Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life

December 10, 2020 By mk

Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. (Norwegian Wood, Ch.2)

A year ago, when Waseda University announced that it was setting up a new library to house Haruki Murakami’s archives, and that Murakami would provide the materials, many Japanese wondered if Haruki Murakami was preparing for the end of his life at some point. Although the text of the announcement did not say so, people took it as such and praised the decision of the beloved 70-year-old writer.

This month, the news that Bob Dylan, 79, was selling his entire back catalogue to Universal Music was respectfully heard by many Japanese in the same context.

I’m interested to know if people in other countries felt the same way, and what they thought of the way we admire the decisions of our beloved novelists and artists, as they relate to how we see the end of life.

In fact, there is a term in Japanese called “終活 shukatsu (activity for the end of life in a positive manner)”, which is pronounced the same as “就活 shukatsu (activity to get a job for a new college graduate).” The meaning depends on the person who carries out ‘the activity, but in the sense of ‘preparation for a new world,’ it has the same meaning.

Murakami is known for his love of the classic essay Hojok, written in 1212. Unlike Murakami, the author, Kamo no Chomei (1155-1216), was never rewarded for his life, but his work has continued to influence many people’s perceptions of life and death for over 800 years.

The river current never stops and its water never is the same.  The bubbles on the surface bursts and are formed from time to time.  People and their places are the same… Some die in the morning and others are born in the evening like the bubbles; they come from somewhere and leave to somewhere; no one knows. (Hojoki)

In 1Q84, Fuka-Eri chanted Tomomori’s command in the Tale of the Heike, written in the 14th century, to “clear everything before plunging into the sea”.

Heave everything unsightly into the ocean. (1Q84 Book1, Ch.20)

The Battle of Dan no Ura by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (The center is Tomomori)

In November 2019, when I attended the symposium “Haruki Murakami and International Literature” at Waseda University, I heard about a fundraising campaign for the Haruki Murakami Library. The following day, alumnus and UNIQLO founder Tadashi Yanai donated 1.2 billion JPY (11 million USD) to cover the establishment costs. The campaign is still ongoing and donors’ name plates can be found in the library.

(Updated English expression for readability improvement without changing the original meaning on May 5, 2021)