An Author's Midlife Search for Self and Nation

Haruki Murakami, Japan's most famous expatriate novelist, comes home

Adults all over the world should be able to sympathize with post-World War II Japan. It is well into middle age, but it hasn't really figured out what it wants to be when it grows up. The country is in a midlife crisis that even a red sports car can't fix.

One measure of the severity of Japan's national ennui is that its most famous expatriate novelist has come home to see if he can help. This is a man who found Japanese society "suffocating" and left for freer climates more than seven years ago. Now back in Tokyo, he has decided that "this is the time for me to do something."

Haruki Murakami is the kind of writer that critics call "important" - his work is serious and also manages to sell well. His novels and stories have been especially popular among young people, not just here but also abroad.

He has a new work in Japanese bookstores, a volume of nonfiction about the March 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system. Called "Underground," the book is a collection of interviews, mainly with those who were injured in the incident. Later this year his most recent novel, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," will appear in English in the US.

Pasta and Rossini

Mr. Murakami's characters, culturally at least, are citizens of the world. They may be Japanese, but they are forever cooking pasta while listening to Rossini, or comparing themselves to lonely figures in a De Chirico painting, or rereading "Anna Karenina." They buy lederhosen, find Sly and the Family Stone good music for a windy Sunday afternoon, and watch American movies more often than Japanese ones.

These characters remove themselves from Japan, in spirit if not in body. They are a disaffected lot, wan in temperament though devoted to their petty luxuries, who often find themselves in the grip of machinations and motivations beyond their control.

But his two new works represent a coming to terms with Japan. Researching "Underground" brought Murakami into close proximity with the sort of Japanese that his characters typically hold in contempt - workers who devote themselves to career and company.

"I found they are not boring. That was a big surprise to me," he says in his deep voice. The comment sounds condescending, but Murakami's eyes are full of unblinking sincerity. "I got the impression that this society was made up with their stories."

The book is full of his surprise: over the arduous commutes that Japanese workers endure; over the kind of company loyalty that caused many to insist on struggling into the office even after the gas attack - over the shoulder-shrugging attitude behind the most common explanation for the incident, "bad luck."

Murakami writes that the victims are angry with the religious group responsible for the attack, but seem to view the event as if it were an earthquake, something terrible for which no one is responsible.

Latest novel's politics

"The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," by contrast, is a book about taking responsibility. An unemployed paralegal named Toru Okada finds, in the midst of his listless but comfortable existence, that his wife has left him. In the course of discovering what has happened to her, he does a lot of waiting, meets people with unusual powers, and develops some of his own. Then he engages in bitter psychological combat with a politician who stands as a symbol for "chaotic violence" or "violent chaos" - Murakami uses both terms in an interview - the dark, evil force most routinely displayed in war.

For a Murakami book, this novel is uncommonly political and uncommonly concerned with Japanese history, particularly the takeover of Manchuria before World War II. At one point Okada ruminates on the web of connections that have emerged around him and his wife: "All of these were linked as in a circle, at the center of which stood prewar Manchuria, the Chinese continent, and the short war in Nomonhan of 1939. But why Kumiko and I should have been drawn into this historical chain of cause and effect, I could not comprehend. All of these events had occurred long before Kumiko and I were born."

Most Japanese born after World War II, it seems safe to say, cannot comprehend what, if anything, connects them to their country's history.

Murakami wrote the book after the Gulf War, an embarrassing time for Japan. The government, after long bouts of indecision, finally said it couldn't contribute troops to the multinational force gathered to oppose Saddam Hussein, even though Japan was and is thoroughly dependent on Middle Eastern oil.

For Murakami and others, it was a time of realizing that Japan's idealistic and pacifist Constitution, which renounces force as a means of settling international disputes, was "not realistic."

Japan's identity crisis

Ever since the Gulf war, Japan's identity crisis has deepened. The debate over the country's military posture - it is closely dependent on the US, which is pushing Japan to be more outgoing - percolates without resolution. Pacifism has its appeal, but no articulate spokesman. The proponents of "realism" - shorthand for abandoning pacifism - are more articulate but lack popular support.

No one knows what sort of country Japan should be. "If we continue with this kind of state," says Murakami, "nobody [will] understand what we are doing, what we are saying, what we are talking about, what we are looking for." Despite its muddled politics Japan's cultural world is freer than ever. "We are more independent," he says of his generation of writers.

While living in Europe and the US, he says, he discovered that it isn't enough just to be independent. "What is important is beyond that point ... you have to do something as an independent person." Japan's confusion, the nerve-gas terrorism, even the Kobe earthquake have brought him back to this country, despite its oppressive social systems and pervasive rigidities.

He doesn't come right out and say it, but he seems to think it is up to him and other artists to define some principles that can provide Japan with a workable identity. "I think there is another way to solve this problem. It's not an idealistic way; it's not a realistic way," he says. It's something in between, perhaps, but at any rate very much a work in progress.

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