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Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

Murakami Haruki & Magical Realism

A Look at the Psyche of Modern Japan
Morten Oddvik
Waseda University
Spring 2002

Murakami Haruki is hailed as one of Japan's most successful contemporary authors, but at the
same time his works are criticized as being "consumable nostalgia" (Morris, 1996, 269) and

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

unimportant. Morris dismisses Murakami as part of popular culture, describing his novels as "more
memorable for their titles than their contents" (269). In this essay I will examine how Murakami`s
works explore Japanese society. Murakami portrays contemporary Japanese society through
protagonists living in, or between, two states of reality and in search of their real self, or core
identity. Through techniques of magical realism and symbolism, Murakami focuses on the flaws
and ills of a highly developed capitalist culture and shows how the individual ends up facing an
inevitable identity crisis, which the protagonist is forced to deal with in order to be able to
continue to live and cope with this society.

Reality Vanishes
I felt the woman's tongue entering my mouth. Warm and soft, it probed every crevice and it
wound around my own tongue. The heavy smell of flower petals stroked the walls of my
lungs. Down in my loins, I felt a dull need to come. Clamping my eyes closed, I fought it. A
moment later, I felt a kind of intense heat on my right cheek. It was an odd sensation. I felt
no pain, only the awareness of heat. I couldn't tell whether the heat was coming from the
outside or boiling up inside me. Soon everything was gone: the woman's tongue, the smell of
flowers, the need to come, the heat on my cheek. And I passed through the wall. When I
opened my eyes I was on the other side of the wall - at the bottom of a deep well.
(The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Book Two, 247)

In this crucial part of the three-volume The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist Toru
Okada has returned from another world of reality, a dreamscape reality of a labyrinth-like hotel,
where he tries to find his missing wife Kumiko. At this point in the novel he can successfully enter
into this reality, or world, by climbing down a dry well on a neighboring abandoned property.
Sitting in the darkness he feels he comes closer to himself, his memories and his thoughts, in his
own mind. "Here in this darkness, with its strange sense of significance, my memories began to
take on a power they had never had before. The fragmentary images they called up inside me were
mysteriously vivid in every detail, to the point where I felt I could grasp them in my hands" (222).
This symbolism is an essential pillar of Murakami`s work. As he himself writes in the non-
fiction work Underground, "Subterranean worlds - wells, underpasses, caves, underground springs
and rivers, dark alleys, subways - have always fascinated me and are an important motif [sic] in my
novels" (239). The subconscious is very important in his books and the darkness of the
underground environment is an easily identifiable symbol of this. There exists a coded division
between this darkness and the world of light. Furthermore, there is a fine line between these
realities, or worlds. Toru Okada in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle does not realize how little he
knows his wife Kumiko until she disappears, and thus also how little he knows himself.
Murakami`s protagonists are often ordinary men in their late twenties or early thirties, who are
caught in a life that seems mediocre, everyday and boring. They are stuck in mundane jobs,
working as advertising copywriters and such, "people who have lost their sixties idealism and
accommodated themselves to the Establishment" (Jay Rubin, 1999, 8).
Set in the summer of 1984, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle starts out with Toru Okada and
Kumiko Wataya who are married and live in a peaceful neighborhood in suburban Tokyo. He has
been unemployed since he quit his job as a lawyer, and she works busily for a magazine. One day
their cat disappears and this causes Kumiko great concern. This is the first of many disturbances of
their peaceful world. Kumiko disappears partway through the novel, and the search for her
involves Toru in a search for his own identity.

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

Murakami`s novels and short stories usually revolve around the question of how the first-
person protagonist can forge connections with an other, conscious or unconscious, and then
identity in dentify himself, to prove his existence. As the critic Matthew Strecher suggests in his
essay "Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki," this
question is the red thread that links Murakami`s earliest work to the most recent.
One can also see Toru’s search for his wife more as a search inside himself; as Rubin
suggests, he looks "for the meaning of his marriage to her and the meaning of his life as a product
of Japan's modern history" (Rubin, 2001, 239). For exactly these reasons Toru has to embark on a
search in and between the realities of the dark, dreamy world and real life.
The key element of these different worlds is the fundament for Murakami`s well developed
symbolism, seen in strange disappearances, darkness, narrow passageways or deep wells. The
bottom line is that people have lost each other and this is represented by the world of darkness.
In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle darkness is where Toru has to look to find his wife and to
find his own identity. In this darkness, memory, the past, and nostalgia are entwined
indistinguishably. In the quoted passage above Toru has entered the darkness through the walls of
the well and may be closer to finding his wife.
After being out of work for nearly two months Toru finds himself out of touch with the
"outside world". Prior to her disappearance Kumiko had given Toru an opportunity to stay home
and figure things out by letting him quit his job. In a passage shortly before Kumiko disappears he
stands in front of the mirror and realizes that he and the world he is living in is standing still.

It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, and the
more it consisted of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow
with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while; it
seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving. (126)

From the very beginning of the novel Kumiko is calling him and in fact desperately
pleading for help. The telephonic distance shows how far apart modern beings can slide from each
other. Stillness and darkness are symbols of this. As Strecher writes, "... she calls Toru on the
telephone from his internal mind and insists that if he can give her just ten minutes, "we can
understand each other" Her talk then turns seductive, finally overtly sexual, and Toru hangs up on
her without giving her the ten minutes she so earnestly desires" (288). In the modern world direct
contact is disrupted by means of communication such as cellular phones and computers. The latter
turns out to be the only way Toru can communicate with Kumiko after several months. Direct
human communication is no longer easily obtained.
In a scene where Kumiko arrives home late after a tough day at work, Toru and his wife
start fighting. Toru has bought blue tissue paper and patterned toilet paper, which upsets Kumiko.
Moreover, he is preparing a meal of stir-fried beef and green peppers, which Kumiko absolutely
detests. She hates blue tissue paper and patterned toilet paper, too. She is very upset that her
husband has never realized these simple facts throughout the six years of their married life.

When they go to bed, Toru thinks the evening over. "That night, in our darkened bedroom, I lay
beside Kumiko, staring at the ceiling and asking myself just how much I really knew about this
woman" (30). He ponders the triviality of these things, but is caught by a growing sense of crisis.
"Maybe - just maybe - it was more crucial than it had seemed. Maybe this was it: the fatal blow"
(30). Rightly, Toru is on mark with his suspicions and the darkness of the bedroom and his
thoughts makes him question how well he really knows the companion next to him in bed.

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

Or maybe it was just the beginning of what would be the fatal blow. I might be standing at
the threshold of something big, and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast
world that I had never known. I saw it as a big, dark room. I was standing there holding a
cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room. (30)

This tiny flame is the only thing Toru has. With this he has to hunt high and low in the darkness of
his inner self, in order to grow in his relationship to Kumiko. Unfortunately, he only realizes this
completely when it is already too late. This tiny flame represents Toru’s only hope of recovering
his wife, who disappears shortly after, and getting his life back on track.

As the story unfolds he finds a well on the neighboring property that he climbs down. (1) Through
an acquaintance of Kumiko and himself, Toru meets Lieutenant Mamyia, who fought alongside a
late Mr. Honda, who possessed mystical abilities close to clairvoyance, in China and Mongolia
during the Second World War. Lt. Mamyia comes to visit Toru after Mr. Honda dies and starts
telling him stories of the war. In one of his accounts he tells of a horrifying experience on the
Mongolian steppes, where they was on a secret mission: they were caught by the Russians and
tortured. One of them was skinned alive, while Lt. Mamyia was left naked and beaten in an empty
well in the middle of nowhere on the Mongolian steppes. At the bottom of the well, he abandons
all hope and realizes the meaningless of going on living. He explains this to Toru in metaphysical
terms of grand proportions, and tells him that he was destined to live as "an empty shell" for the
rest of his life. Even though he went to the front line with a death wish he was doomed to live on,
as Mr. Honda rightly had prophesied at an earlier stage. Lt. Mamiya goes back to Japan after the
war and lives his life in an utter agony of emptiness. Life ceased to have any significant meaning
after being marooned in a deep well on the vast Mongolian steppes.
As earlier mentioned, Toru later discovers a secret passage in the well between the reality
in the well and the other reality of the unconsciousness. In the end he succeeds in entering this
other side, portrayed as a hotel room (which appears several times in the novel in different
stories), where he encounters Creta Kano, who turns out to be an aspect of Kumiko. Toru also
meets a dark figure in this reality whom he kills, and this turns out to be Noboru Wataya,
Kumiko`s brother and an important right-wing figure. The well is Toru’s key to solving the
disappearance of Kumiko and erasing Noboru, who appears to be his nemesis and alter ego, from
the face of the earth. The well symbolizes different aspects of loneliness, meaninglessness, the
gateway to truth and a separation between different realities. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle these
aspects are crucial. The well is Toru’s gateway to truth and understanding of himself.

Magical Mystery Tour

In the short story "Sleep" from The Elephant Vanishes, a collection of short stories, we are
introduced to a woman who has completely lost the ability to sleep. The demarcation between
days is gone and she feels no loss of energy, in fact she feels great. In a scene where she first loses
the ability to sleep, she sees an old man in the darkness at the foot of her bed. He pours water over
her feet and she starts to worry that her feet will rot, only to be filled with an irrepressible urge to

This was no longer a dream, I knew. From that I had already awakened. And not just by
drifting awake, but having my eyes ripped open. No, this was no dream. This was reality.
("Sleep," 83)

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

Once again darkness is an important symbol. In this scene the protagonist tries to tell
herself that she really sees a terrifying old man by the foot of the bed, but as readers it is more
feasible to believe that he is a product of her imagination - and the dark.
The characters in Murakami`s novels and short stories are often missing something and
searching for it. Lost love, ruined relationships, psychological distance between people and the
concern for the meaning in human relations are Murakami`s principal interest and are frequently
symbolized by images of the magical.
Strecher explains magical realism simply as "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic
setting is invaded by something "too strange to believe" (267). The phone calls Toru Okada
receives from different women at the beginning of the novel are mere hints of what is coming in
terms of strangeness. The immensely detailed descriptions of Toru’s everyday life are interspersed
with weird notions of a polka dot tie, an old lieutenant and a limping teenage girl next-door. The
magical appears first when normal notions of time and space cease to apply and Toru’s "real"
world is confused with the Other reality. A very clear example of this is in a scene where Toru has
gone to sleep by himself as Kumiko is no longer around and he falls into a dream just to wake up
later because he has to pee.

It was quite some time before I realized that I was in my own house, in my own bed. The
hands of the alarm clock showed it to be just after 2 in the morning. My irregular sleeping
habits in the well were probably responsible for these unpredictable cycles of sleep and
wakefulness. Once my confusion died down, I felt I had to pee. It was probably the beer I’d
drunk. I would have preferred to go back to sleep, but I had no choice in the matter. When I
resigned myself to the fact and sat up in bed, my hand brushed against skin of the person
sleeping next to me. This came as no surprise. That was where Kumiko always slept. I was
used to having someone sleeping by my side. But then I realized that Kumiko was no longer
with me. She had left. Some other person was sleeping next to me.
(The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 291)

This person turns out to be a female character that appears in Toru’s dreams and in reality.
She moves between the two worlds, or at least in Toru’s perception of them. The blurred line
between sleep and wakefulness confuses everyone and is easily recognizable. Who has not had
doubts about reality and dreams as they wake in the morning after a night of vivid dreaming?
Murakami`s use of magical realism is closely linked to the quest for identity; it is a tool to
seek an individualized, personal sense of identity in every person. This borderline reality is usually
spurred by associations of memories through the senses, be it music or smells of a newly cut lawn,
as in the short story "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon," where the grass the protagonist is cutting
keeps reminding him of his ex-girlfriend and her absence. In the very same short story the
protagonist says that, "Memory is like fiction: or else it's fiction that's like memory." (The Elephant
Vanishes, 269) This borderline area between daydreams and consciousness is of utmost
importance in magical realism. The borderline is where the magical often occurs, where dwarfs of
dreams become real life figures, as in the twisted and weird short story "The Dancing Dwarf," or
the poor aunt in "A Poor Aunt Story," or the quirky Sheep Man in the novel A Wild Sheep Chase.
Usually these characters are just creations of the protagonists` minds, but they seem real, because
Murakami usually writes in the first person.
As Jay Rubin suggests, "Murakami makes the poor aunt stand for everything unpleasant
we push out of our minds by subtly suggesting things we ought to know about but have managed
to suppress." (Rubin, 1999, 69) Like a haunting memory that we like to forget, this image of the
poor aunt pops up in our imagination and reminds us of something indefinable and past.

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

Murakami`s use of magical realism concerns itself with this borderline reality where the
protagonists` problems are made visible by turning the psyche inside out, or by externalizing it,
through images of dreams. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle Kumiko is several women, each of
whom symbolizes different aspects of herself that she wants to show Toru in order for him to
understand her better. Any of the stories in this novel occur only in the minds of Toru, Kumiko or
the Lieutenant. The war stories are not historical facts, but they are "psychological baggage
carried around half-consciously by Japanese of Murakami`s generation and later," as Rubin

An Ode to Oddness
The elevator continued its impossible slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent.
There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It
could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn't moving at all. But let's
assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I`d gone up twelve stories, then down three.
Maybe I`d circled the globe. How would I know?
(Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1)

The opening of this highly imaginative novel, where the protagonist finds himself inside a
spacious, yet claustrophobic, elevator, has a surrealistic realism to it. Eventually the protagonist
arrives at his designated floor, where a young woman who guides him through a long corridor
meets him; "Turning corners, going up and down flights of stairs, we must have walked five or six
ordinary buildings worth." (10) Passing rooms with illogical numbers in a "gloomy, featureless"
interior they walk on endlessly until they finally arrive at their destination. Almost Kafkasque in its
impersonal setting, this surreal scene is just the beginning of a science fiction-like adventure. As
readers we are introduced to the situation by the protagonist without any explanation until later.
The surreal setting suggests the alienation of bureaucratic mazes. Trapped in an elevator,
controlled by something externally powerful. An illusion of free will is being crushed. A sense of
surrealism also pervades in the amusing, yet unsettling, short story "TV People," where small
"humanoids" wander straight into the protagonist’s living room with a large TV set. In the story
the protagonist finds himself in his own living room with the brand new TV, brought and
assembled by the midget-like TV people, and as his wife returns from work he has an explanation

That night, when she comes home, first thing she does is look around the apartment. I've
readied a full explanation - how the TV people came and mixed everything up. It'll be
difficult to convince her, but I intend to tell her the whole truth. (...) She doesn't say a thing,
just gives the place the once-over. (...) I know most of her friends, so I pour myself a beer
and follow along, inserting attentive uh-huhs at proper intervals. Though in fact, I hardly
hear a thing she says. I'm thinking about the TV people. That, and why she didn't remark on
the sudden appearance of the television. No way she couldn't have noticed. Very odd. Weird,
even. Something is wrong here. But what to do about it?
(The Elephant Vanishes People, 203-204)

Most likely, the TV people are products of his imagination, although at the same time they
are warning signs of the dangers of ignorance in human relationships within a modern household
where everyone lives by a tight schedule. As in the initial telephone sequences in The Wind-up
Bird Chronicle, this "oddness" is a sign of the distance between man and wife and the alienation

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

they feel from each other and from society. Even at his work the TV people shows up, but only he
takes note of them. To readers, this may suggest that the protagonist himself is "invisible". More
specifically, he has at some point crossed the borderline between reality and obscurity into another
reality. Stretcher writes of the TV People as examples of "image characters" (Strecher, 2002, 48).
The protagonist has passed from the conscious world to the unconscious world, or vice versa. We
cannot be sure of this since the short story is written in first person. Nevertheless, Murakami uses
the surreal TV people in order to show that a transformation of some kind has taken place.
“(N)othing passes from the unconscious into the conscious world without experiencing some kind
of radical transformation in appearance.” (Strecher, 48) My suggestion is that the protagonist
gradually disappears into a surreal "shadow world", where "image characters" like the TV people
"exist". (2) Modern careers, busy schedules, and capitalism bring alienation and distance between
people. The protagonist`s lack of presence is clearly shown in how he not very enthusiastically
"uh-huhs" in talking to his wife when she comes home from work. This passiveness persists
through the short story and the narrator only realizes his alienation from his wife when it is too
late. "Maybe our relationship has suffered irreversible damage. Maybe it's a total loss. Only I
haven't noticed" (215). Just like Toru in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the protagonist has lost his
wife to obscurity due to mutual neglect. The end of the short story suggests that he has shrunk and
perhaps become one of the invisible, anonymous TV people. The lines between what is real and
what is not are blurred and surreal.
This wonderfully surreal quality gives Murakami`s works an intriguing, yet dark and
absurd appeal. His use of surrealism puts everyday scenes into an interesting context packed with
hidden clues of the protagonists` state of mind and his or her alienation from the surrounding
world. Murakami`s main characters are usually "out of tune" with their surroundings, and the
surreal fulfills the function of revealing just how out of sync they are with their surroundings.

The Psyche of Modern Japan

Since the Meiji Restoration in late nineteenth century, Japan has been influenced by the West and
at the same time, played an important role in East Asia and world politics. Through modernization
and industrialization, extreme militarism and disputed victimization, and stupendous economic
growth in the postwar era, Japan is still fumbling with what to be. This has caused its people to
realize the challenges ahead as well, and has forced them to take a stand. Murakami`s protagonists
and his stories` characters are living in this apparently stable society, which Japan is famous for.
However, it turns out to be a society where values and ways of living may be not as stable as they
are first perceived to be.

The Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack of January and March 1995 are two of the
gravest tragedies in Japan's postwar history. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a
marked change in the Japanese consciousness "before" and "after" these events. These twin
catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as a people.
(Underground, 237)

In his own comments on the Tokyo gas attack in Underground, Murakami brings his attention to a
society that has sadly been caught up by time and fundamental changes. These "twin catastrophes"
marked the definitive end of Japan's excessive and euphoric "bubble economy" of the eighties, and
I suspect that modern Japan and its people have been thrown into a collective identity crisis, in

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

which these catastrophes are important sociological factors. No doubt, in today’s chaotic,
postmodern world, the question of what it means to be Japanese now is more important than ever.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is set in the beginning of the bubble economy in the eighties.
The novel’s main character, Toru Okada, is a typical Murakami protagonist. An outsider, a
Japanese man who does not fit the "stereotype of conformist, work-obsessed Japanese men"
(Laura Miller, Salon-interview). Wind-up’s narrator is an anti-hero, who finds simple pleasures in
reading, listening to music and cooking spaghetti. He does not exactly renounce salaryman-
culture, having been an employee at a law firm himself, but he feels more or less indifferent to it.
Nevertheless, he has left his job, although for no particular reason, but as he says; "I knew, too,
that I didn't want to stay where I was and continue with the job I had. If I stayed with the firm any
longer I’d be there for the rest of my life. I was thirty years old, after all" (9).
Consequently, as the novel opens he is caught up in idleness, cooking light lunches and
ironing shirts when something slightly upsets him. Toru is an outsider, out of tune with the wild
capitalist rat race. He chooses to withdraw from society and live a quiet life, until he can figure out
what to do for a living in the future. Until then his wife will be the only one to work in the
childless household. Society's expectations of hard work and a great sense of collective
responsibility are too much for Toru and other Murakami characters.
The narrator in the short story "Family Affair" (The Elephant Vanishes) lives a life in
complete lavishness, an almost oblivious boredom, dating numerous girls, dining and getting drunk
in bars, living an indifferent life without any values of importance. He dislikes his sister's fiancé,
Noboru Watanabe, from the very beginning. The fiancé is a stereotypical Japanese man, a
computer engineer, who is "under his father's thumb" (169) in the old patriarchal tradition.
Throughout the story the narrator struggles to accept his sister's choice, and this signals his doubts
about his own life's importance. Noboru Watanabe (3), the computer engineer, is a man of modern
Japanese society, a social climber (Noboru) who the narrator cannot help feeling intimidated by.
His idleness is threatened and he becomes even more aware of his out-of-place-ness. As he lies in
bed in the apartment, which he shares with his sister, he closes his eyes and ponders the future:
"My sheets were new and clean. I stretched out on top of them and looked through the curtain at
the moon. Where was I headed? I wondered. But I was far too tired to think very deeply about
such things. When I closed my eyes, sleep floated down on me like a dark silent net" (186).
Unemployed or in boring, mundane jobs, Murakami`s characters are symptoms of a society
where collective responsibility and an ethos of hard work are expected standards. As Murakami
himself points out: "It isn't easy to live like this in Japan. You are estimated by which company or
which system you belong to. That is very important to us" (Salon-interview), but he believes
changes are happening and that the younger generation wants more individual freedom. "They
don't trust any company. (...) Especially right now. Young people these days don't trust anything at
all. They want to be free." Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but it is not in doubt that
the collective nature of Japanese society is being challenged by a growing sense of individual
The Japanese saying, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down," shows that Japan has
valued homogeneousness and individual autonomy. For this reason, Murakami took an interest in
the evildoers and the followers of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that was responsible for the Tokyo gas
attack in 1995. During his interviews with cult-members for Underground, he was struck by their
similarity to his own fictional characters. The interviewed cult-members felt out of place in society,
and Murakami`s protagonists usually share this outsider feeling. "There always seemed to be a
wall separating me from the rest of the world, and coming to Tokyo the wall got higher. (…)
You’re in a closed-off space and it affects you emotionally. I started to have a phobia about being

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

with people" (318-319), says one of the cult-members to Murakami, echoing the feeling of many
of Murakami`s characters, and at the same time coinciding with his metaphoric use of walls, too.
Many of the cult-members were extremely intelligent individuals, and in spite of their sense of
individuality they renounced the society and committed themselves completely to Aum Shinrikyo,
"because the world outside seemed without value" (309).
Murakami`s characters are not that extreme, but usually they encounter a strong authority.
Noboru Watanabe is such an authority, representing a person akin to Asahara Shoko, the leader of
Aum Shinrikyo. The difference between the cult-members, who without scruples committed
crimes against ordinary Japanese, and Murakami`s protagonists, is the latter’s ability to maintain a
sense of self-control and "moral superiority" (Stretcher, 27).

No, what scares me is how easily, how uncritically, people will believe the crap that slimes
like Aoki deal out. How these types produce nothing themselves, don't have an idea in the
world, and talk so nice, how this slime can sway gullible types to any opinion and get them
to perform on cue, as a group. And this group never entertains even a sliver of doubt that
they could be wrong. They think nothing of hurting someone, senselessly, permanently. They
don't take any responsibility for their action. Them. They're the real monsters. They're the
ones I have nightmares about. In those dreams, there's only the silence. And these faceless
people. Their silence seeps into everything like iced water. And then it all goes murky. And
I'm dissolving and I'm screaming, but no one hears. ( Elephant Vanishes, 305)
In this terrifyingly good short story Ozawa, a friend of the narrator, who just listens to him,
introduces us to a childhood story. (4) Ozawa tells a sorrowful story from his schooldays, where he
once punched Aoki, a guy in his school. Ozawa was just another outsider, a boy who kept to
himself, and never got any attention in school. He got by academically and was by no means
stupid, but he just did not have any interest in the pursuit of the highest grades. The school's most
popular and best student, Aoki, makes Ozawa sick. Everyone obeys his orders and flocks around
him, ready to be manipulated by him. Ozawa finds it strange that he is the only one who realizes
this. In spite of himself, Osawa studies really hard for an English exam and gets the highest marks,
and everyone is surprised. Then, Aoki puts out a rumor that Ozawa cheated and when Ozawa
confronts him with this rumor he ends up punching him, but he regrets his aggressiveness
immediately. From that day on Osawa becomes the target of Aoki`s dirty tricks and manipulation.
Everyone in school starts to ignore Osawa as if he does not exist. It continues for months and
culminates in an unpleasant suspicion that Osawa has been harassing a student who commits
suicide. The police interrogate Osawa and he realizes that all this is the sinister work of Aoki. Still,
as a grown-up, Osawa admits to the narrator that he is still marked by these terrible months of
psychological terror from his school days.
The character of Aoki is recognizable in many of Murakami`s stories. Noburu Wataya in
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the same type. He is a powerful and intelligent person, who
manipulates his surroundings to his liking. In the novel he causes Toru much distress, yet he is also
an important clue to recovering Toru`s lost wife Kumiko. A character who represents an Orwellian
Big Brother-figure (5), an omniscient, powerful person who can control and destroy the outsiders
that Murakami`s protagonists are. Protagonists such as Osawa and Toru seem to be the only ones
who can call Aoki/Noboru`s bluff and see the lack of substance in their characters. Aoki and
Noboru are symbols of the old hierarchical order in Japanese society, where people were expected
to obey and respect the intelligent and smart, the elder and the wise. Without any critical sense,
people willingly follow leaders, as historically seen in Japanese soldiers` behavior in the Second
World War. The Aokis and the Noborus are present in all societies, and are not peculiar to Japan,
but Murakami suggests that people in Japan have had an inclination to believe and respect in these

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

authorities more than in other societies. A lack of individual confidence has obstructed the growth
of individual autonomy and integrity. I think Murakami highlights problems of modern Japanese
society, where a clash of cultures and values has led to a collective identity crisis.
Searching the Rubber Soul
We did away with the pre-war emperor system and put the Peace Constitution in its place.
And as a result we have, to be sure, come to live in an efficient, rational world based on the
ideology of a modern civil society, and that efficiency has brought about an almost
overwhelming prosperity in our society. Yet, I (and perhaps many others) can’t seem to
escape the suspicion that even now, in many areas of society, we are being peacefully and
quietly obliterated as nameless articles of consumption. We go on believing that we live in
the so-called free “civil state” we call “Japan” with our fundamental human rights
guaranteed, but is this truly the case? Peel back a layer of skin, and what do we find
breathing and pulsating there but the same old sealed national system or ideology.
(Quoted in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, 224)
Murakami said this in an interview in 1994, and he may have used the horrible skinning of
the spy Yamamoto in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle as a metaphor for this. Murakami`s works
dissect Japanese society through symbolism and magical realism, but ultimately his protagonists
are living in a society where they cannot find a place for themselves. Characters often have to go
beyond their ordinary perception of things and in their search for their "core identity" or "black
box", (the latter being a metaphor Murakami has taken from airplane accidents) they face the
Other. This Other exists in a place beyond time and space. History and memory are important
means for the characters to look, as we see in both A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird
Chronicle. The latter, being a novel that, in essence, "begins as a domestic drama surrounding the
disappearance of a couple’s cat, then transports us to the Mongolian desert, and ends by taking on
political and supernatural evil on a grand scale" (Rubin, 2002, 205) shows us the interrelations
between the personal, the national and the historical in the search for identity.
Nutmeg, a female character who "saves" Toru Okada in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by
giving him money so he can buy the property, where the well that he needs in order to access this
other world exists, also offers him a job. Shrouded in mystique in the narrative, it appears that
Nutmeg has hired Toru to help women in a "fitting room" to gain an equibilibrium, or balance of
some significance, in their life after they have suffered some kind of "defilement". They reach this
balance by touching a mark Toru has had on his cheek ever since he passed through the wall in the
well the first time, (as quoted in the introduction of this essay). Nutmeg`s son, the twenty-year old
Cinnamon, is the irreplaceable backbone in this "operation". He is mute, due to a terrifying
experience when he was six, but extremely neat and thorough in his work. His computer contains
stories, entitled "The Wind-up Bird Chronicles 1-16," in which Toru gets access to one of them
(by convenient and important help from Cinnamon?), namely, "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle No.
8". This story tells of Cinnamon`s grandfather, who was a veterinarian with the Imperial Army in
Manchuria and was stationed in a zoo there. Toru reads the story with great interest, but perhaps
with some skepticism. The reason for this is that he cannot really understand why Cinnamon wrote
these kinds of stories, and Toru questions the reliability of the historical facts in them.

I had no way of telling how much of the story was true. Was every bit of it Cinnamon`s
creation, or were parts of it based on actual events? (…) I would probably have to read all
sixteen stories to find the answers to my questions, but even after a single reading of #8, I
had some vague idea, however vague, of what Cinnamon was looking for in his writing. He

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

was engaged in a serious search for the meaning of his existence. And he was hoping to find
it by looking into events that had preceded his own birth.
(The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, 524-525)

In order to find his identity, or "black box", Cinnamon needs to look back into the history
to find some reference points and perhaps answers. This is also true of the main character, Toru,
who felt he did not know his wife after all those years of married life. Toru and Cinnamon are both
on a lonely quest to find themselves and their identity.
Modern Japanese society, or other modern societies for that matter, is plagued by
impersonality and anonymity. Loneliness, (Murakami`s characters are usually intensely lonely men,
although many of them try to play it cool!), passivity and apathy are all prominent features that
Murakami highlights as ills of society.
Paperback Writer: Conclusion
Me, I’ve seen 45 years, and I’ve only figured out one thing. That’s this: if a person would
just make the effort, there’s something to be learned from everything. From even the most
ordinary, commonplace things, there’s always something you can learn. I read somewhere
that they say there’s even different philosophies in razors. Fact is, if it weren’t for that,
nobody survives.
(A Wild Sheep Chase, 88)

Murakami Haruki may be unconventional in his style, his jazzy, cool way of phrasing things. He
may even be heavily influenced by Western culture. The Chinese bar owner J. in the "jazzy" A Wild
Sheep Chase has only realized one thing in his 45 years: there is something to learn from
everything, even razor blades. Mark Morris may call Murakami "consumable nostalgia," and
Masao Miyoshi, another critic of Murakami, may regard him "as a cynical entrepreneur who never
wrote a word out of any such old-fashioned motives as inspiration or inner impulse" (Rubin, 2002,

Nevertheless, I beg to differ. I think Murakami Haruki is in fact writing words out of "such
old-fashioned motives as inspiration or inner impulse". This is exactly what he is doing. From his
earliest works up to the latest after the quake (Harvill, 2002), a collection of short stories
surrounding the devastating Kobe earthquake in 1995, Murakami does take his responsibility as an
author seriously. He examines Japanese society, although he may do so in an unconventional way.
Japan is not what it used to be. Globalization has changed "old" Japan. The McDonalds restaurant
in "The Second Bakery Attack" represent this globalization and how it has affected and changed
Japanese society as much as the rest of the world. Pop culture references in Murakami`s works
have decreased in later years, and his later works exemplify his need to "know more about his own
country" (Rubin, 2002, 237).

"I write weird stories", says Murakami in an interview with Laura Miller on the question
why his novels sometimes get very metaphysical. His use of magic realism, strange symbolism and
surrealism is his way of uncovering the ills and flaws of modern Japanese society. "When I’m
getting more and more serious, I’m getting more and more weird," claims Murakami in the same
interview. He highlights the loneliness many people feel in modern society, and this is what makes
his literature not "consumable nostalgia", but important and relevant, and also entertaining at the
same time. The reader can relate to his protagonists and their search for meaning in an often

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

confusing and disturbing reality, just like Aum Shinrikyo cult members, as Murakami writes in his
epilogue to Underground, "The Place That Was Promised":

Maybe they think about things a little too seriously. Perhaps there’s some pain they’re
carrying around inside. They’re not good at making their feelings known to others and are
somewhat troubled. They can’t find a suitable means to express themselves, and bounce
back and forth between feelings of pride and inadequacy. That might very well be me. It
might be you. (364)

(1) Other novels where wells are of great importance include Norwegian Wood and Sputnik
Sweetheart. The latter includes a whole Greek island's worth of wells, searched for by one of the
novel's missing persons.

(2) Yet another example that shows how important this division between light and darkness, body
and shadow, "being" and "non-being" is in Murakami`s writing is seen in Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and The End of The World. In The End of the World-sections of this novel, there exists a
gatekeeper, who guards a walled town, which resembles a huge well. This gatekeeper cuts off
citizens` shadows at the ankles, and then they have to go on living within the high city walls
without their shadows. Murakami received the prestigious Tanizaki Prize for this work, and Oe
Kenzaburo compared it to Tanizaki`s famous essay “In Praise of Shadows”, suggesting "that an
aesthetic link could be made between Murakami and Tanizaki" (Rubin, 2002, 114).

(3) Noboru Watanabe resembles Toru Okada`s brother-in law, Noboru Wataya, in The Wind-up
Bird Chronicle, where he is a rising politician with great power and ability to manipulate his
surroundings to his benefit. Murakami`s choice of name, Noboru, is intentional as the Japanese
verb "noboru" means "to climb". (The name Noboru Watanabe is in fact the name of one of
Murakami`s closest friends, and an in-joke in his novels and short stories! The Noboru-character
in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle differs in name from the usual Noboru Watanabe: his last name is
Wataya, because Murakami did not want to hint at any resemblance between his friend and evil
personified.) The same powerful manipulation, as Noboru Watanabe is capable of in The Wind-up
Bird Chronicle, is seen in the character of the Boss in A Wild Sheep Chase.

(4) Murakami`s protagonists are remarkably good listeners and stories told by third persons are
plentiful in Murakami`s work, as seen in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. "Not
surprisingly in a literature so full of music and storytelling, ears play an important role.
Murakami`s characters take extraordinarily good care of their ears. They can clean them almost
obsessively so as to keep in tune with the unpredictable, shifting music of life" (Rubin, 2002, 3).

(5) Room 208 in the nightmare-like hotel in Toru`s mind, is, as Rubin reminds us, "reminiscent of
Room 101, the repository of every person’s greatest fear, in George Orwell`s 1984" (Rubin, 2002,
209), and the resemblance may not be accidental at all.

Morten Oddvik, Independent Study, Waseda University, Tokyo, Spring 2002

Murakami Haruki
Sputnik Sweetheart (trans. Philip Gabriel), The Harvill Press, London, 2001
South of the Border, West of the Sun (trans. Philip Gabriel), Knopf, New York, 1999
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (trans. Jay Rubin), The Harvill Press, London, 1999
The Elephant Vanishes (trans. Jay Rubin & Alfred Birnbaum), The Harvill Press, London,
Underground (trans. Alfred Birnbaum & Philip Gabriel), Vintage International, New York,
Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (trans. Alfred Birnbaum), Kodansha
International, Tokyo, 1991
A Wild Sheep Chase (trans. Alfred Birnbaum), Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1989

Secondary literature
Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. London: Harvill Press, 2002
Strecher, Matthew C. Haruki Murakami`s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle A reader`s Guide.
New York: Continuum, 2002

Interviews and articles

Rubin, Jay. «Murakami Haruki 1949-», Modern Japanese Writers, Jay Rubin ed., New York:
Charles Scribner`s Sons, 2001
French, Howard W. «A Japanese Writer Analyzes Terrorists and their Victims», The New York
Times, Oct.15, 2001
Rubin, Jay. «Murakami Haruki`s Two Poor Aunts Tell Everything They Know About Sheep,
Wells, Unicorns, Proust, Elephants, and Magpies», Oe and beyond, Philip Gabriel et. al.,
Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999
Strecher, Matthew C. «Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami
Haruki», Journal of Japanese Studies, 25:2, Summer 1999
Miller, Laura. «Haruki Murakami on the darkness of the subconscious, the Aum cult subway
gas attack and being an individualist in Japan», Salon, Dec. 16, 1997
Morris, Mark. «Japan», The Oxford Guide to Contemporary Writing, John Sturdock ed.,
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
Rubin, Jay. «The Other World of Murakami Haruki», Japan Quarterly, 39:4, Oct.-Dec., 1992