The 1980s and the Murakami Phenomenon


The English publication of Haruki Murakami’s novel, 1Q84, is  beyond the horizon and the literary world is abuzz with excitement. As the name suggests, it takes place during 1984, a curious contemporary setting given that this was the same decade where Murakami’s career took flight. As many economic historians know, it’s also a period where Japan’s economic wealth was at its height before their economic bubble burst  and a recession stretched past the turn of the millennium. Writers and historians stress the monetary decadence of the 1980s, but there was more than just productional consumption at play. A closer look into the country’s “consumption of knowledge” reveals a lesser known account of Japan’s “intellectual” trends of the time and where Murakami fit into the picture.

Murakami wrote a collection with Shigesato Itoi titled Yume de Aimashou (Let’s Meet in a Dream) in 1981. Gamers are quick to recognize Itoi as the director of the Earthbound (Mother 2) video game. However, Itoi was renowned for neither work during his prime. It’s his position  as a copywriter that made Itoi a national celebrity–a Japanese Don Draper if you will–in the 1980s.  Itoi’s unlikely ascent to superstardom offers a greater insight towards Japanese commercial life during this decade and further aids us in understanding Murakami’s popularity–or what some have deemed the “Murakami Phenomenon.”

Alongside Itoi, another writer reached celebrityhood overnight. A young critic named Asada Akira published a book titled Structure and Power Beyond Semiotics in 1983 and his Postmodern text became a runaway bestseller despite writing about such an esoteric topic matter. Marilyn Ivy attempted to explain its appeal in her essay, “Critical Texts, Mass Artifacts: The Consumption of Knowledge in Postmodern Japan” but admitted that it was likely “consumed” rather than understood by the public at large. People would buy it, simply let it gather dust, or only read the preface and chart at the end. As Ivy described and journalist W. David Marx emphasized, it was a “fragmented reading” of information at best. This is where Itoi and Murakami step further into the picture.

Analysts of Itoi’s copy described his writing as haiku-like, and its the same for his joint venture with Murakami due to its brevity with stories that range between 1 to 5 pages each. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973—Murakami’s first two novels—contained similarly brief styles. Furthermore, both writers occupied a moment in Japanese commercial history where fast consumption was the aim and desire for their readership. It’s this similarity between Asada, Itoi, and Murakami that demands attention. The Asahi Journal deemed the latter two as “gods of the young” and it was Asada who helped kickstart Japan’s shortlived “New Academism.” Cultural critic Hiroki Azuma defined this as a “fashionable mode of thought for the younger generation” centered around Postmodernism outside of universities. It was during this decade that Norwegian Wood’s publication propelled Murakami to national celebrityhood.

However, “New Academism” soon receded and it grew clearer that it was little more than a flavor of the decade. Yet, if that’s the case, then why has Murakami’s popularity prevailed? He still remains a bestselling author to this date and in a similar way, Itoi’s Earthbound franchise has achieved international fame by way of the internet despite its commercial failure. “Japanese Postmodernism” may be dead, but echoes of it are felt throughout for the world to follow.

Whether he likes it or not, Murakami’s writing is a byproduct of the country’s brief love affair with the Postmodern and its impossible to deny the Postmodernist overtones circled throughout A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, and his other novels. Likewise, Itoi has cited Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Agota Kristof’s Notebook. Additionally, Hideo Kojima, who created the Metal Gear video game franchise in the 1980s, listed Paul Auster and Phillip K. Dick as some of his literary influences. All three have survived the “media frenzy” of the 80s and retained an international public profile through their creative work.

This one of the reasons why I believe that Japan’s Postmodern wave never truly died, it merely mutated into something else. If Postmodernism’s “period of its greatest influence is now over” as Christopher Butler declared, then why has it continued to excite the imagination of readers and thinkers? I agree, it’s still a pretentiously misunderstood label and dabblers are quick to ascribe its ideas to everything and anything without recognizing that Postmodernism has a poor reputation with its critics. Fans have to hope that the Murakami Phenomenon isn’t an extension of the same consumerism of Asada’s Structure and Power. Like Asada’s “readership,” how many Murakami readers can define Postmodernism without referencing a Wikipedia entry? Virtually every international phenomenon that has emerged from Japan–whether it be Pokemon, Anime, or the Power Rangers–involved the same animalized consumerism in one shape or form. There’s no reason why a world class novelist should serve as an exception.


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