Content warning: hyper-sexual language and mention of sexual abuse
Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is a global sensation. The uniquely dream-like prose and magical realism of his fiction appeals to a culture of uncertainty and loneliness. His writing, however, is incredibly gendered. While his work is boundlessly imaginative when it comes to male characters, the same can’t be said for their relationships with women. In a 2004 interview, Murakami explained the role that women play in his novels, “if the sex is good … your injury will be healed, your imagination will be invigorated … In that sense, women are mediums – harbingers of the coming world.” Under the guise of interpersonal relationship analysis, the notion of female sexuality as an otherworldly antidote to male pain is actually extraordinarily misogynistic.
The perniciousness of this perspective of women as “mediums” becomes evident in Murakami’s novels. Women in his work are often constructed as solely vessels for the self-actualisation of men. One-dimensional female characters orbit around existentially challenged male leads, experiencing relatively little character development of their own. Norwegian Wood, arguably Murakami’s most celebrated work, is a prime example of this. What stands out in this novel is the way in which female suffering is pathologized and used as a prop in the narrative of male transformation. The novel essentially tells the story of the male protagonist Toru’s relationships with various emotionally damaged women. Naoko and Midori’s respective experiences of grief and depression appear to serve only as a narrative device, bonding them closer to Toru and allowing him to grow as an individual. Damaged female characters exist as objects to Toru, allowing him to develop emotionally by delivering sexual gratification, “one night, I tried to keep my promise by thinking of her when I masturbated, but it didn’t work. I tried switching over to Naoko, but not even Naoko’s image was any help that time.”
1Q84 is another example that fits the trend of women being sacrificed for the development of men, and the way that the novel deals with the sexual assault of young girls is incredibly troubling. Murakami’s description of how a 10-year-old girl, Tsubasa, has been abused is gratuitous to the point of biological impossibility. Reading 1Q84, there is an unmistakable sense that the immense suffering of women exists only to allow for a more in-depth analysis of male characters. The abuse that Tsubusa is subjected to allows the protagonist, Tengo, to be constructed in moral opposition to her abuser. More jarringly, however, this abuse functions to allow a complex character arc for the abuser, which ends with him being unironically remembered as a “capable, superior person” after his death. This is a common theme in Murakami’s work – issues that make the lives of women incredibly painful become a side-plot, merely a narrative device in the transformation of men.
Misogyny in Murakami’s work also manifests in the hyper-sexualisation of female characters, particularly of young girls. In 1Q84, protagonist Tengo sleeps with a 17-year-old girl. Tengo notices that she has no pubic hair and muses that “it seems inconceivable that his adult penis could penetrate her small, newly made vagina.” Similarly, in Killing Commendatore, 13-year-old Mariye is hyper-fixated on her own breasts. The second she is left alone with the narrator, she comments that “my breasts are really small, don’t you think? … I can’t help thinking about my breasts.” Later in the novel, the narrator also remarks that “when she matured a bit more, those legs would attract the gaze of many men.” The issue with Murakami’s portrayals of female hypersexuality is that they lack the irony that would allow them to serve as a meaningful criticism of gender roles – it’s as if Lolita had been written un-satirically. It is profoundly uncomfortable to read these overly sexual scenes involving young girls, and yet they do relatively little to advance the narrative or contribute to the novels’ theses.
In 2017, Murakami was interviewed by the novelist Mieko Kawakami. In the interview, Kawakami presses Murakami on the roles women are assigned in his novels: “It’s common for my female friends to say to me, ‘if you love Haruki Murakami’s work so much, how do you justify his portrayal of women?’ The notion being that there’s something disconcerting about the depiction of women in your stories.” Kawakami explains the way in which the depiction of women as “portals” through which male characters can achieve self-actualisation is frustrating to female readers, particularly given they are often forced into such sexual roles in the process.
Murakami seemed to genuinely listen and engage with Kawakami’s concerns. Typically reserved and reluctant to give interviews, he accepted Kawakami’s request to interview him because of his deep admiration for her work, and he responds to her criticism without being defensive. Nevertheless, his answers are unsatisfying. At the very least, they reveal that he is deeply wedded to the gender binary and the roles that it prescribes. He explains, “I do feel that women have rather different functions from men. Maybe it’s cliché, but this is how men and women survive – helping each other, making up for what the other lacks.” It is frustrating that Murakami attempts to intellectualise the misogynistic aspects of his work in order to excuse them. He explains that the sexual nature of the interactions between 13-year-old Mariye and the narrator in Killing Commendatore “strengthens the introspectiveness, or philosophical nature, of their dialogue.” His comments speak to the way in which misogynistic archetypes often prevail in literature under the guise of analysing interpersonal relationships.
I think Murakami’s regressive depiction of women is made all the more frustrating by his undeniable talent. It would be easy to dismiss Murakami’s work if it could be brushed aside as mediocre. But a lot of his work genuinely is brilliant and, importantly, popular. There is something unfair about the fact that incontrovertibly well-written texts become unenjoyable to women because of subtle yet pernicious misogynistic tropes that they buy into. As Kawakami explains, “it can be so exhausting to see this pattern show up in fiction, a reminder of how women are sacrificed for the sake of men’s self-realisation or sexual desire.” The unfortunate reality is that Murakami’s misogyny does not make him unique, but rather a small part of a pattern of talented and popular writers whose female characters are routinely sacrificed in the interests of male leads.