Best known for writing Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore, Murakami is regarded as one of the greatest living authors. His book sales are well into the millions and have been translated into over 50 different languages.
Beautifully yet simplistically written, Murkami’s books often involve elements of magical realism and philosophical questioning expertly woven into the story.
However, much like many male authors (Jonathan Franzen and Phillip K Dick come to mind) his work has come under more and more scrutiny for the way it portrays its female characters, with even literary friends of the author such as Mieko Kawakami (writer of international bestseller Breasts and Eggs) questioning Murakami on this whilst interviewing him in 2017.
“Keep sex drive all bottled up inside and you get dull-witted. Throws your whole body out of whack. Holds the same for men and for women. But with a woman, her monthly cycle can get irregular, and when her cycle goes off, it can make her imbalanced.”
Not exactly the sort of thing you’d want your grandfather saying about you to a stranger, is it?
Yet this is how one character describes his granddaughter in japanese Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World.
And to make it worse – passages like this common are common in Murakami’s work.
Sasha Donovan-Anns, a literary student from Norwich University, said the way Murakami sexualised his female characters put her off his work: “I received Kafka on the Shore, where close to the beginning the main character while on a bus takes the opportunity to stare down a young woman’s top when she falls asleep.
Above: Desire by Haruki Murakami
“He then considers she could be his long-lost sister, but instead of mentally recoiling from the leap in mental association I remember him being quite comfortable to continue to view her sexually.
“I spoke to the friend who had given me the book and they agreed there were often moments in his stories of uneasy sexual boundaries, but assured me that once overlooked, his books were worth the hype.”
Anyria Chan, 23, medical student at The University of Sheffield and lifelong Murakami fan, agreed his depiction of women is problematic.
But unlike Sasha, it doesn’t deter her from reading his work: “I’ve always immensely enjoyed his work and the world he creates, but have always been uncomfortable with the way the male narrators talk about women.
“I always know going into a new book from him that there will be a few passages which will make me take a break or skip over them.
“I’m always cautious recommending him to friends, as I feel like I have to warn them that they might find bits of his books triggering.”
When it comes to publishing problematic books, there has been a new trend of editing old work, such as re-writes of Roald Dahl’s classics. This approach brings much criticism as some believe it amounts to nothing more than censorship.
Sasha, 24, believes removing problematic sections from Murakami’s books isn’t the best solution, but we should continue to discuss the problems in his work: “I would pre-warn people they might find some scenes uncomfortable, for their sexual boundaries and the way that female characters are constructed and perceived.
“Acknowledging the concerns with his work means a reader isn’t simmering in silence, which is particularly valuable when these issues parallel many women’s lived experience.
“If there is a discussion about it, no one is left wondering if they are the only one finding these issues with his work.
“I place recognition as being more valuable than removal.”
Interestingly enough, on the odd occasion that Murakami writes with a female narrator his stories come across as semi-feminist. His short stories The Little Green Monster and Sleep both deal with issues that many modern housewives in Japan face, with their lives seemingly consumed by looking after the men in their lives.
Although semi-feminist, Murakami’s short stories are far less well known and do not mask the problems in the likes of Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood – likely meaning that the narrative that he is a problematic author will continue to grow.
But whether this will impact his popularity in the future remains to be seen.
If you liked this post then read A new side to the story: Why feminist retellings are on the rise or Marie Arnold: Shedding a light on police brutality next.
Arthur is a journalism student at The University of Sheffield. As well as being a founding member of BLOT, he has also written for Forge Press, Sheff Central and One2Football. His hobbies include climbing, going to gigs and of course, reading.
Favourite genres: Magical Realism and Historical Fiction.