Exploring the nature of humanity is a common thread throughout many literary works. However, the pervasiveness of this theme does not detract from the singularity of each works’ conclusion. Such interpretations tend to reflect a profound understanding of humankind, often informed by the author’s personal experiences.
Haruki Murakami is an internationally best-selling author who ponders these questions about humanity and its relationship with nature and society in his works. Consisting of novels, short story collections, an illustrated novella and several works of nonfiction, Murakami’s writings have become noteworthy in the milieu of modern literary life and have been translated into over 50 languages (“Author,” harukimurakami.com).
On Thursday, Nov. 8, in Taylor Hall, Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Purdue University Eiji Sekine lectured about Murakami’s dialogue on the relationship between humanity and nature, collective memory and violence and their recurrent presence in his books “Hear the Wind Sing” (1979), “A Wild Sheep Chase” (1982), “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” (1985) and “The WindUp Bird Chronicle” (1994–95). The lecture was sponsored by the Chinese and Japanese Department and co-sponsored by the Dean of the Faculty Office, the Asian Studies Program and the English Department.
Associate Professor of Japanese Hiromi Tsuchiya Dollase indicated in an email interview that her department invited Sekine—who was her PhD dissertation advisor and the inspiration for her eccentric taste in stories—to discuss this topic due to his recent research about Murakami and his study of the idea of Otherness in Japanese literature. As the president of the Association of Japanese Literary Studies (AJLS), which was co-founded in 1991 as the Japanese Literary Association, Sekine is also a significant figure in Japanese literature studies in the United States.
Prior to Thursday’s lecture, Dollase invited Sekine to join her Youth in Japanese Literature class, in which students and the professors discussed the allure of Murakami’s stories, especially to young people. According to Dollase, “[Murakami’s] lonely characters isolated from the community and group, they said, were relatable to them.”
Sekine also discussed Murakami’s use of relatable characters in his lecture. He traced the presence of gentle leading male characters throughout Murakami’s novels. Sekine characterized this recurrent theme as a critique of hegemonic male power, saying, “[Murakami is] against modern Japanese literature as this male-dominated subject. He uses these characters who are not very macho, and with important goals.”
Sekine also explained that Murakami’s characters’ acceptance of—and even attachment to—their own weakness in “A Wild Sheep Chase” is a portrayal of humanity’s mundane idiosyncrasies as something to be cherished: “This [ending] is the value of the individuality of his own ordinary self, and the heroism of the self, not as something spectacular, but [as] something fragile. This mundane uniqueness that everyone has can be appreciated, protected.”
Following the talk, Dollase reflected again on her students’ comments about Murakami’s fragile characters: “I myself want[ed] to know why [Murakami’s] works attract audiences regardless of age and culture. Prof. Sekine’s talk, I think, helped me understand the reason—Murakami is always on the side of the weak.” Murakami’s characters’ weaknesses, counterintuitively, are thus what give them their literary strength.
Throughout the lecture, Sekine traced the motif of the natural world in Murakami’s books. Discussing “Hear the Wind Sing,” “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” Sekine said, “[Murakami] contemplates nature’s indifference to, and disunity with, humanity.”
Dollase elaborated on the historical and cultural significance of this theme: “In Japanese culture, nature was viewed with awe and appreciation as people believed that sacred spirit[s] reside in nature,” she wrote. “[Murakami’s] works kind of relate; he believes that wind, for instance, is powerful but occasionally soft, and more importantly blows equally on anyone with no discrimination.”
The interplay between memory and violence was the final motif Sekine examined. He analyzed “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle,” which deals with a family’s private struggle coupled with wartime memories. According to the lecturer, the novel analogizes characters who harbor dark desires with violent historical war figures. Sekine concluded that Murakami characterizes modern sexual violence as possessing the same degree of domination as historical wartime violence.
Following the lecture, Dollase opened the floor for questions. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow of Chinese and Japanese Judit Kroo asked for elaboration on Murakami’s idea of small, private memories as the locus for remembrance of history. Sekine responded, “His idea is how to remember, and it’s piled through generations. It can be transferred from one generation to another. Structurally, he tries to connect the violence of wartime and today’s private violence. So he pretty much is optimistic in terms of his [confidence in] stories’ ability to convey memories from one generation to another.”
According to Dollase, Murakami’s ability to convey these generational memories is part of what inspired Sekine’s interest in his work in the first place. “Prof. Sekine said that when he read Murakami’s works for the first time, he felt that a writer who could put into words the ambivalent feelings of people of his generation had finally emerged,” she reflected. “Murakami’s constant resistance against machismo and the oppressiveness of authority was what Sekine had been feeling.”
Ciara Murray Jordan ’21, who attended the lecture, spoke about Sekine’s strategy of connecting seemingly disparate stories to paint a clearer picture of Murakami’s views. Murray Jordan noted, “By summarizing his work while following these themes throughout, [Sekine] disclosed a uniformity that wouldn’t have been observable to the average reader.”
Speaking to what makes Murakami special, Murray Jordan concluded, “By examining Murakami’s views on human nature— ourselves—we as students can find ways to reflect on our own nature. It’s why so many people read and study his books.”