Haruki Murakami: “Yesterday”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Haruki Murakami’s “Yesterday” (tr. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel) was originally published in the Jun 9 & 16, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. This is the Summer Fiction edition, so you can click here to see the other stories in this issue.

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Betsy

Haruki Murakami was born in Kobe in 1949. Both of these facts figure in the story “Yesterday.”

Kobe is a large seaport south of Tokyo and one of the three big cities in central Japan where the Kansai dialect is spoken. Kansai is more of a regional accent than dialect, but it does include some unique and recognizable vocabulary. It is distinctly not the national standard, which would be what is spoken in Tokyo. When someone from Tokyo hears a Kansai accent, they associate a personality with the accent: warm, outgoing, and relaxed, also a little brash and outspoken, something that is so counter to ordinary Japanese custom as to be shocking. Kansai presents English translators with a quandary; some choose to use a southern accent, others a Texan, and in the case of this story, a kind Brooklynese or New Jersey accent.

Tokyo-ben (the Japanese standard), when spoken by men, has a distinctly reserved, assertive, gruff tone, something fitting for the business, governmental, and military center that Tokyo is. Men and women in Tokyo, at least in my experience in 1968, do not sound the same, however. When you hear men and women in Tokyo speak, it is almost as if women have a regional dialect of their own. There is a feminine way of speaking, which is demure in the extreme, and there is a masculine way of speaking, which would not sound wrong if a character from Ernest Hemingway chose to use it.

Kansai is neither of those. What it is, says Tanimura (Murakami’s narrator), is “emotionally rich.”

What dialect you speak is a pivot point in this story. When Tanimura, one of the three main characters, moves from the Kobe area to go to university in Tokyo, he drops his Kansai dialect. He says, “I wanted to become a totally different person.”

One of the three main characters in “Yesterday,” a well-to-do twenty-year-old young man from Tokyo named Kitaru, affects a Kansai dialect. He also wants to become a totally different person, but in a completely different manner from his friend from Kobe.

What he wants is not to be a different person than himself; rather, what he wants is to become a different person from the culture — not success-driven, not family-oriented, and not under the thumb of the culture. Japanese culture, as presented by Murakami, has a monolithic quality that needs confrontation. When Kitaru insists on speaking in a Kansai dialect, he is confronting expectations. He thus becomes a person whom other people find puzzling and annoying.

The Kansai dialect he has chosen to speak sums him up. He’s a kind of Mr. Opposite. He insists on making up his own words for the famous Beatles’ song, “Yesterday.” While everyone else buys the idea that they should study hard and go to the best college possible, Kitaru refuses to study. He wants the test to be an event that just happens, an event where luck plays a role. While everyone else thinks his girlfriend is gorgeous, he can’t imagine having a sexual relationship with her.

The fact that he isn’t going to go to college is going to hurt him in the marriage sweepstakes, but the whole social fabric is something Kitaru appears to reject. In fact, he seems to be in the process of rejecting Japan.

In a terrific interview in The Paris Review (here), Murakami says that when he was younger, he “wanted to escape from this culture.” He felt that it was “too boring. Too Sticky.” Even though Murakami himself has lived abroad for periods of years, he  says:

I don’t want to write about foreigners in foreign countries; I want to write about us. I want to write about Japan, about our life here.

He has sold millions of books in Japan, and in a way, Kitaru exemplifies the reason why. Kitaru bucks the system and survives.

In The Paris Review interview, Murakami says:

The main task of my protagonist is to observe the things happening around him. [. . . H]e is neutral, and in order to maintain his neutrality, he must be free from any kinship, any vertical family system. This might be considered my reply to the fact the “family” has played an overly significant role in Japanese literature. [. . . M]y main character [. . .] chooses freedom and solitude over intimacy and personal bonds.

He further remarks that his protagonist is often a like the author’s twin brother who was  kidnapped at two. The protagonist is “a kind of alternative form of [Murakami himself].” In this story, Kitaru and Tanimura, the two students, play those two roles as well, the one pursuing a career, the other being a kind of flower child.

Time is important in this story. Murakami calls it “Yesterday” after the Beatles song. The story is told as a remembrance of student days, when two vivid characters Tanimura met while at Waseda (where Murakami also went). Murakami was born in 1949, and he was a student in Tokyo at the height of the student uprisings in 1968.  It was a time of enormous tumult. Everything was being turned upside down.

Although the precise year the story takes place is not spelled out, the rebellion that Kitaru is embracing feels appropriate to 1968, when Murakami himself would have been in college.

His twin protagonists, Kitaru and Tanimura, were “friends for just a few months.” They hung out and talked about everything — girls, baseball, sex, studies. It was so vivid that Tanimura remarks, “It feels as though these things happened just yesterday.”

Many of us might have exactly the same thought about our college friendships — that they are still so vivid they might have happened only yesterday. But what Murakami means by this story is specific to the “sticky” culture of Japan — the way life is to be lived in a certain way, according to certain rules. Thus, Tanimura and Kitaru were playing out an argument about what it is to be a Japanese man.

In their relationships with the ethereally beautiful Erika, they are also playing out the difficulty that finding a soul mate presents in Japan. Murakami himself, in The Paris Review interview, says, “My protagonist is always missing something.” Most surprisingly, Murakami says, “In my stories, women are mediums [. . .] the protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her.”

He goes on to describe the important role that sex plays in the relationship. I would comment here that any sexual relationship that either of the men might have had with the beautiful Erika would have been complicated by the fact that the pill was only legalized in Japan in 1999.

But in this story, Kitaru and Tanimura are not there yet. Neither of them is able to commit to Erika, even though she seems interested in both of them. The young men are in that floating world of leaving home, when nothing makes much sense. As Tanimura says of that time, “For the most part, I remained hidden away, deep within myself.”

The primary symbol in the story, a moon made of ice, encapsulates not only the effect Japanese culture can have on a young man, but also the heart of the young man himself.

It’s a curious thing that Murakami says he did not begin to write until he was 29. It can take a long time to find yourself.

7 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami: “Yesterday””

  1. Bellezza says:

    So wish I could access this, I may have to subscribe!, as Japanese literature is a passion of mine. Not to mention Haruki himself…I can’t wait to have his latest, Colorless Tzukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage in my hands, but not until August 12. It takes forever for his translations to arrive here.

  2. Trevor says:

    We’ll let you know soon just how urgent we think it is, Bellezza!

  3. The post has been updated to include Betsy’s thoughts. Also, The New Yorker has unlocked this, so it’s available to all without subscription — not sure if that’ll be forever or just for now.

  4. Ken says:

    I always enjoy Murakami’s stories in The New Yorker but this was his best so far. The way seemingly minor events, hardly anything earth-shattering happens here, can have an emotional imprint, a color of feeling is what he gets at. The narrator brushes up against two people. He and they are all confused, in college, wondering about tradition vs. self-interest, or giri vs. ninjo (the famous opposition in Japanese culture) and nothing really happens yet this time may then crystallize for all 3 into something. If I’m not being clear, it’s because this is an elusive, mysterious and sublime and poetic story.

  5. Betsy says:

    Terrific observations, Ken. Really helpful.

    In particular, I like your phrase – “color of feeling”. Remembering a chance set of friendships that he has come to value more over time, the narrator speaks in a tone that combines resignation and immediacy. “I remember Kitaru so well….It feels as though these things happened only yesterday.”

    Part of the color of feeling is the juxtaposition of the image of the moon of ice and the immediacy of music. The narrator says, “Music has that power to revive memories, sometimes so intensely that they hurt.” but he also says that at the time he knew these two chance acquaintances, this period was a “cold period.” It was a time he had “no vision for the future.”

    Tamimura tells the whole story of meeting Kitaru and Erika to be able to express his deepest feeling about that period of his life, that lasted for “a long, long year.” It is only at the end of the story that Tanimura can identify what was most true about that period of his life. The narrator, Tanimura, was so “hidden away” that he could hardly engage, at the time, the mysteries that Kitaru and Erika represent. He only tells us at the very end what that year (when he met Kitaru and Erika) was like. “I had no girlfriend to warm my body or my soul, no friends I could open up to. No clue what I should do every day, no vision for the future. For the most part, I remained hidden away, deep within myself.”

    Also, Ken, your identification of the giri-ninjo conflict is so helpful. There are multiple essays on-line that detail this concept – from discussions about how the conflict plays out in Kabuki to how it dominates Japanese television. The giri-ninjo conflict is that battle between duty and self, one that often plays out between a man’s obligation to one’s wife or family and deep attraction to another woman. It can also play out in the samurai’s life and death choices, especially his choice for suicide, if his obligations to his lord and the samurai code require it.

    Where this story differs from many others is that the lure Kitaru is following is not the lure of true love, but the lure of the true self. But the suggestion of suicide, as a choice, is there in the image of the moon that is a disk of ice. Life and death-in-life seems represented by the moon that freezes at night (the time of warmth, safety, otherworldly beauty and sex) and melts during the day (the time of work and duty).

    What strikes me as so puzzling in this story is that Kitaru strikes Erika and Tanimura (and me as well) as compelling, but also ridiculous. Perhaps when Erika finds Kitaru “annoying”, she is expressing the culture’s impatience with the idea of finding yourself. To an American, the idea that a young man would employ himself running a jazz bar (as Murakami did in his twenties) might seem admirable – he’s following his dream. To Murakami’s family and contemporaries in the 70′s, this might have seemed ridiculous. Perhaps – I don’t know.

    When I lived in Japan for two years between 1967 and 1969, the role of women and the nature of marriage interested me. When a Japanese friend of mine told me about her impending arranged marriage, she also told me how it was arranged. Although she could always refuse, at any point, it was the brevity of their interactions that shocked me, as well as her complete ease with the whole situation. I also knew, from pop media and from observing my neighborhood, that many husbands did not get home til late at night. And I knew the wives would not work – they needed to run the home.

    What has struck me in these on-line articles about the giri-ninjo conflict is what one author called the “nuances” of this cultural belief system. Much is made about the mother’s role in the education of Japanese children – but now I am thinking that another primary role for Japanese mothers is to instill in their children all the nuances of obligation that the children must observe.

    In this story, Tanimura dismisses the role of Kitaru’s mother. He recounts listening to Kitaru’s mother “drone on and on (mostly complaints about her weird son and how he needed to study more). I think his off-hand dismissal of Kitaru’s mother might read, in Japan, as still profoundly disrespectful. If women devote their lives to the transmission of this “nuanced” culture – they are of ultimate importance.

    In addition, when he tells us about his own loneliness during his year of isolation, he does not mention the comfort of home or parents. He watched that ice-cold moon alone – “unable to share its beauty with anyone.” Home and parents have vanished.

    So I sense in the story a modern complication to Japanese life – that at about the time Murakami was in college, young people began to break away from the old traditions. In the United States, there was a sense of exhilaration among young people – the world was changing and that was a good thing – love was a good thing – no more war was a good thing – music could change the world, and that was a good thing. But I sense that in Japan, breaking with the old order was really difficult.

    When the students rebelled in Tokyo in 1968, their battle with the police on the streets of Tokyo was profoundly shocking. It was on live television all day, and it was Kabuki in real life. Change had arrived with tear gas and cataclysm.

    Murakami gets to that sense of shocking generational change in a different way. Kitaru seems slightly ridiculous and beside the point – although the narrator can never forget him. At the same time, however, Tanimura is also in the process of separating from home. He has, after all, wiped every trace of his home dialect from his speech.

    Going his own way has thrown the narrator into a cold world, where he must, to survive, keep himself “hidden away.”

    Kitaru lounges, singing and talking, warm and confident in in his hot bath. “Who cares?” he says. “I’m singing in my bath in my own house.” His voice says this “calmly from a cloud of steam.” Tanimura holds himself apart, listening through a crack in the door, safely hidden, safely frozen.

    But Ken – you say all this so well so briefly – that it is an “an elusive, mysterious and sublime and poetic story.” Economy is not my strong suit.

  6. Roger says:

    I’ve admired Murakami’s work for years and generally enjoy it; sometimes the larger meaning of his stories, especially those featuring magical realism, can be puzzling. This one is probably my favorite, too. He does such a wonderful job of presenting the three characters, with their quirks and distinct voices, and of making them sympathetic. I found it compelling how Tanimura strives to move up and in to a “better” part of society, as embodied by his abandoning Kansai dialect, while at the same time doubting that he is really getting anywhere or that he even knows what he wants or how to get it. He’s such a thoughtful introvert, always examining and questioning and wondering and doubting. Yet he’s empathetic, recognizing that these same questions afflict others, including those so seemingly unlike him, including Kitaru and Erika. In one key line, he observes that “we all … endlessly take the long way around.” A thought that he restrains himself from saying out loud to Erika, and that sums up so much about what strikes me as this story’s meaning.

    A great story needn’t be populated by likable characters, but the presence of likable characters can help, and they really help here (even the peculiar Kitaru was a believable emotional being, inspiring more compassion than annoyance). In particular, there are scenes of dialogue in the story that worked wonderfully in large part because the characters seem so real and worth knowing. In particular, the restaurant conversation between Tanimura and Erika, and the scene years later featuring the two of them at the wine-tasting, struck me as dramatic high points in the story, even though in the hands of a lesser writer they probably would have failed. The two characters speak explicitly and in detail about their emotions and innermost thoughts, even of dreams, in the case of Erika. Often when a writer tries this, it comes across as melodrama worthy of a soap opera, but in this story these scenes are so poignant.

    Though Murakami is an unconventional writer, it seems to me that this story could serve as a textbook example (in the best use of that term) about how, by giving a reader characters who are compelling at the primary, literal level, a writer can do so much at the symbolic, secondary level. This story raises big philosophical questions about how and why individuals live their lives and search for meaning, and about how those searches can lead to stumbling and bumbling. It does this so well because it makes the reader so interested in these three special characters and how they behave.

  7. Betsy says:

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts, Roger – that the characters draw us in, that the writing on the surface is simple — that these are the things that allow us to accept the philosophical questions.

    I also had the illusion he was speaking just to me – telling me a long story on a summer night. But I don’t think I’m the only one who feels he’s talking right to me – that’s a gift of this writer.

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