The Other Murakami

The influence of Japanese literature cannot be denied. It gifted the world with some of the most recognized names in literature. Shūsaku Endō, Yukio Mishima, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Natsume Sōseki have become household names. Their works have become some of the most revered in literature. Lest we forget, The Tale of Genji, among the many novels considered to be the world’s first, was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu around the first half of the 11th century. This tradition of producing top-notch writers continues in the present, with Japan gifting the world with two Nobel Laureates in Literature: Yasunari Kawabata and the recently departed Kenzaburō Ōe. The list will be three if Japan-born Kazuo Ishiguro is included in the list.

Japanese writers are often part of the perennial discourse on potential Nobel Prize in Literature awardees, among them Haruki Murakami. Japanese literature remains a seminal part of the literary world because of contemporary Japanese writers such as Murakami who refuse to be bound by tradition and defy the conventions of storytelling, pushing it beyond what we imagine it is capable of. More Japanese writers are gaining global recognition, among them Mieko Kawakami, Hiromi Kawakami, Sayaka Murata, and Yōko Ogawa. Works of Japanese literature, whether classics or contemporary, have become ubiquitous. They have even been translated into languages other than English. As more and more Japanese writers are gaining global recognition, one can only surmise that the future of Japanese literature is anything but ensured.

In the ambit of Japanese literature, another Murakami is renowned for pushing the boundaries of storytelling, for probing into subjects often considered taboo. Born Ryūnosuke Murakami, Ryū Murakami (村上 龍) announced his entry to the world of literature in 1976 with his novella Kagirinaku Tōmei ni Chikai Burū (限りなく透明に近いブルー, Almost Transparent Blue), a book he worked on while studying at the University. It hit the ground running, winning the 1976 Gunzo Prize for New Writers and the prestigious  Akutagawa Prize. However, it was met also with heavy opposition for its heavily graphic depiction of subjects a conservative society views and continues to view as inappropriate. The initial censorship his works faced from some parts of Japanese society did not preclude Murakami from writing subjects that pushes the limits of storytelling.

“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 task for either meting out or being subjected to brutality and couldn’t even imagine what it would involve. People unable to imagine violence are incapable of using it.”

~ Ryū Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love

The “other” Murakami – as he would be referred to because readers often mistake the two Murakamis – established a reputation for his novellas. Murakami has published over 30 novels in his native Japan but, unfortunately, most of his works are still unavailable to English-speaking readers. Nevertheless, what was made available in English was enough to provide a glimpse into his complex body of work. While his novellas gained him recognition, his oeuvre also features lengthy prose, among them was Hantō o Deyo (半島を出よ). Originally published in 2005, it was translated into English in 2013 by the trio of Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf, and Ginny Tapley Takemori, carrying the title From the Fatherland, with Love.

A work of speculative fiction, From the Fatherland, with Love was set in 2011, about half a decade from its original publication date. In Murakami’s vision of the future, Japan was now a shadow of its old self. Once an Asian powerhouse, Japan was on a downward spiral. In different facets, Murakami’s Japan has weakened. Its economy was crashing. Its military force has dwindled down. Politicians and officials tasked to oversee the country were starkly lacking in political will. The denizens of the country, taking a cue from its officials and economy, have also lost their morale. Japan was no longer the superpower it used to be. Its allies were slowly disassociating themselves from Japan. Japan’s reliance on the United States run opposite to its status and was not helping its case. As it caters to the whims of its new ally, Japan’s reputation with its neighboring countries was diminished to that of a lapdog.

The opposite was happening across the sea. While it is staying true to the tenets upon which it was established, North Korea was slowly improving its relations with its neighbors, including the United States. But behind its back, the North Korean government was plotting something. The proverbial chinks in Japan’s armor, coupled with the non-aggression pacts within its constitution, were seen as opportunities by the North Korean government. They surreptitiously sent a troop of specially-trained North Korean special forces on a mission to capture the city of Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. Through cunning and careful planning, they were able to infiltrate the city’s defenses and establish control, to the ire of the Japanese government. The initial forces were a preparatory team sent to prepare for the arrival of more “rebel” forces comprised of about 120,000 forces set to invade the rest of the country.

The North Korean government, however, immediately disowned them, hence, their tag as a “dissident group”. The dissident force called themselves the Koryo Expeditionary Force (KEF). Top Japanese intelligence officers were skeptical of the North Korean government’s immediate response. The hermit kingdom is known to issue public statements days after an event. Meanwhile, the KEF, it seemed, was biding its time, and the capriciousness of their demands baffled top political brasses. They say their goal was to establish coexistence. The Diet, on the other hand, was scrambling to get a grip on the situation. The disorganized Japanese government was unable to make and define plans. They were unable to make clear decisions in a crucial moment when every second counts.

“Alcohol, it was said, liberated people. But nobody here wanted liberation, or would have known what to do with it. Alcohol was usually drunk in an intimate atmosphere, and an intimate atmosphere was one fraught with problems. You were compelled to conform, to respect the spreading sense of closeness in a group. If you didn’t, you were punished. If you sat by yourself thinking in a room full of the fug of intimacy, people asked you what was wrong or if you were bored, and from there it would escalate until you were being blamed as an energy-suck and a gloomy bastard. When drinking, if someone made even the dumbest joke, you had to laugh.”

~ Ryū Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love

The novel’s premise was simple. What if Japan, a long-established superpower, gets invaded by one of its contemporary nemesis? It is no secret that the relations between North Korea and Japan have been shaky. More universally, the relationship between Japan and the Korean peninsula has always been historically lukewarm. A long list of atrocities riddled the region. It is of note that, at one point in time, Japan occupied the Korean peninsula, pillaging its national treasures and abusing its denizens; one can surmise that the novel was an inversion of this historical event. As recently as December 31, 2022, North Korea has been launching and firing long-range missiles on the waters surrounding Japan. In the meantime, Japan is still able to hold its ground, relying on global support. But what if the unimaginable does happen? As these two nations walk on eggshells, the novel finds renewed relevance.

Murakami, renowned for straddling rarely navigated literary and social alleys, envisioned a Japan that was on the cusp of breaking down. The economy, which drives the superpower, has slumped due to inflation. Unemployment has become ubiquitous. Several maladies have floated to the surface, threatening to undermine the Land of the Rising Sun. This was exacerbated by the waning spirit of both the country’s denizens and politicians. The country was virtually digging its own grave and opportunists, like coyotes sensing a dying animal, will always be quick to seize the moment. War, as history has demonstrated, is a constant state of affairs. War is ever present and chaos is constant. It takes all forms, not just the explicit and traditional show of might which wars are known for.

Politics play a seminal role in the story and in a way, the novel was a scathing commentary on the state of Japanese politics which was, on the whole, characterized as stoic. The passivity in how politicians and bureaucrats handled national crises was vividly captured by Murakami. Their decision-making was hasty and lacked foresight. The people they governed had to suffer for their inaction. The locals of Fukuoka were slowly losing hope while awaiting signals from Tokyo. As the days passed with no signs from Tokyo, it was becoming clear that the national government didn’t care about them; they were, after all, viewed as hicks. With no semblance of help from Tokyo, the locals started to sympathize with the invaders. It was a classic display of Stockholm Syndrome.

The novel was action-driven and introduced a Tolstoyan cast of characters listed in six pages at the start of the book. The cast of characters can be divided into three. The first group is the KEF. Murakami was stellar in characterizing the North Korean forces. They were lean, mean, highly efficient, and disciplined fighting machines. However, amidst a more liberated Japanese society, they were like fishes out of the water. They were nevertheless astonished by what they saw, even lacy underwear. With the novel’s shifting perspective, Murakami was able to draw the highlight into one of his areas of interest: the impact of the regimented North Korean state on its soldiers. The story was riddled with the soldier’s memories of home, providing deeper insight into this layer of the story.

“Madness isn’t something you can suppress but you can’t give it free rein either. You’ve spent your life dreaming of murder and mayhe, and now that this has hppened right before your eyes, you’re getting all excited, and there’s nothing abnormal about that in itself, but what happened didn’t happen because of anything you did or anything under your control.”

~ Ryū Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love

The second group of characters involves the Japanese officials in Tokyo. Unlike the members of the KEF, the politicians were more caricatural. They were the antithesis of the invading army. The third group of characters is the locals of Fukuoka, those who were directly impacted by the invasion. In a way, the novel was also about outliers and misfits. The first group is often considered outcasts as they were raised and trained in a regime obscured from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain. Among the locals of Fukuoka, Murakami also introduced a group of social outcasts collected and guided by an eccentric poet named Ishihara. This clique is a group of youths, some of whom have committed horrific crimes while some had unusual hobbiesThis group also requires a little suspension of belief as this is an element more closely associated with the traditional Murakami body of work.

A multilayered and multifaceted novel with a lush landscape, From the Fatherland, With Love grappled with other seminal subjects. On top of politics, the novel captured power dynamics. Officials are dispensable and can be easily replaced. Accountability was also subtly underscored by this part of the story. The patriarchal quality of Japanese society was also captured by the novel. For instance, when the cabinet members were enumerated, the female members were specifically called “female” plus their official designation. There was a gender imbalance and misogyny persists. The male characters, however, refuse to call their attitude toward women as such: “He was absolutely typical of the DPRK male -the mere fact that she was a woman made him look down on her. His attitude was not one of deliberate disrespect or discrimination. His instinctive assumption was that she was sweet but a bit weak and so needed looking after.”

Equal parts complex and fascinating, From the Fatherland, with Love is a riveting exploration of geopolitics. Set just five years after its original publication, it is a broad character study of two national governments. The novel vividly captured the ramifications of a weakening political system. The events that succeeded the novel’s publication in 2005 – the global financial crisis, and the continued launching of long-range missiles by North Korea, the passive response to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, among others – made Murakami’s vision not that far from reality. The novel was Murakami living up to his moniker as the enfant terrible of Japanese literature.

With the novel grappling with a vast array of subjects ranging from regional and national attitudes to social outcasts to power dynamics to the follies of war, From the Fatherland, with Love was, without a doubt, an ambitious undertaking. As has been common among novels with grand narratives, the novel did crumble under the weight of this ambition, further exacerbated by the vast cast of characters that spread the story too thin. There were too many voices but it was also these different voices that gave the story its interesting texture and built its massive landscape. These slanders, however, did little to corrode the overall message of an insightful and thought-provoking, at times entertaining read.

“Norml and mad aren’t really that distinguishable. And normal has nothing to do with the missionary position. Madness lies within, but what we might call the essence of fellowship – the something that symbolizes normality – is always floating around somewhere outside.”

~ Ryū Murakami, From the Fatherland, With Love


Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

While I have encountered Ryū Murakami on must-read lists and through online booksellers every now and then, it was only in 2022 that I finally took a chance on his prose. I obtained a copy of the first Murakami – not Haruki whose prose I am quite acquainted with – novel, From the Fatherland, With Love. Apart from my curiosity, the gas mask on the book’s cover piqued my interest. I did not, however, notice the two flags on the mask’s eyes, that of North Korea and Japan, an important detail in the overall flow of the narrative. One thing also stands out about the book: it was rather thick; I would, later on, that it was among his longer works translated into English. Of course, I did mind the length so I made the book part of my 2022 journey across Japanese literature, ahead of other books I previously acquired. I admit I struggled a bit with the book. There were too many characters and it was a challenge to keep up with all of them. But as I dig deeper, the more invested I was in the story. It wasn’t perfect but it was an interesting portrait of bureaucracy and individuals rejected by society as a whole.

I hear Murakami’s shorter novels were quirky. But quirky is something that Japanese literature is renowned for. As such, I can’t wait to read the “other” Murakami’s other works.

Book Specs

Author: Ryū Murakami
Translators (from Japanese):  Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf, Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publishing Date: 2013
Number of Pages: 666
Genre: Literary, Postmodernism, Speculative


The world has turned its back on Japan: it has been economically devastated, thrown into political turmoil – and then attacked.

A small team of highly trained, ruthless North Korean special forces troops invade the city of Fukuoka, holding the residents hostage. This is the vanguard of operation ‘From the Fatherland, with Love’ – if nothing is done to stop them, 120,000 more troops will follow.

And while the government seem incapable of acting, there is one possible source of resistance, a troubled gang of psychotic misfits, masters of guns, explosives and toxins, self-taught and unhinged. But they are driven only by a desire for chaos, and death…

Thrilling, bloody and unstoppable, From the Fatherland, with Love is a vast, mad achievement: an all-too-believable, vividly realized alternate present, with the careening, incendiary power of Murakami at his terrifying best.

About the Author

Ryū Murakami (村上 龍, Murakami Ryū) was born Ryūnosuke Murakami on February 19, 1952, in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan, where he was also raised and attended school. He graduated high school in 1970 and enrolled in the silkscreen department at Gendaishichosha School of Art in Tokyo. However, he dropped out in the first year. In October 1972, he moved to Fussa, Tokyo, and was accepted to the sculpture program at Musashino Art University.

It was while studying at the University that Murakami started working on his first work, a short novel titled Kagirinaku Tōmei ni Chikai Burū (限りなく透明に近いブルー) which was published in 1976. It was received warmly by both readers and critics alike,. It went on to win the 1976 Gunzo Prize for New Writers and the prestigious  Akutagawa Prize. A year after its publication, the book was translated into English with the title Almost Transparent Blue. A second book, Umi no Mukō de Sensō ga Hajimaru (海の向こうで戦争が始まる, War Begins Beyond the Sea) was published a year after his first. A longer novel, Koinrokkā Beibīzu (コインロッカー・ベイビーズ, Coin Locker Babies) was published in 1980. It was critically acclaimed and won the Noma Liberal Arts New Member Prize. His other novels include 69 Shikusuti Nain (1987), Piasshingu (ピアッシング; 1995, Piercing), Kyoko (1995), and In za Misosūpu (イン ザ・ミソスープ; 1997, In the Miso Soup).

Apart from his novels, Murakami was also renowned for his short stories, essays, and nonfiction works. He also worked as a director and scriptwriter, particularly for his novels that were adapted into films such as Almost Transparent Blue (1979), All Right, My Friend (1983), and Raffles Hotel (1989). For his works, Murakami earned several awards such as the 1997 Yomiuri Prize for In za miso-sūpu, the 2005 Noma Liberal Arts Prize and Mainichi Shuppan Culture Award for Hantō wo Deyo (半島を出よ; 2005, From the Fatherland, with Love)  and the 2011 Mainichi Art Award for Utau Kujira. Murakami has played drums for a rock group called Coelacanth and hosted a TV talk show.