Haruki Murakami: Japan’s best-selling living novelist at 75

They are quirky characters in quirky stories, depicted with an affectionate detachment. They’re stories about love, loss and abandonment — and a lot about sex. There is smoking and drinking; when music is played, it’s rock or jazz. And that’s no coincidence: Haruki Murakami loves music, and the Japanese editions of some of his novels have the same titles as famous songs.

No such thing as bad publicity

Murakami published his first novel in the late 1970s, but international recognition came later.

In Germany, that happened in June 2000, when the panel of a weekly TV talk show where literature critics met to discuss current releases got into a bizarre argument. “Literarisches Quartett” (“Literary Quartet”) had cult appeal, with good ratings thanks to the high entertainment value offered by its highbrow cast.

On this occasion, the show’s eminence grise, the legendary German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, argued with his colleague Sigrid Löffler about Murakami’s novel “South of the Border, West of the Sun,” causing a media scandal. The point of contention was the book’s sex scenes, which Löffler called “speechless, listless stammering,” dismissing the novel itself as “literary fast food.” Reich-Ranicki responded by accusing Löffler of being against pleasure.

A modern image of Japan

As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and “South of the Border, West of the Sun” became an overnight bestseller in Germany. And Murakami — who like no other has created a new image of everyday life in modern Japan, in which great emphasis is placed on food preparation, music and nightlife — became a cult author.

Many of his books have become international bestsellers, including “A Wild Sheep Chase,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Kafka on the Shore.”

Haruki Murakami, wearing a tuxedo, stands in front of other writers against a backdrop of international flags.
In 2023, Murakami won Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award for LiteratureImage: Jorge Peteiro/dpa/EUROPA PRESS/dpa/picture alliance

The recipient of many awards, Murakami has been a favorite for the Nobel Prize in literature for years. And it’s largely thanks to him that contemporary Japanese literature has gained global popularity.

Murakami came to writing by accident, as he related in his 2022 memoir/writing guide, “Novelist as a Vocation,” where he wrote, “[…] I had zero training. True, I had majored in drama and film in university, but times being what they were — it was the late 1960s — I had seldom attended class. Instead, I grew long hair and a scruffy beard and hung around in clothes that were less than clean. I had no special plans to become a writer.”

But in 1978, while attending a baseball game in Tokyo, he suddenly had an epiphany: “In that instant, and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”

That first novel, “Hear the Wind Sing” from 1979, promptly won him the Prize for New Writers from the Japanese literary magazine Gunzo. And the die was cast. “I went on to become a professional writer without ever having had to study the craft,” he wrote in “Novelist as a Vocation,” “It all seemed way too easy.”

A love of English-language literature

Murakami, who was born in Kyoto on January 12, 1949 as the grandson of a Buddhist priest, has described writing as being somewhere between cycling slowly and walking quickly. He has said that makes it unsuitable for really intelligent people who like to formulate ideas precisely.

He was exposed to books from an early age by his parents, who both taught Japanese literature. Murakami spent his childhood in Kobe, a port city with a US military base, which allowed him access to works by Western writers. In 1968, Murakami began studying drama at Tokyo’s Waseda University.

Haruki Murakami, wearing a black T-shirt and gray jacket, in Barcelona, Spain, on June 8, 2011.
Murakami has also translated many English-language books into JapaneseImage: Jordi Bedmar/EFE/Catalonia´s Regional Government/dpa/picture alliance

That’s where he met his wife, Yoko, whom he married in 1971 after completing his studies. While at university, he worked at a record store, which sparked his great love of contemporary Western music and led to him running his own jazz bar in Tokyo, Peter Cat, from 1974 to 1982.

From 1991 to 1995, Murakami was a visiting scholar in the United States, including at Princeton and Harvard universities. During that time, he translated into Japanese novels by English-language writers such as Raymond Chandler, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman Capote. He returned to Japan in 1995.

Murakami has encouraged translators of his own works into English to create adaptations rather than faithful translations. Initially, it was those English adaptations that were translated for the German market, raising the question of how much of the original author’s intent still survived in the text. Several of his novels have since been published in new German editions translated directly from the Japanese originals.

An assortment of editions of Haruki Marukami's novel "Killing Commendatore" in five different languages
Murakami’s books have been translated into some 50 languagesImage: Ryo Aoki/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP Photo/picture alliance

Surefire bestsellers

Although the gaps between Murakami’s books have become longer in recent years, he remains a prolific writer — of novels, but also of short stories, essays and other nonfiction works — who continues to engage a large readership.

His last novel to appear in English, the two-volume “Killing Commendatore,” was published in 2018.

2023 saw the release in Japanese of “The City and its Uncertain Walls,” which has yet to be published in English. Over 640 pages, readers are once again immersed in the well-known Murakami world, a world of riddles and secrets and fleeting moments, and once again it is about melancholy, love and searching.

A person's hands hold a copy of the Japanese edition of Haruki Murakami's novel 'The City and its Uncertain Walls' at Kinokuniya bookstore in Shinjuku district on early Thursday, April 13, 2023, in Tokyo.
Murakami’s latest novel, ‘The City and its Uncertain Walls,’ was published in Japan in April 2023Image: Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo/picture alliance

Although each new Murakami release is pretty much guaranteed to be a bestseller, there has been increased criticism of his work in recent years. Some critics have accused him of producing light fiction at best, while others complain he reverts to the same stylistic elements on a regular basis. They have accused him of a certain lack of originality when he repeatedly characterizes his protagonists through outward appearances such as their clothing style, their preference for exotic dishes or erotic rituals. But that’s most likely a matter of taste.

Murakami has said he doesn’t care whether a book he is currently working on goes down in literary history. He only cares about finishing it.

“I don’t know how many books I will be able to write before I die. It is like a countdown. So with each book I am praying — please let me live until I am finished.”

This article was originally written in German.