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.
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.