Norwegian Wood

One quiet, rainy weekend afternoon alone in my college dorm room, I was flipping through a literature textbook. “TV People” by Haruki Murakami was the very last story in the book. I read the first few lines and was immediately drawn in. I read the entire strange story, captivated.

I had never heard of Murakami. My roommate returned and, since she was an international student from Hiroshima, I asked her if she knew who he was. “Oh, yes, he’s very popular in Japan!” she exclaimed. “One of our bestselling authors!” She told me he has a very unique and beautiful way of writing, something about his choice of kanji. I wished I could read Japanese. She mentioned her favorite Murakami novel was Norwegian Wood and she thought I’d enjoy it, too.

It was 1998. I searched on the web to see what Murakami works had been translated into English. I learned that Kodansha had published Norwegian Wood in English, but it was only available in Japan. Lucky for me, I was going to Tokyo a few months later on a concert tour with one of the university ensembles!

I was in Tokyo for almost two weeks, and I looked in the English language section of every bookstore I found. No luck.

Our concert tour was hosted by a university in the Kōtō ward of Tokyo. Two of the university’s staff members went with us everywhere. One happened to be from England, and served as our translator. I asked him if he knew where I could find the English edition of Norwegian Wood. He translated my question in Japanese to his colleague, who happened to specialize in literature! He was delighted that I even knew who Haruki Murakami was, and wanted to know where I’d heard of him. I told him I had come across “TV People” in a textbook, that I had liked it so much I wanted to read more of Murakami’s writing. He said he would ask around for me.

Several days later was our final concert. Just before the concert began, our translator and the professor approached me with a small, neatly wrapped gift. I opened it up to find two small books:

The translator explained that when the professor had heard about my search, he was touched that an American student was so interested in reading a Japanese author. The professor was easily able to pick them up at the campus bookstore. He didn’t need to ask around to find them! He knew right where they were, and had planned this surprise from the moment he heard I wanted to read more Murakami.
Honestly, I was moved to tears. I bowed and bowed to express my thanks, saying “Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita!” and “Watashi wa shiawase desu!” I wanted to give the professor a huge hug, but I knew culturally that would be awkward and make him feel uncomfortable. The gift of these books was such a sweet, unexpected gesture.
The reason I had trouble finding the book in regular bookstores? It was printed specifically for Japanese students studying English. There’s even a glossary in the back, explaining key phrases and idioms.
I can’t help but smile when I’m scanning my bookshelf and see these two little books. Two years later, Norwegian Wood was finally released in English in the United States… but I’d already read it. I had my own copy. 🙂
I’d love to read some of your book-related memories. Feel free to share or leave a link in the comments.
  • What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing it 🙂

    The only Murakami I’ve read is IQ84. (I see that you’re reading that now) I enjoyed it very much. I would like to read more of his work and I’ve heard good things about Norwegian Wood. I think I’ll be picking that up next. One of these days…you know how that goes!

    • hahaha yes, I definitely know how that goes! 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing! I long wished to read another Murakami, but somehow never got round to getting information on his books. The only one of his novels that I know is ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ and it didn’t overly impress me.

    By the way, I like your site – and now I’m your newest follower.

    • Thanks Edith! I just followed you, too. 🙂 I really love Murakami’s short stories best. If you’re still on the fence about him and want to try another, maybe check out “The Elephant Vanishes.” It has the story “TV People” in it, which I referenced above.

  • I just started reading Murakami this year; I liked Norwegian Wood, but thought it was sad. I preferred Kafka on the Shore; so far, that’s my favorite Murakami novel. Can’t wait to read what you think about 1Q84.

    • Ohhh I loved Kafka on the Shore! I’m really liking 1Q84 so far (as expected LOL). The length is definitely intimidating, though!

  • This is so awesome! Fascinating story and I love that you have that edition. Quite rare in the States I am sure. Beautiful, beautiful post, Monika!

  • Great story! I love Murakami, too. My story is also related to travel: my first year after college I spent in Turkey and I took Turkish classes at a university there. I had taken a Dostoyevsky class in my senior year, and I was deep in my obsession with his works, so each morning before class started I would read whatever novel of his I was currently working on. One day my teacher noticed, and told me that she was the Turkish translator of Crime and Punishment! She gave me a copy which I still treasure, even though my Turkish never got good enough to read it.

    • Wow, that is a *great* story, Sarah! I would treasure that copy, too!!

  • Wow. That is great. I wish I had that kind of story with my first encounter with Murakami. Unfortunately, I don’t. I just discovered him in a small town library in northeastern Pennsylvania with his book A Wild Sheep Chase, and I’ve been in love ever since. It took me many years to rediscover him, but after I have, I’m glad I did.

    • Yeah, he’s something special. I haven’t read anything by him in quite some time, so 1Q84 is turning out to be a real treat.