Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami

Around eleven-thirty two women come in together, wearing identical jeans. The shorter of the two has cropped hair like a swimmer, while the taller woman wears her hair pulled back. Both of them have on jogging shoes, one a pair of Nikes, the other Asics. The tall one looks around forty or so, with glasses and a checked shirt, the shorter woman, a decade younger, is wearing a white blouse. Both have little daypacks on, and expressions as gloomy as a cloudy day. Neither one says very much. Oshima relieves them of their packs at the entrance, and the women, looking displeased, extract notebooks and pens before leaving them.

The women go through the library, checking the stacks one by one, earnestly flipping through the card catalog, occasionally taking notes. They don’t read anything or sit down. They act less like people using a library than inspectors from the tax office checking a company’s inventory. Oshima and I can’t figure out who they are or what they could possibly be up to. He gives me a significant look and shrugs. To put it mildly, I don’t have a good feeling about this.

At noon, while Oshima goes out to the garden to eat his lunch, I fill in for him behind the counter.

“Excuse me, but I have a question,” one of the women comes over and says. The tall one. Her tone of voice is hard and unyielding, like a loaf of bread someone forgot on the back of a shelf.

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

She frowns and looks at me like I’m some off-kilter picture frame. “Aren’t you a high school student?”

“Yes, that’s right. I’m a trainee,” I answer.

“Is there one of your superiors I could talk to?”

I go out to the garden to get Oshima. He slowly takes a sip of coffee to dissolve the bite of food in his mouth, brushes the crumbs from his lap, and comes inside.

“Yes, may I help you?” Oshima asks her amiably.

“Just to let you know, we’re investigating public cultural facilities in the entire country from a woman’s point of view, looking at ease of use, fair access, and other issues,” she says. “Our group is doing a yearlong investigation and plans to publish a public report on our findings. A large number of women are involved in this project, and the two of us happen to be in charge of this region.”

“If you don’t mind,” Oshima says, “would you tell me the name of this organization?”

The woman whips out a business card and passes it to him. His expression unchanged, Oshima reads it carefully, places it on the counter, then looks up with a blazing smile and gazes intently at the woman. A first-class smile guaranteed to make any red-blooded woman blush.

This woman, strangely enough, doesn’t react, not even a twitch of an eyebrow. “What we’ve concluded is that, unfortunately, this library has several issues that need to be addressed.”

“From the viewpoint of women, is what you’re saying,” Oshima commented. “Correct, from the viewpoint of women,” the woman answers. She clears her throat. “And we’d like to bring this up with your administration and hear their response, so if you don’t mind?”

“We don’t have something as fancy as an administration, but I would be happy to listen to you.”

“Well, first of all you have no restroom set aside for women. That’s correct, isn’t it?”

“Yes, that’s right. There’s no women’s restroom in this library. We have one restroom for both men and women.”

“Even if you are a private facility, since you’re open to the public don’t you think–in principle–that you should provide separate restrooms for men and women?”

“In principle?” Oshima says.

“Correct. Shared facilities give rise to all sorts of harassment. According to our survey, the majority of women are reluctant to use shared bathrooms. This is a clear case of neglect of your female patrons.”

“Neglect…,” Oshima says, and makes a face like he’s swallowed something bitter by mistake. He doesn’t much like the sound of the word, it would seem.

“An intentional oversight.”

“Intentional oversight,” he repeats, and gives some thought to this clumsy phrase.

“So what is your reaction to all this?” the woman asks, barely containing her irritation.

“As you can see,” Oshima says, “we’re a very small library. And unfortunately we don’t have the space for separate restrooms. Naturally it would be better to have separate facilities, but none of our patrons have ever complained. For better or for worse, our library doesn’t get very crowded. If you’d like to pursue this issue of separate restrooms further, I suggest you go to the Boeing headquarters in Seattle and address the issue of restrooms on 747s. A 747’s much bigger than our little library, and much more crowded. As far as I’m aware, all restrooms on passenger jets are shared by men and women.”

The tall woman frowns at him severely, her cheekbones jutting forward and her glasses riding up her nose. “We are not investigating airplanes .747s are beside the point.”

“Wouldn’t restrooms in both jets and in our library–in principle–give rise to the same sorts of problems?”

“We are investigating, one by one, public facilities. We’re not here to argue over principles.”

Oshima’s supple smile never fades during this exchange. “Is that so? I could have sworn that principles were exactly what we were discussing.”

The woman realizes she’s blown it. She blushes a bit, though not because of Oshima’s sex appeal. She tries a different tack. “At any rate, jumbo jets are irrelevant here. Don’t try to confuse the issue.”

“Understood. No more airplanes,” Oshima promises. “We’ll bring things down to earth.”

The woman glares at him and, after taking a breath, forges on. “One other issue I’d like to raise is how you have authors here separated by sex.”

“Yes, that’s right. The person who was in charge before us cataloged these and for whatever reason divided them into male and female. We were thinking of recataloging all of them, but haven’t been able to as of yet.”

“We’re not criticizing you for this,” she says.

Oshima tilts his head slightly.

“The problem, though, is that in all categories male authors are listed before female authors,” she says. “To our way of thinking this violates the principle of sexual equality and is totally unfair.”

Oshima picks up her business card again, runs his eyes over it, then lays it back down on the counter. “Ms. Soga,” he begins, “when they called the role in school your name would have come before Ms. Tanaka, and after Ms. Sekine. Did you file a complaint about that? Did you object, asking them to reverse the order? Does G get angry because it follows F in the alphabet? Does page 68 in a book start a revolution just because it follows 67?”

“That’s not the point,” she says angrily. “You’re intentionally trying to confuse the issue.”

Hearing this, the shorter woman, who’d been standing in front of a stack taking notes, races over.

“Intentionally trying to confuse the issue,” Oshima repeats, like he’s underlining the woman’s words.

“Are you denying it?”

“That’s a red herring,” Oshima replies.

The woman named Soga stands there, mouth slightly ajar, not saying a word.

“In English there’s this expression red herring. Something that’s very interesting but leads you astray from the main topic. I’m afraid I haven’t looked into why they use that kind of expression, though.”

“Herrings or mackerel or whatever, you’re dodging the issue.”

“Actually what I’m doing is shifting the analogy,” Oshima says. “One of the most effective methods of argument, according to Aristotle. The citizens of ancient Athens enjoyed using this kind of intellectual trick very much. It’s a shame, though, that at the time women weren’t included in the definition of ‘citizen.'”

“Are you making fun of us?”

Oshima shakes his head. “Look, what I’m trying to get across is this: I’m sure there are many more effective ways of making sure that Japanese women’s rights are guaranteed than sniffing around a small library in a little town and complaining about the restrooms and the card catalog. We’re doing our level best to see that this modest library of ours helps the community. We’ve assembled an outstanding collection for people who love books. And we do our utmost to put a human face on all our dealings with the public. You might not be aware of it, but this library’s collection of poetry-related material from the 1910s to the mid- Showa period is nationally recognized. Of course there are things we could do better, and limits to what we can accomplish. But rest assured we’re doing our very best. I think it’d be a whole lot better if you focus on what we do well than what we’re unable to do. Isn’t that what you call fair?”

The tall woman looks at the short one, who looks back up at her and opens her mouth for the first time. “You’ve just been evading the point, mouthing empty arguments that avoid taking responsibility,” she says in a really high-pitched voice. “In reality, to use the term for the sake of convenience, what you’re doing is an easygoing attempt at self-justification. You are a totally pathetic, historical example of the phallocentric, to put it mildly.”

“A pathetic, historical example,” Oshima repeats, obviously impressed. By his tone of voice he seems to like the sound of that phrase.

“In other words you’re a typical sexist, patriarchic male,” the tall one pipes in, unable to conceal her irritation.

“A patriarchic male,” Oshima again repeats.

The short one ignores this and goes on. “You’re employing the status quo and the cheap phallocentric logic that supports it to reduce the entire female gender to second-class citizens, to limit and deprive women of the rights they’re due. You’re doing this unconsciously rather than deliberately, but that makes you even guiltier. You protect vested male interests and become inured to the pain of others, and don’t even try to see what evil your blindness causes women and society. I realize that problems with restrooms and card catalogs are mere details, but if we don’t begin with the small things we’ll never be able to throw off the cloak of blindness that covers our society. Those are the principles by which we act.”

“That’s the way every sensible woman feels,” the tall one adds, her face expressionless.

“How could any woman of generous spirit behave otherwise, given the torments that I face,” Oshima says.

The two women stand there as silent as icebergs.

“Electra, by Sophocles. A wonderful play. And by the way, the term gender was originally used to indicate grammatical gender. My feeling is the word ‘sex’ is more accurate in terms of indicating physical sexual difference. Using ‘gender’ here is incorrect. To put a linguistic fine point on it.”

A frozen silence follows.

“At any rate, what you’ve been saying is fundamentally wrong,” Oshima says, calmly yet emphatically. “I am most definitely not a pathetic, historical example of a patriarchic male.”

“Then explain, simply, what’s wrong with what we’ve said,” the shorter woman says defiantly.

“Without sidestepping the issue or trying to show off how erudite you are,” the tall one adds.

“All right. I’ll do just that–explain it simply and honestly, minus any sidestepping or displays of brilliance,” Oshima says.

“We’re waiting,” the tall one says, and the short one gives a compact nod to show she agrees.

“First of all, I’m not a male,” Oshima announces.

A dumbfounded silence follows on the part of everybody. I gulp and shoot Oshima a glance.

“I’m a woman,” he says.

“I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t joke around,” the short woman says, after a pause for breath. Not much confidence, though. It’s more like she felt somebody had to say something.

Oshima pulls his wallet out of his chinos, takes out the driver’s license, and passes it to the woman. She reads what’s written there, frowns, and hands it to her tall companion, who reads it and, after a moment’s hesitation, gives it back to Oshima, a sour look on her face.

“Did you want to see it too?” Oshima asks me. When I shake my head, he slips the license back in his wallet and puts the wallet in his pants pocket. He then places both hands on the counter and says, “As you can see, biologically and legally I am undeniably female. Which is why what you’ve been saying about me is fundamentally wrong. It’s simply impossible for me to be, as you put it, a typical sexist, patriarchic male.”

“Yes, but–” the tall woman says but then stops. The short one, lips tight, is playing with her collar.

“My body is physically female, but my mind’s completely male,” Oshima goes on. “Emotionally I live as a man. So I suppose your notion of being a historical example may be correct. And maybe I am sexist–who knows. But I’m not a lesbian, even though I dress this way. My sexual preference is for men. In other words, I’m a female but I’m gay. I do anal sex, and have never used my vagina for sex. My clitoris is sensitive but my breasts aren’t. I don’t have a period. So, what am I discriminating against? Could somebody tell me?”

The three of us listening are flabbergasted and don’t say a word. One of the women clears her throat, and the jarring sound reverberates through the room. The clock on the wall loudly ticks away the seconds.

“I’m very sorry,” Oshima says, “but I’m in the middle of lunch. I’m having a tuna-spinach wrap and had eaten half of it when you asked me over. If I leave it much longer the neighborhood cats will make a grab for it. People throw away kittens they don’t want in the woods near the sea, so this neighborhood is full of cats. If you don’t mind I’d like to get back to my lunch. So excuse me, but please take your time and enjoy the library. Our library is open to everyone. As long as you follow the rules and don’t bother the other patrons, feel free to do whatever you’d like. You can look at whatever you want. Go ahead and write whatever you like in your report. We won’t mind. We don’t receive any funding from anywhere and pretty much do things our own way. And that’s the way we like it.”

After Oshima leaves the two women share a look, then they both stare at me. Maybe they figure me for Oshima’s lover or something. I don’t say a word and start arranging catalog cards. The two of them whisper to each other in the stacks, and before long they gather their belongings and start to pull up stakes. Frozen looks on their faces, they don’t say a word of thanks when I hand back their daypacks.

After a while Oshima finishes his lunch and comes back inside. He hands me two spinach wraps made of tuna and vegetables wrapped in a kind of green tortilla with a white cream sauce on top. I have these for lunch. I boil up some water and have a cup of Earl Grey to wash it down.

“Everything I said a while ago is true,” Oshima tells me when I come back from lunch.

“So that’s what you meant when you told me you were a special person?”

“I wasn’t trying to brag or anything,” he says, “but you understand that I wasn’t exaggerating, right?”

I nod silently.

Oshima smiles. “In terms of sex I’m most definitely female, though my breasts haven’t developed much and I’ve never had a period. But I don’t have a penis or testicles or facial hair. In short, I have nothing. A nice no-extrabaggage kind of feeling, if you want to put a positive spin on it. Though I doubt you can understand how that feels.”

“I guess not,” I say.

“Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. Like, what the heck am I, anyway? Really, what am I?”

I shake my head. “Well, I don’t know what I am, either.”

“A classic identity crisis.”

I nod.

“But at least you know where to begin. Unlike me.”

“I don’t care what you are. Whatever you are, I like you,” I tell him. I’ve never said this to anybody in my whole life, and the words make me blush.

“I appreciate it,” Oshima says, and lays a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I know I’m a little different from everyone else, but I’m still a human being. That’s what I’d like you to realize. I’m just a regular person, not some monster. I feel the same things everyone else does, act the same way. Sometimes, though, that small difference feels like an abyss. But I guess there’s not much I can do about it.” He picks up a long, sharpened pencil from the counter and gazes at it like it’s an extension of himself. “I wanted to tell you all this as soon as I could, directly, rather than have you hear it from someone else. So I guess today was a good opportunity. It wasn’t such a pleasant experience, though, was it?”

I nod.

“I’ve experienced all kinds of discrimination,” Oshima says. “Only people who’ve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts. Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I’m as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T. S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to. Like that lovely pair we just met.” He sighs and twirls the long slender pencil in his hand. “Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas–none of them bother me. I don’t care what banner they raise. But what I can’t stand are hollow people. When I’m with them I just can’t bear it, and wind up saying things I shouldn’t. With those women–I should’ve just let it slide, or else called Miss Saeki and let her handle it. She would have given them a smile and smoothed things over. But I just can’t do that. I say things I shouldn’t, do things I shouldn’t do. I can’t control myself. That’s one of my weak points. Do you know why that’s a weak point of mine?”

“‘Cause if you take every single person who lacks much imagination seriously, there’s no end to it,” I say.

“That’s it,” Oshima says. He taps his temple lightly with the eraser end of the pencil. “But there’s one thing I want you to remember, Kafka. Those are exactly the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Oshima points at the stacks with the tip of his pencil. What he means, of course, is the entire library. “I wish I could just laugh off people like that, but I can’t.”

 

I had to post this. Given how long the extract is, I debated for a pretty long while whether to do it or not. This was one of the times when someone else came along and wrote something that resounded with me so much because it’s something I’ve forever been meaning to put into words, but never came around to it. And Murakami has done it with a kind of beauty and perfection that makes me half grateful I never tried.

Every personal encounter with irritating pseudo-feminism and the hollowness talked about in the last paragraph culminates in my asking myself why everyone doesn’t just use common sense. For me, it all always comes down to common sense. You don’t need any ideologies if people just considered things and behaved like humans.

I still haven’t formed constructive thoughts about the whole book. These were just a couple of pages. It feels like for every line that I love and understand, there are five more that I haven’t comprehended fully or gotten the full meaning of. This is a book that wouldn’t give up all its secrets in even two reads. There are riddles within riddles that would present their meaning to you themselves, as long as you open your mind and read them over and over again.

Oshima reminds me of these lines included in the beginning of Devdutt Pattanaik’s Shikhandi:

I have a man’s body. I accept this body. I offer it to everyone.
I have a woman’s body. I accept this body. I offer it to everyone.

I have a man’s body. I reject this body. I desire no one.
I have a woman’s body. I reject this body. I desire no one.

I don’t know if my body is a woman’s or a man’s. I feel I am a woman.
I don’t know if my body is a man’s or a woman’s. I feel I am a man.

I have a man’s body. It should be a woman’s. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. It should be a man’s. I desire women.

I have a man’s body. It should be a woman’s. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. It should be a man’s. I desire men.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a man. I desire women.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a man. I desire men.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire both men and women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire both women and men.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire men.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire women.

I have a man’s body. I dress like a man. I desire women.
I have a woman’s body. I dress like a woman. I desire men.

I am a man. I desire only one woman.
I am a woman. I desire only one man.

I am a man. I desire only one man.
I am a woman. I desire only one woman.

I am neither male nor female.
I am both male and female.

I am firm and flexible.
I am aware and I am not.

To appreciate this fluidity of nature
and the shifting rigidities of culture
Is to appreciate queerness.

I don’t know whether I’m emotionally male or female. I don’t think I’ve understood that yet. I don’t even know where to start identifying.

“Sometimes I don’t understand it myself. Like, what the heck am I, anyway? Really, what am I?”

I shake my head. “Well, I don’t know what I am, either.”

“A classic identity crisis.”

But I do know that Oshima is one of the most beautiful fictional characters I’ve ever come across. And that I’d give almost anything for one-tenth of his charm.

Everybody please go read Kafka on the Shore.

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