The Japanese author Haruki Murakami has become internationally renowned over the past few decades for his quirky novels that utilise a style often called “magical realism,” which fuses the mundane and the magical to offer portraits of contemporary Japan that have captivated millions and made him by far the country’s most successful author.
Despite his work focusing on Japanese life, his style was notably shaped by Western authors. He is frequently cited as having read the work of Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, and Raymond Chandler as a young man, and there is obviously a massive influence that comes from Franz Kafka and various Russian authors. Another author Murakami is also known to have read and admired is Jack Kerouac, and it is perhaps not a stretch to imagine that the likes of Doctor Sax contributed to the incorporation of the magical into everyday life. [Update: I have written about the connections between Kerouac and Murakami here.]
Whilst Murakami gives few interviews and has not mentioned the Beats in any essays (that I know of), there are various references to Kerouac and his Beat peers in several of his works. These are not normally of much significance and speak little to any influence that the Beat writers had over Murakami. Indeed, they appear more like cultural touchstones or are used to show a character’s wanderlust or awareness of Western culture. Still, the references are not as superficial as they seem. For Murakami, they function as insights into a particular character, in the same way that he used references to particular artists or pieces of music.
A Wild Sheep Chase (Japanese, 1982; English, 1989)
Near the beginning of this novel, the narrator recalls seeing a young woman, now deceased. He describes her as spending her time in a Beat-style coffee shop, where she smoked cigarettes and read:
The only thing that changed was the book. One time it’d be Mickey Spillane, another time Kenzaburo Oe, another time Allen Ginsberg.
Dance, Dance, Dance (Japanese, 1988; English, 1994)
In this sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, the narrator sees a girl wearing a Talking Heads sweatshirt and comments:
Talking Heads. Not bad, for a band name. Like something out of Kerouac.
The Elephant Vanishes (English, 1993; Japanese, 2005)
The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of short stories that Murakami published between 1980 and 1991 and it begins with “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” which is rather similar to the start of the novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. (In fact, the success of the short story prompted him to expand it into that epic novel.)
Right at the start of this story, Murakami mentions Allen Ginsberg. The protagonist’s wife tells him about a job writing poetry for a girls’ magazine. He is shocked, but his wife explains:
“Not real poetry, just the kind of poems high-school girls might read. They don’t even have to be that good. It’s not like they’re expecting you to write like Allen Ginsberg. Just whatever you can make do.”
Interestingly, when this story was published in the New Yorker, Murakami was forced to remove Ginsberg’s name and replace it with T.S. Eliot.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Japanese, 1994-95; English, 1997)
Although the beginning of this novel is very similar to the aforementioned short story, the line about Allen Ginsberg was removed. However, shortly after he is briefly mentioned twice and is included in the heading of the third chapter, “Malta Kano’s Hat / Sherbet Tone and Allen Ginsberg and the Crusaders.”
The character of Malta is named after the European country, where she explains there is a fountain of youth, whose waters possess magical powers:
If it is taken elsewhere, it loses its power. The only way you can drink it is to go there yourself. It is mentioned in documents from the time of the Crusades. They called it spirit water. Allen Ginsberg once came there to drink it. So did Keith Richards.
I can say with some confidence that Malta was not among the 66 countries visited by Allen Ginsberg, but given Keith Richards’ longevity, I am not so sure he did not drink from those sacred waters…
Sputnik Sweetheart (Japanese, 1999; English, 2001)
Sputnik Sweetheart is a love story about two women, Sumire and Miu. Perhaps strangely for a lesbian romance novel, Jack Kerouac is frequently referenced, and indeed when the two women first met they talked about him:
The first time Sumire met Miu, she talked to her about Jack Kerouac’s novels. Sumire was absolutely nuts about Kerouac. She always had her literary Idol of the Month, and at that point it happened to be the out-of-fashion Kerouac. She carried a dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler stuck in her coat pocket, thumbing through it every chance she got. Whenever she ran across lines she liked, she’d mark them in pencil and commit them to memory like they were Holy Writ. Her favorite lines were from the fire lookout section of Lonesome Traveler. Kerouac spent three lonely months in a cabin on top of a high mountain, working as a fire lookout.
Until this point, Murakami’s mentions of Beat literature had been minimal – as I said before, it was almost name-dropping, a cultural touchstone. However, here he chooses to dive into a lesser-known Kerouac work:
Sumire especially liked this part:
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
“Don’t you just love it?” she said. “Every day you stand on top of a mountain, make a three-hundred-sixty-degree sweep, checking to see if there’re any fires. And that’s it. You’re done for the day. The rest of the time you can read, write, whatever you want. At night scruffy bears hang around your cabin. That’s the life! Compared with that, studying literature in college is like chomping down on the bitter end of a cucumber.”
“OK,” I said, “but someday you’ll have to come down off the mountain.” As usual, my practical, humdrum opinions didn’t faze her.
Murakami goes on:
Sumire wanted to be like a character in a Kerouac novel—wild, cool, dissolute. She’d stand around, hands shoved deep in her coat pockets, her hair an uncombed mess, staring vacantly at the sky through her black plastic-frame Dizzy Gillespie glasses, which she wore despite her twenty-twenty vision. She was invariably decked out in an oversize herringbone coat from a secondhand store and a pair of rough work boots. If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.
You might well be connecting the dots… Kerouac… Beat Generation… Beatnik… Sputnik! Yes, the title of this book does indeed owe its origins to Kerouac:
Miu had heard of Jack Kerouac and had a vague sense that he was a novelist of some kind. What kind of novelist, though, she couldn’t recall.
“Kerouac . . . Hmm . . . Wasn’t he a Sputnik?”
Sumire couldn’t figure out what she meant. Knife and fork poised in midair, she gave it some thought. “Sputnik? You mean the first satellite the Soviets sent up, in the fifties? Jack Kerouac was an American novelist. I guess they do overlap in terms of generation.. . .”
“Isn’t that what they called the writers back then?” Miu asked. She traced a circle on the table with her fingertip, as if rummaging through some special jar full of memories.
“Sputnik . . .?”
“The name of a literary movement. You know—how they classify writers in various schools of writing. Like Shiga Naoya was in the White Birch School.”
Finally it dawned on Sumire. “Beatnik!”
Kerouac continues to crop up throughout the novel, with the narrator saying to Sumire – in reference to her outfit – “Not bad… But I wonder what good old Jack Kerouac would say.” Later, he tells her, “There you were in your usual crummy Jack Kerouac outfit, cigarette dangling from your lips…”
It would be interesting to analyse the influence of Jack Kerouac on Haruki Murakami because it appears to be significant and, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet done it. The references in his work are oblique at best, with Allen Ginsberg appearing almost as often and a Beat/beatnik sensibility attached to characters almost as a matter of fashion, but certainly there is something there.
Stylistically, it is difficult to see much Kerouac in Murakami, but it is hard to read the latter’s work and not see elements of Doctor Sax. Then there is the fact that Murakami was familiar with Lonesome Traveler. When we consider the fact that he apparently read Kerouac prior to becoming a writer, we must conclude that Kerouac was of some importance in shaping his utterly unique and brilliant fiction.
A few other clues exist as to possible influence. Murakami once told a group of students at Berkeley about his writing style: “the sentences have to have rhythm,” he said. “This is something I learned from music, especially jazz. In jazz, great rhythm is what makes great improvising possible.” A moment later, he talked about removing excess words and ideas: “You have to cut out the fat.” Of course, Kerouac is perhaps the most famous writer to use jazz for his literary inspiration and he is often quoted by his Beat peers as talking about “cutting out syntactical fat.” Elsewhere, he talks of “automatic writing” and said “To me, spontaneity is the most important thing.” So he was writing jazz-inspired spontaneous prose and very nearly quoting Kerouac… Hmm.
Unfortunately, my Japanese is minimal and so I cannot read the original works, which I know differ quite greatly from the English translations, so it would be interesting to find out if there are further Beat references that have been removed, as well as to search through Murakami’s interviews in the Japanese media to see if he has mentioned the Beats there.