Haruki Murakami is a global obsession. The Japanese novelist, now 72, has attracted a cult following over his career – the ‘Harukists’ – and sold millions of copies in over 50 languages worldwide. A rare public appearance at the 2008 New Yorker Festival even made fans from Australia, Japan and Korea fly in just for a glimpse of him!With a Murakami novel, readers step in the shoes of existentially-challenged, lonely narrators as they get caught up in mundane, mysterious and magical events. The dream-like feel of his prose places a blanket of calm over readers – wrapping them in a unique, soothing atmosphere.
Yet among his favourite literary tropes (wells, magical realism, cooking scenes, cats, listening to jazz, quests, urban ennui), there’s an aspect of his work that leaves a sour taste in the mouth: his portrayal of women.
“It’s common for my female friends to say to me, 'If you love Haruki Murakami’s work so much, how do you justify his portrayal of women?'”
The words of bestselling author Mieko Kawakami during her interview with Haruki Murakami in 2017.
For Murakami, ‘the focus is on the interface, or how these people, both men and women, engage with the world they’re living in’ – yet the way he writes women is disconcerting and is arguably glossed over too readily because of his literary standing. In fact some accuse him of downright misogyny. Here’s why.
Women: a sexy cure for loneliness?
Murakami's women are often defined in relation to male characters and their own journeys of self-discovery. Instead of fully developed female characters, mysterious women inexplicably orbit around lonely male characters and have sex with them to cure their loneliness, provide emotional relief, or help them come to some sort of existential understanding. These sexualised and self-sacrificing supporting roles make them ‘vessels of liberation for male characters’.
Look no further than Yumiyoshi in Dance Dance Dance, the narrator’s older girlfriend in Killing Commendatore, and the identical twins in Pinball: their only function is to make coffee for, and have sex with, the bored narrator as he seeks an escape from his ennui.In a 2004 ‘Art of Fiction’ interview, Murakami proclaimed:
‘If the sex is good… your injury will be healed, your imagination will be invigorated… In that sense, in my stories, women are mediums – harbingers of the coming world. That’s why they always come to my protagonist; he doesn’t go to them.’
Instead of dynamic and autonomous characters, Murakami’s women serve both male desires and character development. Mieko Kawakami singles out this ‘persistent tendency for women to be sacrificed for the sake of the male leads.’
An obsession with breasts
Haruki Murakami is obsessed with breasts. Yes, really. To the extent that one’s breasts can become the main defining characteristic of a female character.
For example, in Killing Commendatore, when 36-year-old portrait artist first meets 13-year-old girl Mariye, her first words are:
“‘My breasts are really small, don’t you think?’… I can’t help thinking about my breasts,’ Mariye said after a while. ‘That’s all I think about, pretty much. Is that weird?’”
This is an extremely unnatural conversation. And in fact, Mariye is repeatedly sexualised throughout the novel:
‘When she matured a bit more, those legs would attract the gaze of many men’.
And although assassin Aomame is given some character the IQ84 Trilogy, the repetitive descriptions of her ‘small breasts’ is tiring. And after her two friends die, her first reaction is:
‘It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.’
This is a peculiar reaction to tragedy which underlines a fundamental problem behind Murakami’s sexualised women: their sexual objectification does not forward or assist the narrative in any way. Rather, it halts the flow.
Rape in dreams
This part of Murakami is difficult to read. Male narrators have sex with women in dreams without their consent and often, realisation. This happens Kafka On The Shore (Kafka on Sakura), Killing Commendatore (narrator on ex-wife), IQ84 (Tengo on Aomame, who consequently becomes pregnant). There’s something sinister in Murakami’s dream descriptions here – made even more comfortable by his belief that: ‘Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake… for me the dreamlike is very real.’
Murakami's defence: the woman of Sleep
On the other hand, Sleep (a surreal short story) is narrated by and stars a powerful three-dimensional woman. A housewife who stays awake for 17 day and nights in a row: thinking, reading and exercising. For Mieko Kawakami – this character is Murakami’s saving grace.
‘As a feminist, when I found this character, it built a sense of trust between me and your work… She is still a part of me today, as is her waking loneliness.’
Murakami’s misogyny, the elephant in the room
Yet Murakami’s misogyny is hard to overlook. His collection of 7 short stories, Men Without Women, is Murakami at his worst with quotes like:
‘Women are all born with a special independent organ that allows them to lie… all women tell lies, and they lie about important things… they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say’. (Dr. Tokai in An Independent Organ)
This isn’t an isolated incident. Sentences like ‘Very few women can sharpen knives properly.’ (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End Of The World) and ‘Women with their clothes off have a frightening similarity.’ (A Wild-Sheep Chase) surely leave feelings of unease even for mad Harukists.
Japan’s wonderful women writers
Following the mixed reviews of latest novel Killing Commendatore and before the release of his First Person Singular short stories in April 2021 – perhaps we need to question whether Murakami’s sparkle is slowly diminishing.
The stage is now set for Japan’s group of powerful and thought-provoking women writers (like Mieko Kawakami) to continue their popularity in translation as they speak out against patriarchy and capture what it means to be a woman.
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