The Future of Japan Is 'Very Dark', Says Ryu Murakami
The writer discusses his latest novel, North Korea and homicidal teenage misfits.
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 aged 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 onto 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 wonder 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 Murakami: I grew up in a US Army base town, 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 are made outcasts by circumstances that prevent them from fitting in normally, rather than making choices that lead towards 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 confectionary, 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 having been abandoned as infants, turn into grudges that become a desire to destroy the world around them. Do you sympathise with that nihilism?
I also have issues with the world that I see around me but 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 towards 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 unorganised 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 in common. Although they end up fighting against the North Koreans their first reaction is actually 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 that 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 did you research North Korea?
North Korea is a place that nobody really understands, it's almost impossible to get. I went to Seoul and interviewed North Korean refugees but I just couldn't get my head around that country's paradigm and how it operates in terms of chain of command and who's in control. Eventually I understood that everything comes back to the Dear Leader. In order to find out more about these people I tried to ask the refugees mundane stuff about their daily lives, like what did they eat everyday or did they have girlfriends in school? Individuality vs. groups is a theme in the book; it was also something that I was trying to understand but it's really tough. It took about a year and a half for me to get enough material to be able to write about them.
There's a line in the novel where one of the North Korean soldiers sees the lights of Fukuoka from the sea and describes them as "ambiguous, intangible, and illusory". Is that a nod towards their inability to understand a place or society outside of their own?
Descriptions like that were actually about introducing Japanese readers to North Koreans and making them understand how these people think and see the world, as most people know nothing about the North Korean paradigm. Another example is the soldiers being amazed by the softness of Japanese toilet paper, or even the existence of toilet paper; most North Koreans have never seen such a thing. Of course, the elites have it but not the average North Korean. Communicating that kind of thing in the book was the most difficult thing.
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 or South Korea would do anything and I don't think Japan itself could deal with it either.
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 envisage 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.
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