Can Japan be cured? A review of Murakami Ryu’s ‘From The Fatherland, With Love’

Note: I originally wrote this review in 2013 for submission to the London Review of Books. The LRB passed, and it has sat orphaned on my hard drive. I figured I should probably put it here.
A review of From The Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy, Charles de Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori
Pushkin Press, 664 pp

     Shinzo Abe returned to Japan’s premiership in December 2012, after spending five years in the political wilderness following his resignation as prime minister in September 2007. Promising bold economic reforms as well as constitution revision and a stronger military, Abe’s message to the Japanese people and Japan’s allies and adversaries around the world can be encapsulated in the three words that were the title of his address in Washington, D.C. this past February: Japan is back.
     But despite Abe’s self-assurance, these remain anxious days for his country. Unseated as the world’s second-largest economy by China in 2010, Japan continues to struggle to find its footing economically. Its manufacturers are locked into competition with rivals in neighboring South Korea. Its government continues to rack up large annual deficits, contributing to net government debt’s approaching 150% of GDP. Japan’s politicians have discussed new growth strategies for years, with little or no success. At the same time, China and South Korea have pressed claims to disputed islands, and the United States, Japan’s longtime ally, is distracted by problems elsewhere in the world. And all the while, each year Japan’s slow-motion demographic crisis worsens a little more, with senior retirees taking up an ever-greater share of the population — and placing ever-greater demands on the country’s finances.
     Time will tell whether the Abe government will guide Japan out of the economic stagnation of its “lost” decades. But a newly translated novel by Ryu Murakami, the novelist and filmmaker who is Japan’s answer to J.G. Ballard and Michel Houellebecq, suggests that Japan’s problems are deeper than broken institutions or ineffective policies. Echoing critiques of industrial society dating back at least as far as Friedrich Nietzsche, Murakami believes that Japan suffers from a spiritual crisis. Having grown prosperous, he fears that decadence and love of comfort have prevented the Japanese people from meeting the political and economic challenges their country faces in the twenty-first century. Accordingly, Murakami suggests that it will take more than new policies for Japan to lead in East Asia and the world: Japan needs a revolution of the spirit.
     Like Houellebecq, Murakami writes “slipstream” novels that border on science fiction, presenting exaggerated or fractured versions of reality for the sake of social criticism. Both authors confront what they see as the nihilism at the heart of post-industrial capitalist societies. Their critiques grapple with Nietzsche’s vision of the society of the “last man” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche warns that, when society has become too prosperous and too accustomed to comfortable living, humanity will no longer strive or compete. Human beings will conform to mass society, none will desire to rule others, and all will fear hardship and suffering. The pursuit and preservation of comfort will replace all other values.
     The portrait Murakami has painted of Japan throughout his career is of a country populated by “last men,” who, filled with ennui, seek their silly little pleasures and are incapable of acting in pursuit of higher principles. Seeing his society as dulled by prosperity and “anything goes” post-modernism, Murakami seethes with anger at the frivolity and decadence of modern Japan.
     But Murakami is not resigned to decadence and decline. His novels seek to shock his readers awake, to force them to see Japan’s spiritual malaise. He struggles to stir his fellow Japanese to confront their society’s sickness head on and to embrace a new national spirit less inclined to conformism and dependence on others. Although From The Fatherland, With Love was originally published in 2005, its English translation from Pushkin Press is exceedingly timely: it provides a striking corrective to some of the heady coverage in the world press of Abe’s return to Japan’s premiership. Even if one disagrees with either Murakami’s diagnosis or his cure for what ails Japan, his latest novel to be translated into English is required reading for thinking about deeper causes of Japan’s enduring stagnation.
     Set largely in April 2011 — a near-future Japan when it was written in 2005 — Murakami shows Japan impoverished, isolated, and incapable of acting independently even when faced with an unprovoked invasion by North Korean forces. Seeing Japan brought low by a global depression that strains its ties with the US, which has shifted its attention from its alliance with Japan to improving relations with North Korea and the other countries of East Asia, the North Korean regime hatches a plan that seems to serve no other purpose than humiliating Japan. A North Korean commando team infiltrates Japan and takes hostages at a baseball game in Fukuoka, a city of 1.5 million people on the island of Kyushu. Claiming to be a rebel faction opposed to North Korea’s peace overtures with the US and publicly denounced by Pyongyang, they proceed occupy Fukuoka. The US considers it a problem for the Japanese government to solve, since the invaders are purportedly rebels without state sponsorship. The Japanese government itself is initially paralyzed. Afraid that a counterattack will result in unacceptably high civilian casualties in Fukuoka or in North Korean terrorist attacks on government buildings and critical infrastructure throughout Japan, the government eventually decides to impose a blockade, effectively cutting off not just Fukuoka but all of Kyushu from the rest of Japan.
     The citizens of Fukuoka are left to cope with the occupation force, which calls itself the Koryo Expeditionary Force (KEF) after the Korean dynasty that cooperated with the Mongols to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. (The invasions, which were turned back thanks to great storms — the legendary kamikaze, or “divine wind”— were centered on Hakata Bay, site of present-day Fukuoka.) The invaders secure the collaboration of local government and police through discriminate demonstrations of force. The occupiers are careful to avoid civilian casualties, treat local citizens politely, and win public support by imprisoning local elites guilty of “anti-social” crimes, such as tax evasion and human trafficking, and confiscating their assets to fund the occupation. At the same time, the national government alienates Fukuokans first through the blockade and then when an ill-considered government-authorized attempt by a police assault team to take several North Koreans hostage results in the death of dozens of civilians. Although individual Fukuokans are uneasy with the occupation, no organized resistance emerges, and over time foreign governments pressure the Japanese government to lift the blockade so to allow trade to resume.
     Meanwhile, a fleet carrying 120,000 North Korean soldiers to reinforce the occupation departs for Fukuoka. The Japanese government deploys the Self-Defense Forces to intercept the fleet but is unable to commit to a course of action. In Fukuoka, Japanese collaborators prepare a campground for the arriving army and work to procure supplies. Everyone is aware that, if the reinforcements arrive, the occupation of Fukuoka is unlikely to be reversed.
     Fukuoka is ultimately saved by a gang of violent young misfits — according to their spiritual adviser, a cryptic terrorist-turned-poet named Ishihara, they’re “terror babies,” who “can’t be compromised or held to any social contract” — who carry out a plot to eliminate the KEF before the reinforcements arrive. The members of Ishihara’s gang, who flock from across Japan to the abandoned warehouse he calls home, all have histories of violence, often against their own families. One of the older members trains with an Islamic terrorist group in Yemen after losing an investment job. Many are otaku, Japan’s obsessive hobbyists: one collects poisonous animals, especially centipedes and frogs, another collects guns from around the world, and another is obsessed with explosives. Initially, they have no unifying ideology or group identity, just their tendencies and an attachment to Ishihara. But as they prepare to take on the KEF, Ishihara articulates a nihilist ideology for his protégés:  
We live to destroy. There are only two types of people in this world: those who scrimp and save little by little to build a breakwater or levee or windbreak or irrigation canal, and those who destroy the vested interests and the old system and the fortress of evil with enough emotion and inspiration and fervor and fury and desire and passion fruits to crack open everyone’s skull and ring their balls like bells.
Where the establishment fails, these loners succeed, serving as the “divine wind” that defeats the third invasion of Hakata Bay.
     At the most basic level, the novel succeeds as entertainment. Despite its length, it reads breezily, a testament to the translation work of Ralph McCarthy, Charles de Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori. The scenario described by Murakami is far fetched for a number of reasons, but as long as one accepts Murakami’s premises the novel reads like a better-written cousin of Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers (or perhaps a write-up of a government war game). But the novel is worth reading because of Murakami’s diagnosis of what ails Japanese society.
     Murakami suggests that living in a peaceful, wealthy society — with the lowest levels of violent crime among large, developed democracies and a military that not only cannot be called a military but is banned from using arms even in self-defense when deployed abroad — has psychologically disarmed the Japanese people. Over and over again, Murakami depicts Japanese civilians freezing when confronted with violence committed by North Koreans. Most paralyzed, of course, is the Japanese government, which, from the beginning of the novel, is depicted as helpless in the face of economic collapse and international isolation.
     The government is virtually immobilized when the North Korean operation begins. The prime minister and other senior officials are away from Tokyo and have trouble getting back to the capital. Once the crisis management team takes form, there are too many officials involved for effective decision making; lengthy lists of the officials and their full titles read like the dramatis personae of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. But it isn’t just the number of officials involved in the crisis headquarters that handicaps its deliberations: it is the fear, from the prime minister downwards, of what could result from an aggressive response to the KEF invasion. The government orders the blockade as a means of avoiding a costly decision. As one official who had been fired from his government post notes, “Being outside the frenzy of the round table, he had become painfully aware of the Japanese government’s inability to see the big picture — and if he could see it, no doubt other outsiders could see it too.” The government seems to spend more time debating how to refer to the KEF (Are they terrorists? Are they a foreign army?) than determining how to defeat the invasion. But Murakami delivers an unambiguous message that the problem at the heart of the government’s inaction is squeamishness about violence:
Resignation was gradually spreading around the table, like a bad smell. Resignation meant submitting to greater power, and abandoning any idea of resistance. Power was built and maintained with violence. A population accustomed to peace had no taste for either meting out or being subjected to brutality, and couldn’t even imagine what it would involve. People unable to imagine violence were incapable of using it.
Murakami subsequently describes Japanese politics as characterized by the suppression of any and all conflict, not unlike what Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says: “People still fall out, but are soon reconciled — otherwise it spoileth their stomachs.” In other words, not only are Japan’s leaders incapable of imagining violence, they cannot even bear verbal disagreements for long. There is some disagreement as the government weighs its options, but opponents of the majority quickly fall into line.
    Murakami, however, is certainly able to imagine violence, and in this novel as in earlier novels he depicts ultraviolence and gore in excruciating and almost clinical detail. Eyes are gouged out, throats are stabbed, skin is flayed, heads are blown off, guts are spilled, and arteries are severed. Blood, flecks of brain, and pieces of bone fly about. The Japanese prisoners taken by the North Koreans are imprisoned in a parking garage, tortured by their captors and reduced to shells of their former selves:
Just in front of them someone moaned in pain and toppled forward, hands on the floor to support his body. The long shadow of a soldier moving toward him made the man shake his head and whimper like a child. The soldier grabbed his hair and pulled him upright. Still held by his hair, he began desperately apologizing, yelling almost incoherently that he was sorry, as the soldier’s nightstick came down at the joint of his shoulder.
After hundreds of pages of these scenes, a reader cannot help but feel numbed. But though Murakami is a self-professed admirer of Quentin Tarantino, there is more to the violence in From The Fatherland, With Love than spectacle. Murakami is driving home the point that, although they live in a society that has driven violence to the margins, the Japanese people still belong to a violent species and live in a violent world. Japanese are not exempt from the brutality with which human beings are capable of treating each other. They cannot hide from it forever.
     In considering violence, Murakami presents North Korea as Japan’s foil. Whereas Japan is soft, right down to its underwear as the occupiers discover when they are furnished with local provisions, North Korea is rough, austere, and cruel. Murakami’s North Korean commandos recall watching their families starve, recount their harsh training in North Korea’s special forces, and are amazed even at the availability of water from Japanese taps. The North Koreans are physically imposing and menacing, even more so because they are careful to avoid civilian casualties: there is exceptional power in the discriminating use of force. Murakami hints that Japan had once been like North Korea, capable of meting out cruelty as a way of imposing its will on Korea and other Asian nations. The North Koreans themselves are surprised at how weak the Japanese are. “Where was the Japan,” one commando wonders, “that once shook not only Asia but the entire world?”
     Murakami’s North Korean characters are perhaps the most compellingly drawn characters in the novel. Whereas at times his Japanese characters — the shrewd reporter, the dithering politician, the selfless doctor — seem like caricatures, the North Koreans are fully fleshed out. One gets a clear sense of the mixed emotions they feel when they encounter Japanese prosperity for the first time and the ways in which they have been marked by their lives in spartan North Korea. In the afterword, Murakami discusses the extensive research he conducted on the North Korean regime and everyday life in North Korea, including interviews with refugees from the north living in Seoul, and it shows in the manner in which he presents the perspectives of the North Koreans. Murakami does not, however, evince sympathy for the North Korean regime itself. As troubling as he feels Japan’s decadence is, North Korea just practices a different form of decadence, using the power of the masses to inflict equal suffering on all. There is no value, he suggests, in hardship for the sake of hardship.
     In that sense, Murakami is not nostalgic for prewar Japan. He does not have any illusions about the violence Imperial Japan inflicted on others or on its own people. The cure for the soul sickness that ails Japan is not authoritarianism, xenophobia, or militarism. In the novel, Murakami is dismissive when he describes Japanese right-wingers who want Japan to acquire nuclear weapons and remilitarize.
     Rather, Murakami’s prescription for overcoming decadence and moral torpor is not unlike that of Jean-Paul Sartre and other existentialists. As Sartre writes in “The Republic of Silence,” during the German occupation, individuals learned that there were values greater than life itself, values worth dying for if necessary: “At every instant we lived up to the full sense of this commonplace little phrase: ‘Man is mortal!’ And the choice that each of us made of his life and of his being was an authentic choice because it was made face to face with death, because it could always have been expressed in these terms: ‘Rather death than…’” Faced with decisions with mortal consequences, individuals learn that there is more to freedom than satisfying their every desire.
     Along these lines, Murakami depicts Fukuoka and Kyushu prospering in the aftermath of the invasion, with local governments making much-needed reforms to lessen their dependence on Tokyo, reducing their unemployment rate, and developing their own relationships with Japan’s neighbors in East Asia. By contrast, he suggests that the central government learned nothing from the incident, with the economy still in depression and Japan still isolated internationally. In the epilogue, one character finds himself wishing that the occupation had continued, with the implication that it might have forced the national government to learn the same lessons as the citizens of Kyushu.
     Murakami’s response to the 3/11 disasters in Japan suggests the important thing for him is hardship, not violence. As he wrote in the New York Times on March 16, 2011, “But for all we’ve lost, hope is in fact one thing we Japanese have regained. The great earthquake and tsunami have robbed us of many lives and resources. But we who were so intoxicated with our own prosperity have once again planted the seed of hope. So I choose to believe.” He wants the Japanese people to be forced to make choices about what matters to them, to make tough decisions and sacrifices instead of dithering or letting the national government or other countries make decisions on their behalf. His credo is, in short, a kind of hopeful existentialism, which he believes is the only way Japan will thrive in an era of economic uncertainty and a new multipolar global order.
     The two years since 3/11 surely must have disappointed Murakami, as politics quickly returned to business as usual in Tokyo and as the hardship endured by the citizens of northeastern Japan faded from the headlines and remained a local concern. And it is difficult to believe that the Abe government will satisfy Murakami. It is revealing, of course, that Abe chose to declare that “Japan is back” to an audience of alliance managers in Washington, D.C., suggesting that whatever steps Abe takes to strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities, he will do so within the confines of an alliance within which Japan is the junior partner. But even in Abe’s much-vaunted economic program — widely known as “Abenomics” — there are signs of the old bad habits which lead Murakami to despair. For all its boldness in monetary policy, the government has been reluctant to outline radical reforms when it comes to how the Japanese economy functions. A strong-state nationalist, it is unlikely that Abe will greatly reduce the dependence of prefectures and local communities on the central government or allow individuals greater autonomy. But then, it is clear in From The Fatherland, With Love that Murakami believes that Japan’s spiritual revival will not be the result of political programs or directives from Tokyo. The best that Tokyo may be able to do is step out of the way of Japan’s local governments and citizens.
      However, the aftermath of 3/11 contains a dispiriting lesson for anyone distressed over the health of postindustrial societies. There may be no escape from the society of the “last man.” Once people have come to enjoy a certain standard of living, it may be difficult to get them to think about anything else for very long. There may be nothing more for politicians to do than to distribute resources and try to keep the pie growing (or prevent it from shrinking too much). Frivolity may be unavoidable, even in the face of natural disasters and other tragedies. It may be that, once they’ve had a taste of prosperity, human beings have no interest in Sartre’s “austere virtue.” In that sense, From The Fatherland, With Love is a tragic thought experiment, an illustration of how difficult it is to rebuild society on the basis of hopeful existentialism. Nietzsche may in fact have the last laugh.