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Top>Opinion>The Dread behind the Commotion over 1Q84


Takeshi Usami

Takeshi Usami [Profile]

The Dread behind the Commotion over 1Q84

Takeshi Usami
Professor of Modern Japanese literature, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Why 2,200,000 copies of 1Q84 were sold

In just one week, 960,000 copies of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (a two volume set) were sold, and an aggregate total of 2,200,000 copies as of this writing. But how has 1Q84 posted such brisk sales in the midst of what has been characterized as a period of literary languor, in which young people are illiterate?

The reason lies in keeping the book under wraps prior to sales. Ordinarily, books are promoted by presenting their content simply, with the aim of piquing the interest of the reader so that they will buy, through copy such as a love story that will move you to tears, or a shocking mystery. In the case of 1Q84, however, the author and the publishers kept the contents of the book entirely under wraps until it was released, and on top of that, as this was the first full-length novel by Murakami in seven years, the interest of readers was already piqued as they wondered what kind of book it will be?

That is not to say, however, that you can sell just any book by keeping it under wraps-this sales strategy was successful precisely because it is a work by Haruki Murakami. The question is: what elevated Murakami to this enviable position-an author who is able to sell his book without divulging anything about its content?

Of course, part of the reason is that readers have evaluated the works of Murakami over his thirty years as a novelist and he has earned many loyal fans in the process. But if it were just his loyal fans that were buying his books, it would not constitute the phenomenal sales that 1Q84 has posted.

Considering this point, we can posit that Murakami has rapidly risen in terms of his status as an author over the last several years since his last work was released. This is not merely the evaluation of some researchers Murakami has become a household name, and the reason for this is the way his works have been recognized abroad.

A Japanese author of international recognition

Murakami won the Franz Kafka Award in the Czech Republic in 2006, and there is increasing speculation that he will win a Nobel Prize for Literature. Further, Murakami won the El Salem award in Israel in February of 2009, just before the release of 1Q84. We must conclude that there has been a phenomenon of reverse-imported high evaluation-further elevating regard for Murakami in Japan as a result of the high praise and distinction his works receive abroad.

In light of the Palestinian issue, there were many who urged Murakami to reject the El Salem Award. But Murakami not only accepted the award, he gave his acceptance speech in English, and used the metaphor of an egg and a wall to indirectly criticize the Israeli position, clearly stating his position: I stand on the side of the egg. This news footage was immediately posted on free video websites and viewed repeatedly, as if it were footage of a famous musician who never appears on television. In other words, by accepting such a controversial award as the El Salem Award, Murakami has become a household name, dramatically increasing his own fame and reputation. In this way, over the last few years Murakami has firmly established his reputation as a Japanese author of distinction abroad.

Being regarded as an internationally renowned Japanese author has special significance for Japanese. I wonder whether movies by the director Takeshi Kitano (Beat Takeshi) would have been recognized by so many people in Japan if these movies had not earned such distinction abroad. Similarly, I wonder whether Hidetoshi Nakata would be as wildly popular as he is with Japanese if he had stayed and played in the Japanese J-League until his retirement. We Japanese do not recognize the value of other Japanese on our own terms, but rather once others from abroad have recognized them, then we want to confer this recognition afterward.

This book is by Haruki Murakami, an author of international distinction, so I cannot go without reading it. Doubtless there are many who have gone along with the trend in this way and plopped down \3,780 for a book (two volume set) that they know absolutely nothing about.

Modern power as the Power of Life

The French philosopher Michel Foucault called modern power the Power of Life. Unlike pre-modern power, the Power of Death which involved manipulating people through fear-fear of the death penalty for disobeying an order of the King-modern power encourages happy and voluntary obedience through the control of information. If we do not foster the power of individual judgment, we may find ourselves under this Power of Life before we know it.

From a researcher's standpoint, 1Q84 is an extremely powerful work, as it incorporates all of the many themes that Murakami has treated in his previous works. 1Q84 deals with all of the issues that frequently appear in Murakami's works-including proceeding with dual stories, digression into worlds separate from reality, depicting the worlds of cult religions, depicting an existence akin to evil incarnate, carrying a torch for one's first love from childhood, and depicting the growth of those who write-and in this respect, 1Q84 comprises all of Murakami's power. As an unfinished work in progress (the sequel is currently being written), it is well worth reading.

But, while researchers are required to read, many people are not. There are no books that people are obliged to purchase despite having no idea about the subject matter. We must foster the power of individual judgment in order to avoid unwittingly falling under the influence of Foucault's Power of Life-being controlled by an amorphous, unknown entity.

Takeshi Usami
Professor of Modern Japanese literature, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Professor Usami was born in Tokyo in 1958 and graduated with an undergraduate degree in Education from Tokyo Gakugei University. After completing credits in the Doctoral Program at the Graduate School in the Division of Humanities at the University of Tokyo in 1990, Professor Usami earned a PhD in Literature from Chuo University. Professor Usami served in various posts including Lecturer and Assistant Professor in the Department of Literature at Chuo University before assuming his current position in 1998.
Professor Usami's current research topic is the Historical Novel in Contemporary Literature, wherein he examines modern literature, beginning with Haruki Murakami, from an historical perspective and studies the historical position of Japanese novels after the Meiji Period. He is also broadening the range of his work to include Japanese textbook studies and television drama studies.
Professor Usami's primary works include Modernity as Fictional Expression (Ohfu, 2004), and his collaboration as coeditor of Haruki Murakami and the Eighties (Ohfu, 2008). His faculty homepage can be found at window