Recentering Murakami Haruki


Norwegian Wood (2011)

by Rebecca Suter

Murakami Haruki is perhaps the best known and most widely translated Japanese author of his generation. His latest novel, three-volume, 1600-page 1Q84, was an instant success: the first print sold out on the day it was released, and the first two volumes reached one million sales within one month. The English edition, translated partly by Jay Rubin (vol. 1-2) and partly by Philip Gabriel (vol. 3), promises to be just as successful. The novel is one of Murakami’s most complex, multilayered, and profound works, and indeed a wonderful read. Yet the literary value of the work itself somehow fails to explain the cult status that the text and its author have reached among Japanese as well as foreign readers. Murakami’s readership this day is best described as a form of fandom, an adoration bordering on obsession. One cannot help but wonder: what is the secret of Murakami’s popularity?

In my book, The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki between Japan and the United States, I had addressed the issue by looking at this author’s role as a cultural mediator between Japanese and Western culture. I interpreted Murakami’s through the lens of what Iwabuchi Koichi, in his renowned Recentering Globalization, describes as a “Japanization” of Western culture. It was my contention that Murakami’s appeal lay in his hybridization of different cultural traditions, that simultaneously catered to the taste of very different audiences and challenged them to think critically about their own culture. The evolution of Murakami’s career in the past few years seems to both confirm such interpretation and take it into new, even more interesting directions.

While the “Murakami phenomenon” in Japan had begun in the late 1980s, with the rise of Norwegian Wood to best-seller status, his popularity overseas escalated in the 2000s. In 1991, during his first year as a visiting scholar in the United States, Murakami held his first US book-signing event; only fifteen people showed up. In November 2006, when he gave a reading at the MIT, the university reserved a room with a capacity of five hundred people; more than thirteen hundred arrived, and a crowd of eight hundred fans, some having come from the other side of the country just to see him, had to leave the premises. In 2008, when Murakami was invited to give a speech at Berkeley to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the University’s Japan Studies Center, the organizers booked a whole theatre in the city. Its two thousand seats sold out weeks before the event, and on the night the theatre was packed with an excited and adoring audience.

As his international popularity grows, Murakami is increasingly perceived not as a “Japanese writer” but as “a writer.” This is partly related to what his works become once translated into English. His American translators, Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, and Philip Gabriel, tend to “domesticate” foreign elements in Murakami’s fiction: culturally specific elements are often substituted with either generic or American equivalents, so that he does not sound “too Japanese” in translation. This results in his being read by a wider public, which in turn leads to further domestication, in view of the fact that, the wider the public, the less likely it would be that readers will understand or be interested in elements that are too culturally specific.

In their linguistic domestication Rubin, however, Birnbaum, and Gabriel are in a sense simply expanding on an element already present in the works, which are replete with references to Western, particularly North American, popular culture. Such widespread use of Western references performs different functions for his different audiences. To his English-speaking readers, Murakami presents himself as exotic enough to be interesting, but Westernized enough to be reassuring. He offers them Japan as a safe, approachable fictional space that is both an escape from the conventions of their own culture and a platform to reflect critically on them. In Japan, he performs a similar and inverse operation: he uses foreign culture as an imaginary space for himself and his readers to distance the conventions and constraintsof Japanese society.

Murakami’s recognition on the global scene has affected his popularity at home, both as an author and as a translator, an activity that he has pursued in parallel to his work as a novelist since the early 1980s. In bookstores in Tokyo, the “Murakami Haruki corner” has become a fixture since the mid-2000s. Besides Murakami’s fiction and nonfiction works, this section showcases critical monographs and special issues of journals about him; Murakami’s translations of American authors, which are sold under his name rather than in the foreign literature section; Japanese translations of Western scholarship about Murakami; and even Japanese versions of English-language translations by other Japanese authors for which he wrote the introduction, such as a collection of Akutagawa Ryûnosuke’s short stories and Natsume Sôseki’s Sanshirô.

While this can be interpreted simply as a commercial operation, taking advantage of Murakami’s popularity to sell Murakami-related products, it also carries broader significance in terms of cultural negotiations. The fact that two English anthologies of Murakami’s stories have been re-published in Japanese, The Elephant Vanishes and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, for instance, is a testament to the validating effect of Murakami’s popularity overseas: the English-speaking audience becomes the guarantor of the quality of this Japanese author to his Japanese audience.

Even more interesting in this respect is the Japanese version of the collection Rashômon and other stories by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, published by Penguin in 2007 in a new translation by Jay Rubin with a foreword by Murakami and now republished in Japanese. The text presents us with an intriguing multiplicity of layers of rewriting across different kinds of borders. Rubin translates Akutagawa, already a bold operation, since he revisits an author already translated into English by established scholars; Murakami, in his preface, introduces Akutagawa to the US audience; the book gets re-published in Japanese, thus making Murakami introduce Akutagawa to the Japanese audience as well.

In the introduction, Murakami does not limit himself to presenting a major Japanese author to the English-speaking audience. First of all, the essay comes as a surprise from a writer who has often denied any interest in Japanese literature and has always declared to be much more indebted to American fiction than to writers such as Kawabata or Mishima, whose works he claimed to have hardly ever read. But what is even more interesting is the way Murakami compares himself to Akutagawa, reflecting on what he as a novelist has learnt from him, and defining his own identity as a writer in terms of similarities, with and differences from, his “predecessor.”

In writing about Akutagawa, Murakami addresses some of the most crucial questions that recur in his own work: East-West relations, the concept of literature as self-expression, the rejection of traditional realism as inadequate to representing the complexity of the world we live in, the idea of identity as culturally and linguistically constructed, and the issue of a writer’s social responsibility. While one is led to wonder whether Murakami here is speaking about himself rather than discussing Akutagawa, precisely for this reason his interpretation sheds light on his own view of such concepts.

Significantly, a major feature of Akutagawa’s work that Murakami discusses, and with which he identifies, is his writing across cultures. He describes Akutagawa as the very embodiment of the concept of “kokontôzai ni tsûjiru,” “to be conversant with old and new, East and West.” This might be an apt description of Murakami’s own fiction and the way it undermines the vision of cultures as separate and unitary entities, each enclosed within its own boundaries.

Throughout his career as a writer and a translator, Murakami Haruki has introduced American culture to the Japanese audience and Japanese culture to his American readers, using both as something familiar enough to be approached confidently, yet unfamiliar enough to make them reflect upon, and distance, their own culture.  Unlike most of Japanese postwar fiction, Murakami’s texts do not represent Western influences as dangerous and corrupting, but, on the contrary, they use it as a basis to construct a multi-layered image of reality. And the same might be said of the way in which he presents Japanese culture to the West: it is challenging enough to intrigue, yet close enough to be understandable rather than threatening. And herein lies the reason of his popularity: he is able to connect to his audiences, as well as allowing them connect to different worlds. As Murakami argued in an interview with Roland Kelts, “the word ‘global’ is something that I can’t really understand, because we do not necessarily need to be global. We already are what I call ‘mutual.’ If we use the connection of our world called story, I think that that’s enough to keep us connected.”

Norwegian Wood, 2011


Iwabuchi, Koichi. Recentering Globalization: Popular Culture and Japanese Transnationalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Kelts, Roland. “Heart of Darkness: An Interview with Murakami Haruki.” Kansai Time Out, November 1999.

Suter, Rebecca. The Japanization of Modernity: Murakami Haruki between Japan and the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008, second edition, 2011.

About the Author:

Rebecca Suter is a lecturer at the University of Sydney.  Her main research interest is in modern Japanese literature and comparative literature and her first book, The Japanization of Modernity, focuses on contemporary Japanese writer Murakami Haruki, particularly on his role as a cultural mediator between Japan and the United States, as well as on his use of meta-fictional techniques. She is currently working on issues of translation and cross-cultural representation between Asia and the West, concentrating on the phenomenon of the “Japanization” of Western culture and the way it challenges current views of colonialism, postcolonialism and globalization.

Rebecca has also taught Japanese modern literature at Harvard University and at Brown University. She also works as a translator of manga, and has translated works by Shinohara Chie, Anno Moyoko, Miuchi Suzue, Asano Inio, Kitoh Mohiro, Katayama Kyoichi, and Unita Yumi, among others.