Haruki Murakami awarded with Berkeley Japan PrizeHaruki Murakami (right) is “the most widely read non-English writer in the world,” said Duncan Williams (left), chair of the campus Center for Japanese Studies. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

What Haruki Murakami talks about when he talks about writing

Popular Japanese author is awarded the first Berkeley Japan Prize during campus visit

| 15 October 2008

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, whose books have been translated into close to 40 languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese, received the inaugural Berkeley Japan Prize last Friday in a ceremony at Doe Library’s Morrison Library. The location was especially apt, because the author’s books are among the most frequently checked out at the Morrison.

Duncan Williams, chair of the Center for Japanese Studies and associate professor of Japanese Buddhism, said the prize “was initiated to honor individuals from all disciplines and professions who through their work have shown a commitment to deepening and furthering our understanding of Japan on a global level.” Williams said Murakami has helped “question old perceptions of Japan as ‘the mysterious other.’ ”

Among those attending the event were the consul general of Japan in San Francisco, Yasumasa Nagamine; Peter Zhou, head of the campus’s C.V. Starr East Asian Library; Jay Rubin, a professor of Japanese humanities at Harvard, who has translated many of Murakami’s works; Neil Henry, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism; and Professor Bharati Mukherjee and Lecturer Clark Blaise of the Department of English.

In accepting the prize, Murakami called himself “just a guy writing way-out novels.” And in fact, in person he manages to come across as the everyman he portrays in such works as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood.

Murakami leavens his stories with Western pop-culture references. His characters engage in mundane activities like cooking and ironing. He introduces jarring elements to alter his characters’ lives, skewing reality and upending their worlds, to illustrate his recurrent themes of alienation and loneliness.

Baseball, beer, and insight

Earlier in the day, Murakami answered questions from students in two Japanese-studies classes who are reading his work this semester. When asked about the revelation that led him to writing at age 29, the author described watching his favorite baseball team, the Yakult Swallows, in 1978. An American player on the team, Dave Hilton, hit a double, and as Murakami cryptically explained it, “On that sunny day drinking beer, I just knew I could write.” Soon thereafter he submitted his first short novel, Hear the Wind Sing, to a publisher, and saw it win the Gunzou Literature Prize for promising young writers in 1979.

He wrote his first novel’s opening pages in English, then translated them to Japanese “to get the rhythm. If your sentences don’t have the right rhythm, no one will read them,” he says.

Back then, music figured prominently in Murakami’s daily life — he ran a jazz club in Tokyo for seven years after college, and to this day is an obsessive collector of jazz and rock records. After a quiet, middle-class childhood in the Kobe suburbs, his 20s were “a very hard time” that gave him material from which to draw. “I knew I had something to write,” he told the students. “Intellectual people, smart people, don’t have to write. It takes time. But I have to write to know what I am and what I think.”

On Saturday night, Murakami appeared before a sold-out crowd in Zellerbach Hall with Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica and a Tokyo University lecturer, as part of Cal Performances’ Strictly Speaking series. Murakami first read an early short story, “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” in which his narrator enters a baking contest at a company that wants to extend its market share to younger consumers. While the preliminary judges of the contest enjoy his confections, the final arbiters, whom Murakami depicts as old crows, reject his efforts. Kelts suggested that the story serves as a parable for Murakami’s reception in Japan following the publication of his first novel.

Although readers have embraced his books from the start, Murakami recalled, he was branded as a punk, con man, and swindler after the publication of Hear the Wind Sing. “Some critics and other writers don’t like me — hated me — because I was different,” said Murakami. “Being different is difficult in Japan.”

Stepping into the darkness

Murakami leads an extremely disciplined life, which he discusses in a new nonfiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008). At 59, he has run 27 marathons. His running balances out the rigor of his writing life, which involves going to bed each night by 10 p.m., then rising between 4 and 5 a.m. and sitting in the quiet, early morning to “wait to catch what’s coming.” His writing process requires “stepping into the darkness,” where he observes, remembers, and writes down what he sees. His early books, he said, originated in an individual darkness, while his later works tap into the darkness found in society and history.

Murakami’s fictional world is a lonely one where characters don’t have relationships, said Kelts. “At least they have their obsessions,” answered Murakami. “Obsessions can help people survive this intense loneliness,” he said, naming some of his own — ears, refrigerators, cats, sofas, elephants, beer, and collecting records.

One of Murakami’s darkest adventures occurred when he returned to Japan from a five-year stint in America. This was in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake and subsequent Tokyo subway attack, in which lethal sarin gas was released into packed cars by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Murakami interviewed 65 people affected by the subway attacks — including the attackers — to produce the nonfiction book Underground (2001). The victims — mostly commuting workers — told boring stories, he said. But, he added, “if you try hard to listen, to like them, to love them, then their stories become interesting. Everyone has his own story.”