There’s More to Japanese Literature than Haruki Murakami

Go beyond the most popular Japanese writer in translation with these women authors

Photo by Natasia Causse

For those familiar with Japanese literature, there are a few names that inevitably crop up in conversation: Yukio Mishima for his beautiful writing, shocking suicide, and extreme political leanings; Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata for winning Nobel Prizes; and Haruki Murakami for being Haruki Murakami. In the last few decades, Murakami’s work has eclipsed that of many other Japanese writers, particularly for readers in the West. Many avid fans use his name as a synecdoche, claiming to love Japanese literature as a whole, yet when pressed admit that their only exposure is through Murakami’s work.

That isn’t to say Murakami is not a compelling writer. He has a unique ability to evoke an urban loneliness and ennui, particularly through the experiences of “everyman” male protagonists who struggle with ambivalence in love, work, and even life. When he hits on themes he knows well his work can be an engrossing and fun ride. But one of the most common criticisms of his work—one that even the most avid of Murakami devotees will admit to—is the flatness of his female characters. The bulk of women exist as points of departure for the male protagonist to understand something about himself, with little else fleshing them out within the narrative. In the interest of the plot these female characters will die unceremoniously off the page, will be a sexual object the protagonist fixates on, or will be the passive partner that the protagonist returns to once he has his necessary epiphany. 

Many avid fans claim to love Japanese literature as a whole, yet when pressed admit that their only exposure is through Murakami’s work.

The type of women in these novels tend towards a gendered stereotype. Even the single female protagonist in his extensive body of work falls into stereotyping: Aomame from 1Q84 is a cold, calculating assassin—a prime example of a woman needing to be physically powerful in order to be a protagonist. But even this character can’t stand alone, as she is one of two protagonists within the same novel, the other being male. 

In most cases, there is little by way of desire or motivation behind the women Murakami writes, nor any agency beyond how they function in relation to the male protagonist. If this is the prime example of Japanese literature in the minds of Western readers, what does that say about how women are viewed within this narrow context?

Thankfully, there has been a push to translate more Japanese literature written by women for English-reading markets, such as the Akutagawa Prize-winning Convenience Store Woman (translator Ginny Tapley Takemori) by Sayaka Murata and the more recently translated Tokyo Ueno Station (translator Morgan Giles) by the Zainichi writer Yu Miri. Both authors write complex female characters with their experiences at the center of the narrative, rather than as an auxiliary add-on to men. But while it has become easier for readers to name current Japanese female authors, many would be hard-pressed to name female authors writing before the 1980s who were contemporaries of the men mentioned above, and who were just as commercially successful. 

Though there are multiple authors to draw from, three female authors who crafted worlds around the same themes that have become heavily associated with Murakami’s work are Takako Takahashi, Taeko Kōno, and Fumiko Enchi. Each writes stories that consider female action and desire, while pushing the limits of artistic convention. In many ways, they take the feelings of isolation, ennui, and atmosphere that many love in Murakami’s writing and push it to the, sometimes uncomfortable, extreme. 

Outside the surreal elements of Murakami’s stories, one of the more consistent markers of his style is the “Murakami protagonist”: a loner, almost always male, apathetic, and usually heavily burdened by the weight of urban living. Readers during Japan’s 1980s bubble economy and the devastating post-bubble crash found resonance in this detached figure, and he continues to speak to readers both inside and outside Japan. 

Like the stock Murakami protagonist, Takako Takahashi’s female protagonists are isolated and apathetic with their lives and their frustration is linked to pressures from larger social structures, like the limited work opportunities and the entrenched familial expectations for marriage by a certain age. Takahashi belonged to a generation of young female writers coming to terms with the effects of the post-war era where women were afforded more personal and political freedom in theory, though in practice many of the cultural limitations still remained firmly in place. The women of Takahashi’s work, particularly her short story collection Lonely Women (translator Maryellen Toman Mori), are often straining against their limitations and skirting the line between occupying their expected role as a woman in society and acting on their unconventional desires. 

The character Sakiko, for instance, toys with men by beginning conversations with them, testing how outrageous she can be with her comments before the man asks her out. Once they do, she selects a meeting place across from a coffee shop, where she sits and watches the men wait for her, seeing how long they wait before they give up. Yet, rather than heartless, Sakiko’s behavior is presented as a sort of intellectual exercise of putting men under a microscope in ways women so often are. Takahashi writes, “Sakiko was inordinately interested in observing men in this way. How much more exciting this sort of encounter was for her than actually meeting a man and conversing with him! She wished that she could go so far as to gaze at a man through binoculars.” These moments of Sakiko harmlessly playing with men juxtapose other darker scenes involving a series of mysterious arsons happening in her neighborhood. It isn’t clear whether Sakiko herself is the arsonist or whether her interest is sparked by a macabre fascination. But Takahashi makes it clear that Sakiko’s fascination with fire, as well as her tendency to toy with men, stems from a desire for a different type of life than the one she finds herself in—one she can control, one she can have agency over.

While Lonely Women includes women awakening to the limitations in their lives and acting out when possible, there are also characters who are trapped in mediocre marriages in spite of wanting something more passionate or liberating. In “The Suspended Bridge,” Haruyo finds her routine married life shaken by the reappearance of an ex-boyfriend who had been working abroad. As she struggles to make sense of her sudden heightened discontent, she seeks acknowledgement from her detached husband, Eizō. Throughout the story, Haruyo behaves uncharacteristically, trying to get a reaction out of her emotionally unavailable husband. She acts out to prompt her husband to ask what is troubling her, but he never asks and her desires are never acknowledged.

There is always an uneasy open-endedness to her stories, as if there is simply no way for her characters to have what they crave.

Like Takahashi’s work, Taeko Kōno’s stories in Toddler-Hunting and Other Stories (translator Lucy North) focus on the disconnect between what women are expected to want out of life, usually marriage and motherhood, and what their desires actually are. The dissonance between external expectation and internal desires produce characters who are neurotic, isolated, and even brutally violent—even if the violence remains within the realm of fantasy or consensual sexual encounters. But the dissonance in Kōno’s work also finds no resolution. Rarely do the characters find greater self-realization or fulfillment. There is always an uneasy open-endedness to her stories, as if there is simply no way for her characters to have what they crave reconciled with the real world. 

Kōno’s open-endedness is clearest in the story “Snow,” which chronicles Hayako coming to terms with her adoptive mother’s death. Initially, the story follows a fairly traditional route: the death of Hayako’s mother, though understandably painful at first, will simply be part of the story and Hayako will continue on with her life. But a sudden narrative shift uncovers bits of Hayako’s childhood through her recollections. We find out her mother was physically and verbally abusive to Hayako as a child because Hayako is the result of an affair between her father and a mistress. Falling snow is one of the markers of their relationship as it’s tied to a mutual experience of trauma between adoptive mother and daughter; the two of them even suffer from painful psychosomatic migraines when the snow falls, which comes to represent the pain they both carry because of the fraught family situation. At her mother’s death, Hayako is hopeful her debilitating migraines will cease. Instead, her migraines remain, culminating in a scene where she attempts to bury herself alive in the snow. 

The stories in Lonely Women and Toddler-Hunting tend to focus on a single protagonist, whose internal struggles make up the bulk of the conflict. Readers stay within the minds of Sakiko, Haruyo, and Hayako as they think through their experiences, obscuring the external realities of their internal struggles. We never know if Sakiko is truly the arson or if Hayako makes it out of the snow alive. What is clear is that these experiences— whether fantasies or not—are very real to them. 

In her famous novel, Masks (translator Juliet Winters Carpenter), Fumiko Enchi presents what happens when women are able to enact change on the worlds they inhabit—and the harm that can come about from gaming an oppressive system. Like the women in Lonely Women and Toddler-HuntingMasks centers characters who are not clearly and unquestionably “good.” The novel’s protagonist is  a middle-aged widow, Mieko Togano, whose convoluted scheme to take revenge on her long dead husband through usurping his family line ends up pulling other women into the fray, with some losing their lives for the sake of Mieko’s obsessive mission. Some elements of the novel could be read as pushing against an oppressive patriarchal system, with women acting together to maintain their autonomy at a historical moment when men were given more legal rights. Yet Enchi points out that acts of resistance might sometimes perpetuate oppression or even further oppress other women. Enchi brings these difficult questions to light but, like Takahashi and Kōno, never truly gives us definitive answers.

These are the characters I wish moved through the urban landscapes of Murakami’s books: women who are more than a function of a narrative.

These are the characters I wish moved through the urban landscapes of Murakami’s books: women who are fighters, women who are messy, women who are more than a function of a narrative. While none of these texts provide the same surreal worlds that have become a hallmark of Murakami’s work, they do provide a new spin on the psychological landscape Murakami is known for. Delving into the psyche of women trying to navigate a world marked off by social limitations means readers encounter female protagonists who are them troubling at times, but lead us to question the impact of oppressive systems on certain generations or groups of people. The women who inhabit these stories are just as historically situated as the disaffected Murakami protagonist is to his era. Neither exist in a vacuum. 

Takahashi’s, Kōno’s, and Enchi’s work—along with their other female contemporaries—is accessible to a significant portion of Murakami fans. When Murakami becomes the sole marker of Japanese literature, there is undue emphasis on a specific image of Japanese cultural output; the surreal, pop-culture steeped world of Murakami novels inadvertently becomes ‘Japanese literature’ as a whole and that has lasting consequences beyond literature. Japan has a long, fraught history with sexual discrimination and gender disparity at the expense of women and other marginalized groups so representations of characters from these groups matter. In a 2018 Op-Ed for the New York Times, Viet Thanh Ngyuen writes on “narrative plentitude,” saying “we live in an economy of narrative scarcity, in which we feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories and fight against stories that distort or erase us.” Though he is speaking in the American context, the same is true for the canon of Japanese literature. For so long the work available in the West through translation privileged a particular type of author and set of character archetypes. In a world where discrimination and bigotry leans heavily on harmful stereotyping, it is crucial to push back by making space for more voices, including those that have been historically limited. These women created a space for other women to participate in literary culture, providing a language for the frustrations, ambivalence, and rage that they experienced. Murakami is an important figure in the Japanese canon, but he is just one in a long line of authors; to understand the world the Murakami protagonist moves through, it’s necessary to see who came before him.  

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