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by Bamber Gascoigne

Haruki Murakami (b. 1949)


Japanese novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and translator, whose work combine postmodern techniques and fantasy with influences from American literature. Murakami is one of the most popular and widely translated of all contemporary Japanese authors.

"I wake up, but where? I don't just think this, I actually voice the question to myself: "Where am I?" As if I didn't know: I'm here. In my life. A feature of the world that is my existence." (in Dance, Dance, Dance, 1988)

Murakami Haruki was born in Kyoto, but he grew up in Ashiya, Hyogo. His father, Ciaki, the son of of a Kyoto Buddhist priest, had fought in China in his youth, and prayed every morning at the Buddhist altar in their house for the people who had died in the war. Murakami's mother, Miyuki, was the daughter of an Osaka merchant. Both of his parents taught Japanese literature. Murakami himself became a voracious reader and was permitted to buy books on credit at the local bookstore. However, he was more interested in American hard-boiled detective stories and science fiction than Japanese classics. "Alone in my room I would listen to American jazz and rock-and-roll, watch American television shows and read American novels," Murakami has recalled in an interview. (New York Times, September 27, 1992)

In 1968 Murakami moved to Tokyo to study theater at Waseda University, Before graduating in 1975, Murakami opened with his wife, Yoko Takahashi, a jazz club, named "Peter Cat" after an old pet of his. They managed it until 1981; its specialty was stuffed cabbage. Originally the club was a windowless undergroud place, which had Spanish-style white walls, wooden tables and chairs. His friend, the photographer Eizo Matsumura has recalled, that it was a place "where time stood still." In 1977, the couple moved the club to a central downtown location. The interior was decorated all over with cat theme; even chopstick wrappers had cat designs. Murakami himself has owned several cats and felines appear frequently in his fiction as "delegates from another world". (John Updike, in Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, 2007, pp. 433-435)

Murakami started to write at the age of 29. His first novel, Kaze no uta o kike (1979, Hear the Wind Sing) won the Gunzo New Writer's Award. This 130-page story, where nothing much happens, was followed by Sen kyuhyaku nanaju san nen no pinboru (1980, Pinball 1973), which featured a possibly sentient pinball machine. It was awarded Kondansha publisher's Shinjin Bunkaku prize for best newcomer in 1980. These works introduced Murakami's protagonist, known as Boku, whose character owes debt to Chandler's Philip Marlowe and the existentialist antiheroes of the nouveau roman. He was also the narrator in Hitsuji o meguru boken (1982, A Wild Sheep Chase), in which he searched for a mysterious sheep. Before disappearing, the creature had "lived" inside a powerful businessman as the embodiment of his Nietzschean will-to-power. There is no clear line between fantasy and the real world. Murakami has regarded A Wild Sheep Chase , which was awarded the Noma Literary Award for New Writers, as his real debut work. This was also his first book in English published outside Japan. The Sheep Man appeared again in Dance Dance Dance (1988), saying: "Dance. As long as the music plays."

Following his success as a writer, Murakami sold his jazz club and devoted himself full time to writing. Between 1986 and 1989 Murakami lived in Greece. He has been a visiting fellow in East Asian studies at Princeton University (1991-93) and taught at Tufts University in Medford, MA. After spending years abroad, Murakami returned to Japan in 1995, where an earthquake had struck Kobe, his hometown, and members of the cult group Aum Shinrikyo carried out the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. 

Murakami's fourth novel, Sekai no owari to hadoboirudo wandarando (1985, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World), a kind of science fiction novel built on two separate but intricately related stories, won the Tanizaki Prize. At the end, the both protagonists have to decide, whether to reject or accept the world the live in. Kafka on the Shore (2002), which also alternated between two storylines, was a tribute to the power of imagination, containing several riddles, "but there aren't any solutions provided," as Murakami said. Mostly his narrators had been bystanders or passive victims, who are alienated from society, but in this work the central characters, Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old runaway from his home in Tokya, and Satoru Nakata, searching for a lost cat named Goma, began to take responsibility for their dreams and subconscious attitudes. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company produced in 2008 a stage version of the book, written and directed by Frank Galati.

In Noruwei no mori (1987, Norwegian Wood), named after the Beatles song, Murakami's approach was untypically realistic and straightforward. The two-volume love story set in the 1960s became a highly popular novel in Japan, selling over four million copies. Until Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994-95, Wind-up Bird Chronicle) Murakami had not touched political subjects in his imaginative novels, but in this work he also dealt with the Japanese campaign in Manchuria during the Pacific War. "In trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic and ultimately unknowable world, Mr. Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book," said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times (October 31, 1997). When Murakami accepted the prestigious Jerusalem Prize in 2009, he told in his speech that he stands on the side of unarmed civilians, not "The System" that sometimes takes on a life of its own, and "then begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficently, systematically."  Murakami has also criticized Japan's nuclear industry.

After the Quake (2000), a collection of short fiction, took its material from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (1997-98), Murakami's first book on non-fiction, was about the bioterror attacks on the Tokyo subway system. For this work, he interviewed the victims of the incident of 1995 as well as a few members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Its leader Shoko Ashara, and six other members, who had released sarin gas on several subway trains, were executed in July 2018. One member said in court, "The results were bad, and we regret them.  However, the basic aims of Aum Shinrikyo are not flawed, and we don't feel there's any need to reject them outright." (Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism: Countering the Radical Mindset by Frances L. Flannery, 2016, p. 230) Despite being an opponent of the death penalty, Murakami wrote in an essay published in the Mainichi Shimbun that "I cannot publicly state, as far as this case is concerned, 'I am opposed to death penalty.'" (The Guardian, Mon 30 Jul 2018)

Yakusoku sareta basho de: underground 2 won Murakami the Kawabata Takeo Prize. Selections from Andaguraundo and Yakusoku sareta basho de were combined to form the English Underground (2000). Murakami returned to the theme of strage cults in 1Q84 (2009-2010), originally published in three volumes in Japan. The long tale told of a man, Tengo, and a woman, Aomame, searching for each other after parting at the age of 10. "Please remember," says a taxi driver in the beginning, "things are not what they seem." The title refers to the alternate world, into which Aomame stumbles. Though Mukakami's critics have blamed him for writing un-Japanese works, this book was also a bestseller, selling sold immediately 1.5 million copies. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013) the title character is a young man searching his friends, to discover the answer for the question 'Who am I'. The existential quest takes him as far as Finland, where one of his female friends is living and making pottery. "No great writer writes as many bad sentences as Murakami does," said  Nathaniel Rich in his review of the book (The Atlantic, August 13, 2014). 

Murakami has translated into Japanese works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Paul Theroux, John Irving, Tim O'Brien, and others. At the age of 33, Murakami began to run regularly for exercise. He has ran the classic route from Athens to Marathon, completed dozens of marathons and participated in triathlons. His fastest marathon was in New York City in 1991 with a time of 31:31:27.

From 2011 onwards, Murakami has been rumored to be among the front-runners for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's "kind of nuisance," he has said. "It's not a horse race!" Murakami keeps a disciplined schedule throughout the day, wakes up at 4 a.m. without an alarm, writes for five to six hours in his office, runs or swims in the early afternoon, and spends the evening reading or listening to music of all kinds: jazz, classical, folk, rock. From early on, music has been an essential part of his life and writing. "My style boils down to this: First of all, I never put more meaning into a sentence than is absolutely necessary. Second, the sentences have to have rhythm. This is something I learned from music, especially jazz. In jazz, great rhythm is what makes great improvising possible." (from Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin, 2005)

For further reading: Murakami Haruki and His Early Work: the Loneliness of the Long-distance Running Artist by Masaki Mori (2021); Who We're Reading When We're Reading Murakami by David Karashima (2020); The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl Strecher (2014); 'Cat Imagery in Haruki  Murakami's Fiction' by Adelina Vasile, in Annals of Dimitrie Cantemir Christian University (2012); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008); Murakami Haruki: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture by Michael Robert Seats (2006); Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words by Jay Rubin (2005); Postmodern, Feminist and Postcolonial Currents in Contemporary Japanese Culture: A Reading of Murakami Haruki, Yoshimoto Banana, Yoshimoto Takaaki and Karatani Kojin by Murakami Fuminobu (2005); Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle: A Reader's Guide by Matthew Strecher (2002); 'Murakami, Haruki,' in Encyclopedia of Wold Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3., ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999)

Selected works:

  • Kaze no uta o kike, 1979
    - Hear the Wind Sing (translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 1987; Ted Goossen, 2015)
  • Sen kyuhyaku nanaju san nen no pinboru, 1980
    - Pinball 1973 (translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 1985)
  • Hitsuji o meguru boken, 1982
    - A Wild Sheep Chase (translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 1989)
    - Suuri lammasseikkailu (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1993)
  • Zojo kojo ni happiendo, 1983
  • Kangaru biyori, 1983
  • Chugoku iki no surou Boto, 1983
  • Murakami Asahido, 1984 (with Anna Mizumaru)
  • Nami no e. nami no hanashi, 1984
  • Murakami asahido, 1984
  • Hotaru naya o yaku sonota no tanpen, 1984
  • Kaiten mokuba no deddo hito, 1985
  • Sekai no owari to hadoboirudo wandarando, 1985
    - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World (translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 1991)
    - Maailmanloppu ja ihmemaa (suom. Raisa Porrasmaa, 2015)
  • Hitsuji otoko no kurisumasu, 1985
  • Kaiten mokuba ni deddo hito, 1985
  • Rangeruhansuto no gogo, 1986
  • Panya saishugeki, 1986
  • Murakami asahido no gyakushu, 1986
  • Noruwei no mori, 1987 (2 vols.)
    - Norwegian Wood (translations into Japanese: Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, 2000)
    - Film 2011, dir. Tran Ahn Hung, prod. Asmik Ace Entertainment, Fuji Television Network, Toho Company, starring Rinko Kikuchi, Ken'ichi Matsuyama and Kiko Mizuhara
  • 'The Scrap' natsukashi no 1980 nendai, 1987
  • Hi izuru kuni no kojo, 1987
  • Za sukkotto fittsugerarudo bukku, 1988
  • Dansu, dansu, dansu, 1988
    - Dance Dance Dance (translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 1994)
    - Tanssi tanssi tanssi (suom. Antti Valkama, 2019)
  • Murakami asahido haiho!, 1989
  • Toi taiko, 1990
  • Uten enten, 1990
  • Murakami Haruki zensakuhin, 1979-1989, 1990-92 (8 vols.)
  • Kokkyoh no minami, taiyoh no nishi, 1992
    - South of the Border, West of the Sun (translated by Philip Gabriel, 1999)
  • The Elephant Vanishes: Stories, 1993 (translated by Alfred Birnbaum)
  • Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru, 1994-95
    - Wind-up Bird Chronicle (translated by Jay Rubin, 1997)
    - Vieterilintukronikka (suom. Antti Valkama, 2021)
  • Andaguraundo / Yakusoku sareta basho de, 1997-98
    - Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (translated by Alfred Birnbaum, 2001)
  • Supuutoniku no koibito, 1999
    - Sputnik Sweetheart (translated by Philip Gabriel, 1999)
    - Sputnik-rakastettuni (suom. Ilkka Malinen, 2003)
  • Kami no Kodomotachi-wa nuba Idoru, 2000
    - After the Quake (translated by Jay Rubin, 2002)
  • Umibe no Kafuka, 2002
    - Kafka on the Shore (translated by Philip Gabriel, 2005)
    - Kafka rannalla (suom. Juhani Lindholm, 2009)
  • Afutadaku, 2004
    - After Dark (translated by Jay Rubin, 2007)
  • Birthday Stories, 2004  (Basudei sutorizu, selected and introduced by Haruki Murakami)
  • Tokyo Kitanshu, 2005
  • Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: Twenty-Four Stories, 2006 (translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin)
  • Hashiru Koto Ni Tsuite Kataru Toki Ni Boku No Kataru, 2007
    - What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (translated by Philip Gabriel, 2008)
    - Mistä puhun kun puhun juoksemisesta (suom. Jyrki Kiiskinen, 2011)
  • Murakami Diary 2009, 2008
  • 1Q84, 2009-2010 (3 vols.)
    - 1Q84 (translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, 2011)
    - 1Q84 (suom. 2013) 
  • Shikisai wo Motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to, Kare no Junrei no Toshi, 2013
    - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (translated by Philip Gabriel, 2014)
    - Värittömän miehen vaellusvuodet (suom. Raisa Porrasmaa, 2014)
  • Onna no inai otokotachi, 2014
    -  Men Without Women (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, 2017) 
    -  film: Drive  My Car, 2021, based on the short story Doraibu mai ka, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Takamasa Oe, starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toku Miura, Masaki Okada and Reika Kirishima, prod. Teruhisa Yamamoto
  • Kishidancho Goroshi, 2017
    - Killing Commendatore  (translated by Philip Gabriel, 2018)
    - Komtuurin surma (suom. Juha Mylläri, 2018)
  • Neko o suteru: chichioya ni tsuite kataru toki, 2020 (illustyrated by Gao Yan)
  • Ichininsho Tansu, 2020
    - The First Person Singular: Stories (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, 2021)

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