The Empathy of Haruki Murakami

Japan’s most famous writer looks at the COVID-19 crisis from the viewpoint of ordinary people

Haruki Murakami is the kind of public figure we could use in the United States. Japan’s most famous novelist and short-story writer has gone out of his way to help his countrymen keep their morale up and get through the COVID crisis, without showing any of the insufferable self-importance to which some writers are prone when they cross over from the literary realm into social and political life.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

In America in these times, showing a lack of enthusiasm for wearing a mask or enduring endless lockdowns can give others an excuse to be self-righteous and treat you like a criminal. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t reasons for using masks and taking other reasonable precautions. But there could be more understanding and sympathy for citizens fed up with restrictions on their lives, and more readiness to question and debate the wisdom of lockdowns, with all the financial and psychological ills they bring.

Murakami has shown such compassion, notably in a New Year’s Eve radio broadcast in which he urged Japan’s officials to speak to the public in a more relatable way about the issue most directly affecting their lives. Japan’s daily caseload of infected citizens has risen, but Murakami’s target was not the long-suffering public, whom he could have self-righteously accused of a lack of caution. Instead, Murakami urged the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, and other leaders to talk openly, extemporaneously, and in a relatable way to the Japanese public and to avoid relying on clichés from pre-scripted statements.

Besides his failures of communication, Suga has favored one set of rules for the public and another for himself, attending a dinner with more than the recommended maximum of five people present. For citizens suffering a crimped existence, that can only add insult to injury. It would be easier for people to comply with COVID-19rules and regulations, Murakami observed, if officials refrained from treating them in a heavy-handed manner and spoke to them humbly with a view to inspiring trust and hope.

Blame the government, not the people

You might think that the recent record of Japan’s political class with regard to public safety would be cause for humility. Prior to the 2011 tsunami and earthquake and the resulting nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the government received repeated warnings about the vulnerabilities of Japan’s atomic infrastructure and the need to overhaul or replace outdated reactors and cooling systems. The failure to take steps led directly to a Level 7 nuclear catastrophe. To say that it exposed a humiliating lack of expertise would be an understatement. Now the people of Japan are supposed to listen in silence while the political class lectures them and dispenses expert advice.

Murakami takes an empathic and fair-minded stance toward the public. His novels and, particularly, certain of his stories show a deep grasp of the effects of isolation and loneliness  Murakami criticizes officials, not ordinary men and women, because he knows all too well what the latter are going through from day to day. Long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, Murakami published a short story, “Scheherazade,” in the New Yorker. It is the tale of a man named Habara, who, for reasons never specified in the story, cannot leave home.

He appears to be either in some kind of witness protection program or under house arrest, and a hard life might well be unbearable if not for the visits of a woman he calls Scheherazade because of her zest for spinning wild and outlandish stories when they are not making love. “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart…. Her voice, her timing, her pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate, and then, in the end, gave him precisely what he’d been seeking. Enthralled, Habara was able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment,” Murakami writes.

That’s what so many of us want to do—forget the reality that surrounds us. Sometimes, Netflix just doesn’t cut it. Eloquence can help listeners to escape grim realities at least temporarily, and that’s one reason Murakami urges Japan’s leaders to do a better job when addressing the public about the current predicament. But a larger issue here is isolation and the obsession that it can breed. One of Scheherazade’s tales is about a young fellow pupil on whom she came to have a crush and whose house she took to sneaking into in order to sort through the boy’s personal effects. She describes how she kept entering the home even though she knew someone might catch her sooner or later, until finally one day she went there and found a new lock on the front door. Someone must have gotten wise to the snooping.

This story-within-a-story is resonant. It’s not easy to summarize or map out the themes of “Scheherazade,” but the passion between the titular character and Habara appears to be an analogue to what she vainly wished to bring into being at that point in her past. In its intensity, it’s inversely proportionate to what she knew in her unrequited lust and her gropings around the house of the boy who infatuated her.

Hence it’s all the more tragic and devastating when Murakami reveals at the end of “Scheherazade” that Habara might soon face still greater limits on his freedom and lose the ability to have any companions at all. Isolation breeds the deepest depression. We can relate. Murakami’s fellow citizens, and people around the world, have gotten a taste of extreme isolation even if COVID-19 lockdowns haven’t yet precluded face-to-face interaction everywhere and in all forms. No wonder Murakami thinks politicians in Japan should talk to long-suffering citizens in a relatable way rather than acting haughty and feeding them inert clichés.

A Japanese tradition

In writing “Scheherazade,” Murakami has explored the psychological dimensions of longing and loneliness in a manner recalling Japanese writers before him. Ozamu Dazai’s 1947 novel The Setting Sun contains the most lyrical passages conveying the longings and frustrations of its suicidal protagonist, Naoji. The example also comes to mind of Yasunari Kawabata, who in 1968 became the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In his 1952 novel Thousand Cranes, Kawabata brought readers into the world of a young man, Kikuji, whose desperation drives him to seek even partners far outside his age range. One thinks also of the haunting verse of poets of the medieval period translated into English by Kenneth Rexroth, like Ki No Tsurayuki, Fujiwara No Okikaze, and Fujiaware No Toshinari.

But Murakami’s story and its pedigree do not by themselves explain the bold public stance he has taken. Japan’s officials have a lot on their conscience after Fukushima, but Murakami recalls no one so much as the protagonist in the work of a writer edged out by Kawabata as a contender for the Nobel Prize in 1968. That writer is Yukio Mishima.

Mishima’s short story “Patriotism,” published in 1961, is about a young lieutenant in the Japanese army who commits seppuku, or ritual suicide, along with his wife in the aftermath of the February 26 Incident, a revolt by a cabal of officers. They strongly believed in Japanese traditions and objected to what they saw as a privileged elite’s devious manipulation and control of the poorer castes. The lieutenant in Mishima’s story has received orders to take action against the mutineers, but to do so goes against his conscience. He is stuck and in his eyes the only honorable course left is ritual disembowelment.

Today Haruki Murakami is acting in the spirit of the young lieutenant in Mishima’s story by refusing to side with the self-righteous political caste against the ordinary people who chafe at misguided policies that not only violate their traditional way of life, but make any sort of fulfilling existence impossible. The upstart officers in the February 26 Incident would not have welcomed an urban elite’s bullying of the public and curtailment of freedoms any more than anti-lockdown activists smile on such things today.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

One thought on “The Empathy of Haruki Murakami

  • January 22, 2021 at 1:50 pm

    This is an excellent article making all the right connections. By highlighting Murakami’s radio address to Japan, and his criticism of the country’s ruling class, the author is gently reminding the reader of the once hallowed space in both the US and Japan for the man (or woman) of letters to speak to a crisis. It is not the politician who provides a salve for loneliness, but the artist and the writer. And it’s a writer of uncommon depth and compassion like Murakami to criticize the ruling elite on behalf of the ordinary people, rather than to cozy up to them. The author demonstrates his wide ranging knowledge of Japanese literature and points out the void in America of men and women of letters doing the same. Well done.


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