Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded Haruki Murakami an honorary degree during the University's 158th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 18, 2014.
A writer who has earned international acclaim, you transport us into worlds of magical reality, through the passageways of the human mind and heart, and the dark and light of contemporary tragedy. You once said, “Whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.” The alienated, troubled, yet brilliant characters who populate your fictional worlds are testament to this philosophy. At Tufts, we take no small amount of pride in your novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which you finished during your two years as a writer-in-residence here. Your nonfiction has explored the gas attack in the Tokyo subway and the devastating Kobe earthquake that killed thousands. Your memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, makes the personal universal when you remind us, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” As a translator of American authors, you have given the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others wider readership in your native Japan. For showing what can unite us in a fractured, yet beautiful world, Tufts is honored to present you with an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
The son Japanese literature teachers, Haruki Murakami had no aspirations to write until he was twenty-nine. That’s when, the story goes, he was inspired to pen his first novel during a baseball game between the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. His debut novel, Hear the Wind Sing, published in 1979, was the first book in the Trilogy of the Rat series. Though it was nominated for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, it did not meet with critical acclaim from the Japanese literary establishment, which found Murakami’s style too non-traditional.
Murakami has said he never felt comfortable in Japanese society, with its emphasis on communal harmony, hierarchy, and conformity. That alienation is one theme that runs through his works. Raised on a steady diet of Western music and literature, he has been especially influenced by Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky. His novels are rife with mentions of Bob Dylan, European delicacies, The Great Gatsby, and Western pop cultural references “so obscure they even flew over the head of some Americans,” a reviewer wrote in the New York Times in 1997. “You’d never know he was Japanese at all.”
Murakami eventually found commercial success in Japan in 1987, with the publication of his fifth novel, Norwegian Wood. The book, in which a middle-aged man reflects on his college years in Tokyo during the late 1960s, was especially popular among young adults. Murakami has said he thinks of his career as “before and after Norwegian Wood.”
He moved to the United States in 1986, and was a writer-in-residence at Tufts University from 1993 to 1995. During his time at the university, he finished writing the novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Though the Kafkaesque tale contains the magical realism and alienated protagonist that have become hallmarks of Murakami’s fiction, it also takes on more political themes, examining Japan’s role as an aggressor in the Second World War. The book earned Murakami entrée into the Japanese literary establishment—something he had never sought—and he was awarded one of the nation’s prestigious literary prizes, the Yomiuri Literary Award.
After leaving Tufts, Murakami returned to Japan, where he researched and wrote his first nonfiction book, Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, about the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the religious terror group Aum Shinrikyo in 1995. He also wrote a collection of short stories about the 1995 earthquake that struck the city of Kobe, killing more than six thousand people.
While his work has found international acclaim and gained cult status among younger readers worldwide, his translations of American authors into Japanese are important in their own right. He has translated the complete works of Raymond Carver as well as writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, John Irving, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
His memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which was published in English in 2008, brought Murakami to a whole new audience when the book reached number five on Amazon.com’s Running & Jogging bestseller list. As with writing, Murakami came late to running, getting serious about the sport at age thirty-three. The memoir is an account of his training, much of which takes place along the banks of the Charles River in Boston, for the 2005 New York City marathon. An atypical sports memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running might reveal more about Murakami the writer than Murakami the athlete:
“In the novelist’s profession, there’s no such thing as winning or losing. What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike; basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible. For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Bit by bit, I raise the bar and by clearing each level, I elevate myself.”
Murakami will receive an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Tufts University.