Who You’re Reading When You Read Haruki Murakami

His early translated works, the subject of a fascinating new book, shed light on the business of bringing the best-selling novelist to a global audience.

A collage of Haruki Murakami's features
dpa picture alliance / Alamy / The Atlantic

Books are a product unlike most others. Novelists are not iPhones. The new doesn’t render the old obsolete. No matter how much you loved Sally Rooney, you would not suggest that because of her, Oscar Wilde is history. An adoration of Emma Cline would not lead you to say that she eclipses Joan Didion. One does not replace the other. Yet this is how Haruki Murakami was introduced to the world stage.

Alfred Birnbaum was the first to translate Murakami’s novels into English. And this is how he describes Murakami’s work: “the total antithesis of heavy-handed dour pain-in-your-face voices like Kenzaburō Ōe, Kōbō Abe, Jūrō Kara, and Kenji Nakagami.” This attitude was evident in the 1989 New York Times review of A Wild Sheep Chase, his first publication aimed at the American market. Herbert Mitgang described it as a “bold new advance in a category of international fiction … This isn’t the traditional fiction of Kōbō Abe … Yukio Mishima … or … Yasunari Kawabata.” Other American critics echoed these sentiments, separating Murakami from these Japanese writers in order to celebrate him.

Murakami has said he is more influenced by American fiction than Japanese. But this framing—the suggestion that his excellence stems from his difference from other Japanese writers—nonetheless smells of a phenomenon the writer and activist Nikesh Shukla callsHighlander syndrome”: when members of the same race or minority group are pitted against one another in a manner that allows for only one winner.

How Murakami, whose book sales today number in the millions, and whose name is recognized even by those who have never read his work, came to be the figurehead of Japanese literature abroad is the subject of Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami, a slim but fascinating new treatise by David Karashima on the business of bringing the best-selling novelist to a global audience.

book cover
Soft Skull Press

The cover of the book’s Japanese edition hints that Murakami the man and Murakami the writer in translation might not be identical. The title is splayed across the top in Japanese characters, except for Murakami’s name, which is written in roman letters: The juxtaposition, not present in the English-language edition, implies a cultural product. When a person buys Murakami’s books in English, they are receiving both author and publishing machine. Novelists may not be iPhones but, when producing a blockbuster novel, the American market plays a role. And Karashima focuses on how Murakami was launched into that very market—as he puts it, “the stories of the colorful cast of characters who first contributed to publishing Murakami’s work in English.” Along the way, he investigates the motives of those characters, the qualities they celebrated, and the words they sliced away.

Karashima leads his readers on a tour of translational tinkering. He begins with Birnbaum, Murakami’s first translator, and Elmer Luke, the editor at Kodansha, a Japanese publisher that was looking to break into the American market. An Adventure Surrounding Sheep, Murakami’s third novel, is a surreal mystery that begins when the protagonist learns of the death of a girl he used to sleep with. The original story was set in the ’70s, but Birnbaum and Luke, the book’s editor, had “American—particularly New York American—readers in mind,” and believed they wanted something “contemporary.” So for the book’s 1989 publication in the United States, they took out obvious references to the time period. They also added a slight nod to a Ronald Reagan speech that was made after the time period of the book, and changed the title to A Wild Sheep Chase. (Birnbaum is reported to have said, “Don’t you think it’s a much better title than the original?”)

From their next project, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, they trimmed about 100 pages. Although Murakami said that he wanted to write the book to include some “illogical” sections, Birnbaum and Luke feared that American readers would lose interest and made significant cuts. In particular, they removed passages including a character called the Girl in Pink, who leads the protagonist through a maze. For example, the original contained four pages of her singing about her pink bicycle. Hosea Hirata, an associate professor of Japanese at Tufts University, believes this had the effect of censoring the original, explaining to Karashima that several omitted sections show the Girl in Pink being sexually aggressive. He gives examples of the girl and the protagonist’s cut conversations. Two in particular that stand out are:

“Hey,” the girl called me, putting down the book. “You sure you don’t want me to swallow your semen?”


“I got a hard-on.”

“Let me see,” said the girl. I hesitated a bit, but decided that I would let her see it. I was too tired to keep arguing about it. And after all I won’t be in the world for too long. I didn’t think that by showing my healthy erect penis to a seventeen-year girl, it would develop into a grave social problem.

“I see …” said the girl looking at my erect penis. “Can I touch it?”

When asked about these cuts, Luke responds that his problem with these scenes was not their sexuality but that they were “preposterous almost” and that he didn’t want “the author or the book to be dismissed.” He doesn’t think her age would have been an issue, saying, “It would have been different if she was twelve or something.” Neither Luke nor Karashima delves further into why the girl’s sexuality might or might not be preposterous, or lead to the book being dismissed by American audiences. Karashima quotes the critic Gitte Marianne Hansen, who noted that it was a “shame” that these sections were not preserved, because she believes “that sex descriptions in the Murakami world have a lot to do with self-discovery and communication between characters who don’t understand each other, rather than sex in the pornographic sense. And that feeling might be lost when these explicit words and images are removed.”

Murakami is not the first author to have his work changed in translation. And where to draw the line has always been a subject of some contention. The question of the Girl in Pink calls to mind an essay on translation by Vladimir Nabokov, in which he writes: ‘‘How contemptible is the smug person who, although quite understanding the sense, fears it might stump a dunce or debauch a dauphin! Instead of blissfully nestling in the arms of the great writer, he keeps worrying about the little reader playing in a corner with something dangerous or unclean.” Whether one considers such cuts helpful or hurtful, they clearly shaped the book in more ways than simply length. (The two men also made at least one arbitrary addition: a subtle reference to Birnbaum’s father.)

Of his and Birnbaum’s edits, Luke anticipates that “the true Murakami believers … will be horrified.” But despite their liberties, these men saw themselves as working on Murakami’s behalf. They made efforts above and beyond what you’d expect from their job descriptions. When Murakami expressed a belief that Princeton University would be a good place to write, Luke organized a stay. Luke and Birnbaum contend that the majority of the changes they made were to help Murakami reach American audiences—something Murakami desired. Murakami himself noted that Japanese editors take a lighter hand than Americans. Perhaps Luke and Birnbaum’s editing style could be seen as a compliment; Murakami has stated many times that he admires Raymond Carver’s work, and Carver was famously heavily edited by his New Yorker editor Gordon Lish. Still, Murakami seems ambivalent, calling Birnbaum “more of an introducer than a meticulous translator,” and hints that he might have gone too far.

As Murakami’s literary fame grew, he would also move on from his early collaborators. By 1992, Murakami switched editors, from Luke to Gary Fisketjon at Knopf. Luke sounds largely loving toward Murakami, saying he is “gratified” that he was able to help “start the Murakami engine,” though whether he was an instigator or a casualty of Murakami’s move to a U.S. publisher is unclear. The first book Knopf published was a short-story collection that included the work of several different translators, including Birnbaum, but the first novel Knopf published was translated by Jay Rubin. Birnbaum seems unable to make up his mind about whether he was dropped—even ghosted—by Murakami, or whether it was he who moved on.

Rubin would also make significant changes to Murakami’s work. In Japan, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published as three books, whereas in the United States, it was published as a single volume. Rubin felt that parts of the original novel were “chaotic,” so he cut sections to make it “tighter and cleaner” than the original, some 25,000 words in all. Unlike Luke and Birnbaum, who reportedly trimmed as they worked, rather than producing a complete translation first, Rubin created two versions: a full one and an edited one. Knopf chose the abridged version. Fisketjon said that an unabridged version would have been “completely impossible in the U.S.,” and perhaps he was correct: After all, this is widely considered to be Murakami’s breakout book in America. But it is impossible to know for certain whether such decisions helped make Murakami the success he is abroad or whether his fundamental vision as a writer would have always shone through.

For those interested in Murakami trivia, Karashima also includes publishing gossip,       such as whether a party with seven sushi chefs really was thrown for Murakami or how many times Murakami did or did not meet Carver. Such anecdotes are as entertaining as they are illustrative of how sprawling the Murakami myth has become. Karashima, who confines his analysis to Murakami’s early work, notes that the way Murakami is understood is constantly changing. And maybe, as Murakami has requested, his early works will one day be made available in English unabridged.

I wonder, though, whether what will most change our understanding of Murakami’s work is the next generation of Japanese writers being translated for a global audience. A widely shared interview between the Japanese novelist Mieko Kawakami and Murakami shows her probing Murakami’s depictions of women: “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 proceeds with a nuanced, and only partially negative, dissection of his female characters, pointing out that “there are many cases where women are presented as gateways, or opportunities for transformation” via sex and that this can put the female characters in an “overly sexual role.” And yet she also says that she thinks he captures some of his female characters very well. Kawakami is particularly qualified to push him on these points; her own recently translated book, Breasts and Eggs, has been praised for its “uncompromising brilliance” in examining womanhood. The exchange—a productive critique and response between two respected Japanese writers—was translated for Anglophone readers; the fact that it has resonated internationally represents exciting new terrain.

Personally, I’ve been overjoyed to see the rush of female Japanese writers being translated for an English-language audience: Mieko Kawakami, Yōko Ogawa, Kikuko Tsumura, Hiromi Kawakami, and Sayaka Murata, among others. There have always been Japanese writers other than Murakami available in translation, but I’ve been having more conversations with people without a particular interest in Japan who have read one or more of these women. I remember thinking, Finally someone other than Murakami. But that’s also the trap. These women don’t need to replace Murakami. When only one writer from a culture is celebrated, they must stand for that whole culture. When we have more than one voice, we have a conversation—and that is far more exciting.