“After the Quake” - trauma, individualism and globalisation

Bin Chen

Globalization is prominent in a variety of different fields such as, music, art and literature. Haruki Murakami is a well known contemporary author who combines his background knowledge of Japanese culture with contemporary Western values. His series of short stories bundled in “After the Quake” represent the dichotomy between Eastern and Western culture. Whilst the fictional characters appear to have Japanese backgrounds, the storyline follow typical Western themes such as materialism and sexuality to guide his writing. Prominent themes that will be discussed include the historical trauma of natural disasters, the influences of western culture and the concepts of sex and the fluidity between the conscious and subconscious. All of these themes can be used as a platform to evaluate globalization.

In “After the Quake”, Murakami places his six short stories in Japan after a devastating earthquake. Linking the historical trauma with the stories of individuals rather than historical facts typical of documenting the collective memory of a nation marks the novel’s feature. The novel re-imagines the Kobe earthquake in 1995 by giving voices to ordinary people without touching on historical details of the earthquake. The re-imagination of traumatic experiences, in particular, the fictionalization of emptiness, ‘transgressive’ desires and confusions through the form of novel gives expression to the pain and suffering the dead and undead are forced to go through. The emotional despair, which is typically left out of the historical facts of the earthquake becomes a void that can be better filled by imaginative narratives. These narratives are connected by continual references to themes from Western culture that highlight the dichotomy between Eastern and Western ideals.

Western culture has arguably influenced a substantial amount of international literature. This is evident through Murakami’s work, even though all of his short stories are based in Japan. While there is suggestion of Japanese culture within his work, there is a predominant disposition for Western values and ideals, such as themes of materialism, individualism and religion. In the story “UFO in Kushiro”, the protagonist exhibits the characteristics of a typical Western businessman. He is a man with charisma and energy as a young adult who then settles for a wife and a monotonous job. In this way he settles for the materialistic “American” dream instead of self reflection which is evident by the wife’s proclamation that her husband had nothing but “air” inside his soul. The lifestyle portrayed is driven by materialistic desires instead of self-actualisation, which is arguably heavily relevant in a capitalistic environment. This is at odds with typical Japanese culture which is less focused on the individual.

It is common knowledge that Japanese culture is driven by collective goals where an individual's purpose and satisfaction is driven by their interactions with their family and peers. These themes are portrayed through Murakami’s work from a more religious standpoint, particularly in the stories “Super-frog saves Tokyo”, “Honey pie”, and “All God’s Children can Dance”. However, without prior understanding of Japanese culture, the religion and the collective ideology portrayed is more in line with the Christian/Catholic ideology. The hero “God” figure, the frog, sacrifices himself for the “greater good” which is parallel to the story of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is evident that the short stories are embedded in Western ideology with only splashes of Japanese culture. The short stories highlight the watering down process that can occur during globalisation rather than accurately representing different cultures. However this watering down can also enhance different themes that would otherwise not have been embellished.

An incurring theme present in Murakami’s work is sexuality and sexualisation; however it is common knowledge that the Japanese do not express these desires with such intensity as they do within the short stories. For example, in the story “UFO in Kushiro”, the topic of sex is prominent throughout; from describing his erections to the over sexualisation and unrealistic portrayal of female sexuality.  The topic of sex is avoided in most social situations and can be seen as taboo in Japanese culture, however, that is not to say that the desires are not there. Arguably, suppressing desires such as these causes them to surface in extreme and perhaps vulgar ways, which is evident in Murakami’s descriptions of females and sex.

The suppression of sexuality is prominent in the short story “All God’s Children can dance”, where Yoshiya has sexual fantasies about his mother. Fantasizing about a family member is arguably a universal taboo, however, the theme relates to Western theorist, Sigmund Freud’s and his theory of development, where individuals are attracted to their parents. Therefore the suppression of sex within Japanese culture has translated into the obscure but relevant Western ideals and concepts. This further highlights the misrepresentation of a culture through globalisation and literature.

A defining characteristic of Murakami’s writing is his dance with the conscious and subconscious. In his short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”, the story personifies a fight between a frog and a worm which is outside the realm of reality. Out of all the themes discussed, his relationship between the subconscious and conscious is the closest related theme to Japanese culture, as it is more common for Eastern cultures to hold strong connotations with the dream world of the subconscious. Whilst some experts have compared Murakami’s writing to Jung’s subject level of dream interpretation, however his work was not influenced by the Western ideology and culture. Murakami stated: “To me the subconscious is terra incognita. Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake […] it’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, its not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real”.  This dreamlike reality that appears in a substantial amount of his short stories ties them not only to Japanese culture but also to Murakami himself.

Murakami’s six short stories in “After the Quake” are captivating, intense and sometimes repulsive. They delve into the lives of normal Japanese citizens as they go about their daily lives after an earthquake. However although these characters are placed in Japanese culture, the stories are more influenced by Western values. A commonality that runs heavily through these stories are the themes of materialism, Western religion, sexuality and the conscious vs. subconscious. While the latter is more traditionally Eastern culture the aforementioned themes are characteristically Western. For example, the open and frank references to sexuality in the stories are at odds with the rigid and taboo nature of sex in Japanese culture. In regards to the clash between Western and Eastern culture, “After the Quake” does not seem to accurately describe or depict Japanese culture very well. It seems to be a work that appeals more to a Western audience because the themes are more recognizable. Although his work is thought provoking an enjoyable read, these stories are not necessarily a good depiction of good globalization.

Questions of discussion: 

What are the western elements characteristic of the stories in After The Quake ?
How is the novel related with the Kobe earthquake in terms of cultural aftershock?