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Haruki Murakami’s Cool Japan

by Roland Kelts

I was in New York last week to host a launch event for the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” My good friend and Murakami translator Ted Goossen, professor at York University in Toronto, joined me, as did pianist Eunbi Kim, whose multi-media project, “Murakami Music,” I saw performed at Symphony Space in Manhattan last year.

With all the talk of the Cool Japan campaign, it’s worth remembering that author Haruki Murakami reigns as the nation’s most potent global cultural export.

I wasn’t surprised to find the venue packed when I arrived. Kinokuniya bookstore’s New York branch in midtown comprises two floors and a basement. Events and readings are staged in the center of the ground floor. Audience members filled the seats and spilled into adjacent aisles, many of them peering over bookshelves.

I first met Murakami 15 years ago on a kind of bet. I was living in Osaka, where a group of editors from a now-defunct English-language magazine had commissioned me to contribute stories. They had invited me to one of their monthly meetings at a tachinomiya (standing bar) on a dark corner near the city’s business district. One of the editors had read my review of Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” a year earlier in an American newspaper.

“Think you could get an interview with him?” he asked, grinning and swaying a bit on his heels.

“I could try.”

“He’s a total recluse, you know. Won’t talk to anyone. If you get the interview, dinner’s on us.”

I realized the other editors were grinning, too, and one of them raised a glass to me.

I didn’t know much about Murakami then, but I admired his stories, which I’d read in The New Yorker as a college student. And like many others, I found “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” intensely charged and mystifying. There was something about his storytelling that seduced you even as it frustrated your rational and critical faculties. Some of his sentences and descriptions were awkward, occasionally excessive. But the seduction of his stories, his narrative dreams, usually won you over. You had to keep reading, as if under a spell.

One of the editors gave me the postal address of Murakami’s Tokyo office. I put together a folder of samples — short stories, articles, and my review of his novel — and slid it into a manila envelope with a cover letter explaining who I was. I don’t remember much of the cover letter, except its description of my dual heritage as the son of a Japanese mother and American father. I mailed it to Tokyo and thought: well, that’s the end of that.

A couple of weeks later, I received a fax (this was Japan, 1999). It was handwritten by Murakami’s assistant and had a hand-drawn map of the walking route from the nearest subway station to his Aoyama office. It read: “Haruki looks forward to meeting you for one hour next month,” and proposed a series of dates.

I didn’t tell anyone. Somehow I thought the meeting probably wouldn’t happen and I didn’t want to look like an idiot. Instead, I sent a fax back to Murakami’s office with a date and time that would work for me. One of my mother’s friends had an empty one-bedroom apartment in Shibuya that she offered to me as a crash-pad. At the time, I didn’t have an expense account.

I met Murakami on a hot day. I wore a suit and sweated a lot. Murakami greeted me in his air-conditioned second-floor room, wearing a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt. The first thing he did was show me his collection of LPs, which filled an entire wall and were meticulously cataloged. We talked for more than three hours.

Since then, I have met Murakami in five cities — Boston, Berkeley, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo. In Berkeley, we engaged in a taidan (public dialogue and reading) before 3,000-plus audience members at the University of California. I was fitfully nervous; Murakami was as cool as the day I met him. “The more people in the audience, the less you have to worry about them,” he told me backstage. “We’ll talk as we always do. Don’t worry.”

In the years since our meeting in 1999, Murakami has become a global phenomenon. He is a bestseller in Japan, of course, but also in neighboring Asian countries such as South Korea, China and Singapore, where the memory of Japan’s World War II military colonization campaign still stings. In the United States and Europe, he is a beloved literary author, a modern oxymoron. “Harry Potter” books and Stephen King horrors are genre-driven; Murakami’s world may persist, but each work is different, oddly challenging, piercing.

Each year, Murakami is an odds-on favorite for the Nobel Prize in Literature (he now tops British bookmaker Ladbroke’s list in 2014, favored 6 to 1). After our first meeting in sweat-soaked Tokyo, I became something of a Murakami flag-waver overseas — not that he needs one.

I don’t mind. Sharing the wonders and worries attendant upon Japan and its rich culture is at the core of this column and much of what I write. But I do think Murakami’s extraordinary global presence, and the respect he commands, is unparalleled in contemporary Japanese culture, pop or otherwise. He told me a few years ago that he traveled to Prague, Jerusalem and Barcelona to accept literary prizes because he had become a “cultural ambassador” for Japan. “It’s a real privilege,” he said, “and a responsibility. Most people around the world see no face of Japan. If I can be that face, that’s good.”

Cool Japan? Murakami may be as cool as it’s gonna get.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.