Five years after the long novel Kafka on the shore, Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s trilogy 1Q84 was published in Japan in 2009-10 where it quickly became a bestseller. With details of the book kept strictly secret prior to its release, anticipating Murakami readers had to satisfy their curiosity with train posters such as the above.
The Danish translation of book 1 is released on September 29 and for the first time Danish readers will get their Murakami fix before the English translation hits bookstores across the world at the end of October.
PhD candidate at University of Cambridge and associated PhD candidate at NIAS, Gitte Marianne Hansen shows how Murakami’s latest novel relates to a group of largely ignored Murakami works that portray female protagonists, main characters and narrators.
SPOILER ALERT: this text reveals a few details from Murakami Haruki’s latest novel1Q84, book 1, chapter 1.
A female serial killer’s literary roots: Murakami Haruki, 1Q84 and Aomame
With sale-records in Japan and immense interest across the world, Murakami Haruki’s literary world needs little introduction. In 2010, tickets to the literary event Verdenslitteratur på Møn immediately sold out when the small literary society, based on a remote island in southern Denmark, welcomed the Japanese author as its guest of honor. Although Murakami had insisted on rules that almost seemed paranoid in a Danish context, we can expect an equally high level of interest when the Danish translation of book 1 of Murakami latest novel 1Q84 is released next week.
From 1982 to 1Q84
After reading only a few lines into 1Q84 it soon becomes evident that this is going to be a different reading experience than Murakami’s other long novels. Aomame, the first of two protagonists we meet, is female and not only very confident, but a cold-blooded serial killer as well. Interesting, right? Especially considering that Murakami’s works have been called a mirror of Japanese patriarchy and that his female characters have irritated some of Japan’s leading feminists who claim Murakami portrays women as objects for male subjectivities. These previous critiques of Murakami’s works may make a necessary point regarding some of his gender representations, perhaps especially those where an older male protagonist has relationships with very young girls, as in Supūtoniku no koibito (1999) [translated as Sputnik sweetheart] and Hitsuji wo meguru bōken (1982) [translated as A wild sheep chase]. However, such criticisms are incomplete because they do not take into account often-overlooked works in his authorship that portray female subjectivities. With the presence of Aomame, these works can no longer be ignored.
Although Murakami is best known for his first person male narrations, 1Q84 is not the first of his works to portray a female main character or question issues regarding women. Beginning with Bāto Bakarakku wa osuki? (1982) [not officially translated], later renamed Mado (2005) [translated as Window], where the male narrator recalls an encounter with a lonely housewife, Murakami has consistently authored a group of works that depicts the reality many women in Japan face. This group creates awareness of women’s issues and portrays protagonists, main characters, and narrators that are female. We can categorize these works into four literary styles: watashi-stories, boku-stories, third person-stories and watashi-tachi-stories.
Four literary styles
Watashi-stories – a female protagonist uses her own voice to narrate her own story via the first person pronoun, watashi (I), as in Nemuri (1989) [translated as Sleep], Kanō Kureta (1990) [not officially translated], Koori otoko (1991) [translated as The ice man] and Midori iro no kemono (1991) [translated as The little green monster]. In the Japanese language, watashi is used both by men and women, but men’s usage is typically limited to formal or polite speech whereas women use watashi in both informal and formal situations. Although some exceptions exist, male protagonists in Murakami’s works usually use boku (I) and not watashi (I) when they reveal their personal stories, and breaking this ‘rule’ often adds an interesting nuance of uncertainty or mystery to the characters.
Boku-stories – using the exclusive male first person pronoun, boku (I), a male narrator retells a female main character’s story as it was told to him, as in Bāto Bakarakku wa osuki?/Mado (1982/2005) [translated as Window], Takushii ni notta otoko (1984) [not officially translated], and Rēdāhōzen (1985) [Lederhosen].
Third person-stories – a third-person narrator narrates the story of a main female character, as in Tairando (1999) [Thailand], Hanarei bei (2005) [translated as Hanalei bay], Shinagawa-saru (2005) [translated as A shinagawa monkey], and most recently in 1Q84 (2009; 2010) [translated as 1Q84, forthcoming October 2011].
Watashi-tachi-stories – the unusual use of the plural pronoun watashi-tachi (we) in Afutādāku (2004) [translated as After dark].
Aomame’s predecessors – Murakami Haruki’s female narrative-works
Consisting of both short stories and novels, this diverse group of Murakami works is not confined to a particular literary style and addresses various political, social and personal issues that women in contemporary Japanese society face. In an article I wrote shortly after book 1 and 2 of 1Q84 was released in Japan, I therefore suggested using the term ‘Murakami Haruki’s female narratives’ to broadly categorize this group of works. The aim was to show that this group of works exists and to demonstrate how the works connect to the ‘female experience’ in contemporary Japan via three distinct themes: ‘housewife isolation’, ‘contemporary femininity’ (contradictive femininity) and ‘women and violence’ (both violence towards the self and towards others).
Aomame’s predecessors are not feminist empowered female characters who stand up for themselves and demand freedom from their female roles. For example, watashi in Nemuri gives up trying to free herself from her family, watashi in Midori iro no kemono re-suppresses her own ‘other self’ through self-harm and Kureta in Kanō Kureta narrates her own murder. But the majority of contemporary (Japanese) women are also not feminist empowered individuals and it is this reality Murakami delicately captures in his female narrative-works.
Against this backdrop of physical violence towards women and female character’s inability to stand up for themselves, 1Q84 is a strange breath of fresh air. Aomame’s organized slaughter of abusive husbands suggests an opposition to the silent witnessing of female victimization. Murakami’s latest female protagonist is different from the main characters in his other female narrative-works. This is evident in the beginning of this complicated story when she symbolically frees herself from the social norms for women by rolling up her tight mini skirt and taking off her high-heeled shoes – two essential contemporary female clothing items that, at least symbolically, restrict women’s mobility.
Aomame’s mission begins with her crawling down the emergency exit away from a jammed highway where traffic is not moving. The scene where a mother firmly ignores her young daughter’s plea to go outside after witnessing Aomame’s escapade from her car window, suggests that Aomame is the much-needed heroine that can inspire the next generation of girls to find their own “emergency exits”. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes apparent that Aomame herself may be unaware of her own importance.
Although Aomame is Murakami’s first female character to fight in an aggressive way, 1Q84 is not the first work that deals with issues such as violence, isolation and fragmentation that women face in Japanese society. On the contrary, Aomame has evolved from a consistent group of largely ignored female narrative-works that expose the raw realities of female lives. Murakami’s decision to create this determined, strong and violent female character shows an intense frustration over how women are trapped by their female roles. As a group, his female narrative-works delicately express how the conscious recognition of ‘I want out’ is often not enough to induce real change to female lives in contemporary Japan – and in many other societies.
Without revealing any further details about book 1, 2 and 3, I can say this much: I will be among the many queuing to get their hands on book 4 if and when it reaches Japanese bookstores. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing how Danish and English readers receive Aomame and her mission in the peculiar world of 1Q84.
Gitte Marianne Hansen
PhD Student, Japanese Studies,
Department of East Asian Studies,
Faculty of ASian and Middle Eastern Studies,
Associated PhD Student, NIAS
Part of this text was first presented at the annual Japan Studies Association held at Tokai University, Honolulu, Hawaii and later published in:
Gitte Marianne Hansen. 2010. Murakami Haruki’s Female Narratives – Ignored works show awareness of women’s issues. Japan Studies Association Journal Vol. 8.
A series of lectures (in Danish) on Murakami Haruki’s authorship are scheduled this autumn at Københavns Folkeuniversitet in Copenhagen.