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Haruki Murakami Interviewed

Interview by Roland Kelts.

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Two sharply contrasting portraits of a global Japan flashed simultaneously around the world last month, like one of those live, split-screen broadcasts of two different TV reporters stationed in distant countries. On one screen, viewers watched in morbid fascination as a narcotized and nearly comatose Japanese finance minister named Shoichi Nakagawa slurred his way through a press conference at the meeting of the G7 finance ministers and central bank governors in Rome. Two days later, when news broke that Japan’s economy had just suffered its worst contraction in 35 years, and that Nakagawa’s boss, Prime Minister Taro Aso, himself suffering severe contractions in popularity, had yet to demand Nakagawa’s resignation, the emerging picture of a dangerously dysfunctional government overseeing the world’s second-largest economy was as painful as it was embarrassing.

But on the other screen, viewers saw a Japanese man of Nakagawa’s generation standing firm behind a podium in Israel, accepting that nation’s highest literary award, and delivering a speech in eloquent, deeply felt English. He spoke about his vocation as a novelist (“telling skillful lies…to reveal the truth”) and his opposition to any and all wars, his empathy with the weak and the dissident and his passion for the uniqueness of the human soul. Spoken with power and clarity, not to mention clear-eyed sobriety, this man’s words blended the personal with the political and the metaphorical with the logical to make an eloquent argument for individual freedom and justice.

“We must not allow The System to exploit us,” he finally said, referring to the military, industrial and political forces arrayed against the human spirit. “The System did not make us: We made The System.”

The second man, of course, was Japan’s premier contemporary author and literary translator, Haruki Murakami.

That Murakami presented Japan’s best face to the world amid a week of public relations disasters is rife with irony. Since his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, was published three decades ago, the author has been an outsider in his native land, shunning the local press and literary establishment, and declining all but one domestic request for a public appearance (a reading for a charity event after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe, his childhood hometown). He has been seen, and to some degree positioned himself, as a literary pariah in Japan, in part because of its tepid-to-negative critical reception of his work.

“Some critics and other writers hated me because I was different,” he told an audience last fall in Berkeley, Calif. “I was called a punk, a con man. Some kind of swindler. Being different is difficult in Japan.

“They hated me. So I left.”

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Exile and return

In the late 1980s, when his fifth novel, Norwegian Wood, sold in the millions, Murakami and his wife Yoko promptly moved away, decamping first to Europe, then to the United States, and returning to their homeland only periodically, and often very quietly. Aside from taking in an occasional Yakult Swallows baseball game in Tokyo and the odd concert (Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s solo show, for example), Murakami keeps a decidedly low profile, spending months on end at another home in Hawaii.

Throughout, however, he has kept a close eye on his compatriots. Murakami maintains an almost eerily direct communication with his readers, many of whom are disenchanted and lonely members of Japan’s younger generation. (“I keep getting older, and my readers keep getting younger,” he now jokes.) When a new book appears, he often opens a Web site and responds to reader queries via an online bulletin board, e-mail or blog entries. “My readers are the most important to me,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the critics say. If you are a writer, and you have your readers, you can survive.”

In 1995, the twin disasters of the Great Hanshin Earthquake and the Aum Supreme Truth cult’s poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system prompted the author to return to Japan and focus more closely in his writing on the world he had struggled to escape. Two related books followed, the nonfiction Underground, containing interviews with Aum cult members and their victims, and After the Quake, a collection of short fictions that take place in the month between the earthquake and the man-made calamity. When I spoke to Murakami shortly after both books had been published, he told me that the experience of writing them had changed him, marking a turning point in his sense of responsibility, both as a writer and as a man.

I have met with Murakami several times in the 10 years since then, and in several cities, privileged to have an ongoing dialogue with a writer I admire and a man I like. In person, Murakami is charming and thoughtful, attentive to the nuances of the English language and gifted with a trans-cultural sense of humor. When I joined him onstage to conduct a formal conversation before an audience of 2,000-plus, I was forced to play the straight man. He had the hall in stitches more than a few times during the evening.

Earlier this year, Murakami turned 60. In our recent, casual conversations in the United States and Japan, I learned that this milestone was very much on his mind. “I’m going to be 60, you know,” he would often begin. Or: “I’m almost 60, so…” Unlike former Finance Minister Nakagawa, who will himself hit 60 four years from now, Murakami has not only kept his job–he’s thriving.

“My idol is Dostoyevsky,” he tells me one evening in his Tokyo office. “Most writers get weaker and weaker as they age. But Dostoyevsky didn’t. He kept getting bigger and greater. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov in his late 50s. That’s a great novel.”

Murakami pauses, looking slightly perplexed through a widening smile: “I don’t know how that happened. I don’t think he was running or anything. He was drinking and gambling, I think. But he’s a model in terms of his achievement.”

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Literary front-runner

As many readers now know, Murakami is a runner, and a devoted one at that, a veteran of 27 marathons. The most recent of his books in English, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is subtitled “a memoir,” and he says he wrote it whole, not as a collection of essays, to explore the connections between running and writing. “It’s not just about running, it’s also about a way of life. It’s not a how-to book. The way I run is the way I have lived, so the book is about the connections between living, running and writing. My attitude toward life.”

On the evidence of the book’s intertwining narrative accounts of running in Tokyo, Athens, Boston and New York, among others, Murakami’s attitude might be summed up thusly: position yourself in the middle (i.e., don’t stand out too much), take good care of yourself–and work extremely hard.

Writing is “dangerous work,” he writes. Elaborating on this theme in conversation, he says, “You have to go down into a dark place [when you write] and you need physical strength to survive, to come back to the surface.”

Murakami began to build his physical strength soon after giving up the bar he managed for 10 years following his graduation from Waseda University–and abandoning a three-pack-a-day smoking habit for the jogging trail. He did a 180 with his sleeping schedule, too. The former night owl started turning in at 9 or 10 p.m. and rising at 3 or 4 a.m. to begin writing. “I actually lost a lot of friends when I made that change,” he now says. “They just couldn’t understand it, and they got angry. But I think it was a good thing that I changed my lifestyle. You know, nightlife is kind of an illusion. You think there are all these gorgeous things happening late at night, and sometimes they happen. But mostly, it’s just boring.”

At 60, Murakami’s strength remains formidable, if not entirely boundless. He continues to burn through Japanese translations of his favorite American authors, lately publishing fresh editions of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. While he dolefully concedes that his marathon times continue to decrease as he ages, that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to run–and swim and cycle. Triathlons are now on his list of undertakings; he had to interrupt his training briefly for his appearances in Berkeley and New York last autumn.

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And coming soon…

More important for Murakami fans (and they are “fans,” lining up for hours to get their books signed in San Francisco, and often greeting the man with trembling idolatry) was his disclosure in Berkeley and later in Tokyo that he had just finished his latest novel. “It’s at least twice the size of Kafka on the Shore,” he announced to roaring applause. “I apologize to any of you who are train commuters. It’s going to be heavy. My books are becoming more complicated because the world has become more complicated.” The novel will likely appear in separate volumes and is due in Japanese bookstores this spring.

And there’s news for celluloid fans as well. For the first time, a Murakami novel will be rendered in film, courtesy of Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran. Tran’s version of Norwegian Wood, the author’s mega-seller, is slated for release next year–news that took me by surprise, since the notoriously cinema-shy author once told me that David Lynch and Woody Allen were the only directors he’d green-light.

“I have seen three or four of [Tran's] films, and I liked them very much. And I like the guy personally. We met four or five times in Tokyo and Paris [Tran's home]. But also, he’s Vietnamese-French. And I think the Eastern Asian area is going to create a special culture. That’s important to me–that we make our own new Asian culture. Ten years ago, there was no market, no audience around here. But we now have one. We have many political problems, but in terms of culture, we can create a mutual culture, with mutual values.”

Murakami’s belief in a new Asian creative community is striking, and he partly ascribes the growth of the region to…the Olympics. “Before the Seoul Olympics in 1988, I never saw any royalties from [South] Korean publishers,” he says. “But after the games, I started receiving payments, bit by bit, by and by. And in recent years, they’ve been very good to me. No more piracy. In China, it has been even worse. Horrible. But last year we saw the Games in China, and I think things will improve. That’s my very positive opinion. After the Games, things get better.”

I ask him what he feels distinguishes an Asian sensibility from a European or American one. “That’s difficult. But you know, no American or European director could make a [Kenji] Mizoguchi or [Yasujiro] Ozu film. There’s a different sense of time. A kind of patience. And an attention to sound, to silences.

“I think transcultural exchange is the most important thing right now,” he adds, resting his hands lightly on the table between us. “I know that because I lived in many countries. When I was in America in the early ’90s, Japan was rich, and everyone talked about it. But we didn’t have a cultural face. And I thought: Somebody should do something. I have to do something for Japanese culture. It’s my duty. I’ve been getting more popular in Europe and America, so I am in a position to be able to talk to people directly, and exchange opinions. That’s a great opportunity. Only a few people can do it. And I’m one of them.”

The man who once ran away from Japan may now be its most effective, and reliable, cultural ambassador.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S., now updated and out in paperback.

Picture: Roland Kelts outside Cafe Manga on London’s South Bank, by Andrew Stevens.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 28th, 2009.