HARUKI MURAKAMI is a man uncomfortable with success. He is a self-professed refugee from the 1960s, the former owner of a jazz club named after his cat. Now he's a best-selling novelist. His books have become a publishing phenomenon here, selling in the millions of copies.
``It's difficult to live naturally, especially if you have money,'' says Mr. Murakami during a rare interview. He still dresses like a college student in jeans, a yellow sweater and a tweed jacket. ``Sometimes I feel strange. If want to buy a Mercedes, I can. I can't believe it.''
In his eight novels (one unpublished), as well as in his life, Mr. Murakami expresses an alienation from the images of wealth and power associated with modern Japan. With his wife, he fled Japan for Italy three years ago, and talks of how ``things I cannot understand [about Japan] have been increasing'' - its domestic policies, the controversy over Emperor Hirohito's role in World War II. He lives outside the tightly woven social structure, the enclosed and supportive world of the mura (village), and its extensions into family and company.
Mr. Murakami's fictional world is populated by rootless individuals, inhabitants of apartment blocks in giant Tokyo who have none of the group affiliations seemingly essential to Japanese life. The nameless narrator of all his books is a college student during the turbulent 1960s. In Japan, as in America, that was a time of anti-war protest, rock and roll, and a search for identity. He wanders from job to job as a writer or translator, searching for meaning in love affairs and small moments of revelation.
The 40-year-old writer is openly nostalgic for those earlier days. ``What happened in the 1960s was special to our generation,'' he recalls. ``There was an idealism in the 1960s but it has disappeared. Now,'' he laments, ``the rules of the game have changed,'' replaced by Japan's relentless search for affluence. ``In the 1960s, my friends were all poor. But those people are now riding in BMWs and Mercedes - with telephones in the car.''
Mr. Murakami is distressed by a younger generation - Japan's own ``me generation'' - where girls choose their boyfriends by the car they drive. In the old days, ``everyone was poor, and loving somebody was a treasure, a way to kill time, everything. Things were simpler. It's getting more difficult to love somebody purely. You can get almost everything with money.''
His writings contain a message for that generation, he says. He sets out ``some kind of guidelines'' as to what is important in life. He starts with small things - ``as if to pile up stones'' - such as his detailed descriptions of men cooking their own meals (women do the vast majority of at-home cooking in Japan), of going to work in scuffed desert boots, of thoughts transported by old Beatles songs or jazz tunes.
Murakami does not, however, claim a moralistic stance. In his latest novel, ``Dance, Dance, Dance,'' the narrator, in his mid-30s, converses at length with a 13-year-old girl on what they should eat, the value of going to school, and of life. ``The narrator is an incomplete person and so is the girl - they are thinking together,'' he comments.
WHEN Mr. Murakami started writing a decade ago, his following was mostly in his own generation. But it has grown to striking proportions among youth. ``Norwegian Wood'' has sold more than 2 million copies since it was published in 1987. ``Dance, Dance, Dance'' has already sold more than half a million since its release a few months ago.
In the ``100 percent pure love story,'' as the author describes ``Norwegian Wood,'' the narrator recalls his college love for Naoko, a beautiful girl troubled by an inability to express herself. A mental breakdown sends her to a sanitarium, where he follows her. The novel was timely, says Makoto Tanno, a professor of modern literature at Sophia University, because it coincides with a backlash among youth against careerism and materialism.
``It used to be old-fashioned to discuss pure love,'' says Professor Tanno. ``Now working women say they want both career and family. The whole society has come to realize that love is still the basis of human beings.''
For teen-agers, Mr. Murakami's writing has appeal because of its cool, unsentimental feeling, Tanno suggests. ``Young peoples' relationships are weak,'' the professor says. ``They avoid getting too close to someone for fear of hurting each other. In his love story also, some kind of wall exists at a certain point.'' The stories are often depressing, haunted by the suicides of '60s people unable to adjust to change. But they are sweetened by his humor and a touch of surreal fantasy.
Murakami traces his literary roots to modern American authors - to favorites such as John Irving, Richard Brautigan, and F.Scott Fitzgerald. He says he's addicted to the hard-boiled detective tales of Raymond Chandler. Murakami's love for this writing led him to a job translating many of these authors' works into Japanese, something he still does.
He feels no link to the names most associated with modern Japanese prose - Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata and the controversial Yukio Mishima. ``For them,'' he says, ``literature was some kind of religion. But for my generation ... it's only a story.''
Murakami says the time will come when Japanese contemporary novels are read throughout the world. Two of his early novels have been published in English translation in limited editions within Japan - primarily as an aid to learning English. But Kodansha International plans a fall release in the US of his book, ``A Wild Sheep Chase,'' first published in 1982, followed next year by ``Norwegian Wood.'' Through such stories, Murakami hopes, foreigners will come to understand that there is another Japan struggling to establish its identity. ``My country has money but does not possess anything else,'' he says with disdain. ``I want Japan to become a country which others respect.''
Painfully shy, Murakami avoids the ever-pursuing glare of television, consenting only to a rare interview during occasional visits home. But he told the Monitor he will resettle in Japan this fall. ``I have to settle down. I can't escape for the rest of my life.'' A MURAKAMI SAMPLE
This excerpt is from Haruki Murakami's novel ``Pinball, 1973,'' translated by Alfred Birnbaum but not widely available outside Japan. The narrator is sitting in a Tokyo coffee shop.
AS the street lamps around the bus terminal began to flicker on in the twilight, buses slid back and forth between the lights like giant trout navigating a current. Each bus filled with commuter types and students and housewives; each disappeared into the gloom. A middle-aged woman dragged the dark shape of a German shepherd past the window. School kids went by bouncing a rubber ball.
I put out my fifth cigarette, and took one last sip of cold coffee. Then I took a good, hard look at my reflection in the glass. Maybe it was the fever, but my eyes looked shot. Well Okay, we'll disregard that. A five-thirty shadow darkened my face. What say we let that pass, too. The point is, it didn't even look like my face. It was the face of any twenty-four-year-old guy who might have been sitting across the way on the commuter train. My face, my self, what would they mean to anybody? Just another stiff.
So this self of mine passes some other's self on the street - what do we have to say to each other? Hey there! Hi ya! That's about it. Nobody raises a hand. No one turns around to take another look. Maybe if I put gardenias in both ears, or wore flippers over both hands, somebody might take a second look. But that'd be it. They'd put it all behind them after three steps. Their eyes not looking at anything. Nor my eyes. I felt emptied out, a blank. Would I ever again have anything to give to anyone?