What it takes to be a first-rate writer
When I was in my teens and early-20s, I was a book worm. And my reading included Japanese literary works. Around the time the award-winning crap by Shintaro Ishihara, "Season of the sun," came out, I realized that it would be a sheer waste of time to read fictions authored by contemporary Japanese writers, even including Kenzaburo Oe, although the Nobel laureate could have been a sole exception. Ever since I haven't read a single novel made in Japan. Hence all I had known about Ryu Murakami was his name, until I somehow came across his most recent book, "Hanto wo ideyo", or "Leaving the Peninsula behind" in my tentative translation.
In my opinion every top-notch writer is gifted with two different qualities, i.e.:
1) Analytical/inductive ability which gives him a good insight into what we really are and where we are now, and
2) Imaginative/intuitive ability which gives him a good foresight of where we are heading.
Where there is a climate in which most professional writers opt to prohibit themselves from facing taboo issues head on, as is the case with this nation, a certain amount of imaginative or intuitive ability, alone, won't produce anything but a predictable, boring and empty figment. This holds true with both fiction writers and nonfiction writers, including journalists. This is why I haven't read a single book authored by a contemporary Japanese, fiction or non-fiction, in the last four decades. And this is why I buy a newspaper or two at the newsstand every morning only in anticipation of the faintest clues to what is really going on.
But now, I have realized, with a pleasant surprise, that even in today's
Japan, there are a few first-rate fiction writers, such as Ryu Murakami, who are
gifted in two ways.
Freewheel imagination backed by solid grasp of facts
Since imagination goes hand-in-hand with accurate grasp of factual things, the Murakami's future scenario is always backed by his factual knowledge throughout this book. He could make his fictitious story undeniably realistic and compelling primarily because his imaginative/intuitive ability is at play there. But at the same time, he wouldn't have come up with the masterful scenario, had it not been for his analytical/inductive ability applied to its factual aspects. For one thing he is very specific about figures, such as unemployment rate, suicide rate, divorce rate, homeless rate, crime rate, consumption tax (VAT) rate, savings-to-disposable income rate, etc. Here the former businessman, that I am, even feel as though I share the same crystal-ball with the author.
It's also noteworthy that Murakami's style is lined with his obsession with minute details about these fictitious characters (there are more than 140 of them) as well as things surrounding them. He is particular about details because details are where imaginative ability meets analytical ability. In order to flesh out the whole plot, he must have done a time-consuming and meticulous research work before actually getting started with these 24 exciting and shocking episodes.
Mirror images of Japan don't tell/foretell anything
In the U.S., and Europe alike, there have been a great number of self-proclaimed experts in Japanese literature, or any other things Japanese. And most of these Japanologists have inherited the traditional, stereotypical views of Japan from "japonisme" (word coined by Philippe Burty in 1876). We keep saying here that Japan is a very unique culture and we are a very different people from others. And those neo-japonistes are untiringly echoing the same notion. This misguided perception on both sides has not only hindered the real understanding of what we really are, but also been amplified over time with the perception gap further widened. On our part we are even more obsessed today with the idea that we are totally homogeneous among ourselves and heterogeneous to Westerners in part because it now seems to be the key to gaining over a certain understanding and acceptance abroad to cater to the stereotypical views of the Japanese by stressing our uniqueness. Most of us are now concerned more about how Westerners view us than what we really are. Some of us even have picked up the habit of emulating the way we look in the mirror held up against us by those Japan experts. Even so, it's as though these Japanese have almost concluded that they won't be understood by Westerners forever. The sticking point here is that this notion is self-contradictory because they still entertain an aching desire to be understood by Westerners. On the part of American or European Japanophiles, they maintain that they understand, or even appreciate, the uniqueness of this mysterious species. However, once something unexpected or unprecedented crops up here, these Japan experts are totally at a loss and all they can do is just second-guessing. To them the world's most predictable people sometimes look like the world's most unpredictable people these days. There are, of course, a handful of exceptions, such as Ian Buruma, author of "Inventing Japan." He refuses to serve as a mirror for the Japanese perhaps because he believes that the traditional approach of Japan experts would further undermine, instead of foster, the cross-cultural understanding.
In "Leaving the Peninsula behind," Ryu Murakami could draw an almost unimaginable, and yet convincing, scenario for 2011 presumably because he tried to avoid turning to those distorted mirror images of the Japanese, either Americanized or "re-Japanaized." He took a close look directly into these real questions: "What exactly are we? And where are we heading?" Not a single character in this novel doesn't meet the stereotypical description of Japanese. In that context I suspect most Western experts in Japanese literature won't find this novel to their liking. Also I suspect it will be next to impossible to translate this novel into English without losing the essence. (I am not talking about the Japanese language which some linguistic chauvinists say is so rich in subtle nuances that even a top-notch translator will find some literary works untranslatable.)
Missing link between juvenile crimes and government's inability to act
When my American friend asked me if this society was crumbling in the wake of a June 2004 murder case in which a 12-year-old girl slashed her classmate's throat with a boxcutter, I answered in the affirmative. 3 months later I elaborated some more on my answer in my TFP piece ("Box-cutter murder case", September 8.) The brutality shown by an innocent-looking kid sent a shiver throughout the nation. Actually, however, what was more horrifying to me was a childish note written by the victim's father and published in major newspapers. The note was something his deceased daughter could have written but in fact its writer was a seasoned journalist who was then overseeing the Sasebo Bureau of the Mainichi Shimbun daily. But just the same the boxcutter murder case made it known, perhaps for the first time, that ordinary Japanese people can kill each other so easily like any other peoples.
Aside from the issues with heinous and weird juvenile crimes, I have repeatedly taken up the abduction issue on this blog. I still admire the perseverance shown by the Yokotas (parents of Megumi Yokota who was allegedly abducted by North Korean agents in November 1977) and their colleagues. But what concerns me more than the fate of the abductees is the Japanese leaders' total inaction. They've kept talking, since the 2001 Pyongyang Summit, about their action plans such as economic sanctions against North Korea, but to date they have delivered absolutely nothing on their pledge to force Kim Jong-Il to send home these 150-plus abductees. In fact this inability to react resolutely, let alone pro-act, is nothing new as you will see if you take a glance at Japan's modern history. I have concluded by now that their morbid tendency toward letting things drift until a problem solves itself can only be explained pathologically. They call their own ostrich policy a pacifism.
However, something didn't really add up between the boxcutter murder case and Japan's toadyish diplomacy toward China and North Korea, until I came across this book in which the author made an otherwise unimaginable plot convincing enough to the readers by leveraging his wild imagination based on the good insight into sociopolitical state of things. Not that he could theorize something to bridge the missing link. Instead he could make it visualizable, so to speak. I'm now reasonably comfortable with Murakami's answer to the question I kept asking myself: "How come these violently frustrated people still allow the group of incompetent politicians, the Liberal Democratic Party, to remain in power?"
In this episode titled "Zombi-no mure", or "Horde of zombies", more than in any other chapter of the novel, Murakami demonstrates his unparalleled talent to allow you to visualize each one of the characters involved, Japanese and North Koreans, so vividly as though you are seeing them in person on the scene. To that end, his obsession with all the details about social backgrounds of these personalities of the ballgame spectators as well as the North Korean operatives proves especially instrumental here. "Horde of zombies" depicts a successful attempt by a North Korean commando unit of nine to hijack a Fukuoka ballpark packed with a capacity crowd of 30,000 on April 2, 2011. The only thing where his way of referring to factual things in this chapter is not really accurate or up-to-date is the name of the ballpark; he refers to it as Fukuoka Dome but it's been renamed recently as Yahoo! Dome. But never mind, you'll get really absorbed into Murakami's compelling story as he depicts how effectively the small commando unit of nine from the Peninsula can cause a total freeze and paralysis, without bloodshed, among the capacity crowd of 30,000 zombies who are attending the opening ballgame of the 2011 season. Simply, the way this episode unfolds is overwhelming.
This chapter (my tentative translation: "Knights at round-table") depicts the first reactions shown by the dozens of cabinet members and bureaucrats urgently assembled to the crisis management center in the wake of the ballpark seizure. The Murakami's scenario assumes that by 2011, the Liberal Democratic Party will have suffered a major setback and younger defectors from the LDP joined forces with the mainstream faction of the Democratic Party of Japan to form a "Green Party of Japan." Months before the hijacking of Fukuoka Dome, this GPJ came into power. So the Prime Minister to chair the emergency meeting, by the name of Masaaki Kido, is from the party often ridiculed as the Green Tea Party. Since Murakami's assumption is that the 1955 System (see September 9 TFP article titled "1955 System") is still there, it's no wonder these incompetent knights just sit around at the round-table all night long without being able to come up with a single valid counter-measure to the North Korean terrorists who claim to have been disowned by Pyongyang because of their hardline anti-U.S. stance. In the middle of the endless meeting in the basement, the Vice Chief Cabinet Secretary by the name of Kiyotaka Yamagiwa is fired by frustrated PM for his mishandling of the emergency situation before Kido's late arrival at the crisis management center. Murakami has the PM fail to tell Yamagiwa to get out of the room immediately so he sticks around there to look on, like an outsider, while these knights are having pointless and endless arguments. The (former) Vice Chief Cabinet Secretary observes, in effect, you will never notice that there's no point in discussing an emergency situation like this in the way these knights are doing, as long as you remain an insider. All along the PM fails to prioritize things as Yamagiwa observes. Unless the chief can determine at the onset what is more important than what else, you cannot but seek a risk-free, flawless, and costless solution, to no avail. At the end all these knights at the round-table can expect from the boss are these all too familiar words: "Just remain cool-headed. Let's wait and see."
As if to echo the Murakami's concern here, on a May 8 TV talk show featuring the issues around the April 25 deadly train accident which claimed 107 lives, a media-favorite professor from Keio University was uncharacteristically saying to this effect: "Something is fundamentally wrong with this society. And if you are among those passengers, you never notice that until it's too late. Simply, this can't last anymore."
"Leaving the Peninsula behind" includes several chapters focusing, in Murakami's signature style of being particular about details, on a group of 20 predominantly teenage social outcasts headed, in a strange way, by a 49-year-old narcissistic freak who claims to be a poet. His family name is Ishihara and his first name remains unknown. I suspect Murakami won't find it particularly objectionable if some of the readers think, like I do, this bizarre character is reminiscent of, or associated with, Shintaro Ishihara, current Tokyo Governor, in many ways. He is just nuts. And yet he can exercise an overwhelming and irresistible influence on the teenage outcasts who invariably have background of victimizing their friends, siblings or parents in the most brutal ways, or being brutalized by them. They are living in abandoned warehouses sitting in an area where the Fukuoka ballpark is in sight. Some of them are collecting weaponry. Some others are keeping weird things such as poisonous scorpions, giant centipedes or even huge roaches. They don't know, though, what to do with their collections. Same is true with a 48-year-old ex-banker. He is constantly buying lethal weapons from Russia and the Philippines, capitalizing on his old connection with a group of Yemeni guerrillas. When the North Korean terrorists, and their reinforcements from the Peninsula, practically bring the city of Fukuoka under their control, their first reaction is a sense of admiration toward the strength these well-disciplined "Koryo" terrorists are showing off. In the other part of the country, people are also developing Stockholm Syndrome, the mental illness the Japanese are extremely susceptible to. But it doesn't take long until Ishihara, the boss, declares, between incessant profanities, that the occupation forces are enemies. His words instantly emancipates the group members from the ambivalent feelings they harbored at the initial stage of the North Koreans' intrusion into the city. The boss is as skillful as the other Ishihara in switching his guys' orientation off and on, back and forth, between compulsive impulse for destroying others and self-destructive urge. The fate of these poor martyrs is in Ishihara's hands.
It's one thing to be homeless or jobless in a normal and sound country and it's quite another to be homeless or jobless in this "homogeneous and egalitarian" nation. And that's basically why these teenage kids have flocked, from all over the nation, around these abandoned warehouses to devote themselves to the pervy emperor.
Real message of "Leaving the Peninsula behind"
In Japan the media have been acting like "political sandmen" (Ian Buruma) who sprinkle all the myths about the homogeneous and egalitarian nation and about the Emperor who ensures the national unity all the time. But now this first-rate literary work by Murakami foretells that this won't last too long. As he admits, some readers are saying his is the worst and least-likely case scenario. If they are right, Murakami is just telling us an indecent joke or a paranoiac delusion about the future of this nation. But if I may borrow the accurate metaphor from the Keio professor, they are just passengers in the train on a collision course. If they mobilize to the fullest their insight into facts at hand as well as their imagination about the future, without being misguided by the media acting like the train conductor of West Japan Railway Co., they will realize they cannot totally rule out the Murakami's scenario. And that's what the message of the book all comes down to.
For my part, it now looks as though things are destined to unfold more or less in the same way they do in the Murakami's startling scenario, unless we jump off the train in time.