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How the Foreign Becomes Familiar

Contemporary Japanese Literature Goes Global


The last time I visited with Haruki Murakami, we strolled down the leafy streets of the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts on a warm September day, musing on his perceptions of America as a child in Japan. “Everything was so big,” he told me, “so shiny and bright.” He recalled his first encounter with a McDonald’s hamburger, circa 1970. Did he like it?

“Of course,” he said, grinning. “We are not French.”

Murakami’s novels and short stories have long become notable for their incorporation of the icons of what is now a globalized mass culture — McDonald’s, Starbucks, The Beach Boys — into narratives the yet retain a Japanese flavor and sometimes, as in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and the nonfiction Underground, confront directly the horrors of Japan’s Imperial past and the terrors lurking in its present.

But if Murakami sometimes celebrates the convenience and ‘shiny and bright’ facades of mass and popular culture — the giddy and soothing harmonies of the Beach Boys, for example — he and other contemporary Japanese novelists also convey the unsettling and heartbreaking hollowness behind them. Lonely protagonists seek solace in their obsessions with their chosen plots of the mass culture landscape. When they fail to find it, they often slip into a fantastical realm in which reality and dreams overlap.

In my book, Japanamerica, about the global anime/manga boom, I propose that many of us are becoming more like otakus, consumed by narrow pursuits and comparatively alienated from others, in part because of the isolation resulting from advances in technology and the spread of urban environments. Contemporary Japanese writers are intimately familiar with both — Japan is a world leader in hi tech and home to the most populous city in the world — which may help explain their recent rise in global prominence.

Four years ago Natsuo Kirino’s Out, a fantastical tale of four women who together murder and dismember one of the woman’s husbands, became an international bestseller. While the story contains the extremes of fantasy and nightmare, its setting is resolutely mundane: Tokyo’s bland and anonymous suburbs. Kirino, a few years younger than Murakami, told an interviewer: “Fiction and reality are colliding, but I tend to take things further in my books than they usually go in reality.”

Taking things further into fantasy is at the heart of many anime and manga narratives; it is part of their appeal, and is a key element in their influence on a number of contemporary Japanese authors.

The stories of Yoko Ogawa, born in 1962, began appearing in English at the start of this century. In “Backstroke,” translated by Motoyuki Shibata for A Public Space, a teenage boy’s left arm suddenly freezes into the raised position while he is practicing for the Olympics. The bizarrely humorous scenario deepens into pathos. Near the story’s end, the frozen arm detaches from the boy’s body mid-swim and drifts away like deadwood on the surface of his family’s pool.

The characteristics associated with traditional Japanese literature — the pilgrimage of the soul seeking perfection, truth, beauty; contemplative silence; the rigors of self-discipline — are at least superficially absent from Japan’s contemporary fictions, in which marginal, often aimless characters dominate.

The protagonist of Hideo Furukawa’s novel Love, winner of the most recent Mishima Prize, resembles a freeter, a member of Japan’s growing legion of young part-time workers. He longs for a career as a musician, the life of an artist, but he can’t seem to focus, riffing instead on his observations of others, the fleetingness of time and the loss of collective memory: “He knows that if he got a proper job he would have to put a hundred percent effort in, and would end up neglecting his music. And so he just goes from job to job. Odd jobbing.” Masaya Nakahara, himself a periodically unemployed musician, writes in “Bloody Self-Portrait of a Beast” about a celebrated playwright who is humiliated — driven to the margins — when a grotesque creature violently intrudes upon an equally grotesque TV show on which she was supposed to be feted. And the main character in Kazushige Abe’s “The Maiden in the Manger” is an anonymous salaryman who undertakes a three-hour train pilgrimage from Tokyo to satisfy his otaku obsession: a rare and specific model of adult toy and masturbation aid.

The worlds and characters these contemporary Japanese writers delineate may not always flatter or comfort us. But the increasing interest in them evinced by a growing global readership suggests we may find them true, and starkly familiar.

Roland Kelts is a Lecturer at the University of Tokyo and a co-editor of the New York-based literary journal, A Public Space. His first novel, Access, will be published next year.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 7th, 2007.