Novelist and Analyst Search the Japanese Psyche

So intriguing to me was Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I found myself reading it for a second time (all 607 pages), just months after my initial encounter with the book. A review by Mary Ann Holthaus

(First published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Issue 75, V.19, 2000, pp.35-48 and reprinted with permission.)


Haruki Murakami. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. New York, Vintage International, 1998.

Hayao Kawai. The Japanese Psyche, Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan. Dallas, Texas, Spring Publications, Inc., 1988. Dreams, Myths & Fairy Tales in Japan. Einsiedeln, Switzerland, Daimon, 1995.


So intriguing to me was Haruki Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I found myself reading it for a second time (all 607 pages), just months after my initial encounter with the book. It is an elaborate, multi-layered story, in which, as the narrator discovers, "Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle-a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth." (p. 527) Portraying a very contemporary Japan, Murakami has been called the voice of a generation and is one of Japan's most popular and widely read novelists. Adding to my fascination with his novel were the abundant supporting insights about the Japanese psyche found in Jungian analyst Hayao Kawai's books, The Japanese Psyche, Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan and Dreams, Myths & Fairy Tales in Japan. Kawai, who is with the Inernational Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto, makes incisive observations about the Japanese psyche based on his study of old tales, and his conclusions correlate amazingly with Murakami's imaginative contemporary tale.

Perhaps more aptly described as an epic of the psyche, Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle probes contemporary Japanese life through the consciousness of a seemingly ordinary, slyly humorous, and increasingly likable narrator, Toru Okada, affectionately called "Mr. Wind-Up Bird." His search for the wife who has left him seems also a search for himself. We are engaged with him on his intense, quirky, personal odyssey-one perhaps greater in depth (uncharted realms of the psyche) and even stranger in adventure (forays into a mysterious inner world that inter-penetrates the outer world) than those of the long honored Greek adventurer. The novel reaches into psychological depths not only of the narrator and his wife, but also of a teenager, a lieutenant of the Japanese-Russian war, a zookeeper, simple soldiers, two sets of psychics, a cold, ambitious politician, and a sado-masochistic officer. Although set in modern Japan, it also exposes horrifying events of the past through stories revealed to the narrator. Odd elements pique one's curiosity, but throughout we are engaged by the narrator, Mr. Wind-Up Bird, whose voice rings so true that one follows him on his fantastic journey, comprehending or not.

In comparing Japanese fairy tales and myths with those of the West, Jungian analyst Hayao Kawai points to startling differences. He does this in such a gentle and concise way that the reader may miss the import of what he is saying. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle we see those differences played out full scale. What are these differences, and why are they so convincing? Some have to do with the style and form of Japanese literature and some with the Japanese psyche itself.

Most Westerners are confounded by Japanese fairy tales, says Kawai. The stories seem incomplete to them, to go nowhere. This, he suggests, is the result of treating the tale as an object in itself, "separate from the subjective feelings in the reader's mind." (The Japanese Psyche p. 22) Referring to "The Bush Warbler's Home," a story well known to the Japanese, Kawai explains that Westerners who find the story incomplete need to understand the feeling of awaré (softly despairing sorrow) which a Japanese would feel for the female figure who disappears in silence.

In this story a young man in high spirits is walking in the mountains when he suddenly sees a mansion he has never seen before. Then a beautiful woman appears and asks him to watch the house while she goes out. He must not, however, go into the other rooms. Unable to contain his curiosity, he goes into the rooms lavishly provided, and is delighted with what he finds. In the last room he looks at three beautiful eggs and accidentally drops them. With that, three birds hatch and fly away. The woman returns, saddened. Telling him he has caused her to lose her three daughters, she turns into a bush warbler and disappears. The man finds himself again standing in the middle of the meadow without a trace of the mansion to be seen. Kawai points out that although he stands in the same place, he has experienced another world.

The woman who disappears sorrowfully

Analyst Kawai finds in this and other fairy tales of Japan a concern for the woman who disappears sorrowfully.

In "The Bush Warbler's Home," the vanishing woman left with the bitter words "No one is less trustworthy than a human! You broke your promise and killed my three daughters! How I miss them!" Could not this resentment be construed as showing the vitality of the Japanese common people? The sense of "nothingness" and the feeling of "sorrow" exist in the mainstream of Japanese culture. Indeed, females were sacrificed in order to establish that culture. The "disappearing women" resisted that process and left behind their bitterness as they faded from the scene. . . . Hence, in the world of fairy tales, we can even expect that the woman has disappeared only to return to this world with a newly gained strength. This woman symbolizes the urge to bring something new to Japanese culture. To pursue the woman who disappears sorrowfully from this world and then comes back again is therefore a worthwhile and a necessary task. (The Japanese Psyche, p. 25)

Murakami has taken up that task in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Kumiko has disappeared, and Mr. Wind-Up Bird pursues her relentlessly, unwilling to give up until he discovers her and understands her.

Kawai also explains that there is a sense of urami (rancor) which backs up that of sorrow (awaré) and looks toward the continuation of the process. Urami "is born out of the spirit of resistance to the necessity of disappearing." We will see this emerge in Kumiko at the end of Murakami's story.

One of Kawai's most surprising claims is that the Japanese ego is "feminine." (The Japanese Psyche p. 16). To Jungian ears this seems a hard saying. Can there be that much difference in humans because of cultural experience? Although many today would like to drop the gender tag on any psychic quality, much credence is still given to Erich Neumann's theory of the evolution of consciousness (The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954) in which the ego (center of consciousness) develops along the lines of the hero myth, and is represented by a male figure (essentially "masculine," whether in male or female).

The Japanese ego seen as "feminine"

Kawai contends that this "masculine" ego development does not fit the reality of the Japanese psyche. With abundant material from dreams, myths and fairy tales (including the fact that the sun, Amaterasu, is considered feminine and the moon masculine) Kawai concludes that the Japanese ego is "feminine." He explains:

Neumann's concern is with the ego in modern Europe, a type that is peculiar in the history of human consciousness. He calls it patriarchal consciousness - clearly separated from the unconscious and free of its influence. In contrast, in matriarchal consciousness the ego is still overwhelmed by the power of the unconscious and has not yet attained its full independence. According to Neumann, a real modern woman has patriarchal consciousness, and her ego is denoted by the masculine hero. (The Japanese Psyche, p. 17)

A Europe-centered attitude assumes rather easily the sequence of matriarchal to patriarchal consciousness in the process of ego-establishment. However, we should not apply the pattern directly to social structures in different cultures. (Ibid., p. 17)

Kawai warns,

In symbolism, some areas are universal while others are influenced by cultural differences. One who fails to keep this in mind is apt to err seriously in interpreting Japanese fairy tales. Simply following Neumann's schema would oblige one to conclude that many Japanese fairy tales remain in the lower stage of ego development. (Ibid., p. 26)

He suggests that Japanese fairy tales can be seen better through "female eyes."

To look at things with female eyes means, in other words, that the ego of a Japanese is properly symbolized by a female and not by a male. The patriarchal social system that prevailed in Japan until the end of World War II obscured our eyes to this fact. In fairy tales, however, "female heroes" could freely take an active part. (Ibid., p. 26)

Investigating a variety of these female heroes in fairy tales, he finds a progression in them from the woman of endurance to the woman of will.

This same progression can be seen in the narrator of Murakami's work, Mr. Wind-Up Bird. He patiently waits and endures his loneliness: he counts bald heads, sits day after day on a bench watching people, listens attentively to others' stories, descends into a well to endure an intense experience. But he also becomes firm and resolute to an extreme degree in his search to find and understand Kumiko, his wife.

Let's look at him. Having quit his job as a lawyer's assistant, he takes time off before looking for work more suitable. He seems at ease in this passive state, open to receive events as they occur. But after a trivial argument with his wife that grows out of proportion, he is left pondering whether we can ever fully understand another.

That night, in our darkened bedroom, I lay beside Kumiko, staring at the ceiling and asking myself just how much I really knew about this woman.. . .

I might be standing in the entrance of something big, and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast world that I had never known. I saw it as a big, dark room. I was standing there holding a cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room.

Would I ever see the rest? Or would I grow old and die without ever really knowing her? If that was all that lay in store for me, then what was the point of this married life I was leading? What was the point of my life at all if I was spending it in bed with an unknown companion?

This was what I thought about that night and what I went on thinking about long afterward from time to time. Only much later did it occur to me that I had found my way into the core of the problem. (p. 30-31)

How like Psyche putting her lamp to Cupid's face! But in this case it is a male Psyche and a female Cupid. Like Psyche, Toru must endure a difficult search through strange areas before he can find Kumiko again.

After Kumiko leaves him, he remembers her reticence about telling him something of herself. What was it? What had she withheld? How can he find out? These questions become his sole concern, and his pursuit leads him through twisting, turning, often fantastical events that take him deeply into the lives of others. His goal is to meet her again personally, to satisfy himself whether or not she truly wants a divorce. The key, he believes, is to discover what secret thing she has withheld from him.

And how does he go about this? He remembers the words of Mr. Honda (a fortune teller or "practitioner of spirit possession" who convinced Kumiko's parents of his worthiness to marry her):

The point is not to resist the flow. You go up when you're supposed to go up and down when you're supposed to go down. When you're supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you're supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there's no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. (p. 51)

It was now, according to Mr. Honda, a time to be still. His words are recalled after Mr. Mamiya brings news of Mr. Honda's death. Mamiya tells Toru of a terrifying experience he and Mr. Honda had while serving in Nomonhan and Outer Mongolia. After the two had witnessed an extrememly brutal killing, Mamiya was thrown into a well and left to die. Instead, he had an overwhelming mystical experience in the short moments that the sun drenched the well. But having had that moment, his life afterward seemed drained of vitality. These synchronous reminders of wells lead Toru to descend into a neighbor's abandoned dry well and to wait silently, intent on connecting with that mysterious "other" world where he might find Kumiko.

These actions are not what we would expect of a Western hero. Toru's quest is not one of destroying an enemy or of achieving some grand goal. His effort is to understand another through a deep, introverted process of reflection and imagination and in that understanding to find her. His goal is "relational," an area typically considered "feminine."

Furthermore, women figure prominently as guides for him, and he listens and follows. First, a very fresh sixteen year old, May Kasahara, obsessed with death, thinks he is "pretty weird" but eventually confides in him. She elicits from him a nickname (something he's never had) that "sticks"-as good nicknames do.

"Wind-Up Bird . . . It just popped into my head," he said. It was the name that Kumiko had given the bird that made a creeeak, creeeak sound, as if winding up the spring of the world. No one ever saw the bird, but it seemed to sit in a neighbor's tree each morning and creeeak, winding up the world. Its eerie sound is heard by a select few at crucial, troubled times of loss or death in the novel. It is May Kasahara who calls him Mr. Wind-Up Bird, and it is she who first shows him the empty well in the yard of a nearby abandoned house. Like it (and like Toru) May's life seems empty after the death of her boyfriend in a motorcycle accident caused by her own reckless abandon. Though not always helpful, she initially starts Mr. Wind-Up Bird on his journey, and she is also at the conclusion of it.

Two months after Toru quit his job, he reflects on his life at this point, "It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, the more it betook of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while, it seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving." (p. 125)

Two of the women waiting in the shadows were the Kano sisters, Malta and Creta, mysterious and of unusual psychic ability. Despite their strangeness, they are not dismissed by him; he hears them out (as he does all those he encounters) and is influenced by them. They are linked to, but have overcome, the destructive influence of Noboru Wataya, Kumiko's brother, a perverse, egocentric man of cold ambition. The odd names of these women and Malta Kano's ubiquitous red vinyl hat pique one's curiosity. (The reader is constantly surprised and intrigued by Murakami's rich imagery.) Why those names? I knew, from a visit to Japan, that Kannon was the helpful many-handed god/goddess or bodhisattva of compassion. Was the last name an allusion to Kannon?

It was Hayao Kawai's chapter on "Interpenetration: Dreams in Medieval Japan" that suggested to me that Murakami might be using the name Kano to place these sisters who aided Toru in mysterious ways in the tradition of the compassionate Kannon. Kawai recounts the following medieval story that makes the connection seem plausible. (His point-rather than the red cloth and the Kannon's helpfulness-was to show the interpenetration of dreams and real life.)

There was a man living with his wife and only daughter. He loved his daughter very much and made several attempts to arrange a good marriage for her, but was unable to succeed. Hoping for better fortune, he built a temple in his backyard, enshrined it with the bodhisattva of compassion, Kannon, and asked the deity to help his daughter. He died one day, followed by his wife shortly thereafter, and the daughter was left to herself. Though her parents had been wealthy she gradually became poor and eventually even the servants left.

Utterly alone, she had a dream one night in which an old priest emerged from the temple of Kannon in the backyard and said to her, "Because I love you so much, I would like to arrange a marriage for you. A man I have called will visit here tomorrow. You should do whatever he asks." The next night a man with about thirty retainers came to her home. He seemed quite kind and proposed to marry her. He was attracted to her because she reminded him of his deceased wife. Remembering the words which Kannon had spoken to her in her dream, she accepted his proposal. The man was very pleased and told her that he would be back the next day after attending to some business.

More than twenty of his retainers remained behind to spend the night at her home. She wanted to be a good hostess and prepare a meal for them, but she was too poor to do so. Just then an unknown woman appeared who identified herself as the daughter of a servant who used to work for the parents of the hostess a long time ago. Sympathetic to the hostess' plight, she told the latter that she would bring food from her home to feed the guests. When the man returned the next day, she helped the daughter of her parents' master again by serving the man and his attendants. The hostess showed her gratitude by giving her helper a red ceremonial skirt (Jpn. hakama).

When the time came to depart with her fiancé, she went to the temple of Kannon to express her thanks. To her surprise she found the red skirt on the shoulder of the statue; she realized then that the woman who had come to help her was actually a manifestation of Kannon. (italics mine) (D,M&FT in Japan pp.14-15)

We see in this story not only the realization of what was promised in a dream, but also the Kannon's entry into this life as the former servant's daughter. Added to that is the appearance of the red skirt on the Kannon's statue as a sign of her having traversed this world from the "other."

Puzzling over Malta Kano's ever-present red vinyl hat, I recalled the many small, stone statues of a seated figure with a red cloth shawl or bib and turban (sometimes plastic) that I had seen at various places in Japan. Often there were as many as twenty grouped together, but always they had red cloths on their heads and shoulders. I have since learned that they honored a bodhisattva named Jizo (Jee-zo), whose function is to help those in danger of the realms of hell, and that these were memorial statues, sometimes for aborted children (a theme also in the novel). Red, according to folk belief in Japan, is the color thought to "expel the devil."

Has Murakami used the red vinyl hat and the Kano name to suggest that these women have access to powers once attributed to the ancient, compassionate Kannon, and to the saving Jizo. And would not the names Malta and Crete suggest the ancient goddesses of those islands? He uses these images and names in a playful manner, but they seem to suggest more. One is reminded of Joseph Campbell's seeing a fashionable, attractive young woman as "Aphrodite walking down 5th Avenue." What seem unusually strange elements to Western readers may be allusions that are obvious to a Japanese reader. To me they were part of the originality of the story that delighted and intrigued.

Also among the strange people to enter the narrator's life are the spicy fashion designer Nutmeg and her silent son Cinnamon, who figure pivotally in the narrator's quest. Drawn to Toru by a facial mark that linked him with her dead father, Nutmeg, too, has unusual psychological depth, enabling her to "touch" inner worlds in clients (all women of power and wealth) in a temporary healing way. Unusual as her methods seem, they are strikingly similar to mental healings or "mind cures" used in the early 20th century. William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1923) cites an account of a man healed by this method:

. . . the treatment was a silent one; little was said and that little carried no conviction to my mind; whatever influence was exerted was that of another person's thought or feeling silently projected onto my unconscious mind, into my nervous system, as it were, as we sat still together. (p. 124)

Nutmeg, in a similar manner, gives help to these elite women. And through Nutmeg, Toru, too, develops an ability to reach into the troubled minds of these women in a silent, healing way. His journey, it seems, is to understand more and more about women. At the same time, he continues to go to ever greater lengths to find Kumiko, to penetrate that "other" world in order to understand her and her situation.

Interpenetrating worlds

Analyst Kawai finds the idea of interpenetrating worlds (the daily world; the non-daily world which he calls "another world"; and the intermediate world where the two meet) important in Japanese stories and in real life. "To us psychologists," he explains, "'another world' means the unconscious." He states:

One of the characteristics of the Japanese people is the absence of a clear distinction between exterior and interior world, conscious and unconscious . . In short for Japanese the wall between this world and the other world is, by comparison, a surprisingly thin one.

That the membrane between inner and outer or this and that world is paper-thin-like a fusuma (sliding room-divider) or shoji (a paper door-window) reflects the nature of the Japanese ego. (The Japanese Psyche, p. 103)

Kawai also points to the influence of the philosophy of Hua-yen, one of the Buddhist schools, that proclaims "all things freely interpenetrate each other." He quotes a passage from a 1980 talk by Toshihiko Izutsu, illuminating this notion of yüan-ch'i:

. . . nothing in this world exists independently of others. Everything depends for its phenomenal existence upon everything else. All things are correlated with one another. All things mutually originate . . . Thus the universe in this vista is a tightly structured nexus of multifariously and manifoldly interrelated ontological events, so that even the slightest change in the tiniest part cannot but effect all the other parts. (Dreams, Myths & Fairy Tales in Japan, p. 33)

The interpenetration of worlds is one of the most intriguing aspects of Murakami's very up-to-date novel. The interpenetration of dream world and real life occurs often. Creta Kano consciously enters Toru's dreams and knows that she has. May Kasahara, in a dream, hears Toru's call from the bottom of the well at the same time he has called out to her. And Kumiko herself has a recurring dream of Toru's searching for her, as he has done in real life. The vast world of the unconscious seeps into dreams, but for Murakami's characters, one's real life also affects another's dreams. Jung's idea that psyche acts as a rhizome at the base of all our psyches, connecting all, seems imaged here.

But more than the dream world, it is the penetration of "another" world-that intermediate space-that is crucial for our hero. In the well he discovers that intermediate space. He places himself, for days on end, at the bottom of an abandoned well in total darkness. His search to find and understand his wife depends on his ability to pass through the wall of the well (a jelly-like membrane) into "another" realm. His patient waiting, alone in deep darkness, reminds us of Jung's words, "when we say 'psyche' we are alluding to the densest darkness it is possible to imagine" ("Psychology and Religion: West and East," Collected Works 11, p. 296).

Is the narrator here attempting to cross over into the world of the imagination, to participate in an intense kind of "active imagination"- ego in dialogue with the unconscious? Earlier, when Toru asked Creta Kano about the kinds of things she and her sister are able to know, she explains, "peoples' lost things, their destinies, the future." She points at her temple, "You have to go inside." "Like going down into a well?" Toru replies. Is his going into the well going into his mind? In the well he waits and waits. Finally he does slip through the wall into "another world." It is a dark mysterious world, but it is not one in which he passively receives images; he participates actively, moving the action forward by his own decisions.

In Toru's first "passing through" the wall, he returns with a rash-like mark on his face, which links him with others of similar nature (Nutmeg, her father, and Cinnamon), but he does not reach his goal. Finally, Toru is able to slip through the wall a second time, and he searches for the woman he has previously seen (only partially) in a darkened bedroom. There, with great skill and courage he destroys the man who has kept this woman captive. The effort has nearly cost him his life; the waters (of the unconscious?) return to the well and nearly drown him. "I had brought the well back to life, and I would die in its rebirth. Not a bad way to die," he thinks. But he is saved, and he learns that his risks taken in that "other" world have mysteriously affected the outer world. The man who represents all that has restrained and defiled Kumiko has received a serious blow in real life.

In that "other world," known in the well, Toru finds Kumiko and tells her what his imagination has pieced together about her entrapment by her brother. He has touched the truth, and he also has held firm to his belief in the Kumiko he knew.

When Kumiko does return, she realizes her own complicity in her defilement and constraint, but she is fiercely determined to end that-at whatever cost to her. As Kawai has warned us of Japanese stories, there is not the happy ending we look for in the West.

Murakami's story suggests strongly that there is a "real" connection between conscious life and the deep well of the unconscious, and that the wall between everyday life and this other dimension of life is permeable. Even more, he implies that approaching the world of the unconscious, and consciously doing battle in that world, effects change in the outer world. It is young May Kasahara who realizes that Toru has gone to these depths and risked so much, not only to find Kumiko but for her sake too, and for the sake of others. Like the wind-up bird, he has wound-up, or energized, their world again.

Toru's experience of the well can also be seen as a metaphor for the act of story writing itself. There is the long wait in darkness for passage into what might be considered the world of the imagination. Once there, like Toru, a writer often follows the waiter (who "wasn't really a waiter: it was something pretending to be a waiter" p. 572) whose whistling of the vibrant rhythm of the "The Thieving Magpie" makes him easy to follow. But at the crucial moment when darkness descends, the waiter is no longer there for Toru or the writer. It is the hollow, faceless man (the writer drained of his own ego?) who leads Toru to the right room and hands the flashlight "as if passing a baton." With a "penlight" in this "other world" he discovers the lost Kumiko. Having imagined the hidden part of her, he learns her story. The late author and composer Paul Bowles explained that he preferred to let his mind "wander in the unconscious, where it can select whatever elements seem propitious to the elaboration of a tale." (Obituary, The New York Times 11/14/99) Murakami, interviewed by Laura Miller for on-line Salon, explains:

. . . the subconscious is very important to me as a writer. I don't read much Jung, but what he writes has some similarity with my writing. To me the subconscious is terra incognita. I don't want to analyze it, but Jung and those people, psychiatrists, are always analyzing dreams and the significance of everything. I don't want to do that. I just take it as a whole. Maybe that's kind of weird, but I'm feeling like I can do the right thing with that weirdness. Sometimes it's very dangerous to handle that. (Salon, Dec. 16, 1997)

One must appreciate the depths Murakami has inhabited to create such a moving, all embracing, imaginative work. His labyrinthine story, like Japanese fairy tales, may confound American readers looking for a logical or chronological format, but there is a strong continuity and coherence found in his images. Subtle connections are made by Murakami's layering of images (the wind-up bird's call, a lost cat, a red vinyl hat, a facial mark, a baseball bat, a well), connecting one incident with another and connecting present with the past.

At the novel's end the narrator, like the young man in "The Bush Warbler's Tale," is back in the real world. The bird that is heard is a woodpecker, not a wind-up bird. Kumiko is in the real world too. She has newly gained strength and self awareness but she also has a terrible task ahead. It is winter (a new year), and Mr. Wind-Up Bird visits young May Kasahara. Looking at her, he observes: "the potential was there for almost limitless change." He warms her hand in his pocket, as he had often done for Kumiko. "It was a small hand, and warm as a sequestered soul." (p. 606) In saying goodbye, he thinks, "Goodbye, May Kasahara; may there always be something watching over you." The reader agrees. The journey ahead of her (and all the Kumikos and May Kasaharas of Japan), one suspects, will be as daunting as that of Mr. Wind-Up Bird.

Novelist Haruki Murakami and analyst Hayao Kawai have given Westerners an insider's look at the Japanese psyche that breaks stereotypes, fascinates, and invites serious attention.



© Mary Ann Holthaus 2001.

Mary Ann Holthaus is a former editor of the Round Table Review and a member of the New York C.G. Jung Foundation.