Friday, May 2, 2014

Haruki Murakami and Globalization

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, a novel that takes place in the space of only seven hours in Tokyo. The plot follows four main characters and several minor characters from midnight to dawn of one day in the grungy downtown entertainment district. I didn’t like the novel as much as Murakami’s stellar The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, or his short stories in The Elephant Vanishes, but After Dark does have a couple of classic Murakami scenes where he is at his best, and those scenes alone make the novel worthwhile.

Haruki Murakami with jazz records
Murakami is a master at creating a situation where two characters encounter one another by chance and start talking deeply, and suddenly their hearts and thoughts spring open up in a way that is extraordinary and reveals surprising truths.

I love Murakami's writing, so I was quite surprised when I heard him taken to task at an international symposium on literature I attended a few years ago. At the Third Seoul International Forum for Literature in 2011, eminent Korean scholar Yu Jong-ho, professor emeritus at Yonsei University, criticized Murakami at a session where I also spoke on “The Globalizing World and the Human Community.” Though his criticisms of Murakami didn’t focus on the globalization of literature per se, Professor Yu’s comments appeared to me to be prompted in part by the Westernized cultural references in Murakami’s fiction.

After Dark is a prime example. Though the novel takes place in Tokyo, it begins in a Denny’s Restaurant. There are numerous discussions of music in the book, partly because one of the main characters, Takahashi Tetsyta, is an aspiring jazz trombonist. Almost all the music referred to in Murakami’s novel is from the U.S.A. or the U.K. All the food the characters eat is Western, from chicken salad (there are some hilarious bits about Denny’s chicken salad!) to tuna sandwiches to a fluffy omelet (which, like the love that develops between the two protagonists, is never actually indulged in).

One of the only things in the novel that is distinctively Japanese is a love hotel, not exactly what you’d call classic East Asian culture. Even the love hotel is named for a Jean-Luc Godard movie, Alphaville (sometimes After Dark seems to take place in the futuristic world of Godard’s Alphaville).

So, is this a problem that Murakami’s characters seem to move in a world where Japanese culture, so rich and venerable, no longer seems to exist? The references that Murakami’s characters make to vintage jazz tunes, which he knows extremely well (he once ran a jazz club in Tokyo), are fascinating to me, and they make his characters appealing and endearing, from my standpoint. I’m a huge jazz fan myself. I would never want Murakami to feature Japanese culture in a way that would Orientalize or exoticize his own country. Nor would I want to see Murakami respond in an extremely nationalistic and negative way to Westernization, in the manner of Yukio Mishima, for instance, perhaps the other best known Japanese novelist of the last three generations.

Maybe that’s part of why Murakami has immersed himself so deeply in Western culture, as an antidote to his country’s militaristic nationalism and to the conformist culture of the “salaryman” that has dug so deeply into Japanese life. But I can’t help but wonder why Murakami sees no precedents for his own rebellion within Japanese literary and artistic culture. What of the great poet Yosano Akiko, for instance, who defied expectations that she would continue to run the family business and fled to Tokyo from a provincial town in order to elope with her lover, the poet Yosano Tekkan? She was also a foe of the status quo. What of the poets of the Arechi or Waste Land movement in post-World War II Japanese poetry, such as the wonderful Tamura Ryuichi? Why doesn’t Murakami see his legacy through these and other Japanese writers? Has he become infatuated with the culture of the U.S.A. to the point where he can no longer see the strengths of his country’s own legacy?

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka


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