Mystery, loss fuel Murakami sales

Novel's initial secrecy, story's ties to 3/11 spur huge success

Kyodo

Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” has been a phenomenal success for the nation’s lackluster publishing market, selling more than 1 million copies in just the first seven days after its April 12 release.

One key element was a marketing tactic that kept information about the book secret. This created a huge sense of anticipation among potential readers three years after Murakami’s previous novel.

Some observers also say the book’s theme overlaps with the sense of loss that permeated Japan in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Led by “Norwegian Wood,” which sold about 11.16 million copies, including in paperback, all of Murakami’s major works have bested the 1 million threshold.

Japan’s book market has been mired in a slump over the last few years, with only one title having sold more than 1 million copies last year — “Kiku Chikara” (“The Power of Listening”) by essayist and TV personality Sawako Agawa.

Over the past few years, just a few other titles accomplished the feat, including Naoki Hyakuta’s “Kaizoku to Yobareta Otoko” (“The Man Who Was Called a Pirate”), which won this year’s Honya Taisho award chosen by bookstores.

Bungeishunju Ltd., the publisher of Murakami’s latest work, initially did not disclose any information about the much-anticipated novel. It slowly revealed tidbits, including the title and the themes of the novel, beginning in mid-February. The tactic piqued readers’ curiosity.

“We limited the information because we wanted people to read the work without prejudice. We learned from the tactic taken by Shinchosha Publishing Co. when it released ’1Q84,’ ” said Kotaro Kashiwabara, head of book promotion at Bungeishunju, referring to Murakami’s previous novel, which was released in April 2010.

Fans responded to such “deprivation.”

Kunio Nakamura, who runs Rokujigen, a cafe in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where ardent Murakami fans congregate, said he tried to imagine the contents of the novel when only its title was known.

“There is an element of a game here, and the whole phenomenon surrounding the book (release) felt like entertainment,” Nakamura said.

Just after midnight on April 12, when the sales embargo was lifted, some people were seen reading copies on a street outside a Tsutaya bookstore in the Daikanyama area of Tokyo, while the social-networking service Twitter was abuzz with fans’ thoughts on the long-awaited story.

The novel has also brought business to bookstores in the disaster-hit Tohoku area. Naoko Nishikiori, store manager of the Bookboy main branch in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, was delighted with the results, saying that “many people came to the store to buy the book.” The store fully reopened in February after its former building was washed away in the tsunami.

Some small bookstores, however, had trouble keeping their shelves stocked with the new novel.

“The book was sold out by the evening of the release date, but it was hard to get information on future shipments,” one manager at a Tokyo store said.

Megumi Ushikubo, a writer who specializes in marketing, commented on why people snapped up the new release.

“If they get a new book by Mr. Murakami, who is also popular outside Japan, they can boast to their worldwide audience on Facebook the fact that they have already read it,” Ushikubo said. “It looks like many young people read it in order to have something in common to talk about with others.”

The book tells the story of 36-year-old railway company employee Tsukuru Tazaki, who is psychologically scarred when he is rejected by four of his close friends during high school 16 years ago. To find out the reasons for his rejection, Tazaki travels to his hometown of Nagoya and even to Finland in the hope of making a fresh start in life.

“My impression (of the novel) was like it was post-’Norwegian Wood’ and it was easy to read. It’s great that the author did not make it a complicated piece of work, but wrote it for a wide audience,” said cafe owner Nakamura. “It is also fitting for a time when everyone is feeling the subconscious sense of loss after the Tohoku disaster.”

Literary critic Yoshinori Shimizu, who lives in Nagoya, said he was surprised how realistically the author depicted the locals.

“Although it does not directly touch on the disaster, the 16-year time lapse in the story matches the gap between the Great Hanshin Earthquake (in 1995) and the Tohoku disasters,” Shimizu said.

“As a nuclear waste disposal site is being built in Finland, the author may have projected the issue of radioactive contamination on the sense of loss held by the protagonist, who has lost his hometown,” Shimizu said, referencing the thousands of people who had to evacuate the area surrounding the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.