Ryu Murakami: Straight-talking wordsmith wields his pen like a sword


For nearly three decades since his seismic debut with “Almost Transparent Blue,” which delved into the sex- and drug-fueled lives of Japanese youths in a town hosting a huge U.S. military base, author Ryu Murakami has often used his trademark explicit, offensive and guiltlessly cheerful language to dig deep into Japan’s myriad subcultures.

Despite his raciness, though, Murakami has constantly appealed to a mainstream audience that has kept him consistently high on the nation’s best-seller lists, due in part to his unparalleled skill in melding the social, economic and political motifs of Japan into his dark visions.

So it might not come as a huge surprise that Murakami has picked North Korea — arguably the biggest security threat faced by Japan at the moment — as a theme for his latest novel, published 10 days ago.

Titled “Hanto o Deyo (Get out of the Peninsula),” Murakami sets his story between 2010 and 2014. Japan’s public finances are in dire straits and the numbers of homeless and jobless are rising rapidly. A more sinister development is that Japan has become isolated in an international community in which the United States has abandoned its role as the world’s policeman. When a North Korean commando unit comes ashore in the city of Fukuoka and takes local citizens hostage, Japan’s brain-dead bureaucrats sit idly by as the elite troops proceed to seal off the entire Kyushu region from the rest of the country.

While “Hanto o Deyo” is a work of fiction, it’s spiked with a heavy dose of realism. In his research for the book, the multi-award-winning writer — who leads an uncharacteristically normal life in an upscale Yokohama suburb with his wife and their 24-year-old son — says he has met and interviewed more than 10 North Korean defectors in Seoul, and has read (and cites in a bibliography) more than 200 related books on everything from the thoughts of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to ones on the clandestine international spy network Echelon, weaponry, reptiles and even welding technology.

Looking exhausted but satisfied after crystallizing years of research and 15 months of intensive writing into the disturbing 926-page epic, the 53-year-old art-school dropout, who grew up on the U.S. naval base city of Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, recounted his creative journey in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

Murakami also shared his thoughts on his activities outside of fiction-writing, including Japan Mail Media, an e-mail magazine he edits that deals mostly with finance and economics. And of course, he had a lot to say about one of the hottest news items in Japan these days — the takeover battle between Internet upstart company Livedoor Co. and the hyper-traditional Fujisankei media conglomerate.

Why did you choose the issue of North Korea for your new book?

There was no other country I could think of. I thought it would be weird to feature a Chinese commando unit arriving in Japan. The other possible option would have been Islamic militants, but their arrival en masse would be unrealistic.

The idea for the book came from another novel I wrote before, called “Showa Kayo Daizenshu (Showa Japanese Pop Song Book),” which featured Ishihara (one of the lead characters in “Hanto o Deyo”). I had been planning to write a sequel, in which survivors from the earlier novel would go to Fukuoka and plot seditionary activities, then a North Korean commando unit would outdo them by carrying out a terrorist attack in Japan. I conceptualized the story seven or eight years ago. But when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made a visit to Pyongyang [in September 2002 for a summit with Kim Jong Il], I realized I could no longer depict North Korea simply as a bad guy. I needed to do more research. I ended up reading 90 percent of all books about North Korea published in Japan.

So did you start reading those books seven or eight years ago?

No, the research started three or four years ago. Before that, very few books on North Korea even existed in Japan.

I understand that you conducted lengthy interviews with more than 10 North Korean defectors. What were they like?

They were all different. But they all came from good “seibun” classes [under North Korea’s political classification system, citizens belong to one of dozens of categories depending on their and their ancestors’ loyalty to the regime], so they were very intelligent. You would expect the delinquents, dropouts or anti-socials to come from the lower class, but in North Korea, lower-class people don’t have the energy to become delinquent, because of food shortages and all that. So the rebels or the delinquents are people from higher classes. There is a community of North Korean defectors in Seoul, and most of them are from good seibun.

What impression did you get after meeting them?

It’s complex, as all their circumstances are different. But if I am to point out one common feature, they are all simple, because North Korea has not gone through modernization. For better or worse, they haven’t been affected by capitalism.

Did some of them look brutal or hard-headed, like those agents depicted in your book?

Most of them served in the military, including some who were in the special forces and underwent really tough training, and some who had belonged to the state intelligence service. So some people did have a cold-blooded aura, but my overall impression is that North Koreans are human beings, too. And yet, they also have the special qualities acquired under the influence of a de facto prison state. Another trait I noticed was that they all, except for a few, looked nervous. They were also well-mannered. Some of them had defected six months before the interview, others five years before.

Why did you pick Fukuoka instead of Nagasaki or Okinawa as the setting for the novel?

Geopolitically, there was no other place. You would realize how close Fukuoka is to the Korean Peninsula if you took a flight from Seoul to Hakata. As soon as the plane takes off, it starts descending. It takes only 50 minutes.

In the story, the government leaves the minority — the Kyushu citizens — out in the cold to shield the majority — the rest of the country — from the North Korean attack. I was reminded of what the nation went through during the hostage crisis in Iraq when three young Japanese were taken captive. Did you have the incident in mind when you were writing the novel?

In the first place, I felt that the rationale used by the Japanese media and the government for Japan’s participation in the war in Iraq was distorted. And then the hostage crisis took place, making the situation even more twisted. So it’s difficult to respond to the incident.

Many Japanese people feel deep down that the Self-Defense Forces should not be in Iraq, but they have approved it because they feel nothing good could come out of defying the U.S. right now. That’s why they would never express dissent about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, or prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib.

The question is, is it really practical for us to go along with U.S. policy? That’s the kind of discussion we should have, yet haven’t had. We’ve only discussed whether the SDF dispatch is right or violates the Constitution.

In the book, delinquent boys living in a Fukuoka warehouse end up killing the North Korean commandos, thus ending the occupation through violence. Do you feel that, for the security of Japan and the world, the use of violence is the only way to end violence?

I feel ideology should not determine rules between countries in conflict. For example, regarding the recent abduction of three sailors by pirates in the Malacca Strait, I wonder why no one says that our ships should be armed. We are dealing with pirates armed with rocket-propeled grenades and AKs. We should be armed too, for self-defense, regardless of [war-renouncing] Article 9 of the Constitution. We should be more flexible or we cannot respond to complicated world affairs. But there are no media or politicians who think about the possibility of private-sector, non-military Japanese getting armed.

So do you think some in the private sector should be armed?

My question is, why don’t they even include armament as an option when discussing the issue?

You grew up in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, where a U.S. navy base is located, during the 1960s [when anti-war/anti-establishment movements spread across the country]. How has that affected your life and works?

Well, I’m not sure, because I never grew up in a town with no base. But I guess it must have been an enormous influence because, in a base town, it is clear who the ruler is. The base occupied the nicest part of the town. Especially up until the Vietnam War, the economy of Sasebo depended heavily on the base; local shipbuilders were fixing U.S. vessels and gaijin bars were prospering. And you see real American soldiers. So in the eyes of a child, it was obvious who was stronger. The reality was not hidden; it was exposed everywhere. Other towns were probably not like that. But when you compare base towns like Sasebo with other towns with no base, which symbolize postwar Japan more accurately? I think I grew up looking at reality.

Throughout your career, you have consistently written about youth culture and represented the voice of the youth. At the moment, are you supporting “Horiemon” [a nickname for Takafumi Horie, the president of Livedoor, who is embroiled in a takeover battle with the Fujisankei media group]?

I regard Horie as more of a financier than an IT businessman; someone who is good at money games. I could be wrong, because I don’t know him well, but he doesn’t seem to be creating an original service or business model in the fields of IT or the Internet. To put it harshly, he seems to be someone who maneuvered well during the 2000-2001 IT bubble, got funds, then became successful through money games. It’s only natural for someone like him to choose the Nippon Broadcasting System Inc. as an M&A target.

I have many friends in the IT industry, and they all hate the Japanese ojisan (middle-aged men). Their super-efficient world, symbolized by IT itself, is so different from the world of vested interests those ojisan inhabit. So I can understand such feelings (of sympathy for Horie), but you need to have a clear strategy on how to fight those vested interests and integrate your values with those of the establishment into something new. I haven’t quite figured out whether Horie has such a strategy.

The media should take the blame as well, as they tend to ask people whether they support Fuji Television or Livedoor. The issue should not be discussed on such a level. The Japanese media like yes-or-no questions, like, “Is the SDF dispatch to Iraq good or bad?” “Which side are you on, Horie’s or Fuji TV Chairman Hisashi Hieda’s?”

What could be improved about Horie’s approach?

Oh, it’s very difficult. I guess the basic buyout plan can’t be changed, but what kind of announcements to make, for example, when appearing on a radio program, is a tough judgment call. I don’t think his announcements so far have been well-thought out. I think he is wasting his chances. Of course, I also think it is ugly of the top managers of NBS and Fuji TV to be acting that timidly.

Why do you think his announcements are poor?

The media are partly at fault, but the term shihai has been used (in connection with Livedoor’s takeover bid for the radio broadcaster).

In English, there are several words that capture the concept of shihai in varying nuances, such as “control,” “govern,” “manage” and “dominate.” But in Japan, the word shihai conjures up the image of “dominate” only. For sararimen, that means enslavement.

But in reality, if Rupert Murdoch buys a media company, he would never enslave its employees. He would try to keep the smart ones. NBS wouldn’t change much with the change of management. If you want to produce a radio program, you have to work with producers and screenwriters, and there aren’t that many of them. The whole affair is drawing a lot of attention, because it’s symbolic, but I don’t think many people are that interested. Eventually, I think, people will realize that the company will change little, and they will get bored, though it must be a big deal for the top executives of Fuji and NBS.

You seem to put in an enormous amount of research every time you write a book. What is your creative process like? Do you have a “Team Murakami” behind you?

For this new book, the team of editors at Gentosha Inc. who worked for me during my previous book, “Juu Sansai no Haro Waaku (Job Guidance for 13-Year-Olds and All Triers),” stayed on. And they helped me get research materials and brought them to my villa in Hakone, where I was writing. But no, I’m the only one who conceptualizes my works.

What is your biggest concern at the moment?

Politically? I’m not expecting much from the government. . . . When I listen to public debates between Democratic Party of Japan leader Katsuya Okada and Prime Minister Koizumi, for example, I don’t feel they make the slightest efforts to get their message across to the other party or get to the bottom of what the other person is saying. They never get to grips with each other. So I have absolutely no intention of becoming a politician or making policy proposals. But as a novelist, I can raise issues on how words are used, as well as help to give new contexts to words.

For instance . . . the media all say, “the security situation in Iraq is bad.” But when you read articles on the Internet about an area called the Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad, it’s apparently so dangerous that no one, even a journalist, can get through it.

Now, let’s imagine that a part of I-95 that connects North Carolina and Georgia gets blocked up by anti-U.S. armed forces, and nobody, including journalists, can get through it. [President George W.] Bush would declare it a war. Nobody would say “the security situation is bad.” The same would be true if anti-Japanese armed forces occupied an area between Okayama and Yamaguchi, stopping shinkansen lines. It would be called a civil war.

I don’t know if this misuse of language is intentional or if it just reflects a desire not to look at the reality of Iraq. Clearly there are some forces that prefer calling the present condition in Iraq a “bad security situation” rather than a civil war. If we say there is a civil war in Iraq, it would raise a series of issues for each of us — such as whether it’s OK to send SDF troops to such a country, and why there is a civil war when the war is supposed to be over.

Novelists can hint at such contradictory words through their works. I can use my talents better that way than becoming a politician. I think I can make a political contribution that way.

These days you talk a lot about Japanese employment and labor issues. Why?

The reduction in public works projects, for instance, “makes unemployment high, especially in rural areas,” or “leads to changes in the job environment,” if you use macro-economic speak. But for the families of people who have lost their jobs due to cuts in public works projects, it is about such questions as “So how are we going to live from tomorrow?” “How are we going to put our kids through college?” “How are we going to pay off our housing loans?”

Some people use such happy-go-lucky expressions about employment because, for them, the paradigm of the era of rapid economic growth is still functioning. But employment is such a sensitive and important issue everywhere in the world, and at times it triggers coup d’etats and revolutions. Young people in Japan are very confused because, despite the drastic changes in the work environment, their parents and teachers still talk about employment and jobs in the old context. That’s very unfair. They say, “If you study hard and get into a good university, something good will happen to you.” That’s a complete lie.

What have you got to say to young people when you talk about jobs?

When I wrote the job-guidance book, I never once wrote, “Do this.” I just wrote, “Here is what the reality is.” My intention was to show young people how to avoid being deceived by adults, and how to keep their curiosity intact and lead a fulfilling life. I wanted to show, “You might not have realized this, but there are so many jobs like these out there.” And I say that it will be more fun and to your advantage if you choose something that suits for a future occupation, instead of something that doesn’t. It’s common sense (laugh). But there were no announcements like that before.

What kind of feedback have you received about the book?

It’s hard to pick one theme, because it has sold 1.1 million copies. One of the most common responses was, “I wish there had been a book like this when I was young.” In a way it was a very cruel book, because it says that it would be to your advantage to start thinking about your own aptitude and natural gifts early on. Everything works to your advantage if you start it at a younger age. Language studies are most typical. It doesn’t mean that you must be more calculating from early in life. Instead, I’m saying, “Become more conscious of what you like,” because those who are conscious of that would turn out to be so different from those who aren’t. Such a mindset was not necessary during the era of high economic growth, when young people didn’t have difficulty finding jobs. Today, the job market is brutal.

Some people say you are a very talented businessman yourself.

Am I? Japan Mail Media is in the red. After the IT bubble burst, the advertising suddenly stopped coming in, and for a while we were in the red. Recently, ads have gone up a little bit and we are barely breaking even. We don’t make a profit. But one IT expert I trust told me that in the IT/Internet world, making profits is not cool; creating value is. There is this feeling in the IT world that people who created Linux are cooler than Bill Gates. JMM yields no profit, but surely some value. So in that sense, I do take on a producer role. I need that to write novels, which is about combining information and materials I have. Sometimes the combining means allocating my resources such as the information I have, my talents, my writing skills and time. The process of deciding what to put where might be similar to that undertaken by an entrepreneur. But entrepreneurs must be rational first and foremost. Novelists can be totally irrational. That is probably the difference.

What does it mean to be irrational?

I have a constant desire to write something that is, while elaborate, slightly off balance, so readers would feel a rustle in their heart after reading, instead of feeling content. I like the opposite of the type of works you read by the fireplace in winter, which make you feel happy when you finish reading them. Not the kind of books which, after you close the covers, can give you a good night’s sleep.

Throughout your career, you have written about resistance to — and disgust with — the majority. But at the same time, you are a best-selling writer with a general readership. What do you think about that?

The fundamental principle of the nation or its politics is to pursue the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people. But it is how much they can take care of the … minority that measures the country’s living standard, economic power and the state of its democracy. It’s important to keep listening to the voices of minorities, to think about their lives and do all you can to end discrimination against them. Everyone feels that they belong to the majority. That’s wrong.

Like other celebrities of your generation, such as the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and writer Haruki Murakami, do you feel like living overseas?

Sakamoto says all the time that he wants to come back to Japan. Everyone wants to live in their best work environment. Sakamoto says he went to New York after quitting the Yellow Magic Orchestra trio because he felt that was the best place to work. Novelists can work anywhere, but for me, it’s easier here to collect research materials. I don’t like traveling; I’d rather stay home and relax.

What’s the most important thing for you in life?

Work and family — along with family, I mean a small community of people that I share my life with.