Murakami and Repressed Anger’s Toxicity

Friday

I been thinking of Haruki Murakami since reading about a football injury to a Japanese student that has the entire country in a uproar. I’ve become increasingly convinced, from teaching the novelist’s works, that many in Japan suffer from repressed anger, especially young men. Now I’m wondering if Murakami’s handling of repressed anger is what draws his millions of fans to his works.

The football injury occurred when a player was instructed to deliberately injure the opposing quarterback:

When asked to explain his actions, the linebacker who crushed the quarterback, forcing him from the game with injuries to the back and knee, delivered an answer that made many recoil: his coaches told him to do it.

In a stunning, nationally televised news conference in Tokyo on Tuesday, the linebacker, Taisuke Miyagawa, said his coaches ordered him to “crush” the opposing quarterback or risk being benched. Miyagawa said that, along with other comments his coaches made, made it clear to him that he was to injure the quarterback.

Miyagawa, his hair trimmed in a close buzz cut, apologized for his actions and bowed deeply for 15 seconds. He recalled that after he was taken out of the game, he went into a tent on the sideline and cried. He was told he was weak. “You are too naïve,” Miyagawa recalled his coach telling him. “You felt bad for the opponent, didn’t you?”

“I wasn’t strong enough to say no,” Miyagawa, 20, said during the hourlong news conference. Members of his legal team flanked him. “Though I was ordered by the coaches, I could have refused but went ahead anyway and acted. It was weakness on my part.”

In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami describes several scenes in which Japanese officers command regular soldiers to undertake suicidal missions and commit horrific acts of violence. While the incidents at first seem unrelated to the novel’s central drama, which is Toru attempting to save his marriage with Kumiko, Murakami clearly feels that he must dig into Japan’s period of imperial expansion to understand young men today. As Toru notes at one point,

All of these were linked in a circle, at the center of which stood prewar Manchuria, continental East Asia, and the short war of 1939 in Nomohan. But why Kumiko and I should have been drawn into this historical chain of cause and effect I could not comprehend.

Toru doesn’t at first seem like a man with anger issues. He has developed what he calls his “emotional management system,” which allows him to “transfer the object of my unpleasant feelings to another domain, one having no connections with me.” He thinks that “the passage of time will usually extract the venom from most things and render them harmless.”

Toru’s failing marriage indicates that one can’t simply push one’s anger under, however, just as the football incident has signaled to Japan that not all is well. Toru begins to acknowledge his repressed anger when a stage magician thrusts his hand into a candle flame, alerting Toru that he himself is in pain. When the man later attacks Toru with a baseball bat—he thinks that Toru is stalking him—Toru wrests the bat from his grasp and beats him far beyond what the occasion calls for.

A bat also shows up in an historical account of a Japanese commander ordering a soldier to execute a Manchurian rebel with a bat. Toru, meanwhile, uses a bat to defeat his knife-wielding alter ego in a subterranean battle that essentially happens inside Toru’s mind.

A similar mental battle occurs in Kafka on the Shore. The 15-year-old Kafka has run away from his autocratic father so that he won’t go Oedipal on him, but his feelings are so strong that, in magical realist fashion, he telepathically gets another man to take on the killing mission. Although Kafka is hundreds of miles away, he awakes to find blood on his shirt.

Murakami may return to his anger theme in book after book because of how Japanese men are pressured to override their empathy and “crush” their opponents. Perhaps reading his novels will help them be strong enough to stand up to their coaches and other authority figures.

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