Earlier this year, in Taipei, I paid the equivalent of US$20 for a T-shirt that says, in embroidered English letters: NORWEGIAN WOOD HARUKI MURAKAMI. It is one of eight designs from a collaboration between Uniqlo and Tokyo FM, which airs a show called Murakami Radio. Every two months or so, Murakami, aged 72, plays music he likes for 55 minutes. Consider how unlikely a premise this is for most other world-renowned novelists of his generation: DJ Atwood? McEwan Hour? And yet, Murakami pulls it off. People tune in. People—i.e., I—buy merchandise.
This much is clear: Haruki Murakami is now as much the name of a brand as of a person. Which makes the title of his latest collection, First Person Singular (rendered into English by Philip Gabriel, one of his longtime translators), a little subversive. Every one of the stories is told by an older man, often a literary and musical one, often raised in Kobe and living in Tokyo. Of course, these are all descriptions that Murakami shares. In fact, one of the stories, “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” even features a narrator named Haruki Murakami. But more on this later.
I am a Murakami fan, though not a die-hard one; I have read eight of his 22 books. I do always read his new work when it appears in the New Yorker, however. Thus, I was already familiar with four of the eight stories collected in First Person Singular.
My impressions of them did not really change upon rereading. I still found “Cream” inscrutable and narratively lazy. (The narrator tells an inconclusive story to another character and pronounces, “The story I was telling him didn’t reach any conclusion.”) I still thought “On A Stone Pillow” enjoyable but overall unremarkable, though it is formally interesting to see Murakami incorporating tanka poems. I still adored “With the Beatles,” which reminds me of South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992), almost like an alternate-universe retelling of the novel. There is also “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” a sequel to the 2006 “A Shinagawa Monkey”; this new story seems like an attempt to humanize (ha ha) the rather more villainous monkey in the earlier story. I still found “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” charming on second read, though not quite charming enough to warrant plopping monkeys onto both the US and UK covers of the collection.
It is not difficult to deconstruct this marketing strategy: the man is known for cats, elephants, and surrealism, so let’s put the talking monkey on the cover! Fair enough. (The Japanese cover shows an illustration of a woman in a park, a “With the Beatles” vinyl poking out from the shrubbery.) But the man has written a book called First Person Singular—i.e., I—narrated by men who share his biography and even his name. And you put the monkey on the cover?
A long-standing genre in the Japanese literary tradition is the “I-novel” (shishōsetsu). Popular since the early 20th century—with famous exemplars including Tōson Shimazaki’s The Broken Commandment (1906) and Yukio Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask (1949)—Japan’s I-novel features a first-person narrator who writes in a “confessional” tone and sometimes in an autobiographical vein. The term precedes that of “autofiction” now popular in Europe and the US. While there is no critical consensus on whether one qualifies as the other, I would argue (based on the titles commonly associated with each term) that the I-novel has the liberty of being more “fictional” than “auto,” if its author so chooses.
On one end of the spectrum, the work can be as closely autobiographical as Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel (1995, trans. 2021 by Juliet Winters Carpenter), in which the narrator not only shares Mizumura’s name and life circumstances but even tells her story in mixed Japanese and English to emulate the author’s multilingualism. On the other hand, some narrators share but a few traits with the author: for example, Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016, trans. 2018 by Ginny Tapley Takemori), which has also been called an I-novel by some critics, features a narrator whose only apparent commonality with Murata’s reality is her part-time job.
Given these criteria, I believe every single one of the stories in First Person Singular can qualify as an I-novel (in Japanese, stories are called short-form novels). Autobiographically, they span the “auto”-to-“fictional” spectrum—yet even “Shinagawa Monkey,” despite its overt fantasy, is titled “Confessions of.” Murakami himself seems to have foregrounded this “genre shift” in 2018. “My ‘I-novel allergy’ was also quite strong back [in my teens and early twenties],” he wrote; “(these days, to be sure, it has become less intense).”1
In addition, discussing Murakami within the Japanese literary tradition is in itself rare. He is, by his own admission, less well loved in Japan than abroad. He has worked in Europe and North America, translates American literature into Japanese, cites European authors as major influences, and has referenced the Beatles in more than one title; because of all this, among other reasons, he is sometimes criticized as excessively Westernized. Murakami, meanwhile, has rejected the designation of a “Western style” without claiming a “Japanese style” either, saying, “I write in Japanese, and my characters, most of them, are Japanese. So I think I’m a Japanese writer. The style of my books doesn’t belong to anywhere, I guess.”2
I have heard a Japanese American academic say that Murakami’s written Japanese seems meant to be translated into English. Something about the length of the sentences. Something about subject-verb-object. Indeed, Murakami has discussed writing in English when he first started as a fledgling novelist, in a conscious effort to limit his own vocabulary and syntax.3 To this point, the phrase “first-person singular” (一人称単数), while comprehensible in Japanese, is unusual, unlike its English equivalent, which is common.
The man has written a book called ‘First Person Singular,’ narrated by men who share his biography and even his name. And you put the monkey on the cover?
I first encountered Murakami in English: Norwegian Wood, of course, translated by Jay Rubin. I was 18 years old then and had yet to choose my college major. It has been almost a decade since then, and here are the ways in which I have “grown closer” to Murakami: I majored in English literature, began studying the Japanese language, worked briefly in Japan, and began pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing and literary translation. First Person Singular is the first Murakami book I read with the English and Japanese editions side by side.
What struck me most is how much funnier I find Murakami in Japanese than in English. When I try to nitpick over what Gabriel could have tweaked in translation to better convey the humor, however, I cannot.
An example from “Confessions,” in Gabriel’s translation: “Was the Shinagawa Monkey back to his old tricks? Or was another monkey using his MO to commit these crimes? (A copycat monkey!)” The joke in the parenthetical is that a monkey is, alas, not a cat. No laughs from me. In the original, where the common word for monkey is “saru,” Murakami’s parenthetical uses Japanese characters to transcribe English words: “(Copy Monkey?)” The proper name, in foreign words, with the rhyme, made me chuckle with surprise.
But explaining a joke always drains the life out of it—I am cringing at this explanation as I write—and translating a joke is all the more difficult. So while I cannot fault Gabriel, who is always precise, I do mourn the loss.
Translations of Murakami have been contentious and widely discussed, including in the book Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami by David Karashima. To sum up: early on, when the writer was unknown, his English translators and editors took great liberties in cutting what they deemed unappealing to the English-language reader. Murakami has described his first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, as “more of an introducer than a meticulous translator.”4
Nowadays, it is unthinkable to let a single word by Murakami go to waste. (There was a book published last year, to be released in English this year as Murakami T, of short essays on his favorite T-shirts.) And Murakami himself is not one of those writers who pretend that they have never considered the words money and literature in the same sentence. He even pokes fun at the bankability of his own name in “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” in which he reveals that he once self-published “poems” (he himself questions their poetic validity) that he wrote while watching the Yakult Swallows, a Tokyo baseball team known primarily for losing: “Five hundred numbered copies, each and every one signed by yours truly. Haruki Murakami, Haruki Murakami, Haruki Murakami… Predictably, though, hardly anyone paid it any attention. You’d have to have pretty odd taste to lay down good money for something like that… Nowadays they’ve become valuable collector’s items, and fetch unbelievable prices. You never know what’s going to happen. I only have two copies myself. If only I’d kept more, I’d be rolling in dough now.”
First things first: is this a story or an essay? Murakami has published nonfiction, including a memoir, but chose to include this in a story collection. Let’s call it a story, then. In fact, let’s call it an I-novel.
In which case, what is the confession? There seem to be several. One, that esteemed novelist Haruki Murakami once wrote a poem called “Outfielders’ Butts.” Two, that he seems to possess a streak of masochism that leads him to pledge allegiance to underdog teams and deserted stadiums. But also that he barely spoke to his father for twenty years, and then got wasted at the funeral. And that, in baseball terms and maybe otherwise, he is a bit of a traitor in his hometown. (Kobe versus Tokyo, Japan versus—but let’s not go there.)
There is even a little bit of self-defense amid the confessions. The piece concludes with Murakami buying beer from a young man, who apologizes to him for the lack of options: “I imagine this young vendor will have to apologize to lots of people this evening. ‘I’m sorry, but all I have is dark beer,’ since most people at the stadium probably wanted regular lager… When I write novels, I often experience the same feeling as that young man. I want to face people in the world and apologize to each and every one. ‘I’m sorry, but all I have is dark beer.’” Some might find this conclusion too neat, too cute. Some might find it gratuitously self-deprecating coming from one of the best-selling authors in the world, and maybe detect a bit of self-satisfaction in the guise of self-deprecation.
I, too, notice these things on an intellectual level. But when I first read this story, I was incredibly moved. I cannot recall the last time I reacted so emotionally to a short story.
There are many potential reasons why “Yakult Swallows” drew such a reaction from me. Maybe because it is the funniest that I have ever found Murakami. Maybe because it is the most self-aware that I have ever found him. Personal.
Maybe because this fictional-or-not Murakami reminds me of my own father—a baseball maniac who supports the New York Mets, arguably the MLB equivalent of the Yakult Swallows—and I feel protective in this time of rising anti-AAPI hate crimes. Maybe because I am a struggling writer in the middle of the pandemic, which seems to have “ended” in the United States but not everywhere—not where I am, in Taiwan, where both COVID-19 vaccines and tests remain scarce. Maybe because in the face of continuing remote work, isolation, rejection emails, and uncertain future employment, I, too, want to say to editors and hiring managers and teachers and friends and family: “I’m sorry, but all I have is dark beer.”
Surely this is a sentiment that most people can relate to, no matter their profession, given the universal exhaustion that we have experienced since 2020.
There are also many potential reasons why Murakami would choose to go personal at this particular moment, and in the form of fiction at that. Perhaps it’s age. Perhaps it’s that Western influence again—succumbing to the “autofiction” trend in Europe and the US. Perhaps it’s the recent critiques, notably by women writers like Mieko Kawakami, of his female characters failing the Bechdel test. More than one of the stories in the collection shows the narrator assessing women for their looks and other attractive or unattractive qualities. In the titular and final story, “First Person Singular,” a woman whom the narrator doesn’t recognize confronts him for the “horrible, awful thing” he once did to her friend. The narrator has no recollection of the friend or the event.
More harrowing, however, is the reader’s realization that said friend could easily have been one of the women in the seven preceding stories within First Person Singular. The “horrible, awful thing” only went unnoticed, perhaps, because the stories were told in a man’s first-person singular.
In certain circles, it is now cooler to dislike Murakami’s work than otherwise. But I, for one, will probably always pay for that dark beer. Even if sometimes it is too bitter, or too old, or entirely unfizzy. Because, sometimes, it is exactly what I—personally—need.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.
- Haruki Murakami, “Introduction: From Seppuku to Meltdown,” in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin (Penguin, 2018), p. xi. ↩
- Deborah Treisman, “The Underground Worlds of Haruki Murakami,” New Yorker, February 10, 2019. ↩
- Haruki Murakami, “The Moment I Became a Novelist,” Literary Hub, June 25, 2015. ↩
- Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, “Who You’re Reading When You Read Haruki Murakami,” The Atlantic, September 11, 2020. ↩