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Lost in translation: Haruki Murakami’s tales of love and loneliness in Japan

An essay by Thom Shackleford on the relationship between the lost, desolate characters in the latest book by Japanese superstar writer Haruki Murakami, and the ghostliness of Japan.

The densely inhabited cities of Japan are miracles of metropolitan safety and goodwill, populated almost exclusively by people who are polite and friendly to the point of excess. Elderly ladies with canes and bent-over backs will chase you down the street to return small change that fell from your pocket. Strangers in bars will wrap their arms around you, tell you that you’re a cool guy, and pay your tab when you’re not looking. And you can walk past a gang of youths in a midnight alleyway and cheerily wave them hello, instead of quickening your pace and looking intently ahead of you. A place so harmless and secure I once slept in a doorway to pass the time before my train station opened. Something you’d have to be mad or down-on-your-luck desperate to do outside Britomart at 3am.

But consider this: the Japanese population is already in decline. Between 2010 and 2015 the population shrunk by one million people, and according to a 2013 Guardian article, it’s predicted to plummet a further one-third by 2060.

One of the root causes of this has been the “flight from human intimacy” the country is experiencing. “Young people today are immersed in a world where they can live entirely separated from others and it’s happening right before our eyes,” according to psychiatrist Rika Kamaya. Some of her patients claim to feel “lonely, even in the middle of a crowd”, and “consider establishing a real relationship with another person as an effort.”

For the last 20 years, a phenomenon has been occurring behind the bedroom doors of Japan. Hikikomori (literally “pulling inward, being confined”) is a term used to describe reclusive adolescents and adults (typically males) who sequester themselves away from social life – hiding like hermit monks, emerging only for the occasional pilgrimage to grocery stores. I’ve even heard anecdotes about mothers who slide food under the doors of their children’s rooms, as if they were the prison guards of volatile inmates.

A theme of Haruki Murakami’s books is the struggle for individuality within a tightly controlled society, specifically modern day Japan. A society where mainstream acceptance comes through conformity and the prioritisation of wealth. He calls this way of thought “The System,” and his stories speak of the disillusioning effect it has had on a generation that’s grown up under the aegis of consumerism and conservatism: “The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us.”

Murakami’s new collection of short stories tell the tales of men living in self-imposed exile and emotional isolation. His protagonists, as usual, are the extras in Japan’s backdrops: the middle-aged men in congested trains, rubbing against strangers in tacit silence; the loners in empty bars, turning solitary drinking into acts of redemptive meditation; those otherwise lost in Tokyo’s conveyor belt of masses (where most of these stories are set), unified only by the demands of their lives.

Pumpkin sculpture on Naoshima Island by the fabulous artist Yayoi Kusama (Image: Thom Shackleford)

The supposed theme of Men Without Women’s stories is failed love, and all of the barbed forms it takes – unrequited, outright spurned, betrayed. Yet this is no Mars vs Venus exploration of gender relations. While each character yearns for an understanding of the women who’ve hurt them, they end up discovering that they never really knew themselves. Although they have constructed a sense of self from the foundations of solitude – tomodachi inai (no friends), renraku shinai (no connections) – the distance they’ve created between them and the rest of society hasn’t led to self-actualisation. Each of Men Without Women’s seven stories ends on a note of existential ambiguity, when characters are forced to decide if they will confront their true nature, or spend the rest of their lives trying to outrun their shadows.

In Scheherazade’, the narrator, Habara, is one such individual. He lives alone, as is the increasing norm in Japan, except: “He had no one to talk to. No one to phone. With no computer, he had no way of accessing the Internet. No newspaper was delivered, and he never watched television… It went without saying that he couldn’t go outside.” The only snorkel he has into the world beyond is the women entrusted with his care, the eponymous Scheherazade. It’s her professional duty as a career to do his grocery shopping and provide him with means of escape: DVDs, books and even sexual relations. Habara cannot work out if the sex is one of her duties, or the result of some felt affection on her behalf. Nevertheless, he doesn’t question the arrangement. Especially because after the mechanics of love making are through, she regales him with fantastical stories. “Enthralled, Habara was able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment.” While the original Scheherazade from A Thousand and One Nights had to preserve her life by telling captivating fables to the king – who had a habit of murdering his concubines – this Scheherazade tells stories to keep Habara alive in some meaningful way.

‘Yesterday’ tells the story of a young narrator’s brief friendship with an eccentric co-worker, Kitaru, who proposes that the narrator dates his girlfriend. Although in his childhood Kitaru had shown academic promise and secured the love of the diaphanous Erika Kuritani, the later years of his life had not been so kind. He had failed the university entrance exam twice, and was destined to fail it again due to his inability to study and his habit of spending endless hours soaking in bathtubs. Kitaru is unable to deal with the responsibilities of his looming adulthood, and this translates to an insecurity and sense of unworthiness with regards to Erika’s love. When asked if he’d gone “all the way” with Erika he replies, “putting my hand in her underpants, even just thinking about doing it with her – I dunno – it just seems wrong. You know? I didn’t.”

Daily life in Dotonbori, the heart of Osaka (Image: Thome Shackleford)

Japan, a land of robot restaurants and fortune reading vending machines, where 20 million edokko (people of Tokyo) cram themselves into trains every day, without complaint. Rather than seeing Japan and its shut-ins as being eccentric and exceptional, an argument could be made that Japan is actually a bellwether for other, overly developed nations. Virtual reality and cyborg love dolls aren’t far away. And what will happen to the disenfranchised of the West when they can close their bedroom doors and exchange real human connection for guaranteed, synthetic pleasure? Cyril Connolly once said, “The goal of every culture is to decay through over-civilisation.” Is this, then, the plight of all societies – must they advance in terms of size and sophistication until they become dysfunctional? Think of Rome, the Mayans, and look at the current state of Greece. Seen in this light, the Hikikomori of Men Without Women’s stories are no longer cultural idiosyncrasies, but concerning global forecasts of things to come.

In ‘Yesterday’, Kitaru disappears, never to be seen again. The Japanese, of course, have a word for such a thing: Kamikakushi, better known as “spirited away”. In pre-war Japan, it denoted the mysterious disappearances of people the gods were peeved with. In the postmodern era, the term has lost its connection to the omnipotent, referring to everyday disappearances. But one important aspect remains: the desire to find freedom by severing all ties with society. It’s estimated that since the mid 1990s approximately 100,000 Japanese citizens have vanished every single year. These are men and women who intentionally banish themselves from civilization due to some ignominy: a divorce, a lay-off, a failed university application.

The act of Kamikakushi features in another story, the tale of Kino, who returns home early to find his beloved wife in bed with a colleague. Kino “lowered his head, shut the door, left the apartment, lugging his shoulder bag stuffed with a week’s worth of laundry, and never went back. The next day, he quit his job.” At first things go reasonably well. He starts a dive bar, which gets frequented by the enigmatic Kamita and a friendly stray cat, listens to jazz records (Murakami himself used to own a jazz bar), and starts an illicit affair with an inscrutable woman who’s into masochism. But then his wife enters his bar – the sanatorium of his lovesickness – to finalise the divorce, and things start getting weird. The cat disappears only to be replaced by snakes, the customers stop coming, and Kamita cryptically instructs Kino that he must close his bar and “go far away”, maintaining contact with no one. Kamita – his name means God’s Field, by the way – is thus spiriting Kino away, who must atone for a transgression he does not yet comprehend.

Kino, alone in a remote part of Japan, flouts Kamita’s rules and writes a postcard to his Aunt. For this, he suffers the wrath he’s unwittingly been hiding from. He’s plagued by nocturnal disturbances, as his hotel room comes under siege by everything he’s repressed in the recesses of his heart. A persistent tap comes from the window, but he cannot bring himself to face it, ‘“Don’t look away, look right at it,’ someone whispered in his ear. ‘This is what your heart looks like.’”He becomes overwhelmed by a peculiar type of Japanese sorrow: Natsukashii, an evocative yearning for something irretrievably lost in the past. He thinks of his wife, “But the movement of time seemed not to be fixed properly. The bloody weight of desire and the rusty anchor of remorse were blocking its normal flow. Time was not an arrow moving in a straight line.” Kino’s sin is that he did not acknowledge his heartache, he walked away from it, abandoned it. But when his wife entered the bar, the false reality he’d constructed began to crumble, and in the end he’s left with the realisation that he is the source of his betrayal, for his refusal to acknowledge and process his grief.

Thom wears a lot of black and looks at Tokyo from the top of Roppongi Hills (Image: Thom Shackleford)

For all this talk of Kamikakushi and Hikkomori, I don’t mean to suggest that Japan is any kind of declining civilisation, full of people who have died internal deaths. Far from it. It’s one of the most enlivening and enriching places I’ve ever been. A place of shrines, mountains, and uplifting spiritual beauty that makes you marvel at the perfection present in nature and man. And, conversely, a place of giddy hedonism, with cities that know no rest, and clubs full of impossibly cool 20-somethings, who are kind and full of passion.

But as with every society, there exists something great and unspoken. Some kind of consciously ignored despair which you can hear in the muffled footsteps of unspeaking crowds. There is an undercurrent beneath the sea of masses you become part of everyday, one that rips away those at the edges, taking them far away to the horizons of remote isolation. It’s easy to hide here, go unnoticed. It’s easy to become displaced within a system that thinks civic heroes are those who work until they become estranged from their wives and children. As a foreigner (Gajin, literally outsider) you acquire some small taste of what it is like for those who can’t fit in. Unable to communicate, disconnected from the thousands around you, forced to see others on the streets as eternally inaccessible.

Divided within themselves and separated from others, Men Without Women’s characters look for solace in the small comforts of their cloistered lives. Trapped within an environment that stresses gaman (the mute endurance of the unbearable) and homogeneity, this collection epitomises Henry David Thoreau’s notion that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Like Thoreau himself, characters immerse themselves in solitude and introspection, concealing their inner discontentment instead of reaching out and sharing it with those around them – even the women closest to them. This way of being ultimately leads to the lip of an abyss, where they must decide if they’ll succumb to misery and futile desolation, or find the courage to be truly self-aware and free.

Thom stars in TV show Why Did You Come to Japan?, which accosts random foreigners on the street and asks what they’re doing in the country (Image: Thom Shackleford)

There is a man I drink with at my local izakaya. To preserve his good name, I’ll call him Ryo. Ryo was once an esteemed creative director, a salaryman in charge of national marketing campaigns. He told me that for the first 20 years of his marriage he was a stranger to his wife. Everyday he would rise at 6am, trudge down a narrow street, ride the train as the sun made its slow ascent, work 12-14 hours, drink with colleagues until he felt numb, and then catch the last train home before laying himself beside the blanketed silhouette of his partner. Waking and repeating, waking and repeating, until the day he broke down – when the stress became insurmountable. From then on he found it difficult to be around others, people who didn’t have immediate access to his ever complicating thoughts and feelings. He had no choice but to leave his job and resign in shame.

He could have been one of the 100,000 who vanished that year. He could have walked off into a forest and departed, stoically. But he didn’t. Instead he got to know the person he’d been sleeping beside for two long and silent decades. Rather than closing off and looking inwards, at the brink of anguish he began to share his pain with his wife and become her husband. And she in turn became his lighthouse, the beacon of hope and communion he is guided by; a part of him that he’d be lost without. He still finds it difficult to be around others. He can only manage 20 minutes of interaction before he politely excuses himself. But then he goes home and dutifully prepares dinner for his significant other, the household’s new breadwinner.

I’m happy now, he says.


Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker, $45) is available at Unity Books.