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Have Murakami’s Novels Eased Political Tension in East Asia?

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

By Dennis Abrams

A recent article in The New York Times examined a “growing chill” between South Korea and Japan in which the leaders of the two countries, “seem to barely be on speaking terms.” Yet, at the same time, Japan’s ashai.com notes that since the 1970s, Japanese novels have been among the most popular foreign literature in South Korea. And not surprisingly, “[Haruki] Murakami has been the most popular Japanese author.”

The article also notes that, in September of last year, “when Japan’s territorial disputes with China and South Korea flared up anew, Murakami wrote an opinion piece for The Ashai Shimbun. In that article Murakami cited ‘the formation of a unique ‘cultural sphere,’ as ‘the most welcome achievement in the East Asian region.’” He went on to express concerns that the disputes over the islands among the major powers in the region could damage “such accomplishments made over time through steady efforts.”

Even still, in his editorial, Murakami remained optimistic enough to say that “a path through which the human spirit travels to and fro” had not yet been closed, “at least between Seoul and Tokyo.”

As Asahi’s Yoon Sang-In pointed out, it is Murakami himself who is responsible for the boom in Japanese literature in South Korea, which has become “a familiar and integral part of the literary lives of many South Korean readers.” And it is from that perspective, Yoon said, that makes Murakami’s modesty about his contribution to cultural exchanges between East Asian counties so striking.

“As one of the people involved (in the efforts to expand cultural exchanges among East Asian countries), I have continued working to contribute (to promoting the trend), if only in my own small way,” he wrote.

Yoon goes on to emphasize that, “During the last two decades, when Murakami’s novels have been widely read in Seoul, Taipei and Beijing, this region has been constantly plagued by disputes and conflicts over differences among countries concerning their views about history and territorial claims. From this point of view, Murakami’s literary works have emerged as a great cultural asset that contributes to stability in this region.”

What Yoon argues is that stability has been helped along by Murakami because his books have created “bonds of shared emotions and literary sensibilities among tens of millions of people with different cultural and historical backgrounds in the region despite the wall of negative sentiment held by people in some countries toward each other, thereby engineering what can be called a regional community of sensibility, or a ‘community of coolness,’ if a more fashionable terms is to be used.”

There is however, one issue that troubles Yoon. In his piece, Murakami wrote, “This ‘East Asian cultural sphere’ is steadily maturing as a rich and stable market,” which, in turn, raises hopes for the region as a whole. But, what, asks Yoon, if the only link between Murkami’s books and East Asia is the market?

Murkami’s books, he notes, are “surprisingly devoid of Asia, either its historical, philosophical or geographical elements.”

And with that being the case, he argues, “we want to know how the spirit moves to and fro between this writer and his readers in the ‘East Asian cultural sphere,’ who are enchanted by the Murakami World, which is devoid of Asia.”

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One Comment

  1. Posted November 26, 2013 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    ” Mur[a]kami’s books, he notes, are ‘surprisingly devoid of Asia, either its historical, philosophical or geographical elements.’ ” (from the text)

    Precisely. Murakami isn’t writing on behalf of the Japanese or, generally speaking, about Japan. He lives in the US, and he just happens to write in Japanese.

    I appreciate his very real concerns about social issues in Japan, as evidenced by his excellent look at the sarin terrorist attack there (“Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche”), the speech he gave in Israel in support of the Palestinian cause (“I will always stand on the side of the egg”), etc.

    But I would be surprised if many South Koreans see him as “Japanese” per se; I think that, like most of us, they appreciate him simply as a very contemporary and creative writer.

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