The Notion of Maternity during the Lost Decade of Japan through Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

As the winter vacation is coming to an end, I am leaving three hectic months behind with a need for some rest. Busy schedule that started with the job hunting process and full of lots of paperwork and bureaucracy has ended on the most beautiful note with this paper coming into existence despite all the odds against it! The moment I saw my laptop showered with coffee at Starbucks today, I had a little bit of a heart attack. However, it is safely here! 🙂  It still has a way to go, and I need to improve it, but it will help me go through the upcoming conference 🙂

In “The Unfinished Cartography: Murakami Haruki and the Postmodern Cognitive Map,” Chiyoko Kawakami untangles the gap between Murakami and the postwar junbungaku not so much in view of Murakami’s reluctance to adopt a critical stance on the Japanese social scene. Alternately, she deciphers the long-debated polarity in respect of non-representational form of power being portrayed in Murakami’s works in contrast to “the discursive practice of social struggle” prevailing in postwar junbungaku: “Murakami depicts the problematic and incompletely conceptualized relationships between the individual and society in the radically changing social climates of postmodern Japan, where “authority” has ceased to present itself as a unified ideological entity” (310).

Following Kawakami’s viewpoint, I argue that Jean Baudrillard’s theory of consumerism allows for a thorough understanding of manifestation of non-representational power structure in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. His theory is firmly engrained in his analysis of power as a non-representational entity regulating the relationship between the individual and society by way of dissemination and exhaustion of concepts such as family, leisure and so on. Baudrillard, in other words, scrutinizes a concept such as family, very often confined to the peripheries of home and/or private space, as a consumer object through which various values and standards are compromised in view of the changing political economy. Among the most renowned values and standards being conferred under the aegis of family one can indubitably find the notion of maternity.

Correspondingly, this paper examines the ways in which Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle witnesses the altering status of the maternity in view of economic destabilization during the lost decade of Japan in connection with Baudrillard’s theory of consumerism. By alluding to the altering status of the notion of maternity, I argue that the protagonist’s attempt to emancipate his wife from his brother-in-law Noboru Wataya’s fetters is symptomatic of his nonconformity to the hegemonic masculine identity and his individual struggle. Following the years marked by economic instability, the notion of maternity, putatively separated from the capitalist production, was denounced as a constituent of self-indulgence and consumer culture. The home (maternal domain), once associated both with consumption and frugality owing to household saving rates and purchase of recommended consumer durables, lost its paradigmatic status. By contrast, a discourse associated with respect for hard-working fathers and capitalist economic expansion gained popularity in the 1990s, as Tomiko Yoda explains in “The Rise and Fall of Maternal Society: Gender, Labor, and Capital in Contemporary Japan.”

The controversy over the notion of maternity, however, was hardly new to the Japanese public during the economic downturn of the 1990s. As Hiroshi Wagatsuma’s “Some Aspects of the Contemporary Japanese Family: Once Confucian, Now Fatherless?” indicates, Japanese translation of Alexandar Mitscherlich’s book Society without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology in the 1970s became a best-seller in Japan. Following its translation and wide circulation among the Japanese public, the concern regarding the role of father, “long dormant among the Japanese since the “democratization period” of postwar Japan”, Wagatsuma emphasizes, “had suddenly surfaced” (183). Moreover, famous scholars of the 1970s such as Shigeru Matsumoto, Hayao Kawai and Takeo Doi undertook their well-known works1 and demarcated the essential traits of both maternal and paternal principles. For instance, Hayao Kawai, in The Pathology of Japan as a Maternal Society (Bosei Shakai Nihon no Byōri), defines the notion of maternity as the principle embracing all individual members regardless of their individual characters and talents (9-10). In other words, it is the unconditionally forgiving principle treating all members equally in contrast to the paternal principle’s punitive and disciplinary nature. “Although [Kawai] does not explicitly propose the reestablishment of the father’s power” (Wagatsuma 201), Matsumoto, delineating both maternal and paternal principles in a similar way Kawai does, believes that “the Japanese need a strong father” (Wagatsuma 201). He portrays the father as exemplar of sociocultural norms and thus he claims that it is the father’s role to guide his children.

On the one hand, the debate on the necessity of a strong father figure, on account of the traits attributed to both principles, was at current as early as in the 1970s. On the other hand, there was no clear association of the notion of maternity with the excessive consumption at the time. As Yoda argues, it was the destabilization of the economy in the 1990s, which triggered not only the popularity of paternalism but also an analogy between the maternal principle and consumer culture. As a result, the notion of maternity was blamed “not only for problems riddling Japanese families, such as violent  crimes committed by youths, prostitution by middle-class teenage  girls, and refusal of children to attend school, but also for a broad  range of economic, social, and political upheavals that the nation has seen in the past decade” (Yoda 866).

 Similarly, I shall investigate the juxtaposition of the protagonist, Toru Okada and his brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle in line with the altering status of the maternity, Yoda speaks of, during the economic stagnation. It is my assertion that their juxtaposition offers two drastically distinct views concerning not only the notion of maternity but also the underpinning of their masculinities. In the novel, not long after the protagonist, Toru Okada, receives a strange phone call from a woman and his cat bearing the same name with his brother in law Noboru Wataya goes missing, he finds himself in the middle of a bizarre adventure. In his adventure, he encounters a series of curious people as well as a mysterious house with a dried up well. Through these encounters and his meditations at the bottom of the dried up well, the protagonist tries to reach his wife who vanishes all of a sudden. One of these curious characters is the brother-in-law Noboru Wataya, an influential TV commentator on Japanese political economy and a future politician. Characterized antithetically to the protagonist, Noboru Wataya is depicted as a stern and dominating man with mysterious power on women. In contrast to Noboru Wataya’s portrayal, Okada is an ordinary man who has recently given up his job and takes care of house chores while his wife works at a magazine. While defying Wataya’s pressure on him to divorce his wife, Okada tries to save his wife from his control.

In view of his active engagement in political economy, Noboru Wataya’s dominating and stern character as well as his mysterious power on women indeed suggests a link between him and the view associating the notion of maternity with excessive consumption. Murakami particularly seems to establish a link between two through the father figure and family life, instrumental in Wataya’s choice of career and formation of his peculiar character. In “Balancing Fatherhood and Work: Emergence of Diverse Masculinities in Contemporary Japan,” Masako Ishii-Kuntz points out that the strong father figure or hegemonic masculine ideal in Japan is incorporated into the image of a hardworking salaryman as a breadwinner. Attainment of such an image, Ishii-Kuntz states further, “has required men’s strong psychological and physical commitment to work [because] the corporate environment in Japan is, further, dominated by competition, with those who rise above others perceived as the most prestigious. Being ‘masculine’ thus equated with competence and control over self and others, including women and children” (Ishii-Kuntz 199). In consonance with Ishii-Kuntz’s portrayal of hegemonic masculinity in postwar Japan, Wataya grows up in a family which puts a great emphasis on achievement and competitiveness: “[Wataya’s] father was convinced that the only way to live a full life in Japanese society was to earn the highest possible marks and to shove aside anyone and everyone standing in your path to the top” (Murakami 72-73). Most importantly, he identifies this competition to move up the social ladder through one’s position at work with the public good because “if people lost that ambition, Japan would perish,” according to the father Wataya (Murakami 73).

On the one hand, father Wataya’s remarks explicitly suggest “the apparent popularity of the paternalism [which] has been explained by the destabilization of Japanese masculine identity [equated with capitalist expansion and public good] in the wake of the nation’s economic downturn since the early 1990s” (Yoda 866). On the other hand, they implicate a kind and protective mother who is busy with raising her children in the domestic sphere and supports the ideals of her husband while the father works hard and support the family financially. In other words, they hint at the postwar Japanese enterprise society and its gender labour division in which “home came under the responsibility of “professional housewives,” while wage worker husbands were expected to bring paychecks” (Yoda 873). Apropos to the ideal mother/wife figure implicit both in Ishii-Kuntz’s portrayal of the hegemonic masculine ideal and father Wataya’s remarks, the protagonist Toru Okada gives a perfectly apt depiction of Mrs Wataya: “whenever an occasion arose in which she needed an opinion on something in the wider world, she borrowed her husband’s … And so Mrs Wataya became a narrow, highly strung woman whose only concerns were her husband’s place in the government and her son’s academic performance. Anything else ceased to have meaning for her” (Murakami 73). Much as Mrs Wataya follows the ideals of her husband, Noboru Wataya equally, in pursuance of the expectations of his father, majors in economics at the University of Tokyo, from which he graduates with highest grades. After a two-year graduate study at the University of Yale, he returns to the University of Tokyo for another graduate study to become a scholar. Moreover, by virtue of his notable fame upon the publication of his book on economics, Wataya becomes a regular commentator in a political debate show.

Incongruous with the hegemonic masculine ideal Wataya men represents, unemployed Toru Okada, who takes care of house chores while his wife works at a magazine, conversely epitomizes the individual whose life is under change with the new economic conditions. Departing from the predominant pattern, Toru Okada is illustrative of different styles of masculinities emerging in contemporary Japan such as the Ikujiren men of the early 1990s. Ikujiren was a group of men whose underlying source of masculinity cannot solely be grounded on a sense of responsibility for work. Rather, as Ishii-Kuntz explains, “an important part of being masculine for these men is showing responsibility for their own actions”, including the responsibility of having a child and assisting their wives in house work (204). However, Ishii-Kuntz notes that Ikujiren men were equally dedicated to their work and had no intention to leave their post. Despite the majority of men belonging to this group, he also refers to one interviewee who “confessed that he was never fully committed to his work. He lives with what he calls a ‘Ganbaranai’ (Not doing my best) philosophy which is opposite from the competitive component of hegemonic masculinity” (204). Similar to Ishii-Kuntz’s interviewee’s lack of dedication to his work, Toru Okada quits his job at the law firm for no particular reason: “I had left my job at the beginning of April … Not that I had any special reason. I didn’t dislike the work. It wasn’t thrilling, but the pay was all right and the office atmosphere was friendly” (Murakami 9). Instead, he assumes an active role in the home sphere while his wife works: “One morning after Kumiko [his wife] rushed through breakfast and left for work, I threw the laundry into the washing machine, made the bed, washed the dishes and vacuumed” (Murakami 24).

In addition to the parallel between Okada and the Ikujiren men, Okada can further be distinguished from the hegemonic masculine ideal by way of his alignment with the heavily criticized maternal principle in the 1990s. Unemployed Okada is under the protection of the unconditional love and leniency equated with the maternal principle. Put another way, he is financially secured both by the government and his uncle despite the incongruity of quitting his job with the hegemonic masculine ideal or the 1990s discourse of paternalism. He receives an unemployment salary while his uncle allows Okada and his wife to live in one of his apartment at a convenient rental rate. In view of this financial protection and his wife’s employment, the couple manages to maintain their life style as before. Furthermore, in line with the one of the popular accusations of maternal principle such as that of crime and violence, Okada ends up beating a guitarist man with a baseball bat due to the anger welled up in him with his wife’s disappearance. Despite his initial purpose of protecting himself from the attack of the guitarist, Okada keeps beating the man unstoppably even when the guitarist can no longer respond to his kicks: “At first, I kicked and beat him out of sheer terror, so as to prevent myself from being hit. Once he fell on the floor, though, I found my terror turning into unmistakable anger … but now hitting was all I could do, and I couldn’t seem to stop. My mind was telling me stop: this was enough … but I couldn’t stop” (335- 336).

It is for this reason that Noboru Wataya, a typical representative of the hegemonic masculine ideal, has the conviction that his sister’s abandonment of Okada and her affair with another man are justifiable. He is instead critical of Okada despite his wife’s betrayal and thus censures Okada for his insufficiency as a man to pursue a respectable career and provide for his wife: ” From the first day I met you, I knew better than to hope you might amount to anything. I saw no sign of promise, nothing in you that suggested you might accomplish something worthwhile or even turn  yourself into a respectable human being: nothing there to shine or to  shed light on anything. I knew that whatever you set your hand to  would end up half-baked, that you would never see anything through to the end. And I was right. You have been married to my sister for six  years, and what have you done in all that time? Nothing, right? All you’ve accomplished in six long years is to leave your job and ruin Kumiko’s life. Now you are out of work and you have no plans for the  future. There’s nothing inside that head of yours but garbage and rocks” (Murakami 199). In addition to his censure of Okada for a lack of achievement and competitiveness, Wataya reinforces his paradigmatic masculine image further by way of his mysterious power over women embedded in Ishii-Kuntz’s depiction of hegemonic masculinity. In resonance with the link forged between prostitution prevalent at the time and the maternal principle, Noboru Wataya equally exerts his control on the sexuality of female characters such as Creta Kano and his sister, Kumiko.

In “A Roadmap to Millennial Japan”, Tomiko Yoda accounts the rationale behind “the promiscuity of young Japanese girls and their cashing in on their sexual marketability …” for the acquisition of “… money to pay for karaoke bars, luxury designer goods, and mobile phone bills …” (634). Analogous to Yoda’s account, Creta Kano whose father asks her to pay for her brother’s car expenses when she unsuccessfully tries to commit suicide, but damages the car severely becomes a prostitute: “I owed more than three million yen. In order to pay it back, I became a prostitute” (Murakami 96). Despite the numerous shocking wishes of her customers, Creta Kano whose last customer is no one else but Noboru Wataya categorizes her intercourse with him under the label of defilement and violence: “I felt as if I were watching from some vantage point as my body was being cut open and one slimy organ after another was being pulled out of me … And when I regained consciousness, I was a different person” (Murakami 301-302). In Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Matthew Strecher equivalently interprets Wataya’s sexual energy in this particular scene as a medium of control and destruction resulting in the loss of Creta Kano’s identity (54). This is because “… Noboru, whose violent sexuality has the effect of destroying the flow between the conscious and the unconscious …” shatters “the fertile relationship between the two worlds in which identity and individual selfhood develop” (55). Correspondingly, Okada’s wife also ascribes her desire and attachment to another man to her brother’s inexplicable negative and dark power: “Looking back upon it now, it may be have been my brother’s influence. He may have opened some kind of drawer inside me, taken out of some kind of incomprehensible something, and made me give myself to one man after another. My brother had that kind of power, and as much as I  hate to acknowledge it, the two of us were surely tied together in some dark place” (Murakami 602).

 On the contrary, in view of his antithetical relationship with Wataya and masculinity outside the hegemonic model, Okada’s sexual energy represents protection, restoration and healing. By means of the wound, formed on his face while meditating at the bottom a dried up well, he helps not only Creta Kano to get rid of the defilement caused by Wataya but also other internally unbalanced women. As Strecher explains, the wound allows Okada to establish a direct contact with the flow of psychic energy Wataya’s violent sexuality impedes. In this way, “his patients are able to restart the flow within themselves” (54). Therefore, accounts of both Creta Kano and Okada’s wife regarding the nature of their relationship with Wataya seem to be symptomatic of the disciplinary and corrective paternal principle embedded into the breadwinner masculine identity. For the maintenance of the socioeconomic structure, while Wataya’s dark and sinister power compels Okada’s wife to have affairs with other men who could possibly be a better provider compared to Okada, Creta Kano can no longer continue being a prostitute. In Baudrillardian terms, it can be interpreted as an attempt to suppress the illusory excess of maternal principle in order to sustain the enterprise society construed on a strict gender labour division. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard explains that the political economy functions by way of producing symbolic shortages and abundance in order to inaugurate finalities and set its principles in motion. In other words, there is an irreversible transition from abundance to shortage in order to maintain the structure of the political economy through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conforming to the Baudrillardian discourse, it is possible to understand the particular antagonism constructed between maternal and paternal principles in the 1990s on the basis of symbolic excess of the maternal. In other words, “the retrogressive call for the revival of fatherhood bespeaks the last-ditch attempt to hold on to status quo, seeking to prop up the exhausted Mother by restoring the Father, the Nation, and the charisma of authority” (Yoda 896).

This hold to status quo, Yoda speaks of, seems to be represented in the novel through the obstruction of flow of water. Clairvoyant characters such as Mr Honda and Malta Kano inform the protagonist Okada of blockage of flow: “No flow now. Now’s the time to stay still. Don’t do anything. Just be careful of water … Water that’s missing from where it is supposed to be. Water is present where it’s not supposed to be” (Murakami 51). With an allusion to his distinctive character, mysterious power and his ancestry, Strecher identifies the obstruction of flow of water with Wataya: “… Yoshitaka Wataya, a member of the Diet who was at one time connected with the very central command who had begun the disastrous war against China. Noboru, following in these footsteps, demonstrates that the dark side of the State persists, exerting its ugly influence over ordinary people” (Strecher 36). While Strecher’s referral to history reinforces Wataya’s position as the representative of the hegemonic masculine ideal and medium of its preservation further, Okada’s defiance of Wataya’s pressure to divorce his wife as an individual struggle is equally fortified. Instead of yielding to the pressure Noboru Wataya puts on him, Toru Okada, feeling suspicious of Wataya’s true intentions, not only refuses to get a divorce but also tries to find a way to reach Kumiko.

Guided by Malto Kano and Mr Honda’s warnings regarding the obstruction of flow, Okada sits at the bottom of a dried up well and meditates. During one of his meditations, he finds himself in a dream-like world in which Noboru Wataya has a strong political ascendancy over people: “The face of Noboru Wataya was being projected on the screen of a large television in the centre of a broad lobby … There must have been over hundred people in the lobby, and each and every one of them stopped what they were doing to listen to him, with serious expressions on their faces. Noboru Wataya was about to announce something that would determine people’s fates” (Murakami 241). In addition to Wataya’s evident dominance, this realm equally reveals itself as the battlefield of Wataya and Okada as Okada describes the nature of the Wataya’s speech in the following manner: “He was pretending to talk to the world at large, but in fact he was talking to me alone … But nobody else realized that. Which is precisely why Noboru Wataya was able to exploit the gigantic system of television in order to send me secret messages” (242). There is little doubt that this symbolic battlefield, which enables Okada to defeat Wataya, is in line with Baudrillardian discourse. Baudrillard claims that it is never possible to overcome the irreversible antagonisms on the level of the real because any antagonism constructed in such manner is at its system’s disposal and perpetuates its status quo. In this way, the finalities introduced to the system through an irreversible antagonism bring forth only a symbolic death or end. Therefore, according to Baudrillard, everything should be displaced” into the sphere of the symbolic, where challenge, reversal and overbidding are the law, so that we can respond to death only by an equal or superior death (836). Likewise, in his final meditation inside the well, Okada, representing the notion of maternity and excess linked with it, finds himself once more in the same dream-like terrain. By beating the dark and sinister man without a face almost to death, Toru Okada manages to save his wife who was trapped in that world. Once he wakes up inside the well, he notices that the water is back and hears the news that Noboru Wataya, who embodies the paternal principle as regards the antagonism between maternity and paternity, is unconscious in a hospital.

Consequently, his father’s values and peculiar upbringing influential in his dominant character aligns Wataya with the view associating the notion of maternity with excess and consumption in the 1990s. As a result, he interferes with the life of Okada and his wife whose family affairs are incongruous with the hegemonic ideal through his influence on the wife. It is for this reason the strange phone call and the search for the missing cat foreshadow not only the beginning of a bizarre adventure but also an impediment being imposed on the life style of Okada and his wife. While Okada’s unyielding resistance to Wataya is suggestive of Murakami’s stance on the social values at the time, open ending of the novel equally demonstrates his reluctance to give a concrete remedy. Although Okada defeats Wataya and he is unconscious in a hospital, it is not certain whether Kumiko and Okada will be able to go back to their former life. In this way, Murakami, instead of the no longer functional enterprise society established on the basis of gender labor division, seems to point towards an uncertain future for the improvement of economic and social issues prevalent at the time. Yet, he entrusts the final decision to his readers’ individual responses to the Japanese social and economic problems during the years of economic stagnation.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. I. H. Grant. London: Sage,2012.

Ishii-Kuntz, “Balancing Fatherhood and Work: Emergence of Diverse Masculinities in Contemporary Japan.” Men and Masculinities in Contemporary Japan: Dislocating the Salaryman Doxa. Ed. James E. Roberson and Nobue Suzuki. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.

Kawakami, Chiyoko. “The unfinished cartography: Murakami Haruki and the Postmodern Cognitive Map.” Monumenta Nipponica. 37.3 (2002), 309–337. Web. January 2013.

Kawai, Hayao. Bosei Shakai Nihon no Byōri [The Pathology of Japan as a Maternal Society]. Tokyo: Chuokoron-Shinsha, 1976.

Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Trans. Jay Rubin. London:Vintage, 2003.

Strecher, Matthew Carl. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. New York: Continuum, 2006.

Yoda, Tomiko. “The Rise and Fall of Maternal Society: Gender, Labor, and Capital in

Contemporary Japan”. Japan After Japan: Social and Cultural Life from Recessionary 1990s to the Present. Ed. Tomiko Yoda and Harry Harootunian. Durham: Duke UP, 2006

—. “A Roadmap to Millenial Japan”. Japan After Japan: Social and

Cultural Life from Recessionary 1990s to the Present. Ed. Tomiko Yoda and Harry Harootunian. Durham: Duke UP, 2006

Wagatsuma, Hiroshi. “Some Aspects of the Contemporary Japanese Family: Once Confucian, Now Fatherless?.” Daedalus 106.2 (1977): 181-210.



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