Although you never hear much about it, Murakami Haruki clearly comes from money. Grandson of a Buddhist priest on one side and an Osaka merchant on the other, he was raised in the upscale Ashiya-shi region of Kobe, took seven years to finish private university Waseda, and while still a student, married and started his own jazz bar in West Tokyo’s Kokubunji. Sometime in the ’70s, Murakami decided he wanted to be a writer, and eventually debuted with the short novel Hear the Wind Sing from Kodansha — Japan’s most prestigious publishing house. His 1987 Norwegian Wood made him into a superstar — accompanied by (possibly) apocryphal stories of college girls coordinating their daily outfits to match the red and green covers of the novel’s first and second volumes.
Although now accepted as “literature,” it’s important realize that Murakami was first and foremost a pop writer. Old-style intellectuals like Oe Kenzaburo never cared for him. Even Jay Rubin — English translator of Murakami’s most important works — took a long time to consider him a serious writer: “In 1989, I read Haruki Murakami. I had only been vaguely aware of his existence — as some kind of pop writer, mounds of whose stuff were to be seen filling up the front counters in the bookstores, but I hadn’t deigned to read what was sure to be silly fluff about teenagers getting drunk and hopping into bed.” After a while, scholars on both sides of the Pacific finally broke through the Beatles references and unaffected language to find a deep philosophical core to Murakami’s work, but for all intents and purposes, the writer started off as a greater influence to Japanese pop culture than to the “high-art” world of Japanese literature.
We should find no coincidence, however, in Murakami’s high-standing social background and his success in “low” pop culture. He fits a very specific archetype in the history of Japanese popular culture: the young wealthy son freely and effortlessly producing debut works that become a leading trend within the youth culture.
Another example of this archetype would be Tanaka Yasuo — writer and reformist ex-governor of Nagano Prefecture. While a student at prestigious Hitotsubashi University, he casually wrote out his first novel Nantonaku, Kurisutaru, which not only enjoyed explosive sales in its 1980 first pressing, but was rewarded with the prestigious Bungei Award. Tanaka’s first novel, however, does not approach anywhere near literature. The book — about a wealthy female Aoyama Gakuin university student and part-time model — sold as a trendy pop piece, but moreover, as a consumer guide. Each time a store, brand, product, food, club, piece of clothing, university, or other proper noun is used in the narrative, Tanaka (as the narrator, not as the protagonist) supplies a footnote on the left-hand page to introduce/explain the item to the uninitiated. Here was a well-to-do, stylish young man giving away all the secrets to the Tokyo culture game in footnote form, and readers snapped it up as a practical trend guide.
Then in the early ’90s, Oyamada Keigo and Ozawa Kenji from Flipper’s Guitar pulled the same game: Wealthy young men from private high schools instantly winning record contracts and fame right out of high school. Just as Nantonaku, Kurisutaru had a decade before, the two KOs from FG supplied young fans with references to the latest trend — this time in musical form, rather than in fiction.
In all three of these cases, privilege does more than provide idle time and an escape from the compromising chains of fiduciary worries. Wealth and education in post-war Japan meant access to information — especially news beaming out from the West. Both Murakami and Ozawa Kenji mastered English at a young age, which no doubt allowed them to master their command of Western music. Moreover, these four all came from “old money” and not flashy wealth, and in a Bourdieuian sense of cultural capital, they used cultural reference as a way to distinguish themselves from the madding crowds. Whether wealth allowed greater access to information or not, wealth situated these young men in a certain social ranking that motivated them to protect their position through artistic achievement in fashionably new modes of craft. In the cases of Murakami and Flipper’s Guitar, they wrote in intentionally Western styles to differentiate themselves from the baser “Japanese” standards, and the world interpreted this as being more trendy than their common competitors.
In turn, the work of these men was consumed first as fashion and second as art. Their existence lead to “booms” (a consumer phenomenon) rather than “movements” (an artistic one). This basically freaked them out — at least in the long-term. Murakami did not like being a “trendy writer” so much and fled to Europe, then to American universities. Ozawa disappeared to NY after cashing-out as a Jpop idol. Cornelius went meta, then “guitar artiste.” Tanaka went into anti-establishment politics.
What is frustrating to many Japanese about their stories is the total ease and grace in which they made a huge splash upon the common culture. No struggling, half-compromises of hack jobs, years of toil at candle-lit typewriters.
Sure, there are artists who fit this archetype in other countries and cultures, but US/UK pop culture has a strong obsession with the underdog/underclass achiever — the Working Class Hero. Elvis, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson. What may be the difference between Japan and the U.S. is the sources of cultural creation: In the U.S., low status African—Americans were responsible for the jazz, rock, and hip-hop that formed the foundations of the pop culture cycle in the 20th century. This was clearly a bottom-up process — even if the media at the top eventually disseminated/cleaned-up the message. Authenticity originated in the street or in the swamp or in the Delta.
In post-war Japan, meanwhile, style and fashion originated so strongly from overseas (mainly American) sources that authenticity — in the case of orthopraxic Japan, something more like high-speed adoption or knowledge of new information rather than an abstract faith-based “being real” — lay squarely with those at the top, since they had either the best education with which to find/translate the American pop culture message or access to the message/materials from trips abroad/connections.
As a defeated culture with a sense of inferiority to the American cultural overlords, pop culture in Japan could not be “bottom-up,” and therefore, the wealthy in Japan became the most obvious messengers/idols in a shadowy way. Once Japan regained its cultural confidence, “bottom-up” became more widespread. The Murakami-Tanaka-Oyamada-Ozawa Rich Kid model may no longer be as important today, when someone like DJ Ozma or Koda Kumi appears more authentically bound to their respective subcultures.
To tie this into bigger streams we often deal with here, the capitalization of the whole gyaru/yankii working-class stream — which in the past was seen as deviation from the mediated “cool” consumer stream — has totally outmoded our former archetypes. Cool is no longer monolithic nor solely imported — which no longer gives the wealthy an automatic advantage. Sticking to a deep sense of orthopraxy, culture in Japan generally remains an empty vessel to plaster “fashion” upon — rather than individual works of artistic meaning — but it is used now for a class-based subcultural affiliation rather than for placement in a top-down trend hierarchy. The bottom is proud to be at the bottom — or at least, having fun with the para para.
From an American perspective, the end of elitism should sound like a great development, but practically speaking, most of the bottom-up culture is less than interesting. We may dislike elitism in principle, but the elitist stream in Japan is responsible for most of the country’s greatest cultural hits (I want to say this is a Western-bias, but Murakami is huge in Japan). Old money was silent in the past, but now it’s dead. The growing nouveau riche is more interested in amassing stuff than showing off the giant logos than flashing the subtle use of expensive silk in their sleeves. (As I write this, the exclusive import sports car shop across the street is loading in a red Ferrari that plays the theme to the Godfather as its horn. No joke.)
My lament about the breakdown of Japanese culture may be a specific eulogy to the elitist causes for cultural creation, but face the facts: The names that light up the concise histories of Japanese pop culture not only enjoyed the beautiful bliss of old money, but prospered specifically because of it. Sure, Nosaka Akiyuki may have had a crazy life of pain and suffering (see Grave of the Fireflies), but he was still the son of the sub-governor of Niigata.
1 Quote from this really interesting correspondence series.