As has been well documented, Murakami had left Japan following the monstrous success of his novel Norwegian Wood, which has just come out as a film in the UK. When his teaching in Cambridge was completed, he decided it was time to return to Japan and investigate these events that had struck the core of his countrymen.
'I spent my last year abroad in a sort of fog when two major catastrophes struck Japan: the Osaka-Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo gas attack,' he is quoted as saying in Jay Rubin's critical biography, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. '[These were] two of the gravest tragedies in Japan's post-war history. It is no exaggeration to say that there was a marked change in the Japanese consciousness 'before' and 'after' these events. These twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as people.'
His response was twofold: he spent 1996 interviewing survivors of the Tokyo gas attack, giving rise to the book of their testimonies, Underground. In the book's introduction, he tells of reading a letter in a magazine from a woman whose husband had lost his job because of the attack: 'A subway commuter, he had been unfortunate enough to be on his way to work in one of the carriages in which the sarin gas was released. He passed out and was taken to hospital. But even after several days' recuperation, the after-effects lingered on, and he couldn't get himself back into the working routine. At first he was tolerated, but as time went on his boss and colleagues began to make snide remarks. Unable to bear the icy atmosphere any longer, feeling almost forced out, he resigned...
'As far as I can recall there was nothing particularly plaintive about [the letter], nor was it an angry rant. If anything, it was barely audible, a grumble under the breath. "How on earth could this happen to us…?" she wonders, still unable to accept what had out of the blue befallen her family.'
That letter could also be seen as the starting point for Murakami's second action: a series of short stories serialised in August 1999 that came to be collected as after the quake. The six tales in the book are all set in February 1995, after the earthquake and before the gas attack. Many are naturalistic examinations of individual lives, which reach a pitch in Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, a comic monster tale of the type we may associate with kitsch Japanese Godzilla movies.
Both books are remarkable works from a contemporary author, which I recommend. I'm particularly touched that in September 1995 Murakami gave two public readings in the earthquake zone to benefit severely damaged libraries, 'in one of which,' Rubin writes, '[Murakami] had spent many days as a middle-school and high-school student and "dozing" in preparation for his entrance exams.'
UPDATE For its 28 March Japan issue, the New Yorker is reprinting one of the stories collected in after the quake, UFO in Kushiro. Shame they can't use The Seventh Man, which wasn't inspired by natural disaster but makes for an even more powerful take by Murakami that could be applied to the current tragedy and its aftermath.
In Britain, the Red Cross has launched an appeal to help Japan following the latest earthquake.