A literary salve for a nation in troubled times
Today, October 1, Haruki Murakami’s alma mater, Waseda University, officially opened the Waseda International House of Literature in Tokyo.
One of the most admired writers in Japan today is also the impetus behind the launch of an institution that is sure to be popular in a Covid-wracked nation nursing its wounded pride after the letdown of the 2021 Olympics. Amid the pandemic, the 72-year-old Murakami has emerged as one of his country’s most candid and empathic public figures, and his bold move is a salve to a nation in tormented times.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
According to a Kyodo News report, the five-story building, designed by Kengo Kuma, will be home to a vast body of books and papers donated by the writer, including a number of handwritten manuscripts. Appropriately enough, it will also go by the name of the Haruki Murakami Library.
Though Murakami acknowledges that part of the purpose here is to carry on his legacy in the absence of any kids of his own, the library is clearly no vanity project. His vision is for it to be a resource and meeting place for scholars, researchers, and readers with an interest not just in his own work, but in the vast and rich ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary literature of Japan.
The library contains areas where people can meet and talk. Authors will give readings and broadcasters will record shows. Murakami has spoken eloquently about the responsibility of writers to help keep literary culture going strong. Japanese literature is one of the world’s treasures, though it does have its problems, about which more in a minute. Murakami’s role here may eclipse in importance the philanthropic efforts of a writer a couple of years his senior, Stephen King, who has given millions to universities in Maine.
So this initiative is not at all vain. It is, perhaps, an acknowledgment of a reality to which Murakami alludes again and again in his stories and novels. Put simply, this is the contingent nature of existence and the precariousness and fragility of each and every thing in the world.
Books and barns
One of Murakami’s most famous stories, “Barn Burning,” is about a Japanese man who comes to know the new boyfriend of a young woman with whom he used to be involved. The new beau is sharply dressed, suave, and seemingly upwardly mobile, but in the course of a drinking session, he confides matter-of-factly to the protagonist that he likes to burn barns down in his free time.
The narrator suspends his disbelief long enough to try to tease out a motive for this hobby, but all he can glean is that in the boyfriend’s mind, things that exist are waiting for someone to destroy them. When he sees a barn, he wants to burn it down. The opportunity is just too juicy to pass up.
You might think that an instinct to preserve what people have taken time and care to build might be a natural part of the human psyche, but Murakami’s story makes you wonder why it could not just as easily be the opposite urge. The boyfriend in this story, which inspired a 2018 South Korean film (almost as acclaimed as another movie from the same country released the following year), may remind you of Joseph Cotten’s plain-spoken, normal-looking psycho in Shadow of a Doubt.
He burns barns. Other people burn books. You might want to store the latter in a place where neither malice nor neglect can easily purge them from the earth.
Olympic derangement syndrome
Even if the launch of the museum serves the highest cultural and philosophical ends, observers know that Japan is hurting and needs something to be proud of, and not just for the reasons affecting people everywhere in the time of Covid.
In a series of articles this year, the Economist has detailed how it’s long been a point of pride for Japan to host the Olympics. Many Japanese wanted to host the games in 1940, but the timing wasn’t propitious then for obvious reasons. The games of 1964 brought some prestige. More recently, many in Japan were hell-bent on hosting the games in 2020, with all the commercial benefits and global clout one would expect from such an event, but the pandemic made it necessary to put off the games. This year there were calls for further postponement or even cancellation. The International Olympic Committee declared it would accept no further postponements. If Japan did not hold the games this summer, it might not get another opportunity.
A nation still recovering from the shock and humiliation of the 2011 nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima (and its political elite’s culpable negligence in that disaster) badly needed a resounding economic and psychological victory. But restrictions barred spectators from watching the 2021 games in person, and certain of the public places where they gathered had to close in deference to curfews just as the games got underway. Many people were acutely uneasy about holding the event at all. Economically, it was a wash, and the joy that the Olympics should bring was absent in Tokyo’s barren streets.
It’s hard to imagine a writer working in Japan today who can completely shut out the social reality. Even Murakami, a magical realist who peoples his tales with talking animals, wild scenarios, and fantastic events, is no exception. He’s at once a unique visionary and a writer firmly planted in a tradition marked by an odd blend of ferocious pride and sensitive introspection.
You might not call Murakami a nationalist writer, but the stories in his remarkable 2000 collection After the Quake present, over and over, the courage, resilience, and resourcefulness of Japan’s people in the aftermath of the 1995 earthquake, in a manner that cannot fail to stoke pride in readers. It’s a collection of stories about friends and lovers who look out for each other in a world of fragile things, and it fosters pride of place. Murakami recalls other writers in Japan who have captured the ambivalence of citizens who may not be apologists for imperialism or atrocity yet are proud of their country and find its humiliation hard to bear.
Here indeed is one of the problems of the national literature that the library opening at Waseda University helps to enshrine, promote, and celebrate. You might ask whether the authors featured will include Shiga Naoya, who lived from 1883 to 1971 and published stories and novels with an autobiographical cast, including the collection The Paper Door, which includes a story entitled “Incident on the Afternoon of November Third.” The narrator of the tale sets off on an outing looking to buy a wild duck to prepare for supper. On his wanderings, he passes stragglers from a badly beaten regiment of the Japanese army. The sight is unbearably sad.
Finally he gets a duck and starts back with it. Nearing home, he sets the duck loose to let it walk for a bit, but the sight of the thing flapping and lurching around on the road overwhelms him with a feeling of revulsion. Some things are just too pitiful to see. In the narrator’s mind, the lame duck is such a disturbing analogue to the routed soldiers that he decides he doesn’t want his family to dine on it after all. The theme is maybe a little too obvious. Admittedly, “Incident on the Afternoon of November Third” came out in 1918, around the end of Japan’s service as a member of the Entente alongside Britain, France, and Russia, and decades before the horrors of the fascist period.
You might well wish that talented Japanese writers would condemn in the strongest terms the excesses of nationalism as exemplified in the past by their nation’s military. But where writers of the last century are concerned, that is not often or even usually the case. Japan’s most revered author of the twentieth century, Yukio Mishima, expressed sympathy and support for the Japanese military during the Second World War, including kamikaze pilots.
Their message is unmistakable. A nation’s military is nothing more or less than its most able-bodied members in organized and mobilized form, and people cannot bear to see their nation laid low.
Here is one key to the significance of the Haruki Murakami Library opening at this juncture. Just as they crave fine literature, the people of Japan need an institution to celebrate and feel good about as they try to get on with their lives and put the humiliations and agonies of Covid, the Olympics fiasco, the Fukushima disaster, and the quakes preceding it behind them. But there are things millennials and still younger generations should not be allowed to forget. Does Unit 731 ring a bell?