What we talk about when we talk about Murakami

This really interesting article in Publishing Perspectives touched on something that I noted when I was in Asia last month: Murakami’s incredible influence on the cultural life and relations in between Asian countries.

His books were everywhere in Taipei: in bookstore windows, in people’s hands, on tables in cafes. I also noticed that whenever anyone mentioned jazz, they’d also mention whiskey. That’s a Murakami connection. People I spoke to knew his works, his short stories and his novels, and could speak about them with authority and in detail.

Many Westerners, though, are surprised to hear that in much of Asia, Murakami is not considered a “literary” writer at all and many pooh-pooh him as being a popular writer.

It’s significant that he’s not drinking green tea.

In Japan especially, the gap between high culture and pop culture is still very much pronounced though it’s slowly changing. Because of this, I think, serious writers and cultural workers tend to look askance at Murakami’s work, both for its content and for the language he uses (very intentional colloquial writing is what he has long been known for in Japan: one of my big gripes, in fact, is how translators try to mimic this when they translate him into English: Kafka on the Shore was, in my view, almost unreadable due to this issue).

Yet he’s a writer who has enormously broad appeal: in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and many other countries (not to mention Quebec: his books translated into French are probably some of the most commonly seen books on the metro).

Yet as the writer notes in the piece linked above, it’s ironic that though Murakami can bring Asian countries together to overcome all the complexities and tensions of past conflicts and current political wrangling, he writes very little about Asia as a whole. Certainly Japan is there but not as much as one might assume given that many of his works are set there.

This is precisely why many foreigners (meaning non-Japanese) and particularly Westerners like Murakami: he is like “Japan-light,” an easy writer to access for those interested in Japan or Asia but not willing to go the extra mile to really explore its literature, history or culture in any complex or subtle way.

Plus, he’s a decent storyteller and that means something, too…