Set in Tokyo in 1960s, Norwegian Wood explores the life of Toru Watanabe, an introverted and distressed young college student, as he struggles to find himself, to recuperate from the suicide of his best friend, and to choose between the two women he loves, Naoko and Midori. While it would seem logically therapeutic for Toru and Naoko to turn to each other for comfort in the face of such tragedy, Naoko is overwhelmed with her life’s pressures and lingering grief for Kizuki and therefore rejects Toru’s affection in favor of the solitude she finds within her own shrinking and isolated world. Also grieving for Kizuki while growing ever lonelier and more conflicted about his own identity, a rejected Toru reluctantly reaches out to Midori, an outspoken and sexually confident girl who is everything that Naoko cannot be. The sexual freedom of the 1960s underlies Toru’s struggle toward adulthood, and the numerous popular cultural inclusions in this novel produce a story much less exclusively Japanese and much more globally pertinent as a coming-of-age story which happens to feature Japanese characters.
But more than just a coming-of-age story, Norwegian Woods also depicts a cultural phenomenon that is rising in Japan: suicide. As J. Sean Curtin points out, in an article entitled “Japan: Suicide also Rises in Land of Rising Sun,” appearing in Asia Times On-Line (28 July 2004 issue), the dreadful fact that “in today’s Japan one is roughly five times as likely too die by one’s own hand as to be killed in a traffic accident,” a social occurrence which he attributes to cultural factors: “lack of religious prohibition against suicide, reluctance to discuss mental health and stress-related problems, a literary tradition that romanticizes suicide, a view of suicide as an honorable act, a way of taking responsibility for failure … the breakdown of the family and social networks and the increasing isolation of individuals.” This paper aims to exemplify this social incident using Murakami’s Norwegian Woods by examining in histo-cultural perspective how Kizuki`s suicide is important for both Toru and Naoko and how it affects the lives of these two young individuals.
The plot of Norwegian Wood revolves upon two suicides. Its two major characters — the first-person narrator, Toru Watanabe, and a young woman named Naoko — are haunted by the memory of their friend, Kizuki. Kizuki had been an energetic and jovial boy in high school. He was Naoko’s first lover and Toru’s closest friend. But he had shocked them and his other intimates by gassing himself in his parents’ garage one evening. For Toru and Naoko, it is an incomprehensible but irrefutable and equally an agonizing fact that their best friend, leaving “no suicide note,” and with “no motive that anyone could think of,” had simply and suddenly decided to disappear from their lives by taking his own. The impacts of Kizuki’s death continue to spiral out and multiply in the story, affecting both of them intensely, marking their university days with difficult questions about mortality, youth, and love. The renewal of their friendship, however, does not help them to move forward.
After a long separation following Kizuki’s death, Naoko and Toru meet again several years later. They feel connected by their mutual grief at Kizuki’s suicide and by their helplessness to recover from it. They become lovers in all respect but the actual physical act. However, Naoko’s mental health increasingly deteriorates, an event which Toru relates with her pain and sadness at Kizuki’s death, she enters a convalescent facility and then a hospital for the psychiatrically disturbed before finally killing herself, too. Although Toru struggles on in the rest of the story, one can sense that Kizuki’s suicide has proved somehow fatal for Toru as well. He confesses that when “it took the 17-year old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well….In the midst of life, everything revolved around death” (Murakami 30).
Suicides and Norwegian Woods
Taking a quick glimpse at modern Japanese literature, a western reader may be struck by what might seem a curious obsession with death. Death, of course, takes many forms – natural death, death due to illnesses or old age and also “unnatural death” as caused by accident, murder or suicide. What is the implication of death and especially of suicide in Japanese society? Takao Tsuchiya in his article “Write in, Rub Out” says that “suicide is a special privilege of mankind. Other people have said suicide is the ultimate human freedom. But this right, this freedom, exerts tremendous effects on the people associated with the suicide.” And certainly, we have seen how Kizuki’s suicide wreaked incalculable devastation on the two people closest to him: on Naoko and Toru.
The importance of suicide for the Japanese is not limited to their illusory interpretations of the world, but it occupies what some western people might regard as a lopsided prominence in real-life conditions in Japan. It connotes different meanings for the Japanese. For instance, it is believe to be a means of escaping from a condition perceived as intolerable.
One instance of these situations is when Japanese junior high and high school students undergo the period of intensive testing known as “examination hell,” quite a number of these young students disgracefully find the stress and pressure of the situation so overpowering that they not only choose to be out of the system but out of life itself. Would this school pressures can be attributed to Kizuki’s suicide in Norwegian Wood? Murakami has given little or no hint at all apart from the fact that Kizuki commits suicide when he is seventeen, and thus is in his third year of high school, when he would be expected to undergo intensive testing to enter a good university, (just as a third-year undergraduate in a Japanese middle school must endeavor to pass stringent exams to enter a good high school).
Another instance is the fame of so-called “love suicides” in Japan. It can also be seen to fall into the category of types of self-destruction which can be ascribed to the nation’s cultural mores. To elucidate, Masaki Kato in “Self-Destruction in Japan: A Cross-cultural Epidemiological Analysis of Suicide” includes findings that indicate that the phenomenon of “double suicide for love in Japan” is based on the nation’s “religious belief in the future life, on the low value placed on individual life from the bushido way of thinking, and on rigidly prizing women’s chastity.” With social and familial pressure remaining a potent force in a country which, possibly, does not accord sufficient respect to the notion of individual liberty or right to personal privacy, in the face of familial or social opposition to their prospective marriages, some couples choose to express — ironically? — their undying love for each other in carefully-orchestrated joint suicides. Just like in the Norwegian Woods, Naoko’s love for Kizuki plunges her into the notion that only by killing herself just like Kizuki will she attain freedom from the sufferings that Kizuki’s death has brought upon her and Toru. It might be seen as well as a means by which Naoko expresses her love for Kizuki.
Suicide in Japan is also sometimes understood as an honorable means of accepting blame or of shouldering responsibility. It can also be regarded as a way of “solving” health and financial problems like in cases of “family suicides.” Failed businessmen or the parents of chronically or terminally ill children sometimes choose “family suicide” as a means of “ending” their problems. Suicide is seen, too, as a means of unambiguously or unmistakably making a statement or bearing witness for an ideal in Japan. It is particularly valued in this sense in a society whose language and customs discourage direct affirmations of beliefs.
Just as Norwegian Wood is a nostalgic novel that illustrates the aftermath of suicide, mental illness, and death, it is also a sharply scrutinized and often comical commentary on Japanese society and university life during a time of widespread student activism and protest. Most of all, it is a bittersweet meditation on friendship, memory, and the elusive, shifting nature of love. The topic of death resonates throughout the story as we have encountered two suicides – the death of Kizuki and eventually of Naoko. Historically and culturally, we have noted that there are religious and cultural reasons for the frequency of acts of self destruction, where suicide can present itself as the last resort for children who are bullied or who are undergoing the stress of exam hell, for disgraced politicians and businessmen unable to bear financial or social ruin, and for star-crossed lovers. It is perceived as a regrettable but culturally-sanctioned means of escaping the unbearable, of expiating sin, of signifying remorse, of admitting culpable responsibility and, far less commonly in recent years, of signaling allegiance to country and emperor. In Norwegian Woods, Murakami, in two instances as discussed, was able to masterfully capture this social phenomenon that plagues Japanese society.