For a fellow unfortunate enough not to have visited Japan, or indeed any point east of Suez, I depend for a view of that country, if possible at all, on the balance of evidence between what Japan feels like to a man of imagination living within it (alas, most journalism doesn't help much with perspective) and what the rest of the world feels like to a Japanese. This month I'm in luck. Here are two authors of the utmost percipience who lay before us a display of twentieth-century Japan in the words of both the stay-at-home and the traveller abroad.
Nagai Kafu (1879-1959) was despatched to America by his father in 1903, not to broaden his mind but to narrow it to the family business. The father had badly mistaken the son. All he wanted was to write, and by 1903 he had written stories to modest acclaim but to parental annoyance. But according to the father you polished up your prestige at home if you had been swanning it in the States for a spell. The boy, however, had other ideas. Using his eyes as a camera, his sensitivity as film, printing all his snaps out in focused prose, Kafu toured America at leisure, indeed for four years, and pictured it in full.
Bearing a resemblance to Oscar Wilde, the effete cravat only emphasising his sensuality, Kafu was an early reporter on Japanese expatriation. He wanted to see exactly what the Western influence was by observing the source. He hung out in Tacoma, Washington. He was no stranger to Seattle. He was taken aback by the World's Fair at St Louis, Kalamazoo hardly phased him, he was a messenger boy at the Embassy and a bank clerk in New York. An early sufferer from culture shock, he compensated by practising a prose so reflective and formal that at first glance it seems devoid of personality. But that is its manners. What we really find is a young author, later to make a glittering name in Japan, finding the essence of himself via the exploration of a foreign land. His father's domestic values, and so his country's, are being tested and strained on the page by these wild territories he visits with such unpretentious relish.
Haruki Murakami is now in his 50s, until recently an author of literary repute living the quietest of lives at home in Tokyo. His exceptionally beautiful book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, proved a difficult work, a masterpiece the masses missed. In 1987 he wrote Norwegian Wood. It hit the spot. All Japan fell for it. So horrifying was his popularity that he ran off, first to Europe, then to America, fame chasing him all the way. It was eight years before he consented, provided nobody harassed him, to return to Japan. A book as big as this, in a civilisation as big as that, needs not only to be thoroughly enjoyed - no problem in that regard - but to be profoundly understood. International relations may depend more reliably on inferences drawn from fiction than on the obviousness of politics.
From an English point of view much of the pleasure of Murakami's book lies in discovering, or at least guessing, what made it of such powerful and immediate appeal to the Japanese readers for whom it was intended. I can suggest seven things with which they identified, but explaining why an entire people at a point in time respond to a book and turn it into a bestseller, enough to drive the author out of his own land, is beyond guesswork. We cannot even explain our own bestsellers. Jeffrey Archer, whose novels appear to rely more on the force of his personality than the range of his skills, is a particular puzzle: how can work so bad be so good? It says little for the state of British culture, or the status quo, and indeed the stasis we have reached, that insensitive narrative inferior in language, humour and worldliness to most tv sitcoms, can make a fatuous fortune; yet of course the sitcoms nightly set the tone. The prevailing ethos of Japanese television is unknown to me, but I have an odd feeling that this novel, such a sudden giant of a success, came as a relief to hordes of readers who found other media wanting.
Back to the seven points which, to my untutored but intuitive mind, account for that response. To begin with, the first-person voice is that of a student, doing not especially well, a gently unpretentious fellow not expecting happiness as of right (on the contrary, he anticipates disaster) but nonetheless moving his way unassumingly towards it. He is Chekhovian in sadness, but as potentially humorous as Lucky Jim. His name is Watanabe; my vulgar Western mind, which should know better than to joke on people's names, kept calling him Wannabe. And somehow his stoic tone caught the nation unawares. People wanted to be like him.
Secondly, he has the quiet gift of making friends of the reader so that when he falls in love, first with Naoko a very inward person whose angst carries her off into the care of the most utopian of hospitals, then with the outgoing and lascivious Midori, straight as a dye, speaking her mind, being herself, we too fall for his favourites. Of course they are both parts of the same woman: today's Japanese women - I am still guessing - who in recent times have discovered, in a spirit of both modesty and ambition, that they require from men, not just the formal respect of yesteryear, but a sincere acknowledgement of the persons they are and wish to be. So at the subtlest levels, without any overt drama, without recourse even to tragedy or comedy, Murakami explores the depths of his culture.
This means, my third point, that Murakami establishes, like a ground bass in music, a background throb of the old Japan moving without creaking, but with effort, into the modern age imposed (though not in detail) by the West: new Japan finding itself, not just in industry and competition, but more significantly in spirit. This must have deeply moved the millions drawn to his novel. I too am moved and drawn by something British and American fiction have never found such eloquently undercover ways of doing: the rebirth of our nations in a postwar age.
Fourth, we have a love story. It is one packed tight with recognisable touches: bars in sad districts late at night, snatched lunches in student hang-outs, pains of misunderstanding, closeness intensified by infrequently exchanged letters over long distances - yes, the apparatus of the erotic is the same the world over. We have all undergone the spats between Watanabe and Midori in the soft-porn bookshop she runs with her sister. We have ached for a girl like Naoko who surely seems doomed but might bring us to a paradise. The novelist Murakami adds to the effect by the deployment of particular Japanese symbols that only just translate into our universal language of love - to pick up on the probable analogues, he keeps needing rereading.
I will be quick with the last three explanations I advance for the success of this amazingly low-key but high-toned novel.
Murakami has the total understanding not only of his medium but of his country which only great novelists display. Here in this country, Dickens was the last, Priestley a good second, Amis a poor third. Just think how few writers of fiction recently have shown England to herself, as popularly as Murakami does Japan. Then the texture is simple - no matter how much of the richness of the range of reference you miss, you get an exquisitely told and timed and tremendous story.
Finally, there's the production. The novel is divided into two little pocket books the size of purses. The first is coloured red, the second green. They come in a box as gilded as an altar. Indeed at first sight you expect a religious experience of an oriental cast, despite the fact that the title refers to a Beatles number; Western pop echoes with erotic pomp throughout the text. Each volume is intimately pleasant to hold in the hand, but that hardly accounts for the gimmick, device, affectation, or whatever the reason behind this format that seems less book than box of chocolates. Who cares? The fact remains that more than four million copies have transmogrified Japan, and it's high time, in a mood both analytical and pleasurable, that we looked at the evidence.
It will give nothing but joy, melancholy, comprehension.