The Politics of Haruki Murakami, Part 1

A few words of explanation: I identify with Haruki Murakami’s work more than that of any other writer, and I have since I first picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle several summers ago. While I completely empathize with most of his early protagonists and his somewhat idiosyncratic way of thinking and the process of “figuring oneself out,” however, there has rarely been a writer who annoys me more from a political perspective, as nearly all his works are permeated with a heavily ironic, superior attitude toward politics, especially the concrete tasks needed to effect change in this society. Yet after reading probably more than is healthy by Murakami (all his works that have been translated into English) and about him, my belief that a truly rich analysis of his or any other writer’s work requires a social angle has been confirmed. What follows is my flawed attempt to understand this. So, without further stalling for time, I duly present…

The Collapse of the Japanese Student Movement and the Politics of Haruki Murakami, Pt. 1


Haruki Murakami is Japan’s best-known author today. His works have been translated into about 40 different languages – including historical curiosities such as Faroese – and for several years now he has been high in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature. The author of 12 novels to date (his latest, 1Q84, will finally receive publication in English in October), he is also the author of collections of short stories, travel writings, memoir and quasi-social histories, most of which will probably never travel outside the Japanese language. Furthermore he is the translator into Japanese of works by J.D. Salinger, Tim O’Brien, Raymond Carver and others of his favorites in American literature. His reputation as a writer in his home country, and in his sometimes adopted country, the United States, could not be higher.

Murakami’s project from his first novel, published in 1980, is one of a search for individual meaning. The appeal of books that focus on this is hardly surprising. Japan since the 70s has been the prototype of what Murakami himself has characterized as a “late declining capitalism,” which tends to obliterate individual identity in favor of undifferentiated mass consumption, which is the highest good. The triumph of neoliberalism over the world, which is only just now beginning to be rolled back, should provide reason enough why Murakami has become an international superstar. But what started Murakami’s explorations of the individual psyche is something that few readers seem to pay attention to.

This is an essay about the politics embedded in Murakami’s work. I will argue that his early novels (specifically Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase, which I will focus on more or less exclusively) betray a political consciousness likely formed by his participation in the 1968 Japanese student movement, which is at least in the background of all his early works. Both his characters and Murakami himself as the implied author are deeply wounded by the impasse and the defeat of the movement, and struggle to come to terms with their past in it but never really find a way out, which is the starting point of the exploration of the individual psyche which characterizes all his work. These works therefore are characterized by petty-bourgeois despair and disillusionment with political activity. What Trotsky said of Louis-Ferdinand Céline therefore applies especially to Murakami – he has not seen the light, but adapted himself to the night.

The Fire Last Time

1968 was the year of a global conflagration. Almost as if they had coordinated it beforehand, the students of the United States and Western Europe rose in rebellion against the system. US students rebelled against the ongoing bloody occupation of Vietnam, and students in France shut down their universities in an open anti-capitalist insurrection. While these two countries get most of the credit, they were matched by student rebellions in Mexico (the protests followed by an army occupation of UNAM, described breathtakingly in Roberto Bolaño’s novella Amulet) and behind the Iron Curtain as well, in Czechoslovakia where students and workers rallied against the Soviet occupation of their country, in support of the deposed reform government led by Alexander Dubcek (which readers of Milan Kundera will be familiar with.) Meanwhile in China, the Cultural Revolution was at its height, with student Red Guards, having been unleashed by Mao Zedong’s command, attacking the forces of the conservative Party apparatus and some even questioning the validity of the bureaucratic Party-dominated socialist system.

In the West at least, student revolt displayed the first cracks in the society of the postwar boom, which had in varying ways settled temporarily settled the class war with the rise of reformist governments (which in Europe were formed from the parties of the Second International) that ensured a rise in living standards for the working class and unparalleled economic growth. Japan, on the other hand, had experienced periods of student revolt since before the war. The modernizations of Japan undertaken after the Meiji Restoration (seen by Marxists as a bourgeois revolution from above) had seen the establishment of a university system combining various features of the American college and the German research institution, intended for students of the elite. Since they were established by the government, the ruling class understood that the Emperor through Japan’s somewhat less than democratic Educational Ministry would control the universities to ensure the production of students who would perpetuate the system. The arrival of Western ideas in Japan, however, included liberalism and socialism, which implicitly carried a critique of the Emperor system, and revolutionary communism after the Russian Revolution. With the rise of militaristic fascism in Japan during the thirties, left-wing students and professors rallied for university autonomy, against arbitrary dismissal of dissenting faculty and for freedom of expression – one such incident is memorably portrayed in Akira Kurosawa’s film No Regrets For Our Youth.

Some brief highlights of the student movement’s history in Japan will suffice. After the end of the war, university students oriented to the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) took advantage of the new liberal atmosphere to rally for university autonomy, for the appointment of progressive faculty and administrators, and for a student voice in administration. The students proved that by rallying together they could accomplish real gains in education, specifically with the establishment of jichikai (self-government associations) corresponding largely to student unions in the West, but which were able to administer student housing and canteens directly, in addition to having a voice on courses offered by each department and the hiring and dismissal of faculty at some private schools. In 1948, students from all over Japan inaugurated the All-Japan Federation of Student Self-Government Organizations (known by its acronym, Zengakuren) with a leadership largely from the Japanese Young Communist League.

However the honeymoon between the students and the JCP was short-lived. The JCP had seen the American occupation as an opportunity to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Japan, which had been the Moscow-ordained task of Communist Parties the world over during the Popular Front (1936-39) and then again after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, when Communists were allied with all “liberal,” “democratic,” and “peace-loving” forces, meaning those of the ruling class. However, at the beginning of the Korean War, the JCP was forced to adopt a policy of ultra-revolutionary adventurism, similar to the Comintern’s Third Period (1929-34). For many students, this meant that they were told to leave their universities for the countryside to prepare the peasant insurrection, often with no more preparation than being given money for a train ticket and a copy of Akahata (Red Flag, the JCP newspaper). When the revolution failed to materialize, many of the best JCP students left the party severely disillusioned. In any case, the Zengakuren was thereafter dominated by anti-JCP forces.

Student radicalism reached even greater heights as the movement entered the 1960s. The beginning of the decade saw mobilizations against the Japan-US Security Treaty, which legitimized the American military bases already existing in Japan. In militant actions organized by Zengakuren, thousands of students broke into the Diet building twice in 1960, forcing the cancellation of a state visit by US President Eisenhower and the resignation of Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi with his cabinet. During this period Zengakuren’s leadership was largely drawn from the “Mainstream Faction,” which had originated the federation’s opposition to the JCP, however during the late 50s the leadership was briefly taken over by students from the Revolutionary Communist League (RCL), a group formed from JCP exiles after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, which was influenced by Trotsky’s writings and would affiliate to the Fourth International. By 1964, there were three different organizations taking the name Zengakuren: the JCP supporters, the Revolutionary Marxists (a Tokyo-based split from the RCL) and a unity faction. Through the early 60s the student-run residences and canteens became the site of vicious disputes between competing factions, which was obviously a negative thing for several reasons. First, it discouraged participation from new students, many of whom began to turn away from politics. Second, it involved experienced political activists in petty competition for office and control. Third, it gave the university administration excuses to deny the jichikai funding and the government an excuse to intervene on campuses, which began in some places to counter the historic gains of the movement. For these reasons, though the second part of the decade saw further student mobilizations, those best positioned to lead them had already descended into hyper-sectarianism that characterizes the worst parts of any primarily student movement.

Beginning in 1965, the rival Zengakuren formations were catapulted into the struggle against the Vietnam War, in which Japan functioned as a forward base for the US military. The story of these years is one of increasingly violent conflicts with the police on the part of the anti-JCP groups. By 1968, the universities themselves also become the site of protracted struggle. In the struggle against a law which required them to serve as interns without pay in the Tokyo University Hospital, the medical students went on strike, barricaded a central university building and called for students of other departments to join them. Students of all factions enthusiastically responded by going on strike, barricading department buildings and announcing a boycott of the end-of-semester exams. In the course of the struggle the anti-JCP students, which at this point included Socialists, at least three different Trotskyist factions, Maoists, and independents formed the All-Campus Joint Struggle Council (known by its acronym “Zenkyoto”), a model that would be adopted by students at other campuses as the struggle spread. In September 1968, violent confrontations with the police and students on the occasion of International Anti-War Day boiled over, and other prestigious schools such as Waseda University, where the young Haruki Murakami was studying drama, also went into occupation.

At its height in the campus-wide strikes the universities were dominated by struggling factions who often engaged in pitched battles with each other. The disputes were legion. The Anti-JCP groups sparred with the JCP on the grounds that it took a less militant line and sought to compromise where possible with university authorities. The anti-JCP left, however, agreed on little besides mutual hatred for the JCP. There were many divergent views over how long the strikes should last, and what their goals should be. Some groups saw the campus struggle as merely one battlefield in the ongoing class war, and thus were inclined to continue the strikes as university problems were fundamentally unsolvable within capitalism. Other factions aimed to reconstruct the university structure in a fundamentally anti-capitalist manner, and where possible under the control of the students. These are broad outlines, and any complete picture is made nearly impossible by the constant splitting and reforming of different factions. As if these problems weren’t enough, some factions became increasingly violent in their methods, with the Tokyo University students at one point kidnapping 7 professors of the literature faculty and subjecting them to enforced bargaining sessions. The violence was not limited to use against authorities, but became commonplace in between the factions as well. In one particularly bizarre episode, two Trotskyist factions took over opposing administration buildings at Tokyo University, and proceeded to harangue each other through megaphones, each occasionally rushing at the opposing building in an attempt to break down the barricades. The escalating violence in the dead-end of the campus strikes were no doubt what convinced many students not to bother with any factions, and led to growing disenchantment with politics in general.

By the end of January 1969, the major departments at Tokyo University had called off the strike, and the riot police mopped up the intransigent remnants of Zenkyoto resistance. This did not mean the end for the struggle quite yet, as it had spread to 11 universities in Tokyo alone, and about a third of universities nationwide. At the end of 1968 only 47 out of 107 university disputes had been resolved. Nevertheless the struggle had gone as far as it was possible to go while remaining confined to the campuses. Violence alienated new students who could have continued the struggle, and the student radicals with the most experience were burnt out by interminable campus strikes that never showed any sign of moving forward. It was hardly surprising that many veteran activists, having participated in a frenzy of political activity which had not succeeded in building a viable transformational project that they should give up and accept their allotted role as Japan’s new salaryman or –woman. Even among the self-proclaimed Marxist student factions, there had never been any real, concerted effort to establish links with the working class, which many Western New Left groups had tried to do despite their faults. By 1970, the student movement had collapsed in all but name, the establishment claimed victory and a new era of boredom was ushered in for Japan’s formerly idealistic youth. 

Murakami and the Student Movement

Murakami was born in 1949, which made him part of the last generation of students to take part in the mass demonstrations that Japanese students had been known for since the days of American occupation. As previously mentioned he was a student at Waseda University in Tokyo. A member of the Japanese “Ivy League,” Waseda has historically been plagued by problems typical of private colleges in Japan. On the one hand, it is bound to admit only students of the highest caliber, but as private schools are nearly entirely dependent on tuition, it had to admit the maximum possible number of students and get the most possible money from them. In 1965 already Waseda was paralyzed by a strike when the administration imposed a large fee increase, as they had assumed the Zengakuren would not be able to rally the majority of less political students and faculty against the change.

Besides his novels, there are few materials in English (unfortunately, I have no knowledge of Japanese) on Murakami’s biography, and almost none dealing with his days in college. Based on conjecture from his novels, we can assume he was around the anti-Stalinist left concentrated in the Zenkyoto groups, though he has insisted that he was never a member of any particular faction. “I enjoyed the campus riots as an individual,” he writes. “I’d throw rocks and fight with the cops, but I thought there was something ‘impure’ about erecting barricades and other organized activity, so I didn’t participate… The very thought of holding hands in a demonstration gave me the creeps.”

Since this is all I have till I learn Japanese, I will have to take his word that he always had a rather superior, hipster attitude toward politics, which is believable enough considering his status as a graduate of one of Japan’s most elite private institutions. And yet, there is something I see in his early novels that undeniably regrets the collapse of the student movement, no matter how much he resented the factions for “impure” organizational work. It’s this that I will focus on for the rest of the essay.

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Filed under History, Literature

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