Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami (born 1949) is an award-winning Japanese writer and novelist. His work has been translated into over forty languages. His stories follow fairly normal main characters who experience eccentric situations, romance, and coming-of-age transformations. He has developed an international following and has garnered critical acclaim for his writing and novels. Haruki Murakami is internationally popular because he writes about universally accessible subjects such as love, loss, detective novels, coming-of-age stories, and cats. He has also personally stated that his books appeal to people who are experiencing confusion in their life from political and cultural upheaval.1

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Table of contents

    Haruki Murakami: Facts

    • Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, on January 12, 1949.
    • Murakami used to run a coffee and jazz bar named Peter Cat with his wife Yoko in Tokyo from 1974 to 1981.
    • Norwegian Wood (1987) and Kafka on the Shore (2006) are two of his most famous books.
    • Murakami first started writing fiction when he was twenty-nine.
    • Murakami often incorporates western pop culture in his works.

    Haruki Murakami: Biography

    He spent most of his childhood in Kobe, the third-largest port city in Japan. Both of his parents taught Japanese literature. His father was drafted into the Second Sino-Japenese War and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Murakami remembers hearing distressing stories from his father as a child. This would lead to Murakami's outspoken criticism of Japan and expressing a desire for accountability for past war crimes.

    Haruki Murakami grew up heavily influenced by western culture. The allied victory terms in World War II led to the American military occupation of Japan. Consequently, western culture seeped into Japanese culture from stationed GIs. To this day, one can find English right next to Japanese text on storefronts, product brands, and names of television and films.

    Murakami listened to western music and read western authors. He became particularly interested in, though not limited to, jazz and hard-boiled crime novels. Two of his famous books, Norwegian Wood (1987) and Kafka on the Shore (2006), reference a Beatles song and the Czech author Franz Kafka, respectively. Many of Murakami's novels and short stories, like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), follow hard-boiled detectives solving crimes.

    Hard-boiled - detective stories that typically feature a corrupt, deceitful world with a rugged, street-smart protagonist.

    When Murakami was eighteen, he moved to Tokyo, Japan's capital, to attend Waseda University. It was a private institution, not affiliated with any other schools, and was known for accepting a range of students. His parents wanted him to study law. However, Murakami chose to set his sights on studying literature and passed the Literature department entrance exams at Waseda.

    According to Murakami, most students skipped a lot of classes, and he was no exception. He did, however, meet his future wife, Yoko, in their first class together. He made few friends and avoided student groups and organizations. He spent most of his time as a loner going to jazz clubs. Just a few years after graduating, Murakami opened a coffee and jazz bar named Peter Cat with his wife Yoko in Tokyo from 1974 to 1981.1

    Murakami really loves cats, so much so that he named his café after his cat Peter. Cats also appear in nearly all his novels.

    Murakami began writing when he was twenty-nine. He remembers having a defining moment while watching a baseball game. Suddenly he was struck with the urge to write. Working during the day at Peter Cat, he would go home to write at night.

    Haruki Murakami, portrait of author Haruki Murakami biography, StudySmarterHaruki Murakami introspects as a pastime. Wikimedia Commons

    For a stretch of nearly ten months, Haruki Murakami wrote and finished the manuscript of his first novel. Titled Hear the Wind Sing (1979), he submitted it to the only literary contest he believed would accept it, The Gunzo Newcomer Literary Award. He went on to win first prize in 1979 in the literary contest. He first published at age thirty.

    Haruki Murakami: Writing Style

    Murakami spans the science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction genres, with elements of magical realism. For example, his short story "The Seventh Man" (1996) recounts the main character's memory of his friend disappearing in a tsunami wave. He swears he remembers seeing his friend's spirit come back to him. Otherwise, the story plays out as something that could realistically happen.

    Murakami took up marathon running to balance out the sedentary nature of novel writing.

    Murakami has translated many western works into Japanese. His works are criticized by the Japanese for being "un-Japanese". Literary critics credit his international appeal to this. Murakami is fluent in English, so he writes stories with English-speaking audiences in mind. He intentionally writes with easier translation in mind. Also, much of his subject matter is familiar to Western audiences as he references many elements from pop culture, especially from America.

    Many Murakami books are written structurally in the Japanese "I-novel" form. This genre tends to be from the first-person perspective, with the main character narrating and addressing the reader directly in a confessional manner. In Japan, traditional culture is family-based. I-novels tend to follow independent characters with loosely connected families.

    Haruki Murakami, photo of two actors from Norwegian Wood film Haruki Murakami books, StudySmarterNorwegian Wood was adapted into a film starring Rinko Kikuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama as Naoko and Toru. Wikimedia Commons

    Murakami is also known for his signature surreal sense of humor. In one short story, a giant frog has a cup of tea with another character. In Kafka on the Shore, one of two main characters can communicate with cats and collects strays for a living.

    Haruki Murakami: Books

    Murakami published his first book at thirty years of age. This jumpstarted his writing career. However, below are the two Haruki Murakami books that made him popular and famous.

    Norwegian Wood (1987)

    Norwegian Wood is what launched Haruki Murakami into the national spotlight. Its coming-of-age story set in 1960s Japan during student protests appealed to millions of disaffected Japanese youths.2 Norwegian Wood continues to be one of his best sellers.

    Murakami is averse to fame. He traveled and lived outside of Japan for many years to escape the mobs of fans.

    It follows Toru Watanabe as he reminisces about his college years and love affairs. There are numerous western popular culture references. When the story starts, the main character's memories of youth are triggered when he hears someone playing the song "Norwegian Wood". Toru nicknames his roommate "Storm Trooper" from the iconic death squad soldiers in the Star Wars films because of his lock-step obsession with cleanliness. The title itself refers to a Beatles song of the same name.

    Thematically, the story is about the loss of innocence and nostalgia for youth. The content of late adolescent sexuality and disenchantment with traditional elements of Japanese culture naturally appealed to Japanese youth in a rapidly changing, post-Word War II Japan. Consequently, the unexpected popularity propelled Marukami into stardom in Japan.

    Haruki Murakami, two second edition Norwegian Wood books Haruki Murakami, StudySmarterNorwegian Wood is so popular that there are collectors' editions. Wikimedia Commons

    Kafka on the Shore (2006)

    Kafka on the Shore follows two characters simultaneously who eventually intersect. Alternating chapters follow the bookworm teenager Kafka Tamura who runs away from home to avoid an Oedipus complex. The other chapters follow Satoru Nakata, an elderly gentleman who can talk to cats and amasses a menagerie of strays, who are all given names. The story touches upon themes of transformation and incorporates elements of magical realism that Murakami has become known for. The English translation from 2005 won the World Fantasy Award for Novels in 2006.

    Magical realism - a genre that is mostly portrayed as based in the natural world, with lighter, subtler elements of magical phenomena.

    Haruki Murakami: Quotes

    Below are excerpts from Murakami's books and a quote from an interview.

    If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking."―Norwegian Wood, Chapter 3

    The lone, independent, wandering main character is a staple of Murakami's books. This quote comes from the first-person perspective of the main character, Toru, while he talks to an upperclassman he will befriend. He observes and makes detailed descriptions of events happening around him. Most of the story takes place while he remembers his time in college. This is a particularly formative time for him, and he is suspicious of any conformist behavior.

    Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time."

    -Kafka on the Shore, Chapter 31

    Murakami's books are often concerned with the nature of love. While they explore many facets of romance, they often avoid any concrete conclusions. Murakami characters tend to experience growth, and often romantic interests play a crucial part in the character's transformation.

    I think that my job is to observe people and the world, and not to judge them. I always hope to position myself away from so-called conclusions. I would like to leave everything wide open to all the possibilities in the world."3

    -Haruki Murakami

    This quote exemplifies the typical characteristics of Murakami's books. The main character is usually an independent, detached observer. Murakami spends more time writing about what happens around them rather than about them.

    Haruki Murakami - Key takeaways

    • Haruki Murakami is a best-selling, internationally famous novelist from Japan.
    • His works are heavily influenced by Western culture and often make references to them.
    • Haruki Murakami did not originally intend to write for a living; he started at twenty-nine and wasn't published until he was thirty.
    • Books by Haruki Murakami usually are about coming-of-age, detective stories, and romances with elements of magical realism.
    • Characters written by Haruki Murakami tend to be loners and wanderers concerned with their private lives, much like the author himself.

    1. Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the music of words (2002).

    2. Hegarty, Stephanie. "Haruki Murakami: How a Japanese writer conquered the world". BBC World Service (2011).

    3. Haruki Murakami, "The Art of Fiction". Paris Review No. 182 (2004).

    Frequently Asked Questions about Haruki Murakami

    Why is Haruki Murakami so popular?

    Haruki Murakami is popular because he writes about universally accessible subjects such as love, loss, detective novels, coming-of-age, and cats.

    What is Haruki Murakami's most popular book?

    The most popular books of Haruki Murakami are Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore.

    What is Haruki Murakami's style of writing?

    Haruki Murakami's style of writing is characterized by first-person point of view in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and detective novels

    Where does Haruki Murakami live?

    Haruki Murakami currently lives near Tokyo. He is reclusive and prefers his privacy.

    Who is Haruki Murakami?

    Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author and novelist that has become an international best seller with works translated into over forty languages.

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