September 27, 2013 2:07 pm

Ryu Murakami

Japan is a safe, polite society in which occasionally hyper-violent crimes are committed that shock the world. They do not surprise one of its best-known authors, whose bleak novels brim with brutality. Interview by David Pilling
Ryu Murakami in the Tokyo hotel where he works four days a week: “The room is a mess, as you’d expect”©Ko Sasaki

Ryu Murakami in the Tokyo hotel where he works four days a week: “The room is a mess, as you’d expect”

One Sunday afternoon in June 2008, Tomohiro Kato, a 25-year-old temporary worker at an auto-parts factory, drove a rented two-tonne truck into a crowd of people in Akihabara, a neon wonderland of electronic gadgets and manga-comic-book stores in central Tokyo. The initial impact left three people dead, at which point Kato jumped out and began stabbing bystanders at random, killing four more and injuring several others. Later, he told police he didn’t mind who he killed. Anybody would do.

Ryu Murakami's MacBook©Ko Sasaki

Kato had given warning of the impending attack, detailing his plans in an internet thread prosaically entitled, “I will kill people in Akihabara.” In multiple postings, both hours before and in previous months, he had complained about workplace arguments – he thought someone had hidden his uniform – and about his feelings of being ugly and without a girlfriend. His well-to-do parents had been strict and deeply disappointed with his mediocre high-school grades, he said. “I don’t have a single friend and I won’t in the future . . . I’m lower than trash because at least trash gets recycled.” His last post, about 20 minutes before he started his ­murderous rampage, said simply: “It’s time.”

Rage. Violence. Churning resentment beneath the pond-like surface. This is the territory of Ryu Murakami, one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists. Murakami’s protagonists are young perpetrators of casual violence or dropouts unmoved by Japan’s social norms. Some, such as the anti-hero of Piercing (1994), who stands over his baby daughter’s crib with an ice pick wondering what would happen if he killed her, are psychologically dislodged. Others are rebels – once in a while with a cause. One keeps a crocodile in her Tokyo apartment. Another uses poisonous bugs as weapons. Though they often have back stories of childhood abuse or social deprivation, Murakami’s heroes – for there is usually some underlying sympathy – are rarely more than cardboard thin. His novels share something with the schlock violence and sexual explicitness of cartoons devoured by Japanese teenagers and adults alike: fantasies of blood and semen.

Bottles of liquor in Ryu Murakami's hotel room©Ko Sasaki

Outside the pages of a Murakami novel, Japan is one of the safest countries on earth. In the US you are 10 times more likely to be murdered and 36 times more likely to be robbed than in Japan. One rarely hears conversations about which neighbourhoods are safe to walk in at night. The presumption of security is almost absolute.

Japanese society is also civil to an extreme, at least on the surface. Beneath the veneer, though, subtle remarks and actions can be as cutting as in one of Jane Austen’s drawing rooms. Almost every aspect of daily life is governed by strict codes about the right way to conduct oneself. Littering is almost unheard of. People refrain from using mobile phones on public transport. In aeroplanes, some Japanese apologise to the person behind them and bow slightly before reclining their seat.

Sometimes, though, people snap. There’s a brittleness to relations. Many of the little tensions that might bubble up daily in other societies are suppressed. A fight might suddenly break out on a station platform. A business meeting may unexpectedly end in red-faced anger. At the extreme, incidents of sudden rage and violence are common enough to form the subject of agonised debate in the Japanese press. Seven years to the day before the “Akihabara random attacker incident” – almost anything unpleasant that happens in Japan is referred to as an “incident” – a former school janitor stabbed eight children to death and injured several more in a school near Osaka. In 1997, in an infamous case, a 14-year-old schoolboy strangled and decapitated an 11-year-old friend of his brother and displayed the head on the school gate.

Many of Murakami’s characters too are prone to erupt. Now 61, the author, brought up in Sasebo near Nagasaki, broke into Japan’s literary consciousness in his mid-twenties with Almost Transparent Blue. The novel, about young drug addicts and loosely based on his own experience, won the prestigious Akutagawa literary award in 1976 and went on to sell several million copies.

Widely thought to be Murakami’s best novel, Coin Locker Babies (1980) is the story of two boys abandoned by their mothers in a luggage locker

Widely thought to be Murakami’s best novel, Coin Locker Babies (1980) is the story of two boys abandoned by their mothers in a luggage locker

Subsequent novels – more than 40 by the latest count – have returned repeatedly to themes of youthful alienation, rebellion, feelings of impotence – and extreme violence. Coin Locker Babies (1980), probably still considered his best novel and now being made into a film, tells the story of two boys, left for dead by their mothers in a sweltering station luggage locker. They grow up to plot their revenge. In Exodus From Hopeless Japan (2000), a group of schoolchildren lose faith in the future and organise an alternative society over the internet. In the latest Murakami novel to be translated into English, published this year under the title From the Fatherland, With Love , a group of dropouts save Japan from a North Korean invasion. Japan’s defenders, it turns out almost inevitably for a Murakami novel, have had universally disturbed and violent childhoods.

Murakami’s own childhood was not exactly smooth. The son of teachers, he must have been his headmaster’s worst nightmare. In senior high he barricaded himself on to the rooftop of his school in a reflection of the student anti-Vietnam-war movement then paralysing universities throughout Japan. He sympathised with the hippie movement, joined a rock band and started making 8mm indie films. He became, in other words, a prototype of many of his rebellious fictional characters. It was perhaps fitting that his name, a shortened version of Ryunosuke, should be written with the Chinese character meaning “dragon”.

Yoichi Funabashi, one of Japan’s most respected journalists, says Murakami – who hosts his own weekly TV show, Cambria Palace, about, of all things, economic and business affairs – is one of the country’s most important literary figures. Like Haruki Murakami, his more internationally famous namesake, Ryu’s novels champion the cause of the individual and shine a light into the darker recesses of Japanese society.

Ryu once visited Haruki at Peter Cat, the jazz bar Haruki ran from the mid-1970s in Tokyo. The two, who both set out writing at roughly that time, shared a respect for individualism and a suspicion of the idea that Japan should be more “group-oriented” than western societies. That was about the time Ryu met his wife, a keyboard player, to whom, 35 years later, he is still married. His son was born in 1980. Mostly, however, he keeps his private life to himself to such an extent that even his UK publicist is sketchy on the details.

In more recent years, Funabashi credits Murakami with pinpointing the often-unspoken intergenerational conflict that has accompanied 20 years of economic downturn since the bursting of the bubble in 1990, which shrank opportunities for much of the country’s youth. “He was very perceptive about the fundamental changes in Japanese society, particularly as they affected young people throughout the lost decades,” Funabashi told me the day before I was due to meet Murakami. “In one of his novels, he wrote something like, ‘This country has everything. You can find whatever you want here. The only thing missing is hope.’ That really captured the angst and fears of young people in this country.”

The following day is sweltering hot. The humidity is heightened by the fact that air-conditioning thermostats have been set to energy-saving temperatures. With nearly all of the nuclear power stations disabled after the 2011 triple meltdown at Fukushima, the Japanese are doing their bit: perspiration in the cause of productivity and the nation’s balance of payments. Murakami’s hotel room, I notice, is nicely cool. For three or four days each week the author, whose home is outside the capital in Kanagawa prefecture, holes up in a hotel in Shinjuku, a grungy district of western Tokyo that was the setting for In the Miso Soup, his story about a killing spree in the huge red-light district a few blocks away.

The room is a mess, just as you’d expect. As well as writing, Murakami is preparing for his weekly TV show. There’s a half-empty bottle of Glenlivet and another bottle of similarly depleted cognac on one table. A pair of swimming trunks is draped over the windowsill. Clothes are strewn about. On his writing desk, his MacBook stands in a sea of debris: cigarette packets, a DVD of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a plastic mineral water bottle, piles of books. Murakami greets me in English, though the interview takes place in Japanese. He’s a smallish man with a large presence. Stocky, with a big, wide face – not normally considered a good trait in Japan – he has something of the ageing rock star about him: good looks, wrinkles, bags under his eyes and flecks of grey in his shaggy black hair.

Akihabara, scene of a killing spree in 2008©Ko Sasaki

Akihabara, scene of a killing spree in 2008

I start by asking why his books deal so much with violence when Japan remains so relatively peaceful. Rather than boiling with rage, the Japanese come across as oddly passive. “It’s true. Violence is rare in Japan compared with other places like the Middle East. There aren’t so many public demonstrations here like you see in Europe,” he says. “Many Japanese are dissatisfied and frustrated. But they are not good at expressing those feelings so they tend to wall themselves off. And because they have this pent-up anger, they are very unstable.”

As an artist, Murakami says, it’s vital to paint on a large canvas. “In my novels, instead of being too introspective, I need something powerful like sex, violence or drugs to banish that inward-looking mentality.” For him rage, at least in fiction, is a worthy form of expression. “Rage is important,” he says. “It is a vital component of my novels. But even if you’re angry and you throw a Molotov cocktail in the street, nothing will change. It is very difficult for youth to know where to target their anger.”

The latest of Murakami’s novels (2013) to be translated into English sees a group of dropouts save Japan from a North Korean invasion

The latest of Murakami’s novels (2013) to be translated into English sees a group of dropouts save Japan from a North Korean invasion

His writing offers an almost cathartic opportunity for suppressed emotions to play themselves out. “In my novels there are clear targets for youth to direct their anger against. For example, in From the Fatherland, With Love, the North Korean commanders [who have led an invasion against Japan], provide a clear target for anger. But in the real world, these clear-cut targets don’t exist.”

His novels, then, could be seen as fantasies of empowerment. Many have commented on the role that Japan’s sometimes violent and sadistic art may have in damping such tendencies in the real world.

Murakami, though, says that, if anything, he is trying to make his readers angrier, to show them how to channel their rage. “I’m not trying to make the world a better place . . . Unlike politicians, whose job is to work on the masses by making society fairer and more prosperous, the duty of the novelist is to target a single reader, one person reading alone.” And the response he’s trying to elicit in that reader? “There’s a famous saying, that you can lead a horse to a lake, for example, but you cannot force that horse to drink,” he says, in a curious rendition of the English maxim. “In the same way, I believe that young people should be more angry, indeed that every Japanese should be more angry. But, as with horses, it’s really difficult to force people to get angry, so I’m just . . . what I’m doing with my novels is just showing people that it’s possible.”

When it comes to what people should be angry about, Murakami keeps circling three issues. One is the lack of opportunity for young people, since much of the burden of economic adjustment has fallen on younger generations increasingly obliged to take part-time, low-paid work. Though there has been corporate restructuring, those with jobs have mostly been spared. Deflation has tended to favour older generations, preserving the value of their pensions and wages. Funabashi, the journalist, says: “We have been too slow to appreciate the predicament of the young, the politics of the aged and their entitlements at the expense of young people. Under the deflationary regime, which has lasted 20 years, young people have suffered most. For the older generation it’s been a paradise.”

The spoof “job guide” Hello Work for 13-Year Olds (2004).

The spoof “job guide” Hello Work for 13-Year Olds (2004).

Murakami concurs on the need for what he calls “intergenerational conflict”, for younger generations to stand up more assertively for their rights, though he points out that not all baby-boomers have fared well either. Those without pensions from top companies have also struggled, he says. Meanwhile, “Japanese youth have tended to become introverted. They don’t know what to do with their lives.” One of his books, Hello Work for 13-Year Olds (2004) is a spoof guide to job opportunities. (Hello Work is the typically cutesy name given to public employment bureaus.) Murakami writes, in a deadpan style, about the pros and cons of more than 500 different jobs from doctor to prostitute and from car mechanic to soldier.

A second reason for anger is what Murakami regards as years of economic mismanagement by politicians and elite bureaucrats. In another spoof children’s book entitled What Could That Money Have Bought? (1999) he lists 122 alternative uses for $60bn spent on cleaning up failed banks. According to his calculations, the same amount of money could have bought a nuclear-powered aircraft ­carrier, 25 remakes of the film Titanic, plus blankets for all the world’s homeless children. “I wanted to give the public the information in a very understandable format, so they could decide for themselves whether this was the best [use of the money],” he told one journalist.

To me he talks about Abenomics, the deflation-busting effort spearheaded by Shinzo Abe, the prime minister. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a central bank in any country successfully turning a national economy around simply through massive monetary easing. And yet that’s the only thing they’re doing,” he says. “I don’t think something extreme will happen like hyperinflation. But many economists think a possible scenario is that prices will go up, and salaries will stay flat or go down. That would be a failure of Abenomics.”

Some of his novels contain almost apocalyptic predictions about what might happen to Japan’s economy and, with it, the ordered fabric of society. A collapsed yen, mass homelessness, food shortages, petty – and not so petty – crime. In reality, he says, “my image is not of a big, sudden crisis but rather of a slow decline that leads eventually to death.” Death, I ask, means what? “The country gradually getting poorer,” he replies.

The third reason for being angry is more existential. “It does seem that Japan is very lost and it doesn’t know where it should go,” he says. “Since Meiji [1868], Japan worked to make the economy rich and country strong but this failed. We failed to make the country strong through war and so we renounced that. But we continued to work to make the country richer and that was the reason for our economic success,” he says of the postwar miracle. “So Japan became rich, but in the meantime we never really discussed what kind of Japan we wanted to build.” Japan still equates happiness with rapid economic expansion, he adds. Now that growth has slowed to a crawl, people feel confused. In a New York Times op-ed, he compared the national emotion to “the melancholy any child goes through as adulthood approaches”.

That existential angst extends to the whole postwar settlement, which left Japan as a sort of ward of America. Alone among nations, Japan was stripped of its right to wage war, its constitution was rewritten by foreigners and its defence outsourced to the US. That arrangement has upset both the left and the right. The right – among them Abe – resents the fact that Japan has been shorn of its national dignity, treated as an untrustworthy juvenile. Douglas MacArthur, who headed the US occupation force in Japan after the war, notoriously compared the Japanese nation to a 12-year-old child. But while conservatives blame the US and the “victors’ justice” it imposed, they also see no alternative to clinging ever tighter to US skirts.

The left – which might include Murakami, though his politics are not easy to pigeonhole – is more resentful still of the US presence. “Japan had degenerated into a country that was little more than America’s servile, tail-wagging lapdog,” one of his characters reflects in From the Fatherland. More than the right, though, the left is attracted by US culture. In Sixty-Nine (1987), Japanese teens express their rebellion against stifling expectations through icons of western pop culture including Jimi Hendrix and The Velvet Underground. “You may dislike the US as a country but you may still like Muhammad Ali,” is how Murakami explains it to me.

Faced with a rising and more assertive China, Japan finds itself caught between such resentments and fears that US power is waning. “These days, the scope of US influence is not all that different from China,” Murakami says. “It’s clear that the power of [America] is on the decline and we can no longer really rely on it.” In From the Fatherland, a weakened US stands by as North Korean commanders invade Kyushu, the most southern of Japan’s main islands. For North Korea, read “China”, and you have a pretty accurate picture of Japan’s growing sense of vulnerability. “One of the characteristics of Japan is that it’s never been invaded by other countries. So the Japanese are not good at protecting their own land or people,” Murakami says. In From the Fatherland, the North Koreans breeze in. They find the Japanese to be like tissue paper, softened by years of affluence and outside protection.

The Japanese people are impotent against such forces. Alone, they can neither fix the economy nor make Japan more secure. “All they can do is try to channel their anger into something more positive – for themselves,” he says.

His favourite reader was a high-school girl who had written to him after quarrelling with her parents. After she had run away, she had taken comfort from one of his novels. “Reading my book, she understood that there were other people out there like her,” he says. “That made me really happy.”

I’d read about the girl in another interview and knew that her family fight had been over her ambition to set up a confectionery store. While Murakami’s fictional rebels gas bystanders or shoot up North Koreans, I teased him, Japan’s real-world rebels are setting up sweet shops against their parents’ wishes. Why not write about them?

“I did write some novels like that,” he says unconvincingly. “Maybe they’re not translated into English yet.”

Ryu Murakami in the Tokyo hotel where he works four days a week©Ko Sasaki

Murakami is credited with pinpointing the often-unspoken generational conflict that has accompanied Japan’s 20 years of economic downturn

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David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor. His book Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival is published by Penguin in January 2014.

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