To invite a Western audience to try and visualize a life in Japan through the medium of the written word is no mean feat. Our worlds are so different, our languages so distant, our social and cultural references so disparate; to successfully bring such a place to life for an unknowing reader is a true literary achievement. Unsurprisingly, we are able to count the authors who have bridged these differences through literature on our fingers. But we know who one of the first to be counted would be: Haruki Murakami.
Born in the beautiful city of Kyoto, Murakami’s first novels, a collection called The Trilogy of the Rat, dealt with personal issues of loss and relationships in narrow worlds surrounding only the characters. At first, Murakami’s novels were not well received, but they still contained the green shoots of a greater story of Japan and Japanese society, topics that what would later propel Murakami to international recognition.
It’s no secret that traveling allows us to better understand where we come from and before the success of his later novels, Murakami decided to move to the United States. It was this distance from his homeland that gave him the space to truly assess the country he’d left behind and enthrall his readers with titles such as Underground and After the Quake. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that Murakami’s early novels, when he was still in-country, were criticized for the closed-off nature of his characters, the result of a writing style that refused to reveal too much. By moving to the United States, he benefitted from a distance that freed him to better understand – and write such moving novels about – his homeland.
Leaving behind what you do know in order to discover what you don’t, offers us an opportunity to evaluate the curious nuances of our own cultures in contrast to the ones we discover abroad. Travelling far from home certainly worked in Murakami’s favor after all. It was only once he saw the world that he was able to so profoundly and eloquently bring the story of Japan to us.