Haruki Murakami is not the typical Japanese writer. His works have long been criticized for not being Japanese enough, and for the blended way in which he mixes high and low culture with Western and Asian influences. His works are also Kafka-esque, being nightmarish, dystopic and surreal. He is, for some critics, just too stylish to be taken seriously.

Murakami’s works make reference to Western culture, particularly music, and his characters are cosmopolitan. Much of his work seems to focus on globalization, and the influence of the West on Japan. But, despite not being obviously so, do his works of fiction feature elements of ancient Buddhism?

Certainly, his sparse minimalism can be thought of as an art of Zen subtraction. Although his popular novel IQ84 is almost 1,000 pages long, the writing is simple. There are snippets of small, conversational moments that make you feel as though you are really there to witness them. And many of his characters are on spiritual and personal journeys, sometimes ones they take in solitude.

His latest book, Killing Commendatore, could provide further clues: It references the ringing of an old Buddhist bell. This allows the protagonist to step into a magical new world.

The craving to live

What are these other worlds represented in Murakami’s fiction? In Norwegian Wood, the novel ends with the realization that the narrator has been occupying no space at all, in between life and death. Midori—a free-spirited girl who’s in love with Watanabe (a young university student with decisions to make regarding two girls, but for whom choosing who to love is not always easy)—has a thirst for the former.

Steve Hagen, an experienced Zen monk, explains that one of our desires is the craving to live. We want to be able to persist with this thing called ‘life’ forever. Midori certainly embodies that.

In that case, does Naoko, the beautiful woman who dated Watanabe’s best friend before he committed suicide, and who fills Watanabe with longing, embody the opposite? Her desire is for non-existence. She wishes to join her late ex-boyfriend, and this wish is granted when she commits suicide.

Hagen notes that some of us have a wish to leave this world, for even when we think we do not desire to live fully or otherwise, we desire death instead.

Murakami’s tackling of this tough topic is elegant, and brings awareness to the main character at the end. Accepting reality spurs Watanabe on to see the fact that there was nothing he could have done to save Naoko. There was one person who did want to live, and he could love them both. He had to accept that he had a life to live with the person who remained behind.

Similar to characters in many other Buddhist works, Watanabe becomes infused with gratitude for life. After mourning two people close to him, he first becomes aware, and then becomes grateful. Gratitude is a key element of Buddhist practices of compassion for the self and others, and awareness is the key to a life of clarity.

Love, beauty, art and music

Life, death and rebirth seem to be elements of Murakami’s fiction. In a public speech in 2009, he referred to ‘shadows of death’ that appeared to wrap around his father, who was a part-time Buddhist priest.

There are many spiritual elements in Murakami’s fiction. An appreciation for love, beauty, art and music underpin many of his works.

Murakami asked him why he offered long prayers to the Buddhist altar in their house every morning, and his father replied that he was praying for those who died on a Chinese battlefield. He had been sent there while in the army, and he was praying for allies and enemies alike.

Indeed, there are many spiritual elements in Murakami’s fiction. An appreciation for love, beauty, art and music underpin many of his works. His latest novel features supernatural happenings in rural Japan. The sound of a ringing bell can be heard around the house in the mountains, and this is connected to a legend about ancient Buddhists who were buried in tombs to practice meditation.

And it cannot be missed how often Murakami talks of jazz. It’s more than just a countercultural reference to traditional Japan. His deep appreciation of music is evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge.

Songs appear meaningfully in the narrative whenever a spiritual or personal journey is about to be embarked on. For instance, Norwegian Wood is named after a Beatles song, and many of Murakami’s short stories feature men who run jazz bars. His characters have a deep, spiritual gratitude for music and the arts.

Choosing to identify or blend

It may seem, at first, that Murakami does not preserve enough of the classic or modern Japanese traditions in his literature. But by embodying Buddhist themes, and suggesting that postmodern identity lies at the intersection of the Western and Asian worlds, is he not looking forward to a time when identity is more blurred, yet self-defined?

Isn’t he suggesting that the world, in its more globalized and interconnected form, looks towards peace?

All of his characters have the choice to identify with either their national identity or a kind of blend of cultural identities. Contemporary Japan is described beautifully, for all of the stylish and postmodern references to popular culture, Asian and Western alike.

This modern Japan is preserved in the author’s descriptions. If at the heart of Murakami lies Buddhist inclinations, his works are amongst the most Japanese of this postmodern age.

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