Asia Life

Haruki Murakami Speaks in Kyoto, Deepens Spell on Japan

Haruki Murakami’s hold on Japan’s imagination is stronger than ever.

This Monday in Kyoto, a very rare thing happened. Reclusive literary luminary Haruki Murakami appeared before a select audience at Kyoto University to discuss the process of writing his new blockbuster novel, Shikisai wo Motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to Kare no Junrei no Toshi (translated as Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Year of His Pilgrimage).

Kitted out in a short-sleeve blue plaid shirt, salmon-pink trousers and blue sneakers, the publicity-shy author was making his first public appearance in his home country since doing book readings to lift peoples’ spirits after the Great Hanshin earthquake rocked Kobe in 1995.

On Monday, he delivered a speech, “Observe soul, write soul,” as part of a program to launch a literary prize that commemorates his late friend and clinical psychologist Hayao Kawai, considered the father of Japanese analytical and clinical psychology.

“I want you to think of me like an endangered species,” he said before the gathering of about 500 fans whose numbers were kept under control through a lottery system. They submitted some 1,500 questions, of which Murakami handled a select few on varied topics like baseball, jogging, translation and beer. “It's fine to look at me from far away, but be careful because I may bite if you come near and talk to me or touch me.”

Given the heights of the fame he has achieved, blending in does not come easy for Murakami. Nearly a month now since its media-hyped release, readers continue to snatch copies of Colorless Tsukuru from bookstore shelves. Some estimates put ongoing sales of the tome at one million per week.

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“We haven’t run out of stock yet, but that’s only because we have placed such large orders for the book,” a staff member at Daikanyama’s Tsutaya Books in Tokyo told The Diplomat, adding that exact numbers could not be revealed. “Lots of people come in every day asking about the book and sales haven’t slowed down.”

It doesn’t stop at book sales. Following the release of the new novel, an attendant spike in classical music sales has been observed. Murakami’s novels are known to contain heavy references to music of all kinds – jazz, rock, blues – but the title of his current volume is a direct homage to the “Years of Pilgrimage” by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.

In particular, the book gives a vivid description of Liszt’s piece as performed by Russian pianist Lazar Berman. Indeed, Murakami’s works are rife with references to classical music (a complete list of symphonies and songs referenced in his works with page numbers; a YouTube channel for dedicated fans).

“Many people have come in daily looking for the Berman CD,” a staff member of Tsutaya Books with expertise in jazz and classical music told The Diplomat. “They usually don’t know much about the music before they come in.”

While Murakami’s musical references are well-known, the Tsutaya music guru explained that it has only been since the launch of the Colorless Tsukuru that people have come in droves to purchase copies of Liszt. “They are only interested because Murakami likes and writes about the music,” he added.

With such sales figures and influence, it would seem very difficult for the 64-year-old marathon runner (see this piece he wrote in the wake of the Boston bombings) to get much peace and quiet, which is precisely his reason for avoiding the limelight. Revered as a literary translator and often mentioned as a Nobel contender, Murakami is known to make appearances overseas, but in Japan he keeps a low profile. At the recent event in Kyoto, his birth place, recording and filming was prohibited.

“It's not like I get purple dots all over myself when I am in front of many people,” he joked in his speech on Monday. “I like to go around on the bus and the subway and live a normal life.”

As it turns out, the joke was appropriate to the subject of his new novel, which is decidedly normal by Murakami standards. There are no psychic prostitutes, talking cats, dancing dwarves or descents into subterranean worlds. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Year of His Pilgrimage, he told the crowd, the novel is deeply rooted in reality – perhaps reflecting his more classically realist American literary influences like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler.

"Usually things are divided into the real and unreal, but I was wondering how it will be if I bring all of that into the stage of the real world," Murakami said. "People get hurt and close their minds, but as time passes, they gradually open up, and they grow as they repeat that. This novel is about growth."

The tale revolves around a lonely 36-year-old engineer named Tsukuru Tazaki who sets off on a journey that takes him across Japan and, interestingly, Finland, where he seeks to overcome lingering pain left by friends – two boys, two girls – who had rejected him 16 years before. Along his quest, Tsukuru picks up the pieces and starts life anew.

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"I can understand how painful it is to be rejected," Murakami said. "When you get hurt, you may build an emotional wall around your heart. But after a while you can stand up and move on. That's the kind of story I wanted to write."

“At the beginning, I was planning to write something allusive, as in my past works,” he continued. “But this time I developed a great interest in expanding on real people. Then the characters started to act on their own. I was intrigued by the relationships between people… If a reader sympathizes with my story, then there is a network of empathy.”