Haruki Murakami doesn't much go in for metaphors, but even he wouldn't deny the aptness and symbolism of the moment when he decided he would write his first novel. It was April 1978 and Murakami was in the stands at Tokyo's Meiji-Jingu Stadium, watching a baseball game, beer in hand. He was verging on 30, and nearly a decade into running a jazz café with his wife Yoko. A journeyman American batter named Dave Hilton came to the plate for the Yakult Swallows, stroked the first pitch into left field, and safely reached second base. As he watched the batter swing at the ball, "I just felt all of a sudden that I could write," Murakami says, sitting today in his Tokyo office, a light jog away from the stadium.
Murakami's first novel, Hear the Wind Sing — with its title taken from a Truman Capote short story and featuring Beach Boys lyrics on the back cover — would be published within a year of his revelation. That such a moment came while watching an American athlete play an imported game is entirely in keeping with a man whose work — at least in its early stages — was not shaped by Japanese literature, but by the secondhand foreign paperbacks he read growing up near the port of Kobe, and the jazz and rock he absorbed as a student in Tokyo. Long before his self-imposed exile overseas, to avoid the crush of his celebrity in Japan, Murakami was an expatriate in his mind. "His work referenced not classic Japanese culture but pop culture, mainly from the U.S.," says Motoyuki Shibata, a professor of American literature at Tokyo University who has known Murakami for years. "He could create great literature with it."
Murakami has been embraced abroad as no other Japanese writer has. His books have been translated into about 40 languages. (In Japan, where Murakami is also regarded as an accomplished translator of American literature, the flow is neatly reversed: his recent rendering of The Great Gatsby sat atop the best-seller list for seven weeks.) Last October in Prague, he was awarded the prestigious Kafka Prize, dedicated to authors whose work "addresses the readers regardless of their origin, nationality and culture." It's difficult to imagine a better recipient than Murakami, who today splits his time between Tokyo and universities in the U.S. "The first [Murakami] story I translated for The New Yorker, they asked me to put in a Japanese reference at the top," says Philip Gabriel, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona. "He was so nonspecific to Japan that readers didn't realize where he was from."
A strong sense of otherness has always been in Murakami's nature. It began with his early preference for foreign novels (to the chagrin, one presumes, of his parents, who were both teachers of Japanese literature). It continues to this day in the deliberate distance he keeps from Japan's literary community, and in his abstemious mode of living. "Writers and artists are supposed to live a very unhealthy, bohemian kind of life," says Murakami. "But I just wanted to do it differently." So he rises at 4 a.m. to write for hours before swimming or running, training for marathons and lately triathlons as well. Murakami says he needs the exercise to keep up his stamina for the draining work of writing — the prolificacy of his output is legendary — but there's also an element of physical pleasure in his declaration that he weighs as much now, aged 58, as he did in his late 20s.
His themes and his audience have also kept him young. Ian Buruma writes that Murakami's fiction expresses "a general breaking away from family dependence, and the often lonely, fragmentary attempts by young people to choose their own way of living." You can tell that Murakami is quietly pleased by the kind of age-group such work attracts. "The sons and daughters of my friends are reading my books, and they call and ask if they can meet me," he says, bemused. "And they're surprised to discover the author is the same age as their parents!"
But as he approaches his 60th year, something is changing in Murakami's heart. His status as a truly global writer is assured — over 100,000 copies of the English version of his most recent novel, After Dark, have been printed since its release in May — but with the world conquered, and precocious undergraduates from Sydney to San Francisco at his feet, the postmodernist master dismisses the foreign adulation with a tired hand, and finds himself returning to the world of his parents and his birth. Despite the title — and a cameo appearance by Colonel Sanders of KFC fame — 2002's Kafka on the Shore was Murakami's most overtly Japanese novel yet, delving into the florid mysteries of Shinto. He continues his homeward orientation in After Dark, a slip of a novella that explores a single night in and around Tokyo's sleepless Shinjuku district.
The studied disconnection from the world that has made Murakami's early work so beloved of the fashionable literati — and the lonely young — has receded. In fact, responsibility is his animating principle these days. "I have a gift to write about these things," Murakami says of 1997's Underground, his oral history of the Tokyo subway gas attacks and a book he sees as a career turning point. "At the same time, I have a responsibility." Though he says he doesn't want to talk about Japanese politics, he returns to the subject again and again throughout a 212-hour conversation, bushy eyebrows bobbing as he worries about "politicians who rewrite history," and the growing tendency in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Japan to forget about wartime atrocities. Japanese history has always been in the background of his works — and his best novel, 1994's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, dissected the groupthink that led Japan into a catastrophic war — but now he wants to act. "Before, I wanted to be an expatriate writer," he admits. "But I am a Japanese writer. This is my soil and these are my roots. You cannot get away from your country." Though he offers no specifics, Murakami hints that his next novel will address Japanese nationalism.
Quite what his readers will think of Murakami's foray into the morass of contemporary Japanese politics remains to be seen. In his literature, and his life, he has made detachment an almost heroic pose. Murakami maintains that he hasn't changed. "I'm just the same way as before — independent," he says. "I am Japanese but still, I'll be myself." It is not an entirely convincing statement — but then there is nothing wrong with a politicized, compassionate and explicitly Japanese Murakami, especially if he puts his uncompromising self at the service of enlightened causes.
And it's that self that his fans — in any nation — will find themselves seeking out. Wherever Murakami moves as he continues his career — he says he plans on writing until 80 at least — expect his global readership to follow, even for reasons they can't quite articulate. Murakami, John Updike writes, "is a tender painter of negative spaces." Perhaps that ability to finger the ineffable is what finally explains his global appeal. "When I write fiction, I go down to the dark places," says Murakami. What could be more universal than the nameless stuff of our deepest dreams? Murakami doesn't illuminate the darkness — he lets symbols be — but with the company of his voice, we don't face it alone.
Eizo Matsumura, a photographer who has known Murakami since his jazz-club years, tells a story of that voice. Due to a hearing difficulty, Matsumura usually needs to read lips in conversation, except with close relatives and friends, but he can hear Murakami perfectly. "I don't know how to explain it," he says. "Maybe it's the vibrations, maybe it's something else." It almost seems too perfectly poetic, like something out of, well, a Murakami story, but the joy that rises in Matsumura's face can't be faked. "I can hear his voice," he says. "I always find it wondrous."With reporting by Yuki Oda and Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo