If you were to stop a stranger on the street and ask them to name a Japanese author they would probably say Murakami, if they could even think of a Japanese author. He is known for his surrealist writing which sets him apart from western writers. What most readers of Murakami don’t realize is that his writing, while unique, is not entirely original. The details he chooses to write about and how he describes them reveals the literary atmosphere and traditions of Japanese literature.
The history of Japanese literature began in the year 900 with the first novel ever written by the first female author. The book, The Tale of Genji, is about a young and handsome prince and his many love affairs. It reflects court life at the time and many scholars believe that the characters were inspired by real people.
At the same time Genji was written poetry was also flourishing and it influenced the literature of the day and its affect can be seen even now. One trait that set apart a good poem from a mediocre poem was mono no awari, or a sensitivity to everyday ,seemingly mundane things. For example, a flower blossom, the grace of a young girl, the sadness of fall or the beauty of a quiet pond. And if you’ve ever read Murakami it he finds meaning in what seem to be unimportant details and gives even the plainest object a vivid and imaginative description.
“Just then it occurred to her that the sound quality was too good for a radio in a taxicab. Despite the rather low volume at which it was playing the sound had true depth, and overtones were clearly audible. The jet-black device shone with a proud gloss. She couldn’t make out its brand name, but it was obviously high end, with lots of knobs and switches, the green numerals of the station readout clear against the black panel.(3)” 1Q84, Haruki Murakami
What kind of author would write a whole paragraph about a radio, and on only the third page? An author who believes in the importance of everyday things. A focus on overlooked objects is a literary device used by many Japanese authors and on occasion western writers as well. If unappreciated, it can make the story sluggish, and contrary to most western literature Japanese authors don’t always follow the traditional story arc of rising action, climax and conclusion.
The lack of tension and release adds to the monotony or simplicity of the story, depending on your perspective. It can be hard to identify any turning plot creating a plot that is subtle and meandering. Another book called The Great Passage by Shion Miura covers the 12 year, start to finish process of publishing a dictionary. The author, like Murakami, goes into great detail explaining the seemingly mundane process of selecting words, crafting definitions, choosing paper, deciding what entries get illustration.
The overall is revolves around the publication of the dictionary but the story is about the people working on it. Main characters change, supporting characters appear disappear and re-appear years later. Things happen but nothing changes. Like much of Japanese fiction, it is a character driven story.
Looking broadly at books that have recently become popular in the U.S, it is fair to say that all the characters find themselves in a difficult situation and the reader reads to see how they will solve the problem, right the wrongs, and set the world strait. Traditionally that kind of plot is not seen Japanese literature, although exceptions exist in other genres. The characters are in their natural habitat acting out their normal lives and the readers are the fly on the wall.
In Yoko Ogawa’s short story “Pregnancy Diary” a sister describes the day to day life of her, her pregnant sister, and her sisters husband from the moment they discover the she is pregnant until the sister gives birth. The family is odd, even when the pregnancy is confirmed no one seems excited. The sister experiences a myriad of symptoms because of her pregnancy. First is morning sickness. She can’t eat so she loses a lot of weight and then she can’t stop eating and gets fat. A large part of the story is spent talking about the pregnant sisters eating habits, what she can and can’t eat, how much she eats, and the process of making the food. Like Murakami, Ogawa focuses attention on mundane things, making them strange by her descriptions.
“Doesn’t the sauce on the macaroni remind you of digestive juices? So warm and slimy? The way it globs together? And the color does it look like lard? The noodles are strange too, the way they squish when I bite them makes me feel like I’m chewing on intestines, slippery tubes full of stomach juices (66).”
Along with descriptions of everyday objects there is a whole genre dedicated to the mundane which is popular in Japan. The diary as a genre is not common the U.S or Europe but it is a robust and well explored genre in Japan. Diaries are as you would expect them to be, I woke up at this time, I went grocery shopping, the kids were late home from school. Sometimes the diaries are by famous people but not always and they describe only the basic day to day activities of the writer.
Few scholars study international literature, and when they do it comes from England or Europe. There are countries with rich literary history that have developed outside the influence of European and Western literary traditions. Japan is one of these countries and it has its own literary standards unlike anything else.