After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

“I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”

4/5 stars.
Paperback, 132 pages.
Read from August 12, 2021 – August 19, 2021.

On January 17 1995, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake rocked Hyōgo Prefecture in Japan. This earthquake was the first-ever recorded earthquake to top the charts of the Japan Meteorological Agency. Nearly 6500 people lost their lives that day, around 4600 of them from the city of Kobe. Around 200,000 buildings collapsed that day. Even now, the Kobe earthquake still holds as one of Japan’s deadliest earthquakes. A few months later, Japan with hit with another tragedy with the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. These two events altered the Japanese people and will forever be imprinted in people’s minds and history books.

A damaged highway in Kobe as a result of the earthquake. Photo from the Wall Street Journal.

I picked up this novel shortly after reading Underground by Murakami, which is suiting considering how close these real events occurred. While Underground is a non-fiction work from Murakami, After the Quake is a collaboration of six fictional short stories that all relate to the Kobe earthquake event. Murakami lived abroad until 1995 and it was after these events that made him decide to move back to Japan. Japan is a geological terror of a location as it is an epicentre for earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. It’s not a matter of if, with Japan, it’s a matter of when the next big event will happen (enter massive tsunami in 2011) and with climate change making matters worse, Japan sits in a precarious situation.

This novel contains six short stories, each of them set in the months following the earthquake and the sarin attack, with each story evoking a similar atmosphere of emotions created by the disaster. The first story follows a man whose wife abruptly left him after the earthquake. After taking some leave from work he is asked to deliver a mysterious package to one of his co-worker’s sisters. In the fourth, a woman is on a trip to Thailand when she realises she needs to let go of the resentment she has towards her ex-husband. The fifth is probably the most interesting of all the stories in that a man returns home from work to find a human-sized talking frog in his kitchen pleading with him that he needs his help to defeat a super worm in order to prevent a giant earthquake. While some stories carry more realism than others, each carries a heavy tone of longing, hope, sadness, regret, and relief.

Murakami uses these stories to capture the voice of Japan after the quake as well as using it as means to come to his own terms with the tragedy. The earthquake event is prolific in each story, though not always in the same manner. From news reports of the event, a disrupted relationship, to prophetic and metaphorical fights of giant frogs and worms. Murakami’s writing is, as always, poetic and mystical while engrossing readers with a unique story and feel.

A solid choice for Murakami fans who have not read this book yet and a good introductory to a tragic piece of Japanese history.

Longing and Other Stories by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

“When I go out into the world, will I have to endure the same suffering and distress as my parents?”

3/5 stars.
ebook, ARC.
Read from November 29, 2021 to December 6, 2021.

A big thanks to Netgalley for the ARC copy of this book and for continuing to expand my reading repertoire. Considering my love for Japanese writing, it’s weird that this was my first time reading something by this author. I intend to add a few more of his works to my TBR pile.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was one of Japan’s most prominent modern writers in the early 20th century. He passed away in 1965 and was known for writing honest accounts of family life that was not often depicted out in the open within Japanese society. This collection of short stories was written early in his career between 1916-1921.

This collection contains three short stories, ‘Longing‘, ‘Sorrows of a Heretic‘, and ‘The Story of an Unhappy Mother‘. Longing details the dreamlike sequence of a boy trying to find his way back home to his mother. What he encounters is eerie and complete with a sad revelation at the end. Sorrows of a Heretic is about a despicable young university student and his relations with his family and friends. He is a liar, a cheat, and relentlessly selfish, even in the face of the death of people he deems close to him. His narcissism is hard to stomach throughout this story. The Story of an Unhappy Mother is another one that will make you feel uncomfortable. By all appearances, the mother in this story seems to have the perfect family with her doting sons. However, she has expectations of them that they can’t seem to be able to meet. After her one son gets married she crashes their honeymoon of which an accident occurs that no one wants to speak of. The mother falls into a deep depression and is never the same afterwards. This results in tragedy in which the real outcome of the accident is finally revealed to the reader and remaining family members.

There is some arguably autobiographical content in this book as it relates to the stories. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s mother passed away of a heart attack in 1917 and he was not able to make it to her death bed.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki has a great way of setting a distinct tone for his stories that create the unnerving atmosphere he is trying to instil in his readers. These stories are meant to make you uncomfortable and the fact, that 100 years on, these stories can still evoke these feelings showcases the author’s talent. Jun’ichirō Tanizaki had a way of merging ideas and shifting perspectives that made his writing approachable while also making readers uncomfortable as he showed them stories and ideas that may have been taboo or in bad form to discuss. With this collection, he specifically discusses family and how society perceives what makes a good family and asks the question about how far our duties extend to our family and what exactly do we owe them? This also shows the clash of Confucian ideals with that of the West in early 20th Japan.

Overall an engaging read that made me want to explore what else this author has to offer.

Underground by Haruki Murakami

“I have no physical symptoms, but psychologically there’s this burden. I’ve got to get rid of it somehow. Of course, when I first went back to work I was scared the same thing might happen again. It takes positive thinking to overcome fear, otherwise you’ll carry around this victim mentality forever.”

3/5 stars
Paperback, 309 pages.
Read from June 23, 2021 to July 7, 2021.

Ah yes, back to my favourite author though not in the way I expected. I’m nearing the end of my Murakami journey as I close in on reading everything this Japanese author currently has to offer.

Underground is a piece of non-fiction which Murakami isn’t generally known for, however, he felt compelled to write this book after Toyko was the centre of a terrorist attack in March 1995.

During the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995, the Tokyo subway was subject to a sarin gas attack. Sarin is a clear lethal chemical weapon gas that was invented by the Nazis. The attack killed 13 people and injured over 5000 people. An attack of this kind had never happened in Japan during peacetime and it shook the nation with the maliciousness of its attack. The government quickly went to work to determine the perpetrators of this terrible attack. The culprits were a cult by the name of Aum Shinrikyo, which means ‘supreme truth’. The cult itself started as a mere yoga and meditation course that wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar, however, it had amassed thousands of followers who believed in the doomsday prophecies of the group’s leader Shoko Asahara. Ashara was a blind man with long hair and beard who sat on the personal assets of his followers, raking in millions. He claimed that he was the second coming of Christ and that he could travel through time.

Shoko Asahara, Japan Times, 2018

Aum believed that Armaggedon would come as a result of a war between the United States and Japan and that only members of Aum would survive. Non-members were doomed to eternal hell unless they were killed by members. In five coordinated attacks, members of Aum released the sarin gas on three different subway lines the morning of March 20, 1995. This was not the first time Aum had done gas attacks but it wasn’t until after this attack that Aum was associated with the other incidences.

Murakami, like many Japanese, was struck and affected by the enormity and tragedy of the incident and felt inclined to write about the matter. However, he knew it wasn’t his story to tell so he decided to interview the survivors of the attack. He initially did not want to include any details on the Aum cult or anyone that was involved with them due to the massive amount of media attention that they received, instead of wanting to focus solely on the survivors, however, Murakami felt the scope of the story was incomplete and eventually interviewed a few former Aum members in an updated version of his book.

Murakami gracefully puts together the events of the day with the survivor’s stories. From train station workers to commuters, and medical staff, you piece the horrors of this event together. What is prevalent in the interviews themselves is the long-lasting damage that occurred. Some survivors are left with debilitating physical grievances while others have deep emotional scars and for some a lifetime of disability, suffering, and loss. Murakami also shows the unique mannerisms and behaviours exhibited by Japanese people and how they cope with emotions and turmoils as a society. The addition of the Aum member interviews completed this book as it was provided with a much-needed perspective about the turn of events and the reasons behind why everyday, smart, and seemingly normal people turned to this cult, as well as additional insights into Japanese mentality and society.

If you are new to Murakami, I would not recommend this book to start with just because it is such a stark contrast to the fiction that he normally writes. While this book is excellent and definitely contains Murakami’s tone and style, it would not be the most appropriate introduction to Murakami’s work. It is, however, an important piece of literature to read if you’re interested in learning about Aum and the events of that day.

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