviews with Japanese readers around the time of the last Murakami release, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (which Knopf is publishing in the US and Harvill Secker in the UK, in August). Miwako Kitamura, photojournalist, was caught by the Asahi Shimbun in a post-reading moment last April, just after Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki came out in Japan: ” ‘It was different from what I was expecting, in a good way. I want to read a sequel,’ ” she said.

So you’re saying that this 370-page book was nothing like what you thought it would be, and you like that, and in fact, you like it so much that you would like to read a sequel of equal or potentially even greater length? Where,  you can almost hear American booksellers moan, do they get these people? What do they feed them? Spaghetti? Weed? Weed printed with the best parts of Norwegian Wood, thereby ensuring a lifelong dependency?

However this phenomenon comes to be, through whatever moss-bedecked channels and hidden rivulets it runs, one has to wonder if there is anything by Haruki Murakami Japanese readers can’t enfold in their critically appreciative arms. An exhaustive biography of Yakult Swallow outfielder Wataru Hiyane? A history of Minneapolis jazz told through a series of interviews with the second wives of legendary clarinetists? A pastiche of The Great Gatsby in which all the characters are salamanders?

No matter which direction Murakami may turn, I remain convinced that the Japanese reading public — and all the other reading publics, for that matter — will be ready to meet him, loving expressions on their faces and extraordinary soundbites for reporters in store. Just ask Kazuki Yamashita, a student who was the first in line to buy Colorless on its midnight release:

“Even if I read a Murakami book 10 times, I cannot understand it completely. The depth of his works is what makes them so appealing. Because the train I take to go home is not running (at this time), I will stay up overnight somewhere nearby and read the novel,” Yamashita said excitedly.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.