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Friday, Oct. 6, 2000
'Exodus' to a country of hope?
By JANET ASHBY
In recent years Murakami Ryu has received much attention for his uncanny knack of writing novels taking up themes, such as teen crime and hikikomori (withdrawing from the world and shutting oneself up in one's room), just before they come to public awareness as social problems. Now Murakami's new novel "Kibo no Kuni no Exodus," although an entertaining story, seriously examines education, the family and the media in the new age of globalization.
"Exodus" starts in the year 2001. A Japanese youth appears on CNN with a rifle in Pakistan and says, "There's nothing in Japan. That's a dead country." Inspired by his example, middle-school students throughout Japan stop going to school en masse and organize through the Internet. Under the leadership of the youth, Pon-chan, they form a news agency, Asunaro, sending images worldwide, and start various other moneymaking ventures.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government embarks on building a yen block in Asia in an effort to get out of recession, but the yen collapses and the country is close to bankruptcy. At this time of national crisis Pon-chan is asked to testify at the Diet, and says that if 800,000 students stop going to school there are 800,000 different reasons for that, not just one reason for everyone. He says that you can find everything in Japan but hope (kibo).
Eventually Asunaro moves to Hokkaido and becomes a semi-independent state issuing its own money. But can they succeed in forming a new utopia?
In numerous press interviews on the publication of "Exodus" in book form (it was earlier serialized in Bungei Shunju), Murakami says that of course he is not looking to junior-high students to lead a revolution in Japan but wanted to question, in a very readable way, the prevailing wisdom of what is wrong nowadays with Japanese young people and schools. After writing novels of futile individual attacks on the system through sex or drugs, he admits there was a certain cathartic enjoyment in portraying minority people taking power by nonviolent means (Asahi, Aug. 2).
Murakami's main point is that the present-day school and family fit the earlier period of high economic growth of the 1960s and 1970s, but now that period is over and such societal structures no longer fit the new economic system that is coming into existence. People tend to think of the family and schools as falling apart or going to the dogs, as in the "Nihon wa dame ni natte iru" way of thinking, but actually we are simply, for better or worse, in a period of change and transition (Shukan Bunshun, July 27).
The problem, as he sees it, is that the Japanese as yet lack the concepts or context for dealing with such change. Murakami seems to be especially irritated with the out-of-date mindset of the media (In Pocket, August). For example, when looking at the bursting of the bubble economy, they will go to interview a former bank employee who is now growing tomatoes. In the lifelong employment age such a person did represent the problems and desires of 60-70 percent of the Japanese people. Now, however, that shared consciousness is disappearing and his problems are simply the problems of one person.
Although Murakami understands the fears of those living in such an age of uncertainty, he points out that the previous period in which one could predict the future, in which entering a good university ensured lifelong employment in a major company, was the exception rather than the rule. On the other hand, the new age gives more opportunities on an individual level for creativity and personal initiative.
Murakami discusses many of the same topics in a long dialogue with the social scientist Oguma Eiji in Bungakukai (August). He points out that hedge funds and the market are effecting changes in values that couldn't be done by the government or politicians. He's not sure what the ultimate outcome will be, and by no means is he wholeheartedly saying "Globalization banzai!" but he does feel one has to have some understanding of the market to understand what is happening now in Japan and the world.
When he says the current situation is because of the end of the period of high growth, people then ask him, "Well, what should we do?" He has no answers, however, beyond stressing that there are in fact no quick and easy answers. The role of the novelist, he feels, is not to lecture on what should be done but to announce what's going on.
Both Murakami and Oguma worry that the desire for quick and absolute solutions leads to oversimplifications like blaming everything on how history is taught in the schools or rushing to revise the constitution. (My favorite example of this is a spate of recent articles attributing teen crime to junk food.)
Murakami notes that next year will mark a quarter century since his literary debut and says he's started thinking about whom he's been writing for for so many years. He thinks it's people like himself, who have been rejected as not fitting in by their rural family or village school: He wants to let them know that they are not alone. Oguma points out that the success of his books shows such alienated people are on the increase, particularly over the past decade.
Murakami has also published a book of some of the interviews he conducted for "Exodus," titled " 'Kibo no Kuni no Exodus' Shuzai Note," and an interesting article in Aera (Aug. 7) on Murakami's prescience has annotations on 10 of his books that are especially expressive of their time.
Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.