All photo by Nico Perez
Ryu Murakami is one of Japan’s most celebrated and controversial authors. His first novel, Almost Transparent Blue, was a dark book about disillusioned Japanese kids burning themselves out in a spiral of dope and rock music under the shadow and influence of an American army base. Written at the age of 24, it won him the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary awards, and cemented Murakami’s reputation as the master of dark and violent literature in his native country. Now 61, Murakami has continued to produce works that aim to get to the root of an increasingly fractured nation, through the lens of its most debased, violent, and cast-out members.
In From the Fatherland with Love, published in 2005 in Japan and now being translated into English for the first time, Murakami positions his familiar bloodlust on to an international stage. The novel envisions a Japan wrecked by complete economic collapse, abandoned by the international community, and on the cusp of being invaded by North Korea. While Japan’s government anxiously wonders how to deal with the situation, a group of homicidal, satanic, degenerate youths take it upon themselves to fight back against the North Korean regime.
I met with Ryu to discuss the American influence in Japan, youth, violence, and his (sort of) new book.
VICE: Since your first novel, Almost Transparent Blue, American presence in Japan has been a constant theme in your work. Why is that, and do you see it as a negative influence?
Ryu Murukami: I grew up in a US Army base town, so that probably had a lot of influence on the novel. It’s not absolutely negative. Obviously Japan lost the war, and so there is an impression among people here that we were forced into democracy and forced to take on elements of American culture because of that loss. My generation had parts of American influence that we liked and parts that we hated. We also understood the complexities and diversities of American culture better than the previous generation.
Your novels give the impression that the sudden influx of American and counterculture opened up a kind of vacuum in the traditional Japanese collective mindset, into which a lot of your characters find themselves falling.
I think that’s a pretty good interpretation of what happened. The problem is that when looking at Japanese politics and social systems, the collective is of course always more important than the minority or the individual—it’s still only in very rare cases here that individuality is regarded as being important.
Why can’t people do both? Live as individuals in a community?
Because people who try to do that become outcasts.
Outcasts are the central characters in a lot of your work. But the majority of these people were made outcasts by circumstances that prevented them from fitting in normally, rather than making choices that led toward individuality.
A lot of people do want to live as individuals, and that goes for me too. You can do that by opting not to go into traditional companies or not doing what might be expected of you as a member of society. In most cases, that makes life harder. By using people who are forcefully excluded from society by history or circumstance in my writing, it’s easier for me to show how hard it is to live like that.
I’m reminded of a letter I received from a young girl. She’d had an argument with her parents over her ambition to have a career in confectionery, so she decided to run away from home. This was really out in the sticks, and while she was waiting for a bus, she was reading one of my novels and got encouraged by the idea that there were misfits like her out there in society. Reactions and episodes like that make me feel really very happy.
In Coin Locker Babies the issues that the characters carry with them due to being abandoned as infants turn into grudges that become a desire to destroy the world around them. Do you sympathize with that nihilism?
I also have issues with the world that I see around me. In the case of damaged young people, those with creativity may be able to focus that anger or destructive energy on writing or music. But, if not, they tend to go toward violence or even terrorism. If destructive energy comes with a kind of moral then it can become a revolution.
The London riots in 2011 were an example of frustrated kids spontaneously breaking out into unorganized and essentially destructive rebellion. Do you think something like that could ever happen in Japan?
It’s unlikely. Japan is becoming more and more docile... I don’t know why. People maybe think that nothing will change regardless of what they do. That kind of thing happens all the time in Europe, though!
In the new novel From the Fatherland with Love, Ishihara’s gang of homicidal adolescent misfits and social rejects all have horrible histories and a yearning for violence. Although they end up fighting against the North Koreans, their first reaction was to side with them and fight against Japan. Why is that?
Normally, James Bond would be sent in to fight the North Koreans, but I didn't want to write that kind of book. I structured it so that people who this society actually wants to get rid of are the ones who save the day. The inspiration for those boys came from the Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese cult responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin, nerve-gas attacks. The cult had a lot of innocent children inside it. Those kids had a very hard time fitting into society when they got older because of their pasts. I thought about how they must have felt growing up. Wouldn't they develop a grudge against society for not accepting them?
How do you think Japan would react to an actual North Korean invasion?
It’s not a realistic situation, but if it did happen I think Japan would be totally unable to react. If, for example, they attacked Guam, the US would react. If they went after South Korea, Seoul would go up in flames but there would still be retaliation. But if they bombed an inhabited Japanese island, neither the US nor South Korea would do anything, and I don’t think Japan itself could deal with it alone.
There’s a line in the novel, which is simply, “Japan has nothing to look forward to…” Do you believe this is true?
It's a difficult question to answer. Japan is increasingly diverse, and within it, there are those who can see a future and those who can’t. It’s harder to live and to find work than it was in the past.
How do you envision the future of Japan’s youth?
From the Fatherland, With Love is published by Pushkin Press this month, along with reissues of Coin Locker Babies, Sixty Nine, and Popular Hits of the Showa Era.
Read more about Japan being dark: