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  • De-Exoticizing Haruki Murakami's Reception
  • Matthew Richard Chozick (bio)

"Japan is a pure invention. There is no such country, there are no such people."

—Oscar Wilde

Little scholarship has accounted for the contradictory international reception of Haruki Murakami's corpus of literature. Japanese literati have derided Murakami, who lived outside of Japan for much of two decades, as being Americanized or as pandering his style to an American audience. For instance, scholar Masao Miyoshi argued in Off Center that Murakami writes not of Japan, but of "what the foreign [book] buyers like to see in it."1 Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe has said that "Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing isn't really Japanese . . . it can be read very naturally in New York."2 In 1998, the year Murakami's critically acclaimed novel, [The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle], went into English print, the author himself professed that Japanese culture had become unfamiliar to him due to a "self-imposed exile [from Japan]."3

In contrast to Murakami's Japanese reception, American reviewers often treat the author's fiction as inseparable from his cultural heritage. For instance, A. O. Scott, writing in Newsday, said that Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle embodied "a vision no American novelist could have invented."4 Elizabeth Ward, a reviewer for Washington Post Book World, deemed Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle an endeavor to "stuff all of modern Japan into a single fictional edifice."5 Yet curiously enough, the first two volumes of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle were researched and penned in Princeton, New Jersey; the final volume was completed in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apropos of this, Murakami said in an interview with Jay Rubin—leading scholar and translator of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—that [End Page 62] he "could not have written The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle if he had not been living in the United States."6

Nevertheless, American brands, song lyrics, and political references were in Haruki Murakami's writings before he ever set foot outside of Japan. Indeed, in [Pinball, 1973]—written three years before the author first traveled internationally—he described these game machines as containing:


[An awfully large amount of copper, enough to construct statues of all the presidents in American history (though you may not like Richard M. Nixon enough to build a statue of him).]

This quip at President Nixon's expense, of course, does not require a footnote for most of Murakami's American readership. This degree of accessibility for Americans, sometimes at the expense of Japanese, is a tendency throughout Murakami's books.

Murakami's works rarely mention contemporary Japanese culture, corporations, composers, or artists. The protagonists do not cite the lyrics of Japanese pop stars, fit diligent "salaryman" stereotypes, or patron karaoke establishments. In contrast, internationally distinguished American and British companies, films, authors, and bands are frequently referenced. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's central character, Toru, discusses jazz, munches cookies, hears of Allen Ginsberg and Keith Richards, drinks coffee, listens to Michael Jackson, writes with a Mont Blanc pen, and meets Japanese with non-Japanese names—such as Cinnamon, Nutmeg, and Malta. With all of these recognizable cultural references, how might Newsday's book review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle describe the text as "a vision no American novelist could have invented"?

I propose to answer this question by reconciling the seemingly incompatible readings of Murakami's works in Japan and in America with the author's texts as well as cultural-historical concomitants. Such an analysis requires a critical theory of how exoticism has functioned as a commodity in the Japanese and American reception of Murakami's writings. Translator and scholar Philip Gabriel examined Murakami's travel writing from a relevant perspective. Gabriel's journal article, "Back to the Unfamiliar," treated Murakami's works as "a repeated pattern, a path outwards that in the final [End Page 63] analysis spirals inwards, an ostensible attempt to confront the exotic and the unfamiliar that ends up obsessed with the familiar."8 In Gabriel's article, the interchange between exoticism (non-Japaneseness) and familiarity ( Japaneseness) was foregrounded, but Gabriel did not analyze how readers from "unfamiliar" or "other...


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