…and 4 More Facts You Probably Didn’t Know about Haruki Murakami
1.He was the owner of a Jazz bar called “Peter-Cat”
Murakami was a university student when he met and got married to his wife, Yoko. Both of them hated the idea of doing office work after graduation, so they decided to open a Jazz bar in Kokubunji, in the western outskirts of Tokyo. He was into Jazz at that time so it seemed like the natural choice. The only downside was that they had to borrow a lot of money to get it going. They were in so much debt that they couldn’t even afford heating; instead, during the cold winter nights they snuggled with their cat for warmth (whose name was Peter). Despite the hardship, Murakami said it was a heck of a lot better than taking the dreaded sardine-packed commute to work and spending hours in a lifeless meeting room.
This is the Peter-Cat jazz bar that Murakami opened in 1974 in Kokubunji. The main records that he played in the bar were Jazz from the 50’s, and live bands played on the weekends. His favorite Jazz players are Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. Shortly after graduation in 1977, Murakami and Yoko moved the bar to Sendagaya in the center of Tokyo after the building owner kicked them out.
The new Peter-Cat was more spacious and fit in a grand piano. But of course, this put them in even deeper debt. In a nutshell, his memory of his twenties was working his ass off to pay his bills. However, he enjoyed listening to Jazz and whenever he had time, he read books. He knew Ryu Murakami (another author-to-be, you may know the movie Audition which is based on his book) as he happened to be a frequent customer. He kept the bar until he decided to write his first novel, “A Wild Sheep Chase” in 1981.
2. He suddenly decided to write a novel while watching baseball.
Murakami was a huge fan of the Yakult Swallows (it’s a weird name, I know), and he often went to see their baseball games in Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo. In April of 1978, he was laying on the grass with a beer in hand and watching the opening game. The batter was Dave Hilton, who came from the US, and he hit the ball to left-field. The sound of his bat hitting a ball echoed in the stadium, and out of the blue, Murakami thought “oh, I think I can write a novel”.
He called it an “epiphany”, and it felt like “something fell slowly from the sky and he caught it”. He still clearly remembers that moment.
On the way back home he bought papers and a pen, and started writing every night after the bar closed.
3. He wrote in English, then translated into Japanese for the first book.
When he started writing his first book, he had no idea how to write novels. He’d only read so many of them, so he just kept writing in a way that he thought was right. Once he finished and read it back, he realized that it was just a boring, pretentious story.
In an effort to find a more out of the box and unique writing style, he grabbed his old English typewriter from the closet and started typing away in English. He was relatively fluent in English but nowhere near a native-level, so he had to work his way through with limited vocabulary. By doing it that way, he had to naturally express his writing in short sentences, limited vocabulary, and a relatively simple structure. This is how he started developing his rhythm and style. He used simple words and short sentences, and Murakami would add, didn’t try to impress anyone.
After finishing writing a chapter in English, he translated it into Japanese. Not quite a literal translation, but more like rewriting it in Japanese. This is how he got out from the mindset of “how writing a book in Japanese should be”. This is perhaps what makes his writing so popular!
Interestingly, many Murakami critics call his writing “translation style”, which means it looks like it’s translated from English. However, Murakami says he doesn’t get what all the fuss is about — after all, language is just a tool to express stories, and there’s more than one way to go about it!
4. He’s never experienced “Writer’s Block”.
Murakami never takes on writing jobs. He only writes when he has a story to tell. It feels like “snowmelt flowing into a dam” and like the overflowing water, he can’t resist writing it out. In those times of creative fluidity, he tends to go abroad to get away from distraction. He wakes up early and writes 10 pages everyday. No less, no more. He never struggles to write because he feels like the story is something that flows naturally, not something you struggle to create. Because he doesn’t see writing as a job, there’s no due date or contract, so he doesn’t need to write when he doesn’t have anything to write. Thus no writer’s block.
5. He translates when he doesn’t write.
Many people may know that Murakami is also an English-Japanese translator. As mentioned earlier, he only writes when he has some story to tell, and when he doesn’t, he translates. Although translation is a creative act, it’s more technical than creating a story from scratch, meaning that he can translate even when he doesn’t have a new story to write. And it can also be a good daily practice of just writing. He calls it a “reset process” for his writing brain and the alternating style of writing-translating is as decadent as “a chocolate and a rice cracker”, which comes from the Japanese saying that you can alternate eating sweet and salty foods forever and never get bored.
He learned English in high school by reading novels in English. He started translating 2 months after his debut novel won a small award (Gunzo Prize for New Writers). He loves reading and translating F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver. Lastly, his version of “Catcher in the Rye” by Salinger is quite popular among Japanese people.