Takeaways from “Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami”

I resisted the call to read David Karashima’s Who We’re Reading When We’re Reading Murakami for too long.

I read a few of the excerpts online, which were interesting, and I laughed at quotes that I saw on Twitter (one from David Mitchell, which I include below), but I think I finally bit the bullet when I realized that the Chicago Public Library had a copy. Once I started reading, I knew I needed to own a personal copy just a few pages in: It’s an incredible book.

Karashima mines personal correspondence from Murakami, Alfred Birnbaum, Elmer Luke, Jay Rubin, and tons of folks on the publishing side. He’s looking at faxes, emails, and edited manuscripts. He speaks with Junot Diaz, David Mitchell, and Tess Gallagher amongst other famous writers. My only complaint about the book is that it ends with the publication of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There’s so much more to look at. But I’m sure that the publisher had him on a tight word count.

Here’s a running list of takeaways I kept while I was reading the book. I’m not sure if these qualify as “spoilers,” but if you haven’t read the book yet, you may want to do that before reading these:

– Birnbaum translated Pinball, 1973 before Hear the Wind Sing. He also had no formal translation training. Karashima makes it sound like he just submitted the manuscript and then the bunkobon KI version of the translation showed up in the mail later on! This seems like the way Murakami submitted his only copy of the Hear the Wind Sing manuscript.

– Norwegian Wood was published in September 1987 and sold 800,000 copies by January 1988. By the end of that year it was 3.55 million. Those are crazy numbers.

– Elmer Luke fasted twice to avoid the draft. There has obviously been a lot of “bone spurs” talk in recent years, which I think has done a disservice to conscientious objectors during the Vietnamese War: the passages in the book—Elmer Luke riding with a bus full of others who all had excuses to get out of the draft—really emphasized to me how unjust it was, as a war, as a strategy to man a war, and especially for those who weren’t able to avoid it and ended up dying in Asia. What art have we lost or nearly lost because of war?

– Shigeo Okamoto, the designer who did the cover for 回転木馬のデッド・ヒート (Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round), designed the cover for the English translation of A Wild Sheep Chase. This is pretty wild to me because they’re so totally different. The former is so abstract while Sheep is more surreal. I actually own a copy of both. A friend got me A Wild Sheep Chase years ago, and the Dead Heat first edition was one of the first purchases I made when I moved to Japan…I imagine it was significantly less expensive. You can see more of Okamoto’s work here.

– A Wild Sheep Chase was a Book-of-the-Month Club pick. Jay Rubin mentions the $50,000 advertising budget in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (Karashima notes $46,000), but the book club was new information for me and seems like a pretty big deal.

– Murakami writes about an early trip to New York at the end of 遠い太鼓 (Distant Drums) apparently. Karashima includes a note about this, so now I’m looking forward to getting through the rest of that book.

– The details about how “The Windup Bird and Tuesday’s Women” was edited for The New Yorker are fascinating (major revisions that border on censorship). Also very, very interesting is Karashima’s suggestion that Murakami decided to expand it into a novel because it had been translated and was well received upon publication in 1986. Murakami expanded into a novel when he took up his position as writer-in-residence at Princeton in 1991.

– It becomes more and more apparent that Elmer Luke has earned his acknowledgment inside the cover of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. He doesn’t get top billing, but there is the line “The translator wishes to acknowledge the assistance of editor Elmer Luke.” His name was familiar from Jay Rubin’s book, but Karashima does an exceptional job of bringing him to life through his back story as well as quotes like this, where he explains why he edited Hard-boiled Wonderland the way he did:

“I think the larger concern for me was that there was (in my humble opinion) chaff that was cluttering the picture—stuff that was repetitious or tangential or less than critical to the narrative or worked against it—the chaff needed to be culled, so that what we had was germane or, if not, appealingly whimsical or amusing or deep. … There was also the awareness that Japanese editors did not, do not, edit much. For whatever reason. In translation that lack becomes clear. So—my hubris, perhaps—I felt I had to do what had not been done.” (113)

Oh, if only someone had done that to his more recent novels. It’s clear that The New Yorker is still editing Murakami somewhat heavily (all you have to do is compare the Japanese version of the piece about his father with the English), but his novels no longer get this treatment in translation.

– Several of the sexy parts from Hard-boiled Wonderland with the Girl in Pink are provided courtesy of literature professor Hosea Hirata.

– Birnbaum is quoted saying they “must have ended up cutting around a hundred pages” (112), but it’s not nearly this much. It must have felt that way because he and Luke would work on the book five to six hours a day! Luke adds that when “the true Murakami believers” find out about the edits they “will be horrified. But that’s okay too. I made the choice. Or we did.”

I wouldn’t say I was horrified (if you didn’t know I was a Murakami true believer by now, surprise!). I did a five-blog post series on some of these cuts from Chapter 21 when the pair are running around underground (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I think that some of the sections needed to go (especially the bicycle song she sings), but others could have been kept. There’s a scene where they make out in the dark that’s compelling, and one at the end of the chapter where Watashi reflects on life that are probably worth keeping. Hell, even the scene where he shows her his erection in Chapter 31 could probably stay. But the translation does stand on its own, so I’m not too torn up.

– There’s no mention of the edits that Murakami made to the Complete Works edition of Hard-boiled Wonderland. I’m so curious to know more about how the changes came to be made, and WHEN they were made.

– Jay Rubin finished his book The Sun Gods in 1989. The book was published by Chin Music Press in 2015, and I don’t think I realized he’d written it much earlier. I am halfway through this book. I’ve been reading off and on for a few years, which I don’t mean as commentary—sadly, I have a lot of books in this state of limbo.

– Karashima has a fantastic callback to Murakami’s fiction when he tells the story of Jay Rubin encountering Murakami. Rubin got a call from an editor at Vintage, asking him to read Hard-boiled Wonderland and evaluate its potential for translation. Rubin no longer remembers this person’s name, so it’s almost like he received a phone call from a stranger…much like a Murakami narrator.

– This is an incredible quote from Murakami about being edited for The New Yorker:

“What can I say—The New Yorker has a large number of readers and they also pay really well,” he tells me, laughing. He says that if the editor of a Japanese magazine had made similar suggestions, “of course I would change things that I agree with, but in principle I would say no. Not just with The New Yorker, but in foreign markets in general, I think you have no choice but to go along with their rules. There are people who criticize me for this, saying, ‘I bet you let them do what they want because it’s The New Yorker.’ Yes, that’s exactly right! But like I said, I reverse the changes when the story is published in book form.”

This is just an incredible, mind-blowing view on the role of editing in writing. It’s almost like he doesn’t see the point of it. I can imagine that he might be skeptical of it, having been edited so heavily earlier in his career only to receive a lighter touch once he made it big. It must feel like those initial edits were all made mistakenly. But as mentioned previously, The New Yorker is still editing him. Even his nonfiction.

– I’m amazed by how many faxes Murakami and Luke (and everyone else!) were sending to each other. I think that’s something that my generation missed. My first memories of fax machines are the daily spam marketing advertisements we would receive at the first part time job I ever had. Email killed off the practicality of the fax (but not the security) pretty quickly. I imagine there was a period in the 80s and 90s after email started being used more widely when fax still made the most sense as a communication channel.

– There are several mentions of very early publications of Murakami translations, notably Philip Gabriel’s translation of “Kangaroo Communique” published in ZZYZYVA and (new to me) “On Meeting My 100% Woman One Final April Morning” by Kevin Flanagan/Tamotsu Omi. I’ve always wonder how Gabriel worked out the translation rights to publish this one. It isn’t mentioned here.

– Murakami says he doesn’t like “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon.” That story has such a mood. I haven’t read it for a while but remember enjoying it.

– Karashima does a nice job of emphasizing how Murakami arranged translation of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before it was published in Japanese. This reduced the publication time between his translations to the three years from Dance Dance Dance (1994) to WUBC (1997).

– Fascinating: “Murakami also tells me that he is particularly keen on seeing new versions of the works originally translated by Birnbaum for the American market.” (213)

– Even more fascinating! “The unabridged translation [of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle] donated by Rubin to the Lilly Library [at Indiana University] will be made accessible in 2026.” (227) The book doesn’t seem to specify how this will happen, and Knopf seems hesitant but open to the idea, based on a few quotes in the book.

– The book takes the publication of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as its endpoint, so the criticism of the book gets quoted somewhat liberally, and I find myself impressed with Michiko Kakutani’s thoughts at the time of publication: “‘Wind-Up Bird often seems so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter (or computer) one last time.” Karashima follows this quote with other critics who seem to admit that WUBC is messy but say that it doesn’t matter. I’ve made it clear that I think WUBC only looks worse as Murakami continues to put out long novels that are poorly edited.

I’m noticing from those links that I predicted a short Murakami book in 2021 or a long book in 2024/2025. He put out a collection of short stories this year, so maybe that tides us over for a 2022/2023 publication of a longer novel. Will be interesting to see, and to see if it sheds any light on the rest of his works.

– One of the quotes that convinced me to read this book was David Mitchell’s quote: “[A Wild Sheep Chase’s] characters were existentially untethered. They lived in bars, coffee shops and tiny rooms with no view to speak of. They worked, had odd conversations, drank beer, slept, and worked. Family rarely entered the picture. They made no plans for their futures. Not unlike English teachers in Japan, now that I think of it.” (235)

– Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen get short thrift! I imagine this is mostly due to a page/word limit, but I found myself super curious about their backgrounds. I think Mr. Karashima owes us a sequel, or at the very least a lengthy piece in The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

– HUGE REVEAL IN THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Murakami has asked Jay Rubin to do a new translation of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World! This is really exciting. I can’t wait to see how it ends up.

How to Japanese Newsletter

Happy 💩tober!

As the world slowly, incessantly falls apart, I’ve been trying to expand my writing opportunities and started a monthly How to Japanese newsletter. I won’t be posting it here each month, but I did want to give it a plug in the main feed in case anyone is interested in subscribing. It will generally include a short piece about Japan/Japanese and something about beer/brewing followed by links/plugs.

I started in September with a look at an inspirational phrase from Higashimura Akiko’s manga alongside an ode to the local homebrew shop. October will have a more actionable piece of language for your business needs and a specific yeast recommendation.

Hope you subscribe and share!

Writing is Hard

The last week of Murakami Fest 2020! We get five weeks this year. Hooray!

Previous Murakami Fest Posts:

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness, Pacing Norwegian Wood, Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation, Mental Retreat

On New Year’s Eve 1986, the Murakamis heads from Mykonos to Athens and then to Rome where he spends New Year’s. People are eating lentils and drinking champagne to celebrate. After celebrating, they head to Sicily for a month, which left a definite impression on Murakami — he notes that if they hadn’t already paid the rent and didn’t have a work commitment (an essay for an in-flight magazine), they would have left early. The city is dirty and run down, violent with crime, and noisy.

Not a great writing atmosphere: He goes as far as calling it Hell (地獄). Murakami manages to write, but the stress of Palermo gives him nightmares, which feels exceptional because he’s said he doesn’t dream very much.

The opera and food in town are the highlights for his time there — he sees three operas and eats heaping plates full of ikasumi linguine.

There’s a nice passage about writing at the beginning of the section, right after he describes how miserable Palermo is:

I lived in that city for a month. And the whole time I was writing Norwegian Wood. I wrote about a sixth of the way through that novel here. Unlike Mykonos, I wasn’t able to go out for walks even when the sun was out, which I guess was tough. If I suddenly wanted a quick change scenery, I couldn’t just take one. So we twice left Palermo to go on short trips. We went once to Taormina and once to Malta. Then we returned to Palermo where I confined myself to the room and worked.

It was hard to keep writing the novel every day. There were times it even felt like I was grinding down my bones or consuming my own flesh. (You might say that it isn’t that massive a novel. But to the writer, that was what it felt like.) However, it was more painful not to write. Writing is hard. But writing itself wants to be written. The most important thing when this happens is focus. The focus to throw yourself into that world. And the strength to sustain that focus for as long as possible. If you do this, you’ll find that at some point you conquer the pain. And you have to believe in yourself. Believe that you have the strength within yourself to complete it.

そんな街に一ヶ月住んだ。そしてそのあいだずっと『ノルウェイの森』を書いていた。その小説のだいたい六合めくらいまではここで書いた。ミコノスとは違って、日が暮れてもちょっと外に散歩に出るということができなくて、それが辛いといえば辛かった。さて気分転換をと思っても、それができない。そこで二回ばかりパレルモを離れて小旅行に出た。一度はタオルミナに、もう一度はマルタ島に行った。そしてパレルモに帰ってくると、また部屋にこもって仕事をした。

毎日小説を書き続けるのは辛かった。時々自分の骨を削り、筋肉を食いつぶしているような気さえした。(それほど大層な小説ではないじゃないかとおっしゃるかもしれない。でも書く方にしてみればそれが実感なのだ)。それでも書かないでいるのはもっと辛かった。文章を書くことは難しい。でも、文章の方は書かれることを求めているのだ。そういうときにいちばん大事なものは集中力である。その世界に自分を放り込むための集中力である。そしてその集中力をできるだけ長く持続させる力である。そうすれば、ある時点でその辛さはふっと克服できる。それから自分を信じること。自分にはこれをきちんと完成させる力があるんだと信じること。 (183)

This feels like good advice…to be taken with a grain of salt. Murakami’s writing advice often feels like it will result in “the scroll.” I think this is the recipe for a lot of bad first drafts, which are necessary to eventually produce good writing, but given what we know about Murakami’s later output, I’m not sure how much editing is being done. Murakami is a sixth done with his novel in January/February 1987, and it goes to press in September. Norwegian Wood itself was a revision project, working based on a short story, so maybe that’s why it works better than some of his other projects. He’s not just sitting down to knock out Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World Vol. 3.

That’s all for Murakami Fest this year! I’ll be back next year with more chapters. I’m curious to see what other bits about Norwegian Wood make it into these little memoirs.

Mental Retreat

Week four of Murakami Fest 2020!

Previous Murakami Fest Posts:

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness, Pacing Norwegian Wood, Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

This chapter is titled “Retreat from Mykonos.” Murakami is leaving Mykonos, and during the day of departure his mind is preoccupied with Napoleon’s retreat from Russia.

The retreat seems tied in with the terrible weather (it’s rained almost the whole month, it’s raining again as he leaves) and some of the frustrations he’s faced during his time there: He’s working extremely hard on his writing, and he’s had some run-ins with an annoying foreigner living on Mykonos.

The retreat gets blended in with his own experience, a technique that he explores more in depth a few years later in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle through Cinnamon Akasaka, who has a divided self and writes out his grandfather’s vivid experiences in Manchuria. You could also argue that the technique dates back to one of his earliest short stories—“A Poor-Aunt Story.” Although the rain section below more closely mirrors that story. It’s a striking effect. Here’s how the chapter begins:

February 20, 1986. Sunday. Rain.

I’m leaving this island today.

I woke up at 6:30, sat at my desk and worked on the novel for an hour, and then put the bundle of papers into a large envelope when I made it to a temporary stopping place. Then I placed this securely at the bottom of my suitcase so it wouldn’t get folded. Today is also the end of my stay on Mykonos. However, now that I think about the month and a half I’ve lived here, the weather has been awful the entire time. Once or twice a week we’d get perfectly clear days. But other than that it was terrible. It rained, or it was windy, or it was rainy and windy. And most days the sky was gloomily overcast. We were surrounded by beautiful coastline, but I was only able to get in the water and go swimming once.

In the end, our final day here is rainy as well. A silent, misty rain. The wind is also blowing.

一九八六二月二十日。日曜日。雨。

僕は今日この島を出て行こうとしている。

六時半に起きて、机に向かって一時間ばかり小説の続きを書き、とりあえずのきりがついたところで、そのレターペーパーの束を大判の封筒に入れる。そしてしわにならないように、しっかりとしたスーツケースの一番底にしまいこむ。今日でミコノスの滞在も終わりである。しかし考えてみればここで暮らした一ヵ月半、まったくひどい天気ばかりだった。週に一日か二日、からりと晴れた美しい日がやってくる。でもあとはひどいものだ。雨が降るか、風が吹くか、あるいは雨が降って風が吹くかだ。そして空はたいていどんより暗く曇っている。こんなに美しい海岸に囲まれていながら、実際に海に入って泳ぐことができたのはたった一度だけだった。

結局最後の日も雨だ。細かい無音の雨。風も吹いている。

I’ll pause here and offer some commentary, the only commentary necessary: Can you imagine if he’d somehow lost his luggage or if the manuscript had been otherwise destroyed?! Obviously, writing by hand was the only option for Murakami at the time, but it feels so tenuous! I wonder whether he tried to make copies of his manuscripts or if he mailed it back to his editor in Japan. We do know that he when he submitted his first novella, the story that would become Hear the Wind Sing, he mailed his only copy to Gunzō. (I can’t seem to track down where Murakami has noted this. I thought for sure I’d blogged about it, but the best I can find in my archives is the fact that he’d completely forgotten that he’d submitted to the contest. UPDATE: Thank you to Mikhail in the comments who notes that Murakami makes this claim in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.) I’ll have to read more chapters and find out if he mentions what he did in Europe.

Murakami continues:

Just behind the house we rented is a modest sheep pasture (although it’s basically just a empty field), and usually there are 30 to 40 sheep grazing there. From time to time the shepherds, a mean couple (they look straight out of one of Dickens’ novels) come over and hit the sheep who don’t listen with a crook, unleashing a stream of foul curses at them as they do. I can look out over the whole pasture from the window in front of my desk. I kind of started looking forward to those pauses in my work when I happened to lift my eyes and see a mother sheep with her lambs from the window, but winter has deepened and the grass grown more scarce, and ten days ago every last one of the sheep were transferred to a different pasture. Now there is only a barren, brown expanse of ground beneath the window. Gone are the lambs clinging desperately to their mother’s legs, and gone are their monotonous, sing-song bleats that seemed to be underlined with a ruler. When I look at the empty pasture, it’s clear that the season has wrenched away its fair share.

Beyond the pasture is a road that runs up to the mountains, and an old truck filled with what looks like construction materials lurches its way up. The misty morning rain chills and dampens everything on the ground. As I glance outside, I think about the chapter I just finished writing. When I write on a rainy morning, somehow it ends up being writing that feels like a rainy morning. No matter how much work I put into it later on, I can never get the scent of that morning rain out of it. The scent of the rain falling silently on the lonely pasture, from which each and every sheep has disappeared. The scent of the rain that covered that old truck crossing the mountains. My writing is redolent with that morning rain. Partly out of fate.

我々の借りた家のすぐ裏手に、ささやかな羊の放牧地(というよりはただの原っぱみたいなものだけれど)があって、そこにはだいたい三十頭から四十頭の羊たちが放し飼いにされていた。ときどき意地の悪そうな羊飼いの夫婦がやってきて(ディケンズの小説に出てきそうな風貌のカップルである)、杖で言うことをきかない羊たちを口ぎたなくののしりながらひっぱたいた。机の前の窓から、その放牧地を見渡すことができた。僕は仕事のあいまにふと目を上げて、窓から羊の母子の姿を眺めるのをささやかな楽しみにしていたのだが、冬が深まるにつれて草はどんどん乏しくなり、羊たちは十日ばかり前に一頭残らずどこかべつの放牧地に移送されてしまった。今では貧相な茶色の地面が窓の下にがらんと広がっているだけだ。母羊の脚に必死にしがみつく子羊たちの姿ももう見られないし、あの定規で引いたように抑揚のない一本調子の鳴き声ももう聞こえない。からっぽの放牧地を見ていると、季節がその取りぶんをしっかりともぎとって行ってしまったことがよくわかる。

放牧地の向こうには山に向かう坂道があり、古いトラックが建材のようなものを積んで、よたよたと山を登っていく。朝の細かい雨が地表のありとあらゆるものを冷たく濡らしている。僕はぼんやりと外を眺め、さっき書き終えたばかりの章のことを考える。雨の朝に文章を書くと、どういうわけかそれは雨の朝のような文章になってしまう。あとでどれだけ手を入れてみても、その文章から朝の雨の匂いを取り去ることはできない。羊たちが一頭残らず失われてしまった寂しい放牧地に、音もなく降る雨の匂い。山を越えていく古びたトラックを濡らす雨の匂い。僕の文章はそんな雨の朝の匂いに包まれている。半分運命的に。

This is the section that strikes me as most like “A Poor-Aunt Story.” I love the idea that something from the writer’s current situation and self are imprinted on the work. If you think about it, there are parts of Norwegian Wood that do have the kind of gray, melancholic frustration that Murakami is describing here.

Murakami continues with breakfast after his writing:

I go downstairs and heat up some water and grill pancakes. Today is our last day, so I have to find a clever way to use up each and every item that’s left in the refrigerator. We have a little pancake mix, milk, and eggs left in the fridge. So anyone would come to the conclusion we’re having pancakes for breakfast.The balance between the mix, eggs, and milk is slightly off, but I guess there’s nothing we can do about it. That’s part of taking care of leftovers. Left over—as I cut the pancakes into small pieces and bring them to my mouth, I find myself thinking of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. The most difficult retreat with the least to gain. Cossack troops dominate fields covered in snow. Blizzards. The sound of cannons.

My wife asks, Want some tomato?

We have a lot of tomato left over. I’ll have some, I say. I cut the tomato, add some salt and lemon juice, and sprinkle on some herbs I cut up. Coffee, pancakes, and tomato salad, soldiers cross frozen rivers, and destroy bridges with their hands growing numb. They are so far from home.

僕は階下に下りてキッチンで湯を温めてパンケーキを焼く。今日が最後の日なので、冷蔵庫の中にのこっているものをひとつひとつ手際よく片付けていかなくてはならないのだ。冷蔵庫の中にはパンケーキの粉が少しとミルクと卵が残っている。だからこれは誰がどう考えても朝御飯はパンケーキということになる。粉と卵と牛乳のバランスがいささか悪いが、これはまあ仕方ないだろう。残りものを片づけるというのはそういうことなのだから。残りもの---僕はそんなパンケーキを小さく切って口に運びながら、ふとナポレオンの軍隊がロシアから撤退した時のことを思い出す。いちばん難しく、いちばん得るところの少ない撤退戦。雪原を跳梁するコサック兵。雪嵐。砲声。

トマト食べる?と女房が尋ねる。

トマトがいっぱい余っているよ。食べる、と僕は言う。トマトを切って塩とレモン汁をかけ、香草を刻んでふりかける。コーヒーとパンケーキとトマトのサラダ、兵士たちは凍てつく河を渡り、かじかむ手で橋を焼き落とす。彼らはあまりにも遠く故郷を離れたのだ。(162-164)

This is really just the start of this technique, but you can already see how he weaves his mental experience in with the physical environment. His wife’s interruption is on its own line, bringing us back to reality before Murakami deals with the tomatoes and then gradually sinks back into his thought process.

As a literary work, this might be the most interesting chapters so far.

The other interesting connection with Norwegian Wood/Murakami’s oeuvre is Murakami’s generational angst. Murakami has been pretty critical of people who protested in the late-60s only to sell out and join the Bubble era. We see this implicitly in Norwegian Wood: the narrator is a writer, still suffering from psychological wounds from the past, while his classmate Nagasawa goes on to serve as a MOFA officer after having treated his girlfriend Hatsumi so poorly. Hatsumi gets married and seems to go on to a happy life but ends up committing suicide. In one of the rare glimpses of the narrator’s present, there’s a scene when he’s on a job in Santa Fe with the sun setting beautifully, which reminds him of Hatsumi’s tragedy.

We also see this outlook in short stories like “Poolside” from Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round and in “A Folklore of My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism.”

But in this chapter Murakami ends us seeming like the cynical one. Later on in the chapter he has an encounter with “Belgian John,” a foreigner who comes by to collect the electric bill. He’s ended up on Mykonos after becoming disillusioned with mass publication and abandoning his dreams of working as an editor in publishing. John seems like a condescending jerk, and Murakami is pretty critical of his “turn on, tune in, drop out” attitude. He dismisses him as a Baby Boomer, a relic of the 60s.

I think ultimately the criticism seems to be leveled at a lack of effort. Belgian John isn’t even trying to stay connected. It’s an interesting section. I won’t excerpt any of it here, but it’s worth a read if you’re looking at Murakami from this perspective or just want to see his writing style.

***

I mentioned this two weeks ago, but it’s worth posting the link again: Murakami revisits Mykonos 24 years later in 2010 and writes about the experience in an essay that was part of the collection 『ラオスにいったい何があるというんですか?』(What Exactly Do They Say is in Laos?). I wrote about it four years ago. Murakami revisits the apartment where they stayed but seems to have forgotten that the winter drove off the sheep when he lived there the first time.

Character Studies and Murakami’s Financial Situation

Welcome back to Murakami Fest 2020!

Previous Murakami Fest Posts:

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness, Pacing Norwegian Wood

The next chapter is titled “The Port and Vangelis” (港とヴァンゲリス), and it nicely summarizes the somewhat disorganized chapter that serves as a travel sketch and profile.

A big part of Murakami’s life on Mykonos revolves around the weather and availability of fish. They have to rush to the market in the morning to buy fish. There’s no fish store, just the market, and everything available sells out in a 30-minute window after the boats return from fishing in the morning. So when the weather is calm, they rush to the market and buy a few days’ worth of fish.

Greek food doesn’t sit well for them, and they end up needing to purge with simple meals after eating too much of the local food. Murakami goes on extensively about hanging out octopus to dry before cooking it, and there is even a photo included of an octopus strung out with Mykonos in the background included in the text. (Photo above is not from the book, but rather from Wikimedia Commons.)

This chapter is a good example of Murakami capturing characters on his trip. This section about the fish market leads naturally to their building manager Vangelis, who walks around the market talking with everyone. He manages a set of 20-30 two-floor buildings all surrounded by a wall. Each building has two maisonette style apartments. He’s turning 60 the following year and is relatively uneducated but has good intuition. He has a son and a daughter and two grandchildren. Family is important to him, and he seems disappointed Murakami doesn’t have kids. I’d say he could serve as inspiration for the Colonel in Hard-boiled Wonderland, but he’d already published that book by this point. It’s almost the reverse: one of his fictional characters come to life in the form of a middle-aged Greek man.

I enjoyed this part about Vangelis on Christmas Day:

Vangelis doesn’t drink while he works. But on Christmas Day, he put on his best suit and got quite drunk in his building manager’s office. Well, Christmas is basically like Japanese New Year’s. When Vangelis gets drunk, he turns bright red, is much more cheerful than usual, and talks loudly. He offered me some whiskey. He filled a glass to the brim. The whiskey was Johnny Walker Red Label. He was extremely proud to be drinking Johnny Walker. He must’ve been saving it specially for Christmas. He usually drinks cheap wine. He never drinks uzo. A long time ago he got drunk on uzo and something happened, so he seems to have sworn off it. No matter how much uzo I offered, Vangelis never took a sip of it. “Uzo is bad liquor,” he said with a dark look on his face. “Makes you an idiot. Haruki, you should be careful. Drink wine instead.”

ヴァンゲリスは仕事中は酒を飲まない。でもクリスマスの日には一張羅のスーツを着込んで、管理人室でかなり酔っぱらっていた。まあクリスマスといえば正月みたいなものである。ヴァンゲリスは酔っぱらうと真っ赤になって、いつもより陽気になり、声が大きくなる。そして僕にウィスキーを飲ませる。グラスになみなみと注いでくれる。ウィスキーはジョニー・ウォーカーの赤ラベルである。彼はジョニー・ウォーカーを飲んでいることがすごく得意そうだった。きっとクリスマス用に大事にとっておいたお酒なのだろう。いつもはだいたい安物のワインを飲んでいる。ウゾーは飲まない。昔ウゾーで酔っぱらって何かあって、それで懲りたのかもしれない。僕がどれだけウゾーを進めても、ヴァンゲリスは絶対に口をつけなかった。「ウゾー、悪い酒。頭バカになる。ハルキも気をつけたほうがいい。ワインにしなって」と言って暗い顔をした。 (156)

Vangelis takes a liking to the Murakamis and ends up serving as a social go-between for them. He takes them with him to Cafe Neon, a space for locals where foreign tourists aren’t usually welcomed. He pours them wine, points out items on the menu, and eventually the cafe warms up to the Murakamis.

The chapter ends with one additional character, whom Murakami calls T氏 (T-shi, Mr. T). This is interesting because so far Murakami has referred to everyone by name. I think this is likely because T is the property owner and the description of him isn’t flattering. He tries to sell one of the buildings to Murakami, who decides not to make a purchase. There is a cryptic mention of his finances in Tokyo:

But of course we didn’t buy one. They were nice vacation houses and pretty well built, the price was high but fair, and I liked the manager, Vangelis. But at that time, we didn’t have the leeway (we’d left Japan because financially we’d had a bit of instability), plus Greece is a little far from Japan. It’s not an easy place to access, where you might say, guess I’ll go to Guam for a bit, even if you had the time. If you had a vacation house in a place like Greece it would just end up being a lot of work.

でももちろん僕らは買わなかった。なかなかよくできた良いリゾート・ハウスだったし、値段も高いなりにまあ妥当な値段だったし、管理人ヴァンゲリスのことも気に入っていた。でもそのときは僕らにはそんな余裕はなかったし、(僕らは経済的にはそれなりの不安を抱えて日本を出てきたのだ)、それにギリシャは日本からいささか遠すぎる。暇ができても、じゃあちょっとグアムにでも行くかという風に簡単に行けるところではない。そんなところにリゾート・ハウスを持っても手間がかかるでけである。(158)

This is interesting, and perhaps refers to some of the “negative reasons” he ended up needing to take the European trip. But it does feel strange. He’d given up the jazz bar gig after completing Pinball, 1973, had had some serious success and written lots of stories and four novels, including the lengthy Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, plus we know he’s exhausted from all the writing and writing-adjacent work he’s been doing. But I guess cost of living in Japan might have been high for the salary he was able to turn around? Interesting little passage.

Pacing Norwegian Wood

Year 1: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year 2: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year 3: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year 4: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year 5: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year 6: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year 7: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year 8: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year 9: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year 10: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year 11: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year 12: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo
Year 13: Murakami Preparedness

After a cold, rainy fall on Spetses, the Murakamis decide to relocate to Mykonos, which he describes in a chapter simply titled “Mykonos.” Murakami is skeptical because he’s been before (twice apparently!) and it was more touristy than he was hoping for.

But that was during the season. The travel agent convinces him to take an off season spot on Mykonos, which ends up being perfect…and one of his only options. Murkami thought a lot of apartments would be available during the off season, but supply availability drops with demand, and a lot of landlords have already taken off for the year and are on vacation. It becomes difficult to even get in touch with them.

Mykonos in the off season is quiet and he ends up being relatively productive. After a big chunk complaining about the terrible, cold weather and why so many Japanese visit during that season (fall honeymoon season, New Year’s travels), he talks about what he worked on:

But as a result, despite this terrible weather, or perhaps precisely because of this terrible weather, Mykonos during the off season was actually the ideal environment for me to quietly get some work done. Here I completed the translation of C.D.B. Bryan’s novel The Great Dethriffe. It was pretty long, but the story was interesting, and I wanted to get through it quickly and start working on my own novel, so I steadily worked through the translation every day. I still wasn’t using a word processor at this point, so I crammed my writing into a college notebook with a fountain pen.

Once I made it to the end of The Great Dethriffe, I wrote several sketch-like pieces of writing about life on Spetses (the basis for the essays in this book) and then got started on the long-awaited novel. During that time my body had this incredible itch to write a novel. I was parched, thirsting for words. “Bringing” myself to that point was the most important thing. You can’t write a long novel without bringing yourself right up to a point like that. Just like running a marathon, if you fail to make the adjustments to get to that point, you won’t have the breath for the long haul.

That novel would later become Norwegian Wood, but I didn’t have a title at that point. I started writing casually and with the goal of making it a smooth 300-350 pages or so of 400-character manuscript paper, but when I’d written 600 pages I realized, “That’s not gonna work. There’s no way I’ll finish in 300-400 pages.” From that point until April of the following year (1987) I became completely absorbed in novel life as we moved between Sicily and Rome. In the end, the completed novel was 900 pages.

でも結果的に言って、このようなひどい天候にもかかわらず、いや、このようなひどい天候なればこそ、シーズン・オフのミコノスは僕が静かに仕事をするには実にもってこいの環境だった。僕はここでC・D・B・ブライアンの『グレート・デスリフ』という小説の翻訳を仕上げた。けっこう長い小説だったのだけれど、面白い話だったし、とにかくこれを早く仕上げて自分の小説にかかろうと思って、こつこつと毎日翻訳を進めていた。この頃はまだワードプロセッサーを使っていなかったから、大学ノートに万年筆でぎっしりと字を書いていた。

『グレート・デスリフ』を最後まで仕上げてから、スペッツェス島での生活についていくつかスケッチのような文章を書き(ここに収められたものの原形である)、それから待ち兼ねていたように小説にかかった。その頃にはその小説が書きたくて、僕のからだはどうしようもなくむずむずしていた。からだが言葉を求めてからからにに乾いていた。そこまで自分のからだを「持っていく」ことがいちばん大事なのだ。長い小説というのはそれくらいぎりぎりに持っていかないと書けない。マラソン・レースと同じで、ここに来るまでの調整に失敗すると長丁場で息がつづかなくなる。

この小説はのちに『ノルウェイの森』になるわけだが、このときにはまだタイトルもついていない。四百字詰めで三百枚か三百五十枚くらいのさらっとした小説にしようというくらいの軽い気持ちで書き始めたのだが、百枚くらい書いたところで「こりゃ駄目だ、とても三百、四百じゃ終わらない」とわかった。以来翌年(一九八七)の四月まで、シシリー、ローマと移動しながらの小説漬けの生活にのめり込んでいくことになる。結局出来上がった小説は九百枚だった。 (140-141)

This is a fascinating look at Murakami’s productivity and practices. As usual, he knocks out translations and nonfiction like they’re nothing. The Great Dethriffe is 252 pages, a substantial translation. He then writes the essays. And then apparently gets a draft of Norwegian Wood written in what must be about a six-month span. Absolutely crazy.

900 pages with 400 characters means 360,000 characters, and at about 2.2 English words per character that’s just over 160,000 words. Not a huge novel like the kind that Murakami writes now, and he was working from the short story “Firefly” (nice little ode to “Firefly” right here) but a remarkable feat nonetheless. All done on the road while putting up with storms and all sorts of other challenges (which we’ll see in later chapters)!

Murakami spends the rest of the chapter reminiscing about the different bars on Mykonos. After he writes every day (time his wife spends reading books, studying Italian, playing with cats, and not talking to him), they go to a bar and talk.

As usual Murakami does a good job of capturing the other people they run into. Bar owners, residents who have been to Japan before, the foreign community, and he ends the chapter with a sense that Mykonos is a place filled with people who are a little lost.

This is such a great book (rough at times, but full of energy), and it’s a shame it hasn’t been translated.

*

A brief aside about The Great Dethriffe. It’s a terrible book. The New York Times panned it when it was published. Japanese reviewers on Amazon have this to say about it:

グレート・ギャツビー(村上春樹訳)を読んで、数日後に読破。残念ながら、グレート・ギャツビーにかないいません。村上春樹さんの力の入れようも違うのかな。(I read The Great Gatsby [Haruki Murakami’s translation] and finished it in just a few days. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold a candle to The Great Gatsby. Maybe Murakami was wrong to put his energy into this.)

Even C.D.B. Bryan didn’t like it: One of his children has a blog with anecdotes from his letters, including this line: “So I went back to read Dethriffe yesterday and hated every minute of it. Why is it so difficult to reread something after it has been published.”

So I was extremely confused about how Murakami came to translate a book published in 1970 during the fall of 1986, why he chose to do so, and whether there might have been anything in the book that drew him to it or would speak to his own style.

To be an absolute completionist, I bought a copy on Amazon, read a few chapters, and then speed read the rest of the book. It’s not good. There are pages and pages of dialogue that should have been cut, a few bizarre racist and sexist passages (that might be jokes?), and not much going for it other than a prescient sense of how far the Gatsby revival would take F. Scott Fitzgerald stock. It reads almost like a pastiche of Gatsby had Gatsby actually married Daisy and then realized the wanting is better than the getting.

I think the Gatsby connection is the main reason Murakami translated this book. Maybe they thought they could cash in on the connection or something. There are some extended passages of people telling stories, a technique Murakami has used frequently, but he had already developed it at this point in his career. It wasn’t anything new. Bryan also makes the mistake of telling these stories completely within dialogue, never switching to third person, which is one of the pleasures of the technique.

*

Murakami returns to Mykonos 24 years later to make a pilgrimage to the spot where he wrote Norwegian Wood, and he’s actually able to take a peek into the place where he lived. I wrote about this essay back in 2016.

Murakami Preparedness

Welcome to Murakami Fest 2020! This year I’ll be looking at five chapters from 遠い太鼓 (Tōi taiko, Distant Drums), his travel memoir from Europe. It’s an interesting chunk of time—October 1986 through January 1987. This is when Murakami begins writing Norwegian Wood. This is notable because we know the book is published on September 4, 1987. He does have a head start with the short story “Firefly,” which forms part of the story, but he still finds a way to knock out this book in less than a year. Probably much less than that. Incredible.

This is Year 13. We’re a teenager. Here are the previous entries:

Year One: BoobsThe WindBaseballLederhosenEels, Monkeys, and Doves
Year Two: Hotel Lobby OystersCondomsSpinning Around and Around街・町The Town and Its Uncertain WallA Short Piece on the Elephant that Crushes Heineken Cans
Year Three: “The Town and Its Uncertain Wall” – Words and WeirsThe LibraryOld DreamsSaying GoodbyeLastly
Year Four: More DrawersPhone CallsMetaphorsEight-year-olds, dudeUshikawaLast Line
Year Five: Jurassic SapporoGerry MulliganAll Growns UpDanceMountain Climbing
Year Six: Sex With Fat WomenCoffee With the ColonelThe LibrarianOld ManWatermelons
Year Seven: WarmthRebirthWastelandHard-onsSeventeenEmbrace
Year Eight: PigeonEditsMagazinesAwkwardnessBack Issues
Year Nine: WaterSnæfellsnesCannonballDistant Drumming
Year Ten: VermontersWandering and BelongingPeter Cat, Sushi Counter, Murakami Fucks First
Year Eleven: Embers, Escape, Window Seats, The End of the World
Year Twelve: Distant Drums, Exhaustion, Kiss, Lack of Pretense, Rotemburo

In the chapter I’m looking at today, titled “A Storm Arrives” (嵐来る), the Murakamis deal with an unexpected storm on Spetses that lasts from October 27 to October 30 with a brief pause in the middle. A few neighbors mention to him in passing that it’s going to rain, but they are surprised by the intensity of the storm, which begins to flood the house where they’re staying. They’re forced to mop up with rags and stuff newspapers in the doors to try and prevent water from getting in.

During an initial break after the first day, they go out for fast food and even catch a movie, but the storm starts for real the next day, and eventually everything in the apartment is cold and wet. They have a sparse cabinet: enough spaghetti for one serving, tomatoes, cucumbers, a little bacon, onion, canned mushrooms, and coffee.

So we get this nice little section:

“Think we’ll be ok? This is all the food we have,” my wife said in a worried tone.

“We’ll be fine,” I said. “No matter how strong a storm is, there’s always a moment in the middle when the rain cuts out. A little break. When that happens I’ll run over to Anargyros’ place and buy food. We’ll also get some info about the storm if I go to his place.”

“Will the rain really let up so perfectly?”

“It’ll let up. I grew up in Kansai, so I’m pretty familiar with how typhoons work.”

“Assuming Japanese typhoons and Greek storms work the same way,” she said with a look of doubt on her face. She has little faith in my abilities with anything in the worldly realm.

However, as I predicted, the rain suddenly stopped just before noon. The wind also stopped, and the clouds parted as well, as if the storm to this point had been a lie. Only occasional peals of thunder we could hear from the direction of the Peloponnesian peninsula remained. We were in the eye of the typhoon. I ran through the streets filled with puddles to Anargyros’ store. The usual shortcut had been turned into a river. At Anargyro’s store I bought two bags of crackers, cabbage, potatoes, two bottles of mineral water, and wine. Anargyros calculated the bill in his usual leisurely manner, writing numbers on a piece of paper with a look on his face like the storm had nothing to do with him.

“How about that storm?” I said.

“Yup. It rained a lot,” Anargyros said.

“Think it’ll rain tomorrow?” I tried asking.

“Yeah…might rain, might not…” Anargyros said with a grin.

Greeks have this way of occasionally making incredibly philosophical statements, and I always find myself fascinated by it.

「大丈夫かしら、食べるものがこれくらいしかなくて」と女房が心配そうに言う。

「大丈夫だよ」と僕は言う。「どんなに激しい嵐でも、途中でスッと雨の引く瞬間が必ずあるんだよ。中休みみたいに。そのときにひとっ走りアナルギロスのところに行って食料品を買ってくる。彼のところに行けば嵐の情報もわかるしね」

「本当にそんな風に雨がうまくあがるの?」

「ちゃんと上がるったら。僕は関西の育ちだから台風の構造には結構詳しいんだ」

「もし日本の台風とギリシャの嵐が同じような構造ならね」と彼女は疑わしそうな顔つきで言う。彼女は世俗的な領域における僕の能力をあまり信用していないのだ。

しかし僕の予言したとおり、昼前に突然すっと雨がやんだ。これまでの嵐が嘘のように、風も止み、雲も切れた。ペロポネソス半島の方から時折くぐもった雷鳴が聞こえるだけである。台風の目に入ったのだ。僕は水たまりだらけの道を走ってアナルギロスの店まで行った。いつもの近道は川と化していた。アナルギロスの店で僕はクラッカー二袋とキャベツとじゃが芋と、ミネラル・ウォーターを二本とワインを買った。アナルギロスは嵐も何も関係ないと言う顔で数字を紙に書いてあいかわらずのんびりと計算をした。

「嵐だね」と僕が言う。

「うん。雨たくさん降った」とアナルギロスは言う。

「明日も雨降るかな」と僕は訊いてみる。

「そうだね……降るかもしれないし、降らないかもしれないし……」とアナルギロスはにこにこして言う。

ギリシャ人というのはこのようにときどきものすごく哲学的な発言をするが、いちいち感心しているわけにはいかない。 (129-130)

This is a relatively unremarkable chapter but interesting in that we’d likely never be surprised by something like this these days, given how connected everyone is and how ubiquitous smartphones are.

Also, does Murakami buy enough food?! He adds crackers, potatoes, and cabbage—that’s it! Maybe it’s my pandemic prepping mindset or my experience stocking up for hurricanes, but you at least need to grab some milk and eggs before everyone else wipes out the shelves.

Final Form

Greetings from August 2020, dear readers. We’re still operating mostly indoors, although we have a bike now and the weather in Chicago has been good, which means that the city is out and about (for better or worse) and there are patios with draft beer and fine food. Winter is within sight, so we’re trying to enjoy the warmth we have left.

But virtual events are still a thing. We’re digital. The memes are flowing, including this gem, which I snipped from Twitter on May 11 (two days before Elon Musk tweeted it):

I know next to nothing about Dragonball, so I got curious about what the original Japanese might be. After some searching, it turns out that the English is completely original to memedom and does not appear in the anime or manga…in that form.

Japanese websites have attributed the line, which popped up in memes in 2012, to the Japanese その変身をあと2回もオレは残している (Sono henshin o ato nikai mo ore wa nokoshite iru, With that transformation, I have two more remaining), which comes from Frieza in this panel:

I can’t seem to track down which manga issue this comes from, but a fan in this forum has posted quotes from episodes that seem to suggest it was translated pretty straightforward in the anime as “And I still have two more transformations remaining!”

To be honest, “This isn’t even my final form” is a pretty good rendering of the Japanese! It feels appropriately dramatic. Maybe something like “There’s more where that came from!” or “You haven’t seen anything yet!” would work as well.

Although, in complete context, “And I still have two more transformations remaining! Do you even understand what that means?” feels spot on.

The forum quotes also suggest that whoever made the meme was basically paraphrasing the actual translation rather than creating something entirely new.

But whoever created that initial meme did tap into something. It’s funny how pieces of language can go viral. It feels so natural, like there’s a momentum waiting to happen that needs only the softest push to set it in motion.

How to Make Miso Soup in an Instant Pot

The pandemic continues, and I find myself fighting of unpredictable waves of lethargy. My culinary experiments have plateaued, to a certain degree, so I’m relying on old regulars. Recipes that I can cook without having to think too much about them.

One of these is a miso soup recipe for the Instant Pot which I though I’d share as this month’s post. (I also needed something short and automatic that I could knock out due to said lethargy.)

I found the recipe on Cookpad, which is a fantastic website that you should definitely explore, and the title basically explains everything: 圧力鍋で加圧1分☆根菜の味噌汁

Miso soup in a minute! Obviously it’s not quite this easy. There’s a minute of pressurized cooking time, but it takes maybe 10 minutes to get to pressure, another 15 for the pressure to release, and then 10-15 minutes for prep. But all in all it’s not too much of a fuss. I’ll summarize how I do it:

1. Prep the ingredients.

The base to the soup is:

Water, 1L
Dashi powder, 2 tsp
Miso, 2 tbsp

That’s the basic recipe, and you can really experiment with what you add to it. The recipe at the link calls for:

Daikon, maybe half a small daikon chopped
Carrots, 1-2 chopped
Abura-age, 1 chopped

But you can use sato-imo, enoki mushrooms, regular tofu, konnyaku, all sorts of delicious things! I’d recommend trying out different combos and different misos.

2. Add water, ingredients and dashi to the Instant Pot.

The only ingredient you may not need to add to the pot would be regular tofu, although I’m not sure about this. I don’t think it will hurt, though. Stir up the dashi so that it dissolves, add the carrots and daikon, and then put on the lid.

3. Cook on Manual for 1 minute.

Use the manual setting, and let it cook.

4. Use a natural pressure release.

Wait 15 minutes or so and the pressure will naturally release. You can do a manual release, but it will fire a stream of piping hot, daikon-scented steam into the air, which will fill your house. So I recommend waiting.

5. Add the miso.

Use a ladle to dissolve the miso into the Instant Pot a tablespoon at a time. Hold the ladle in the soup and fill it, but don’t let the miso blob out yet. Stir the miso and hot soup with a spoon or chopsticks until it breaks apart and dissolves into the soup.

6. Eat! This is ready to go.

I’m not sure I ever learned how to make miso soup when I was living in Japan. I know I tried, but I only ever used miso. You really need the dashi to give it that fully realized flavor. And the daikon give it that big (farty) flavor and I’m sure are really healthy. I also love sato-imo, especially in the winter. They’re so hearty.

My only tip with this recipe is to not go overboard with the ingredients. Err on adding too few, otherwise you’ll end up with a miso stew instead of miso soup.

The only other thing of note is that this is the recipe that helped me learn the Japanese for “pressure cooker”: 圧力鍋 (atsuryoku nabe) – literally “pressurized nabe.” Love it.

How to Make Nattō in an Instant Pot

I’m in the Japan Times this week with a lesson about how to make nattō: “One man’s journey to perfect homemade nattō.”

A few weeks back I saw some folks discussing nattō on Twitter, which made me realize that I hadn’t made Japanese breakfast for a while. There was a stretch in 2019 after a business trip to Japan when I ate 和食 breakfast every day for about six months or so.

I had enough to put together miso soup and salmon pretty easily, and I realized that I probably had the equipment to make nattō. I started Googling around a little, and, sure enough, I found Japanese recipes for making nattō using the yogurt setting on an Instant Pot.

Like yogurt, nattō is fermented by bacteria and needs to be held at warm temperatures for enough time for the germs to do their thing. I’ve been brewing beer and making yogurt long enough to have a decent sense of how things work, so I decided to give it a shot. It’s not all that hard!

I found the soybeans pretty easily at one of the Asian market’s near me, but they didn’t have frozen nattō. I put my quest on pause until I saw Hiroko Tabuchi tweet out a picture of 納豆素 from Yuzo Takahashi Laboratory, which was conveniently available on Amazon at the time. The spores are currently sold out but worth looking out for, and there must be somewhere else to purchase them online.

Once you have the soybeans, the spores, and an Instant Pot, you’re just about good to go. Here’s how I did it:

1. Soak the soybeans overnight.

I recommend starting with 100g. Most recipes will recommend 500g, which is far too much. 250g was enough for two weeks’ worth of breakfast. The soybeans will expand and soak up some of the water.

2. Cook the soybeans.

I used a steaming basket with 1.5 cups water in the bottom of the IP, but you could just as easily cook the beans directly in the IP container, in which case you’d need much more water.

If you’re using the steaming basket, you probably should cook on manual for 45-55 minutes, depending on how soft you want your beans. I haven’t perfected the softness yet. The first time I tried, I steamed them for 30 minutes and they were a little firm, so I had to add an additional 10 minutes. I think 55-60 minutes would work. [Update 8/22/20: I did 70 minutes on Manual and they came out perfect.]

If you’re boiling the beans, then I think 30-40 minutes is probably fine in the IP.

3. Transfer cooked beans into a sanitized container.

Everything from this point onward needs to be totally sanitized so that you’re not at risk of growing anything other than the nattō bacteria.

You can rinse everything with a sanitizer of some sort like a diluted bleach solution (or StarSan or Iodophor if you happen to be a homebrewer like me). If you’re using a stainless steel container for the beans, you can alternatively give it a quick steam in the IP to nuke everything on it and make sure it’s totally sanitized.

Pot-in-pot stainless steel pots are useful for this. There are two pots in the picture because I made 250g the first time I made them and had to split them up so that the beans didn’t get too deep.

4. Add spores to sanitized water.

Microwave 10mL of water for a minute or so until it boils, and then let it cool until it’s warm to the touch but not uncomfortably so (around 100F/37C). Then add 0.1g of spores to the water using the special spoon included with the vial of spores. Swirl up the spores in the water.

5. Add the spore water to the soybeans.

Pour the water on the beans and give it a stir with a sanitized spoon.

6. Ferment the soybeans.

Put your container in the IP and set it to the yogurt setting for 24 hours. Now you just wait.

You can look in, but I’d suggest resisting until at least 12 hours in to ensure that the nattō bacteria have a good head start and can outcompete anything else that might sneak in when you’re taking a look.

By 12-16 hours you should see the whitish film developing and notice that pungent nattō aroma. The beans will be ready by 24 hours.

7. Refrigerate the nattō overnight.

Pour the nattō into a food-safe container, and refrigerate it overnight. It’s ready to serve!

S&B Oriental Mustard is relatively easy to find and makes really good karashi. Alternatively you can check out my nattō experiments video from ancient history for some other recipe options. I think I’ll have to try the avocado version again sometime soon…