When it comes to books I am not a terribly opinionated person – I have read many a good book and I have read many a book that has not resonated with me at all. For instance, I do not like Henry James and I am not terribly interested in most “classic” American fiction, such as William Faulkner or Mark Twain. Rarely have I received any feedback on any of my opinions that I have shared throughout my posts on Instagram. However, I have been surprised by how much commentary I receive in response to my opinions on one particular author: Haruki Murakami. Without fail, whenever I mention my dislike of his work I suddenly get an influx of comments, either from people who would like more information or conversely trying to “sell” his work to me. This response always intrigued me because, like I said, this never happens with any other author that I post about. I can’t help but think that there is something about Murakami and his work that means something significant for people in a way that differs from the other Japanese authors I post about – and leads people to be a little more defensive about criticism about his work.
After putting it off for a while, I think it is about time that I articulate my feelings for those who are curious: why I don’t like Murakami.
Before I go too deep into things, I should say that initially I was a fan of his work when I first discovered it in the early 2000s. Murakami’s name started appearing more and more, particularly after the English translation of Kafka on the Shore, which was a big hit. As someone who is of Japanese descent and who lived in a predominantly non-Japanese space for most of my life, I (naturally) was happy to see a Japanese author getting so much attention. After the Quake was the first book of his that I read and I remembered enjoying it. Subsequently, I read through most of his catalogue: A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norweigan Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, After the Quake, 1Q84, Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage, Men Without Women, etc. Some of these I have read in English, some of these I have read in Japanese. I list all of these not as a means of boasting, but to show you that my opinion comes from reading through a lot of his work and therefore being quite familiar with the tropes he has used over the years.
I also want to point out here that my issue with Murakami is not the writing itself. I think his particular prose style is great; it’s pared down and feels very casual, as if you are listening in to someone talking with his friends. There is a nice informality and a lack of pretension to the writing, which is also another reason why I think it translates nicely into English, as opposed to the awkward or clunky translations you can get from other authors. I also often suggest that people who are of intermediate Japanese language learners pick up his work in Japanese as the Japanese is a nice stepping stone into reading other authors. So my issues with Murakami have nothing to do with the writing itself, but rather thematic elements or tropes that he relies on all the time.
The breaking point for me began with 1Q84, but really didn’t materialize until I read Colorless Tsukuru. I distinctly remember reading through Colorless Tsukuru and feeling an intense sense of déjà vu throughout the entire thing, but I couldn’t remember which other Murakami book it reminded me of. Then it hit me: it felt like all of the other books that I had read. And ultimately, this is the basis of my lack of enthusiasm for his work and where my more critical look at his work originates.
There is definitely a quintessential Murakami protagonist that we all are familiar with: alienated, often single, male, youngish, likes jazz and classical music (Janáček CD sales got that Murakami bump), disaffected, narcissistic, and, more often than not, has at least one female character involved in his life that ultimately leads him to reflect on himself and how he ended up where he did when the narrative begins. Is this the only character he writes? Of course not, he is good about coming up with slight permutations on this model. But is this the most common point-of-view we get as the reader? Yes.
Part of this is historically based; a lot of Murakami’s work aligns with life in Japan during the Bubble Era of the 1980s and the subsequent recession after that bubble burst. The Bubble economy in Japan resulted in a flashy, materialistic culture that was epitomized by high consumption and foreign travel. Thus, you will often see characters in Murakami novels with American designer goods like cars, clothing, watches, and so on. However, the bubble collapsed and along with the collapse came a reevaluation of the Bubble Years, along with pessimism about Japan’s current state. For instance, many young people were no longer guaranteed the same type of stable work that the older generation was, so there were higher rates of individuals who were temporarily employed. They occupied a space where they were not fully unemployed, but were not consistently gainful employed either. Within this specific cultural and historical moment, you can see where Murakami’s protagonists originate from; in fact, he fits right in.
However, my issue with this Murakami Protagonist is less about this constellation of qualities and is the sheer repetition of this same type. Most of the male characters in his narrative struggle with the same issues of ennui and they all go through similar channels through which to resolve their internal struggles. And one of the most common avenues is through encounters with mysterious women.
The female characters
One of my biggest personal pet peeves regarding Murakami’s stories is his female characters. The bulk of the female characters in his stories function less as autonomous (or even interesting) three dimensional characters within the narrative space and more as “jumping off points” for the male protagonist to figure something out about himself. In the worst cases, these female characters are depicted as “fragile” – and promptly commit suicide off the page in a way that leaves the protagonist to interpret that action. I won’t list the characters here, because that would be a spoiler for a number of novels but, rest assured, it happens often. By complete coincidence I needed to read South of the Border, West of the Sun for one of my recent seminars and I think the four women in the novel are prime examples of the way Murakami writes women, and illustrate my point nicely:
Shimamoto: The mysterious woman who the protagonist obsesses over, who is often inscribed with intense meaning by the protagonist, who has some sort of physical or mental ailment (a limp in this specific case) that makes her ‘fragile’, and who vanishes at some point in the narrative. This mysterious woman is the hallmark of Murakami narratives.
Izumi: The protagonist’s high school sweetheart who he devastates by sleeping with her cousin while he and Izumi are together. She is described as being completely destroyed by the male protagonist’s actions so she remains an empty shell of a human being who is so alone and devoid of emotion that she frightens children in her apartment complex — twenty years after the fact. The male protagonist, on the other hand is totally unscathed by their relationship. The woman who is completely and utterly undone by the male protagonist is, again, a character we see often.
Izumi’s cousin: This character literally has no name, she is just referred to as “the cousin” or “Izumi’s cousin”. The protagonist has a lot of passionate sex with Izumi’s cousin while he is still with Izumi. But she helps the male protagonist learn something about himself – that sexual desire is inexplicable and he cannot help it when he needs to get it on. This character dies unceremoniously off the page.
Yukiko: The long-suffering, “respectable”, passive partner who, once the mysterious woman vanishes, remains for the protagonist and is the new vessel for how he attempts to see himself.
My problem with these tropes that appear throughout Murakami’s work is that these women are purely functional in the narrative; they exist only as a means through which the protagonist can understand himself. These female characters remain completely inaccessible to the readers and their actions are only interpreted through the protagonist’s eyes. I have heard people argue that Murakami does this to highlight the inaccessibility of human beings to one another; since we can never really know the internal life of another and since the actions of others is inexplicable, that is why the Murakami Protagonist cannot access these women and that is why he interprets their actions for readers. That interpretation is fine and even interesting to some degree — but I don’t need to read the same failure of encounter over and over again in twenty different novels. Likewise, I think it highlights a failure of imagination if the female characters almost always fall into these same categories.
Arguably, the only outlier is Aomame from 1Q84, which again…is one out of how many novels from an incredibly prolific author. However, Aomame is not really that different from the tropes that we see elsewhere. The only difference is that she is one of two protagonists, rather than just a female side character, so she has to be an amalgam of the way Murakami writes women and the way he writes his protagonists (because how can you be a true protagonist if you are not stifled under the ennui of alienated urbanized modernity?). I will give partial credit for the attempt at imagining a “new type” of female character for Murakami, but I won’t give full credit because I don’t think he reaches far enough when he has the capacity to.
Western reception and marketing
My final little sticking point with Murakami novels has to do with the politics of translation. This is something that I brought up in my post on The Vegetarian by Han Kang and is a topic that I think applies to this situation, too. I have also touched on this in previous Instagram posts (notably here), but in the past I had heard inklings from various professors, and eventually come across some literature in Japanese, on how there are differences between the English and the Japanese versions of Murakami’s books, with the English edition having the more “culturally difficult” (i.e. the elements of Japanese culture or life that Murakami and/or the translator felt would be difficult for the English speaking world to understand) were removed. The English editions of his novels were then made the standard text from which all other translations of his work needed to be based. In other words, even if the translator was fully able to translate from the original Japanese into another language, they were legally not able to — they had to translate from English into their other language. If you are curious, Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit breaks it down more clearly, in the German context, in an article here which I highly recommend. She also was one of the scholars who broke down the differences between the Japanese and English texts, though for the life of me I can’t find that Japanese article published in Chûô kôron.
Let’s break this down; by removing things that seem “too Japanese” from a novel, Murakami is indirectly showing that what succeeds in the West is something that can’t be “too foreign”. You may argue that he is attempting to transcend cultural difference to attain writing that is more universal, which explains his wide appeal. But universality does not mean we flatten out cultural difference and I start to take issue when someone’s very cultural difference is used to market their work (“the preeminent Japanese author”) when “too much” cultural difference is actively removed from the text. What is being marketed here is a safe exoticism – I can say I have read a Japanese author, so I feel wordly and can say I am interested in world literature, yet the book itself was crafted to remove material that would actually have made the difference more acute. This is the same issue that the article I linked to in my Han Kang post alludes to: a novel marketed as Korean literature that has much of the elements of Korean language and culture removed.
Am I accusing Murakami himself of doing this with “bad intentions”? Of course not. But, again, am I going to let an author who I believe can do good writing participate in the literary scene this way and not bring this issue up when it is apropos to the conversation? Of course not! I think that discussing the politics behind translation and the way that marketing creates a feedback loop is something that we need to discuss if we want to have a thoughtful discussion and if we ever want to move beyond this issue. On an even more basic level: I don’t even know why cultural difference even needs to be erased or omitted in translation in this instance. What better way of learning about another culture than by being forced to grapple with ideas and words that don’t readily map onto our own concept of the world? I more than anyone understand how difficult translation is, because I am terrible at it and would never want to be a professional translator. However, there must be a balance and flattening out troublesome material is not, in my opinion, the answer.
If you somehow made it through this entire post, now you know the basic reason why I am not a huge fan of Murakami’s books, and I applaud you for your perseverance! However, as the title of my posts suggest, I don’t take issue with people who do like his work; I start to take issue when I am consistently lectured about why Murakami is objectively great and why I am somehow in the wrong for not being a fan. Will I read Murakami in the future? Probably. After all, I bought Men Without Women in Japan over the summer when I needed something to read on the subway and I just recently had to read South of the Border, West of the Sun, as I mentioned previously. He is an unavoidable fixture when you are either interested in or actively studying Japanese literature. But, that being said, I will not pretend that there are no issues with his novels nor will I pretend to thoroughly enjoy them.
I made this post in response to the curiosity that many people expressed when I would occasionally mention that he is, in fact, not one of my favorite authors and I hope that this provides readers with a good starting point to do their own digging if this topic intrigues them. In the interest of time and scope (this is just a blogpost after all), I was not able — or willing, honestly — to include as many specific details as some may require to be convinced of my arguments. I just hope that this will give those who are curious a place to start and begin their own critical analysis of the books they read!