The Politics of Haruki Murakami, Part 3

An Adventure Concerning Sheep 

A Wild Sheep Chase marks a shift for Murakami in style and substance. To write what he called “a real novel” as opposed to the rather fragmentary first two books, Murakami sold his jazz club and became a full-time writer. And indeed, the result was a more coherent effort that reflected much more deeply on the issues he had brought up in his first two novels, giving the series a satisfying conclusion and pointing out his future directions as a writer.

Once again, the novel begins with a meditation on the end of the student movement. In the prologue, Boku attends the funeral of a girl (once again, without a name) he had slept with around 1969 (the hippie girl he met at the Shinjuku anti-war demonstration as described in Hear the Wind Sing). This chapter is incredibly important as it links Boku’s current troubles to the end of the student movement, which marked his descent into ennui and the his coolness toward life which was probably affected but now he can’t seem to break out of.

Describing the time he met her, Boku says,

… those were the days of the Doors, the Stones, the Byrds, Deep Purple and the Moody Blues. The air was alive, even as everything seemed poised on the verge of collapse, waiting for a push.

She and I would trade books, talk endlessly, drink cheap whiskey, engage in unremarkable sex. You know, the stuff of everyday. Meanwhile, the curtain was creaking down on the shambles of the sixties. (5)

Boku does not encounter her from the winter of 1969 till the autumn of 1970, after returning from school at the end of Hear the Wind Sing. During the autumn, he and the girl often sleep together. On November 25, 1970, which the prologue centers on, they have lunch in the university cafeteria. Here again, the English reader (or at least one who is not overly well-acquainted with Japanese literature) may miss out on the significance. This was the day when Yukio Mishima, the famous Japanese novelist who was perhaps excessively attached to the samurai code and Japan’s imperial past, staged an attempted coup in which his right-wing paramilitary group attempted to rally the Self-Defense Forces to overthrow the democratic government and restore the Emperor to his former power. When the soldiers laughed at his speech, Mishima committed ritual seppuku and a follower beheaded his corpse. Boku relates what happened on that day:

We walked through the woods to the ICU campus, sat down in the student lounge, and munched on hot dogs. It was two in the afternoon, and Yukio Mishima’s picture kept flashing on the lounge TV. The volume control was broken so we could hardly make out what was being said, but it didn’t matter to us one way or the other. A student got up on a chair and tried fooling with the volume, but eventually gave up and wandered off.

“I want you,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

So we thrust our hands back into our coat pockets and walked back to the apartment. (9-10)

The prologue, taking place 10 years before the action, foreshadows the course of the novel. Former student radicals such as Boku are so sunk into boredom that they find it impossible even to care about the threat of the far right (which as I have noted the early student movement was preoccupied by).

In present-day reality, we find Boku in 1979, 5 years more or less since the end of Pinball. About a year after the end of that novel, we learn he was married (as he notes at the end of Hear the Wind Sing) to the office girl working for him and his partner, a relationship which we also saw the first signs of Pinball. We meet Boku again on the cusp of his divorce. His wife has been sleeping with a friend of his, and with her feeling that she is “going nowhere” living with Boku and him unwilling to even attempt to win her back, the relationship comes to a smooth (though clearly devastating, for both Boku and his wife) conclusion.

In this time, he and his partner have transformed their translation business into a successful advertising firm. It is clear that Boku did not intend for his life to end up this way. Nor his partner, who reflects that “in the old days we did work we believed in, and we took pride in it… [today] we’re just tossing out fluff” (57). Though Boku flippantly rejects his partner’s claim that they are involved in “some sort of exploitation” by saying, “exploitation doesn’t exist. It’s a fairy tale. Even you don’t believe that Salvation Army trumpets can actually save the world, do you?” later he reflects that, “I just can’t get it through my head that here and now is really here and now. Or that I am really me… for the last ten years it’s been like this” (167). It is no coincidence, of course, that he dates the onset of his apathy to ten years previous, roughly coinciding with the collapse of the student movement. For all this, however, Boku does not seem to think any significant change is possible, on a societal level or for him as an individual.

Since he has not heard from the Rat in quite some time, he is surprised to receive a package from Hokkaido with his old friend’s latest novel and two requests: Boku should visit Kobe to say goodbye to the woman the Rat left at the end of Pinball, and he should put a picture of a flock of sheep that the Rat has enclosed in one of his advertisements. Boku dutifully complies with both, which spark off his wild sheep chase.

The events that lead to this chase strain a reader’s indulgence, though as with most of Murakami, you will be rewarded if you make the leap. Boku’s firm is shortly visited by a man in business attire claiming to represent a man known in the book only as “The Boss” (sensei in Japanese). A shadowy figure who is tremendously wealthy, the Boss has almost unlimited influence in the national media (the name of one of Boku’s colleagues who crossed him was never seen in print again) and is a well-known backer of the Japanese far right, with a large political network tying him into the government as well as the press. The man presents Boku with an ultimatum: either Boku tracks down a particular sheep in the photo that the Rat sent him, which oddly enough has a coffee-colored star-shaped patch of wool on its flank, for which he will be handsomely rewarded, or the Boss uses his influence to put both Boku and his partner permanently out of commission.

The backstory of the Boss is incredibly important to the novel, but is somewhat ham-handed in Alfred Birnbaum’s otherwise stellar translation. (Perhaps Birnbaum, as an American residing in Japan, felt the influence of the conspiracy of silence over Japan’s past in World War II). We are told alternating parts of the story by Boku’s partner and the Boss’s representative who visits their office. From a wealthy family in Hokkaido, the Boss moved to Tokyo as a student and became involved with the right wing. In 1932, he was imprisoned on charges of plotting to assassinate a government official. 1932 was a year in which many major figures of the Taisho democracy were bumped off in the run-up to the imposition of military rule.

We are told that the Boss was implicated in the resistance to the two main opposing forces at the time in the Japanese military, the Imperial Way faction (Kodoha) and the Control faction (Toseiha). Both were ultranationalist groups with some similarities to European fascism.** The dates for the Boss’ imprisonment and release roughly correspond to the League of Blood Incident, in which a far-right paramilitary group led by a self-styled Nichiren Buddhist priest with links to extremist officers in the navy attempted the assassinations of 20 figures in business and politics to force the Emperor to retake control of the government. (This is fictionalized in Yukio Mishima’s novel Runaway Horses, the second in his final “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, which contains a forecast of Mishima’s own death). While this aim broadly corresponded to that of Kodoha, a group composed of Army officers did not particularly appreciate civilians trying to do their work for them, or the idea that civilians should decide much of anything concerning Japan’s future course. While their plot was foiled, the trial allowed the League an opportunity to broadcast their ultranationalist views to the rest of Japan, which was an important step in the increasing militarization of Japanese politics.

But, I am digressing. The Boss is released in 1936, and he leaves for the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, where he was able to build up a large informational and business network (primarily involving the smuggling of opium), and left for Japan in 1945 just as the Red Army was sweeping through Manchuria, bringing a large store of gold back with him. In Japan the Boss was to be brought to trial as a Class-A war criminal by the Americans, but before the trial a deal was likely struck for the US military to use the Boss’s surviving networks in Manchuria (especially important with the coming victory of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War) in exchange for the Boss being let off the proverbial hook. He then used his reserves to amass a great fortune on the stock market, wherefrom comes his influence over politics and the media.

In fact the Boss is not the first Murakami character with sketchy connections to Japan’s wartime past. In Hear the Wind Sing, Boku tells us that the Rat’s father made his fortune selling insect repellent to the Imperial Army during the war. As a man whose presence much is made of but who never appears on screen so to speak, the Boss represents the continuity between the prewar and postwar Japanese ruling class. Since the days of occupation, there has been an unofficial conspiracy of silence about the Japanese involvement in World War II, which reinvents history to paint Japan as a victim of the war and whitewashes the horrific crimes it is responsible for in China, the Philippines and other Pacific islands. This conspiracy pervades both the media and government, in which to talk of honoring the war dead is necessary for acceptance by the right-wing establishment. Hence a figure like the Boss. Clearly a man of the left though he may not be a radical anymore, Murakami shows that the forces that led Japan to commit atrocities in the war are still present and dangerous, which he would explore further in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

In fact this force is what drives the plot’s movement in A Wild Sheep Chase. Sometime during his imprisonment, we are told that the Boss has undergone a fundamental change. A mediocre student and right-winger before confinement, after heavy interrogations and not being allowed to sleep a wink for four years, he is now a man possessed by a driving force, and some mysterious ability which brings him to Manchuria and allows him to erect a wide-reaching and profitable network and to leave at the precise moment he needs to get out. This is made even more mysterious by the fact that the Boss around this time developed a large blood cyst in his brain that, medically speaking, should have killed him long ago (he lies dying from it as we enter the action). Instead of dying from that, or being captured by the Red Army, or being punished as a war criminal, he becomes the preeminent financial backer of the far right and a man whose power is unchallenged in modern Japan.

While what is driving the Boss is never made entirely clear, we learn from the start of the chase that it has something to do with the sheep in the Rat’s photo. To cut to the chase, the Boss was possessed by this sheep, which entered the mind of an agricultural expert in Manchuria (the Sheep Professor) in 1935 while he was exploring the possibility of a self-sufficiency program based on sheep. The Sheep Professor tells us that it isn’t uncommon for tribes in northern China and Mongolia to experience such as possession, who believe that “a sheep entering the body is a blessing from the gods” (221). In fact, a Yuan dynasty chronicle says that Genghis Khan was possessed by a “star-bearing white sheep,” in other words the sheep of the Rat’s photo.

This tends to strain credulity, since in contrast to the magical realism of García Márquez or Günter Grass, where it is always somewhat clear how the magical elements assist in the development of the real plot (along with what they “really” represent), Murakami has no such compunctions and freely admits that he has “almost nothing to say” about the sheep itself. However, it is clear that the sheep represents a malevolent force that is connected to Japanese imperialism during the war and to the resurgent far right in contemporary Japan. Since the sheep has left the Boss, leaving him “unsheeped” (which we learn is a terrible fate, as he who is possessed by a sheep becomes immortal while the sheep remains inside him), leaving his vast financial and political empire up for grabs the man who speaks with Boku who serves the Boss seeks contact with the sheep to become the Boss’s heir. Boku, as the origin of the photo with the sheep in it, is dispatched to find it, for which he must seek out his long-lost friend the Rat.

A long and strange chase follows, during which Boku and his new girlfriend travel from Tokyo to Sapporo and from there into the wilds of Hokkaido. Since I’m not going to avoid spoilers in this post anyway, I’ll reveal the ending. The sheep possessed the Rat, in order to put him in command of the Boss’s network. The Rat avoids this fate by hanging himself with the sheep sleeping inside him, a few days before Boku finally catches up to him at his father’s country estate in Hokkaido (which, coincidentally, is outside the town that was home to both the Boss and the Sheep Professor). Traveling into the “other world” that he visited at the end of Pinball, Boku shares one last conversation and a few beers with his friend and connects a bomb that will blow up the Rat’s home along with the Boss’s henchman, who it turns out knew the source of the photo all along and only employed Boku in order to draw out his friend.

The Rat, who we recall as a student radical, therefore ends his life in a refusal to serve the sheep – in other words, to become a part of the establishment that won out over his and his fellow students’ idealism, plunging them into boredom and pointlessness. The end of the book we can see as a stunning reversal in the prologue. There, Boku and his girlfriend could not rouse themselves to care about Yukio Mishima’s attempted coup. By the end, however, they are faced with the consequences of the victory of the sheep, which is linked both to both Japanese imperialism in WW2 and to the boredom they have felt since 1970. For both of them, the consequence is the obliteration of their identity as individuals. Faced with this, the Rat makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop the sheep, and Boku finds his way toward a new commitment to life:

I’d made it back to the land of the living. No matter how boring or mediocre it might be, this was my world… I learned to distance myself from “memory.” Until that day in the uncertain future when a distant voice calls out of the lacquer blackness.” (348-50)

Conclusion: Wither Murakami?

I believe at this point that I have made a solid case for why Murakami, whose early books on the surface are completely apolitical, take their starting point as the destruction of the Japanese student movement, though at no point is the movement itself exactly foregrounded.

By no means did he stop with these three. Pick any random Murakami book off a shelf, and it is good odds you will find something to do with the student movement if you read the book. South of the Border, West of the Sun is the story of a radical who, unlike the Rat, was able to make a good life for himself within the system, but who nevertheless finds it meaningless and unfulfilling. Kafka on the Shore, and many of his short stories touch on similar issues. Not to mention all of his works (and it is all of them) which explore the general feeling of pointlessness, of “a dead heat on a merry-go-round” encountered by all of us unlucky enough to live in a declining capitalist society.

Then, of course, there is Norwegian Wood.

Originally I had planned to write a full section of this essay on Norwegian Wood. After writing the previous, however, I felt I no longer had all that much to say. As a novel, it is much more focused and concrete than the Trilogy of the Rat, though it covers similar ground. Norwegian Wood is actually a twist on a very classic story of lost love, which develops further Boku’s affair with Naoko, mixing in elements of the short stories “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” and “Firefly.” While I don’t like this approach all that well, I will give credit where credit is due: it is an absolutely remarkable evocation of the age of late adolescence/very early adulthood, from the ages of 17-21 or so. Unlike the trilogy, it deals with the student movement directly, but often only as the background noise to the protagonist’s sex life. What is preserved is the superior attitude toward politics, without the feeling of angst, of loss when the movement, despite all its faults, is crushed. Certainly I could have written a lot about this, but I would feel like it sort of is beside the point. I would end up denouncing the politics of a book that proudly shuns politics. Aside from noting my general disgust, there is not that much to say there.

Together, Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, and A Wild Sheep Chase represent a search for identity: what remains in the absence of the movement to make the world a better place, in the absence of collective struggle? Murakami’s explorations of this question here, as in his later books, run into somewhat of a dead end. From a political viewpoint, we would say that as an individualist, Murakami has no way out, can offer no alternative to the system which, as he describes it in Dance Dance Dance, reduces everything including the creative impulse and sexual intimacy to the merest “shoveling snow.” He has no way out of the system that he so clearly despises even in these early novels.

But, it is the job of politics, not of literature, to offer alternatives. I doubt I am alone in thinking that Boku’s musings and travels into the other world of memory are valuable in and of themselves, and regardless of whether he draws any political conclusions from his experiences. Regardless of whether he sees the light, Boku and his creator have hit upon something valuable and beautiful about the human individual, even in its defeat. It may be bad for politics, but it makes great literature.

** Both were concerned with striking against the “corruption” of democratic politics and business and sought a revival of imperial power, mediated through the army, of course. To put it briefly, Kodoha hoped to restore power to the Emperor in a revival of the immediate post-Meiji Restoration society – which they called the “Showa Restoration,” and would likely have forced Hirohito to abdicate in favor of his brother Yasuhito, who had direct ties to the right wing in the military. Militarily, they appealed to ideas of the samurai spirit to carry Japan through the impending war, while paying little attention to the need for resources. In contrast, Toseiha was a more modernizing force that advocated building up a stronger base in Manchuria before conquering the rest of China and avoiding war with the Soviet Union until Japan was ready. After the Kodoha carried out a failed coup against Prime Minister Keisuke Okada (the February 26th Incident of 1936), its leaders were purged from the military and the Toseiha lost its raison d’être.


Dowsey, Stuart, ed. Zengakuren: Japan’s Revolutionary Students. Berkeley: The Ishi Press, 1970.

Murakami, Haruki. A Wild Sheep Chase. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum. New York: Vintage International, 2002.

Murakami, Haruki. Hear the Wind Sing. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2009.

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Trans. Jay Rubin. New York: Vintage International, 2000.

Murakami, Haruki. Pinball, 1973. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2009.

Rubin, Jay. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. London: Vintage, 2005.

Matthew Stretcher, “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki.” Journal of Japanese Studies 25 2 (1999): 263-298.

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