Five Japanese Authors Share Their Favorite Murakami Short Stories
Yoko Ogawa, Masatsugu Ono, and Others Discuss
This past weekend in Japan, Haruki Murakami released his new story collection Ichininshō Tansū (The First Person Singular). The collection comprises eight stories, seven of which were first published in the literary magazine Bungakukai between summer 2018 and winter 2020. Many of these first-person stories are narrated by what feels like an older version of the “boku” first-person narrators of Murakami’s early stories and novels. Some of the narrators have clearly been crafted to resemble Haruki Murakami himself (a technique he famously deployed early in his career when he wrote the stories included in his 1985 collection Kaiten Mokuba no Deddo Hiito). Several stories in this new collection have already been made available in English translation in the New Yorker and Granta, and Philip Gabriel’s translation of the entire book is scheduled to be published in April 2021.
Murakami’s international success has helped a new generation of writers from Japan reach readers overseas. While the voices of these writers are entirely their own, many have been influenced in one way or another by Murakami’s work. I asked five of my favorite contemporary authors working in Japanese—Hideo Furukawa, Mieko Kawakami, Yoko Ogawa, Masatsugu Ono, and Hiroko Oyamada—to write a few words introducing their favorite/most memorable Murakami stories so that English-language fans might revisit them while they wait for the new collection to be made available to them.
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (translated by Stephen Snyder, who has written eloquently about the impact of Murakami’s dominance in the international publishing sphere) was shortlisted for a National Book Award last year and is currently on the shortlist for the International Booker Prize. In the US she is represented by Anna Stein at ICM (the same agency where Murakami is represented by Amanda Urban), and with this latest book is now published by Knopf, where she is edited by Lexy Bloom, who has been editing the English translations of Murakami’s books since 2011 beginning with the novel 1Q84.
Ogawa, who counts Murakami as one of her major influences, and who first began reading foreign fiction through Murakami’s translations, recommends “Gogo no saigo no shibafu” (“The Last Lawn of the Afternoon”), which appeared in Murakami’s first collection of stories Chūgoku iki no surō bōto (Slow Boat to China). Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation of the story is available in the collection The Elephant Vanishes (1993). The story almost didn’t make it into this first collection of Murakami’s in English because Murakami himself wasn’t a great fan of the piece, but according to Murakami, his editor at Knopf at the time, Gary Fisketjon, insisted on including it, saying “I like this.”
Yoko Ogawa on “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon”
Memory and fiction are so closely tied together for Haruki Murakami. They can be as precarious and fragile as with the image of “limp kittens piled on top of each other” in this story. The I-narrator is a university student who has been hired by a widow to mow her lawn. It is an extremely hot day, yet he mows and trims the lawn with exceptional care, in accordance with his uncompromising standards. Once he is done with the task, the widow invites him indoors and shows him a room upstairs. She asks him simply: “What d’you think?” A deep silence pervades what appears to be a typical teenage girl’s room. We suspect that in the depths of that silence lies death, but the widow reveals nothing. But in response to her further prompting, the narrator shares what he imagines the girl is like. He does not know her name. He does not even know what she looks like. Nonetheless, he piles one memory upon another as if stacking kittens. For a moment the widow and “I” share the pain of terrifying uncertainty. I find myself returning to this story whenever I come across a perfectly mown, shadowless lawn on a summer afternoon.Just as a sprinter does everything he can to cut a tenth of a second off his time, Murakami has always assessed his abilities, set new goals for his next work, refined his skills, and pushed the outer limits of his fictional universe.
Set in a small fishing village in Southern Japan similar to the one that the author grew up in, Echo on the Bay, Masatsugu Ono’s second novel published in English translation (tr. Angus Turvill), was described by British/Chinese author Xiaolu Guo as an “intimate, dark, and poetic portrait of a Japan that isn’t part of mainstream society.” A starred Kirkus review suggested that “Fans of Kenzaburo Oe’s Death by Water and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 will enjoy Ono’s enigmatic story,” which is interesting since both writers have had a significant influence on Ono’s work. Read Ono’s reflections on the writing styles of Murakami and Oe and the influence on newer generations of Japanese writers (including himself) in this recent essay published by Paris Review Daily.
Ono recommends “Midori iro no kemono” (“The Little Green Monster”). The story (along with “Sleep”, recommended below by Hideo Furukawa) is one of the handful of Murakami stories featuring a female narrator (most of which were written in a short period in the late eighties and early nineties). The monster in the story speaks by “repeating certain words as if it were still trying to learn them.” In the Japanese original this often entails the monster repeating a single syllable. Alfred Birnbaum famously reimagined the distinct speaking style of the Sheep Man character in A Wild Sheep Chase by rendering his dialogue without spaces between words (“You’llneverseethatwomanagain”), and Jay Rubin, in comparable creative fashion, translated the speech of “The Little Green Monster” by utilizing rhythmic repetition (“I’ve come her to propose to you. From deep deep deep down deep down deep”), thus also getting away from the suggestion of stuttering. It comes as no surprise that this piece would speak to Ono who is himself a master at juggling a range of different voices in his own fiction.
Masatsugu Ono on “The Little Green Monster”
What is “The Little Green Monster”? The way it makes its appearance is reminiscent of the mysterious creature in Kafka on the Shore, and its distinct speech and mannerisms remind one of the many memorable characters that pepper Murakami’s fiction—the Sheep Man in A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance, Nakata in Kafka on the Shore, Frog in “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” Ushikawa in 1Q84, the Commendatore in Killing Commendatore—and the way the monster is tortured by the I-narrator conjures up the horrifying scene in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle where a man is skinned alive. This creature that appears from the depths of Murakami’s fertile imagination is a tiny green seed packed tight with characters and scenes that will go on to characterize Murakami’s later work.
Hiroko Oyamada first garnered attention in the Anglophone world with the story “Spider Lilies” (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter), published in the 2015 Japan issue of Granta. Of her recently published debut novel The Factory (tr. David Boyd), Kris Kosaka writes in the Japan Times: “Although bound constantly by realistic drudgery, the entire novel submerges into the surreal until its satisfyingly circular end. Like any great work of art, the meaning deepens with each subsequent perusal.” New Directions is following up with her Akutagawa-Prize winning novella The Hole (also translated by David Boyd) this fall.
Oyamada is no longer the avid reader of Murakami’s work that she was in her youth, but the Murakami story that has stuck with her for many years was actually a sliver from “Yakyūjyō” (“Baseball Field”), which was first published in Japan as part of a series of purportedly “true” stories Murakami had heard from various people. Murakami later revealed the entire book was a work of fiction. A number of pieces from this collection have been made available in English translation (including the significantly abridged “Lederhosen,” translated by Alfred Birnbaum), but “Baseball Field” remains unpublished in English translation. However, English-language readers can turn to “Crabs,” a short story Murakami wrote by expanding the embedded story in “Baseball Field” (which Oyamada refers to below). “Crabs” (tr. Philip Gabriel) was first published in Storie Magazine and later included in the 2006 collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. It’s interesting to note that Oyamada has also penned a short story (unpublished in English to date) with the title “Kani” (“Crabs”). Like Murakami’s story, it features crabs, a field, and a protagonist that experiences a moment of deep alienation.
Hiroko Oyamada on “Baseball Field”
I used to be an avid reader of Haruki Murakami’s fiction when I was in middle and high school. When I think back, the short story of his which immediately comes first to mind is the piece in which the protagonist vomits into a toilet bowl after eating crab. The young man stares at the white flesh of crab, cooked, chewed, and now quivering in the toilet bowl, when he realizes that what he is actually looking at is thousands of tiny, white worms. I remember my young self thinking: I guess vomit in a toilet does kind of look like it’s alive…
I decided to reread the story but couldn’t remember the title. So I went through the Murakami story collections on my bookshelf and found that the story was just a part of “Yakyūjō”(“Baseball Field”), collected in Kaiten Mokuba no Deddo Hiito (Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round). It’s a story about a Peeping-Tom who spies on a female acquaintance living on the other side of a baseball field. The episode about the crab is actually just a story within a story, a work of fiction supposedly sent to the I-narrator, but ever since I read the story back in my teens, whenever I’ve thrown up in the toilet, whether it was because I’d had too much to drink, was experiencing morning sickness, or was feeling unwell for some other reason, I’ve always felt like I could see worms squirming in the water.
Hideo Furukawa’s novella Slow Boat (tr. David Boyd) is an authorized reimagining of Murakami’s first published short story “Chūgoku iki no Surō Bōto” (“Slow Boat to China,” tr. Alfred Birnbaum). Reviewing the book in the Japan Times in 2017, Iain Maloney wrote: “While Murakami’s recent efforts have disappointed and the spark seems to have gone from his writing, Furukawa is firing on all cylinders.”
A native of Fukushima prefecture, Furukawa has been hosting a series of literary workshops in Northern Japan following the triple disasters—earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown—that rocked the region in 2011 (including one that Murakami participated in). As I write this, Furukawa is making his way up North on foot from Tokyo to Fukushima. Next March will mark ten years since the Tohoku disaster and he plans to release a book that includes a report of this trip. In the meantime, you can also read an account of the trip he made to Fukushima soon after the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima (tr. Doug Slaymaker and Akiko Takenaka). Here Furukawa recommends Murakami’s 1989 story “Nemuri.” Jay Rubin’s English translation of “Sleep” was first published in the New Yorker in 1992 and collected in The Elephant Vanishes the following year.
Hideo Furukawa on “Sleep”
”Sleep” features a woman who cannot sleep. She hasn’t slept for seventeen days. Not only is she a woman who cannot sleep, she is a woman who does not sleep. And through the story this first-person narrator shares her inner thoughts and reflects on how she arrived at her current state. The total absence of sleep in this enchanting tale can be taken at face value (as a fantastic story), or it could be interpreted as a symbol for something else. And the same can be said for the event that caused the protagonist to lose her ability to sleep. One night she is awakened by a nightmare only to find that she is totally unable to move. There is a strange old man by her side, pouring water onto her feet from a pitcher. She is unable to scream. In Japanese we call this phenomenon kanashibari. But I wonder how readers in countries with no equivalent to this word would interpret this scene? Something that feels concrete to the writer Haruki Murakami can become symbolic of something else to his readers in the West. This seems to me to show the kind of dynamism that can be found in translated literature.
In a 2017 piece for Lit Hub Murakami wrote that Mieko Kawakami’s Akutagawa-award winning novella Chichi to ran (Breasts and Eggs) was so amazing “it took my breath away.” Kawakami’s US publisher used this quote on the cover of the English translation of the expanded version of the book, published in Japan as Natsu Monogatari (in English as Breasts and Eggs). Kawakami has studied Murakami’s work more carefully than any other contemporary Japanese writer I know, and in a symposium we both took part in last fall, she presented specific passages from various Murakami novels ranging from Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World to Norwegian Wood that had an impact on her as a writer. She has also contributed various pieces to Lit Hub related to Murakami, including most recently an excerpt of an interview in which she confronts Murakami about the representation/roles of women in his work.
Kawakami recommends the short story “Tony Takitani.” The story was edited down significantly when first published in the magazine Bungei Shunjū in 1990, but was later expanded when published in Murakami’s collected works. Translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum have attested to their completely different tastes when it comes to Murakami’s stories. Rubin writes in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words that “the ones that he [Birnbaum] liked I usually didn’t like. We almost never asked for the same stories. It was downright strange.” But “Tony Takitani” was one of the few stories that both Birnbaum and Rubin were drawn to. An earlier translation of the story by Birnbaum never found a magazine publisher and it was also dropped from the final list of stories to be included in The Elephant Vanishes. Jay Rubin’s translation was eventually published in the New Yorker in 2002 and later collected in the 2006 collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
Mieko Kawakami on “Tony Takitani”
I think of Murakami as an athlete. Just as a sprinter does everything he can to cut a tenth of a second off his time, Murakami has always assessed his abilities, set new goals for his next work, refined his skills, and pushed the outer limits of his fictional universe. Just as writing Dead Heat on the Merry-Go-Round helped him develop the realistic style necessary to write Norwegian Wood, the writing of “Tony Takitani,” the first major Murakami piece in the third person, made it possible for him to create the expansive worlds depicted in the The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and subsequent works. Learning how to write a life—here that of Tony Takitani’s father, Shōzaburō—in a swiftly-paced but thorough manner, enabled him to later create characters who moved freely between conscious and unconscious worlds and the real and unreal, which in turn allowed for dynamic storytelling. And we now have his return to The First Person Singular, which enables us to trace Murakami’s forty-year trajectory and development as an author.
Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami by David Karashima is available via Soft Skull Press.