On the side of the egg

What does Haruki Murakami mean to the Japanese?

"If you cross those mountains," Mariko Matsuda says, "you enter a different reality." We are standing with our backs to Japan's Inland Sea and are looking at distant peaks. "An inland sea represents an inner world. Closed in. Oppressive. But beyond those mountains lies the Pacific. The vast, open view." For Matsuda, the mountain ridges between Takamatsu and Kochi to the south are a symbolic as well as a physical divide - between a Japan of stifling social conventions and the more individualistic world outside. They are also, she says, the "geographical embodiment" of the work of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

And that is why I have ventured to this anonymous seaside town. I want to find out what Murakami's work means to the Japanese, and to discover if his millions of readers in the west are missing something.

I meet another Murakami fan, Miki Suzuki, on the top floor of a Tokyo hotel. Murakami's style is unique in Japan, she says - short sentences, simple words. "With Murakami the story is complex, not the language. He forces you to think, to speculate. A lot of writers make you reach for a dictionary, but fail to challenge you on the level of substance."

Suzuki studied in France. As an import manager in the fashion world, she has to communicate with westerners every day. The Japanese, she says, are inflexible, afraid to make mistakes. Westerners are more relaxed and individualistic. For her, the main appeal of Murakami's work lies in the western influence. "For a long time, Murakami lived abroad," she says. "It shaped his personality and changed his lifestyle. He's a link between cultures."

The Tokyo bookseller Steve Kott agrees, and says that this is what makes Murakami one of the first truly post-national authors. The lanky American is the proprietor of Good Day Books in Shibuya, the neighbourhood that was the main location of After Dark (2004) and of a murder scene in Murakami's new novel, 1Q84. The main reason for the writer's popularity at home, Kott thinks, is the way Japanese society has started to catch up with the fictional world evoked in the novels. "He writes about rootless people, mostly freelancers, sometimes unemployed, with few friends and loose family ties. Un-Japanese individuals. Traditionally, this was a country where loyalty to an employer was absolute. The last couple of years, this has changed dramatically. Only now do the lives of his characters resemble those of a significant chunk of the populace."

Roland Nozomu Kelts, who teaches at the University of Tokyo, sees Murakami as a chronicler of metropolitan experience (most people in Japan live in big cities or conurbations). "He writes about the loneliness and the disasso­ciation of the megalopolis, but not from a distance. He writes without irony - quite refreshing for western readers, I think - and really feels for his characters. It makes his work warm and cold at the same time."

Kelts, the son of a Japanese mother and American father, divides his time between New York and Tokyo, knows Murakami personally and wrote about his work in his own Japanamerica (2006), a study of the global influence of Japanese pop culture. "The characters in his early novels are outsiders," he says. "They are pulled into the plot more or less by chance."

This is the experience of many Japanese, who see themselves as being at the mercy of shadowy powers. As Kelts explains, "I have friends that beg me to get the word out that Japan is not a democracy. The country is run by small cliques, nepotism is rife and elections are tainted by clientelism. There's no truly free press. The country has been designed to minimise input from the populace.

“Part of Murakami's appeal lies in his ability to tap into this - his appeal, I might add, inside and outside Japan. Because, in these matters, the world is sadly going the way of Japan."

To understand this further, I decide to follow in the footsteps of Kafka Tamura in Kafka on the Shore (2005) and take the night bus from Tokyo to Takamatsu. In Ritsurin Garden, possibly the most splendid park in Japan, I meet Aya Yagita, a graphic designer born and raised on the sleepy island of Shodoshima. She studied in Takamatsu and Palermo, Sicily, and now works for a cosmetics firm in Tokyo, but she returns to Takamatsu whenever she can to take a break rom city life. Her favourite novel by Mura­kami is the first one she read. "It gave me a funny feeling. I couldn't get things straight: I kept turning the book over in my mind, even dreamt of it. At first that didn't feel good at all - it even scared me - but now I just love it. He doesn't gloss over the darker side of things. I'm the worrying type, I think; maybe that's why I love his work."

Yagita's worries have everything to do with social and professional expectations. "We're working too hard, hardly getting a chance to enjoy life. In Italy, I had a lot of difficulty adjusting to a more relaxed way of life. Now I'm no longer compatible with the Japanese way." She wouldn't mind having the freedom of a Mura­kami character, but thinks "it's almost impossible to break out of the mould".

Another devotee, Mariko Matsuda, was born in 1949, the same year as the author, and like him was heavily involved in the student movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She ended up taking a mainstream job, but her husband remained an outsider. "He refused to get on the treadmill of the salarymen. After our first child was born he opened a small secondhand bookshop. With my money! But that was OK - at least one of us was true to our principles. Of course, my parents didn't like him one bit. They had arranged a different man for me, but I just said no."

Murakami's work has to be understood in the context of the student movement as it developed, she argues. The economic growth of the late 1970s and 1980s seemed to put an end to resistance, leaving behind only a small hard core. "The movement became very violent and started to resemble a sect," Matsuda says. "That was the moment I, like Murakami, walked away from it."

Ambivalence towards student radicalism is a prominent theme in 1Q84. "Murakami's involvement in the students' movement is ambiguous," Kelts argues. "On the one hand there is this deep love for American culture, while the movement was very much opposed to all things American. Later, many in his generation chose a bourgeois lifestyle. It left Murakami feeling betrayed and was an important factor in his decision to become a writer."

Murakami does not speak often in public, but in 2009, as he was receiving the Jerusalem Prize in Israel, he took sides with the downtrodden. "Between a high, solid wall and the egg that breaks against it, I will always be on the side of the egg," he declared.

Who doesn't recognise the feeling of being squashed by forces beyond one's control? Yet Murakami's work is not just about loneliness and anomie in the postmodern megalopolis. It is also about the search for meaningful contact and communication. And this, I suspect, may well be his most universal theme.

Auke Hulst is a Dutch writer and critic

This article first appeared in the 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban