Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949 and raised mostly in the cosmopolitan port city of Kobe, where his mother and father both taught Japanese literature. Murakami’s childhood was spent in the traumatic wake of World War II. The Japanese had surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, after atomic bombs were detonated over the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Earlier that year, half of Tokyo had burned, and American firebombs had killed more than 100,000 Japanese. After the war, the United States occupied and ruled Japan from 1945 until 1952. Murakami was thus born during an intense period of self-examination by the Japanese as they attempted to redefine their national identity while living under an increasingly dominant American presence.
In 1968, Murakami went to Tokyo to attend Waseda University, where he studied dramatic literature. Murakami’s love for popular music was well established by the time he graduated. He worked at a record store during college and eventually opened a jazz bar in Tokyo called Peter Cat, which he ran for seven years. Murakami didn’t write his first novel until he was almost thirty. According to a now well-worn anecdote, Murakami was watching a baseball game when an American player named Dave Hilton hit a double. At the moment Hilton’s bat made contact with the ball, Murakami claims, he knew he could write a novel. Murakami wrote his first book, Hear the Wind Sing (1979), at nights after closing the bar and submitted it for the Gunzou Literature prize for emerging authors. He won first prize. Hear the Wind Sing became the first part of a series known as “The Rat Trilogy,” which also includes Pinball, 1973 (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982). His novel Norwegian Wood (1987), a bittersweet story about sexual revolution in 1960s Tokyo (with a title that alludes to a Beatles’ song), became a runaway bestseller in Japan, particularly among younger readers, and catapulted Murakami to a new level of fame.
Murakami and his wife, Yoko, settled for a time in Rome in 1986 and later moved to the United States, where he spent two years as a visiting scholar at Princeton and another two years as a writer in residence at Tufts University, in Boston. In January 1995, a massive earthquake devastated Murakami’s hometown of Kobe, killing more than 6,000 people and striking a heavy blow to the Japanese economy. Two months later, in March 1995, Japan received another shock when the Aum Shinrikyo cult released deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve and injuring thousands more. Still in Boston, Murakami followed the events on television. The overwhelming emotions he felt watching his homeland suffer convinced him that it was time to return.
Back in Japan, Murakami set to work on his first nonfiction project. Underground (1997) is a collection of sixty interviews with survivors of the subway attack, interspersed with essays written by Murakami. His next work of fiction, the short-story collection after the quake, also drew from the tragedies of 1995. (Murakami specifically instructed his English translator, Jay Rubin, to print the titles of the collection and its six stories in lowercase letters.) The characters in after the quake experience serious repercussions from the Kobe disaster, although only indirectly. None of the stories are set in Kobe, and although “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is built around the threat of an earthquake in Tokyo, none of the stories depict scenes from the actual Kobe quake. The protagonists in each story, however, are profoundly shaken by some kind of upheaval, whether social or personal. A lingering sense of dread and anxiety filters through the stories, as if the shaking ground in Kobe had forced every Japanese person to question their deepest-held beliefs.
Murakami enjoys a level of popularity in America unmatched by most international writers. His short stories are frequently published in major American magazines such as the New Yorker, GQ, and Harper’s, and his novels regularly receive high-profile reviews before landing comfortably on bestseller lists. For Western readers, Murakami’s work can be a bracing blend of the familiar and exotic. Although his stories generally take place in Japan and almost always feature Japanese characters, those characters often display a thorough grounding in American popular culture. References to rock music and Western philosophers abound, as do nods to American consumer culture—KFC mascot Colonel Sanders even has a small but pivotal role in Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore (2002; translated into English in 2005).
Murakami’s narratives continuously balance the mundane and strange. His writing style is plain and unadorned, and his protagonists are usually ordinary middle-class men who remain passive and unobtrusive until pushed into action by external forces. This flatness, however, is often paired with a strong sense of the surreal. In Murakami’s stories, animals speak, ghosts return from the grave, and parallel universes exist calmly in the shadows of our own.
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