Walking home the other evening, a man passed me on a bicycle with a cat riding in the front basket. While this wasn’t terribly unusual, what took me aback was that both he and his cat were wearing matching stripy jumpers and top hats (think Dr. Seuss). Even stranger was the fact that nobody else bat an eyelid.

A year after moving to Japan I’ve slowly begun to grow accustomed to Japanese eccentricities and how, even within this highly hierarchical society, outliers are accepted without question.

Haruki Murakami Book Covers

For me the surreal novels of Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹) have been the most telling about some of the psychological and philosophical depths of modern Japan. Underlying each story is always a feeling of isolation and lacking one’s “essential” self.

“I understood that something was missing from me. Something absolutely critical, though I did not know what. The kind of depth of emotion a person needs to make music that will inspire others.”

— Sputnik Sweetheart (スプートニクの恋人)

In his novels fantasies, dreams, and mysterious coincidences are often intertwined without the need to differentiate which are which. There is a tacit acceptance of reality and the awakening of the consciousness from a world which has been lost.

Seen superficially, in this postmodern consciousness, “people live in a world where anything is possible and nothing is important” (Toshio Kawai). People are adrift between the mythological world of the past and the postmodern hyper-consumerist society we live in today.

This dissociation between a fabled lost past and a cold alienating present is possible because modern consciousness or self-awareness, in the Western sense of individualism, has never been established in Japan where collectivism or interdependence still dominates.

Put another way, Japan didn’t experience the same transition from pre-modernity to modernity as in the West, when scientific methods were developed which led people to abandon the shroud of myth under which pre-modern peoples lived. It remained in this “mythological” isolationist state till later.

The difference between the raw truth of history and warm glow of nostalgia (or conversely the promise of utopia) in the resulting psyche has become so blurred that fantasy is placed at the same level as reality with both being accepted equally. In this sense both fact and fiction can coexist without any conflict within a collective value system (to a certain degree).

“Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us – is rewritten – we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.”

1Q84 (いちきゅうはちよん)

To use a crude analogy, imagine a person who has time travelled from the past to the present and is lost. They cannot go back and in order to remain sane they cling on to vague memories of their past by decorating their apartment in the style they remember. Their apartment might bear some passing resemblance to 1920 but it’s still 2014 outside.

In this postmodern consciousness anything goes but at the same time everything becomes arbitrary and dissociated from its roots or place in time. Paradoxically by searching for what is real we have ended up living in Disneyland.

It is perhaps his ability to reflect the postmodern state of the Japanese psyche which can be partially attributed to Murakami’s success and why it’s ok for a middle-aged man to dress as a schoolgirl or a woman to repopulate an abandoned village with life-sized dolls resembling the dead and departed…


ある夕方家路を歩いていると、前かごに猫を乗せた自転車の男が私の横を通り過ぎた。これ自体は取り立てて珍しいことではなかったが、私が驚いたのは、その男と猫がそっくり同じストライプのジャンパーとシルクハットを身に着けていたことだった (ドクター・スースを思い浮かべてみて欲しい)。さらに奇妙なことに、誰もが顔色一つ変えずに通り過ぎていったのだ。









結果として精神の中では、歴史のありのままの真実と郷愁の暖かな輝き (あるいは逆にユートピアの約束) の間にある違いは曖昧なものとなり、ファンタジーが現実と同じレベルに置かれ、等しく受け入れられるようになっている。このような意味で、事実とフィクションの双方が集団的価値体系の中で (ある程度において) 矛盾することなく共存できている。






Japanese translation by Gengo.


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